Abstract Surrealism—My Journey Back to Myself After ISKCON

ICSA Today, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2018, 22-24

Abstract Surrealism—My Journey Back to Myself After ISKCON

Nori Muster

My first memory of creating art was in the Los Angeles public school system. The teachers had us painting every day. I also remember other creative activities, such as constructing boats and drawing the Los Angeles Harbor on the playground. I took art classes all through school. However, joining the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) the day after college graduation put a 10-year hold on my art. The ISKCON leaders allowed us to do artwork only if it was part of our service, such as the devotees who did illustrations for the books.

During my decade in ISKCON, I lost not only my permission to do artwork, but also my soul. I worked in the ISKCON public relations (PR) office, and it was my job to make the organization look good. I wrote positive news for the PR newspaper, the ISKCON World Review. I knew about crime taking place within the organization—drug smuggling, assault, and murder—but in most cases I just closed my eyes and lived in denial. In a couple of situations, I acknowledged a guru’s bad behavior, but told myself any offenders would soon be expelled or excommunicated because they did not represent the real organization.

The lies caught up with me in 1988, and I quit my position in the PR office and left. However, I may have witnessed too much and waited too long to resign because I left feeling stained with ISKCON’s criminal filth. The worst experience for me was when people from the organization conspired to murder Steven Bryant, a vocal critic, near the LA temple in 1986. I knew the victim personally and was shocked that devotees of Krishna would kill him. Besides the guilt I felt for ISKCON’s crimes, I had to face myself. I had become an organization lackey with no ability to think critically.

While still living in ISKCON, I gradually began to realize what was going on. By 1988 I had decided to write a memoir and signed up for classes such as Autobiography Into Fiction and Writing As Healing through UCLA Extension. Within a week of moving away from the temple, I started taking art classes, including Dreamscapes: Drawing from Dreams, and The Spiritual in Art, with artist and UCLA instructor Linda Jacobson. Linda helped me work through the creative blocks ISKCON had given me.

Soon after that, I moved to Oregon and went back to school for a Master’s of Science degree studying art therapy, counseling, and juvenile justice. After moving back to Arizona, I studied oil painting with Lu Bellamak at her private school in Scottsdale.

From my time in the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, I had written a 500-page manuscript I would later develop into my memoir, Betrayal of the Spirit. Around the time I left ISKCON, I had a dream that I was wearing a beautiful robe lined with images of Hindu deities. I painted The Dream Robe sometime later and still remember from the dream that I carefully folded the robe and put it in a box in the trunk of my car to protect it. In waking life, I stored my manuscript safely in a drawer for several years.

I call my art style Abstract Surrealism. Surrealism is usually dreamlike realism, but my art is abstract. Nearly every piece I’ve ever done fits into the Abstract Surrealism category. The images here are from 1990 through 1996, when I went from freshly out of ISKCON to serious graduate student, to dedicated writer-researcher and artist. Some of the paintings simply reconnected me with things I still found sacred.

One such numinous painting for me is Jayananda’s Vision. ISKCON started Ratha Yatra festivals in America to mirror the cart festivals in Orissa, and Jayananda had the engineering skills to build the carts. While dying of cancer, he supervised the building of the carts for the Los Angeles Ratha-yatra. To scout out a parade route, his friends drove him to Venice Beach and took him out on the boardwalk in a wheelchair. When I was a member, I felt close to Jayananda because my boss always told me to think of him if I ran into any problems with my work to help promote the second Los Angeles Ratha-yatra.

For the first few months living in Oregon, I attended art classes at a local park, Bush Barn, and disciplined myself to paint every day. The Child Krishna watercolor on black paper is the child Krishna riding on a calf. Krishna was born a prince, but to hide him from the evil King Kamsa, Krishna’s father took him to a farm in Vrindavana, where he grew up as a cowherd. I love the abstract quality of the painting, and how easily it came from the paintbrush.

While in Oregon, I remained in contact with ISKCON. Several times, I flew to Los Angeles to stay with my friends in the ISKCON Pyramid House in Topanga Canyon. Some years later, the couple who owned the property went through a protracted divorce after the woman’s son killed himself with a gun. The situation was a nightmare, but in happier times, I sat in the couple’s loft shrine and drew an ink and watercolor portrait of their Gaura-Nitai deities.

In 1994, my husband and I traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland to find his roots. The siege of Edinburgh Castle started in 1571, and English forces held Edinburgh for 2 years. When the Castle fell in 1573, the forces quartered and hung my husband’s ancestors from the market cross. We got to see the crosses and the John Knox House, where his ancestors had lived before the siege. Visiting Edinburgh and learning of the violent history of my husband’s ancestors connected me with something visceral and real. After I started as a student at Lu Bellamak’s school, I soon painted Edinburgh Castle based on my photographs. The unicorn on the mountain is a part of me that wanted to reunite with something real about my own life.

Feeling a need to be near old friends, in 1995 I rented a studio apartment in the Fairfax District near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). At that time, LACMA had a traveling exhibit of Wassily Kandinsky's Improvisations. He is my favorite artist, and I love his Improvisations series. I bought a LACMA membership and went to the Museum every day to sit in front of the huge paintings and draw them. LACMA also has a permanent exhibit of Asian artwork, including room after room of ancient deities. That year, the Museum became my temple, and the guards recognized me as a familiar site, sitting on the floor with my sketchpads and pencils. The drawing of Ganesh, the elephant god, is one of the dozens of drawings I did during that time. The ISKCON leaders had told us we would lose our connection with god if we ever left the temple. Despite their negative programming, I found a deeper connection with spirit simply by sitting quietly and sketching.

Another reason I got the Fairfax studio was to spend more time in Los Angeles and learn more about the children of ISKCON. A few years after completing my graduate work, I found out ISKCON had abused a generation of children in their boarding schools. The children told me they resented the PR department because we used their photographs in our publications, but ignored their suffering. That experience and the suicide of Jivananda soon after forced me to acknowledge how brutal life had been for the first cohort of ISKCON’s children. I felt a debt to the children and wanted to take them under my wing.

After giving up the Fairfax studio, I invited several young adults who had grown up in ISKCON to visit me at my house in Arizona. We did artwork every day, and I preached to them about the importance of having a job. I even hired them to do yard work and other chores around my house. Each of them went on to become successful, working for a living. The Angel of Vrindavana was one of the paintings I did during that time. It’s based on the map of Vrindavana, the holy land of Krishna’s childhood, where some of the worst ISKCON child abuse had taken place. I sketched the map on a large canvas, and painted an angel witnessing the abuse. The angel’s face is red, showing her shame and anger. The ISKCON property, the scene of the abuse, is covered in dark clouds.

I told my art teacher Lu Bellamak about my bad experiences in ISKCON, and that I was writing a book about it. She encouraged me to paint images to desensitize myself to ISKCON, and make a new connection with India that was my own. The Old Babaji came from a photo of the Kumba Mela, a religious gathering at the Ganges River. Lu and I made up a palate of pinks and browns to surround the old Babaji with color. I loved the painting, and it haunted me for years.

The last image in this series is Jiva Taking Flight. This was another large oil I completed as a student of Lu Bellamak. The mountains and sea were images I had seen on a recent trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The buildings on the left mountain were from photographs of the hotel where we stayed. The building on the right mountain was an imagined Mayan or Aztec pyramid. The dragon symbolizes Jivananda. Like Catholics, Hare Krishnas believe suicide victims go to hell or purgatory, but I envisioned Jivananda flying through a cloud hole into heaven. I still get emotional when I think of Jivananda’s short life, and how his death led me to look for the truth about the children of ISKCON.

Using art to work through my ISKCON experience helped me find what I was looking for in the first place: a connection with a personal higher power. Each image crystalized on canvas, paper, or drawing board allowed me to process bundles of confusion and negative feelings. I’m grateful for the time I had to devote to my healing, and for the friends and teachers who helped me dig in and find what needed to be said.

About the Author

Nori Muster, MS, is the author of Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement (University of Illinois Press, 1997), Cult Survivors Handbook: Seven Paths to an Authentic Life (2000), and Child of the Cult (2010). She was an ISKCON member from 1978 to 1988, then earned her Master of Science degree at Western Oregon University in 1991 doing art therapy with juvenile sex offenders. She is currently a freelance writer and adjunct professor based in Arizona. Her website for cultic-studies information is surrealist.org/cults/