Virginia St. Claire
"Rapture was a lightness, a blissful stirring within . . ."
Forest is fifty-six, has six children and is single. After many false starts, he is now a successful fine artist with a sense of his real purpose, which is to share his inner experience of the magic and beauty at the heart of life with as many people as possible.
He considers himself too serious most of the time but has a playful streak. For fun he likes to swim, hike, listen to live music of many kinds—jazz, blues, folk, and dance music. (Interview: early ‘90s)
Forest’s inner life:
I was introspective and had an active fantasy world in my head, probably because I was alone a lot. I didn't get a lot of attention, but I accepted that. I felt solitary rather than lonely and adapted by inventing a make-believe world for myself.
We always had gardens and lived in neighborhoods with lots of trees and wild vacant lots. My grandmother had a beautiful garden with Iceland poppies, hollyhocks and delphiniums. I ate the flowers. I spent a long time visiting with them because they were my friends.
One of my paintings expresses a communion with flowers that was a spiritual connection for me in childhood. In my grandmother's garden I was on a level with the flowers in size and lost in rapture sensing their energy, presence, and equality with myself. The word 'lost' meant a letting go, an expansiveness, a not having the boundary at the edge of my body anymore. The rapture was a lightness and a blissful stirring within. I felt a connection, a oneness, a knowing what flowerness is, and a sense that it was a two-way communion. When I was small there was just my being there with the flowers and loving the feeling. Later on, I put words with the experience.
Shortly after kindergarten we moved inland to a tract of new houses where they were building all around us. I'd explore the new places, jump from high places into little piles of sand. There were twenty-two kids on our street and we'd stack up wheat bales from the fields after the harvest, make steps, then dare each other to jump into some bales we'd broken open. It was exhilarating, like flying.
When I was six or seven our family went to Big Bear up in the San Bernardino Mountains for a week's vacation. When we arrived I felt drawn to go into the woods and I asked my daddy a couple of times if we could go for a walk. I got impatient waiting and followed a path that went deeper and deeper into the woods. I don't know how long I walked but after a while I came to a little glade, and, in a way I'd never known before, I felt at home. I sat down there and felt soft and peaceful. I sat there for quite awhile. A little squirrel came out and after a while birds flew down and hopped about. They came up close to me, even the squirrel. Later I walked back and found my mother who had been worried about me.
In the glade I was in an altered state. I had a beautiful feeling inside, and I could open up, drop all the defenses that seemed necessary in the city, the house, the civilized world I was growing up in. Ever after I've been drawn to the woods for that experience, and there are certain favorite spots—one, a series of waterfalls and pools on Cataracts Trail by Alpine Lake—that lead me into that softness. I feel the gentle, soft and open energy of plants and that softens me.
The first experience I had of the world as benevolent and safe was when I went to the woods. Parts of the world in normal life were cold, uncaring, and harsh, and nature was a refuge from that. I wasn't at home in the world. My dad didn't seem to want me, and I was too much for my mom to handle.
From home I would go off on long walks with my dog. We'd go across the fields seeking out a natural place where I could feel good. My dog would chase rabbits across the fields, we'd come across snakes and, of course, lizards.
My mom would read to me almost every night, rub my back, tuck me in and kiss me. I would dream of fairytale kingdoms. I often dreamed I would find myself in the sky, with the blissful, liberated feeling of being able to fly.
My parents sent my sister and me to a conventional Episcopal Church, but they went with us only on Easter. I loved the stained glass windows and the way the light came through.
In high school I had a moving spiritual experience connected with church. I had come back to my own neighborhood to a non-threatening high school, and we had choir rehearsal in the choirmaster's home. His wife would make hot chocolate and cookies for us.
We sang thirty-two part harmony Bach and avant garde pieces by Hindemith and Bartok, performing our choral program in different Los Angeles’ churches. One experience of singing Bach in the cathedral filled me with wonder. I was exalted, soaring, my spirit lifted up. I felt tingling sensations all over my body, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I was aware of energy in my breath. As I took a breath in, I felt myself filling with energy.
I experienced a common oneness with the choir, that as we sang the piece, as our sound filled this vast space, we were a transcendent unit. We worked well together and there was a feeling of not being separate. The different sections—soprano, alto, baritone, bass—were parts of our being that was the choir. I was a part of something beyond myself and felt deep humility.
As an adult, I've had the profound realization about my childhood experiences that, because I'm the same person, there's a continuity. In nature I always felt safe and protected. Nature was the source of that caring, that safety and still is. Sensing the benevolent nature of plant life has been consistent throughout my life. I've experienced trees in a powerful form, especially ancient trees. As a child it was nice to be in their presence. Now I feel that they are really giving me something tangible which has to do with their being so deeply rooted in the earth, so open to the energy of the sun, breathing in such a slow cyclical rhythm, that they've experienced so much that, in comparison, I'm transient. I feel reassured that there's something more enduring and greater that I'm a part of.
Several times in sleep I've been released from my physical body and slipped into a parallel existence that isn't as physical and transcends this plane. Recently I dreamed of an entity that was a ball of blue energy, kindly, gentle, powerful, with a quality of compassion and intelligence. I felt it was another aspect of myself and that I let go of my limitations for a brief time, expanded into more dimensions of myself which I know are present but not always experienced.
A couple of years ago I had a visitation by a guardian angel which provided impetus for a painting. It was a trying, fearful time in my life, when, because of a family crisis, I moved from my hometown where I was comfortable and had a good support system. I had been living right by the woods and felt grounded and solid there with places in nature I could easily go. The new situation was difficult and one night I awoke to a sound. It was dark and I couldn't see where it came from, but it seemed to come from down the hall. At first I didn't know what it could possibly be, but it was the most unusual sound I'd ever heard but also very beautiful. After a while I began to detect a cadence, a rhythm, as if someone were chanting.
It was the voice of a young girl chanting in a real language but an ancient tongue, possibly Gaelic. In hearing the voice I felt comforted and cared for and that my prayers for help were being answered. Because I got that feeling of reassurance, I consider it a visitation by a guardian angel. I no longer felt alone, and it gave me the courage to do what I needed to do.
Here's an overview of what my life has been like all along although I am only fully aware of it now: I am spirit. My physical existence is a means for the spirit to come through. I have always longed to recognize and be one with the essence in everything and affirm it in a way that connects me to others, to build a bridge between myself and other manifestations with the same origin, and that's love. The guiding force in my life has always been love.
More about Forest’s childhood:
I grew up in beach towns in the Los Angeles area—Redondo, Manhattan, Hermosa. When I was little my dad worked in a grocery store, and later in the aircraft industry. My mom didn't work until I was ten or eleven, then she was a sales clerk in a drug store. I have one sister, seventeen months younger than I. Most of the time I was happy.
I had bright red hair and was called Forrey. I never sat still. At age three I already loved to explore and discover, and I'd look at the plants, flowers, little insects and spider webs and dig in the earth.
The most important thing to me as a child was the love of my mother and grandmother. My grandmother was a tiny woman who went camping with her woman friends and taught me how to fish on the Redondo Beach Pier. We'd play checkers, parcheesi, and Chinese checkers at her house and drink Postum. I had a real bond with her.
My mom was warm, loving and nurturing. She would hold me on her lap if we were alone, but when my father was home, he required her full attention. At times I wanted her so I would get wild and loud so she'd notice me. My mother read me fairytales and that may be where my imaginary world sprang from.
I looked up to my dad and was glad to see him when he came home. He worked long hours from early morning to late at night, but sometimes he'd come home for lunch. When I was little I'd jump into his arms, but when I was six he stopped holding me at all. From that point on, he seemed to resent me, and I felt cheated and angry. He would criticize me, making sarcastic remarks when I needed his support. After I grew up and moved out of the house I became aware my dad was an alcoholic and that he was critical when he'd been drinking. He drank in secret so it took me a long time to connect the change in his behavior to his drinking.
I was a daredevil and challenged myself physically. When I was six I'd get inside discarded tires and roll down the hill, almost daily coming home with skinned knees and elbows. I climbed high up in trees and on the roof of our two story house, once sailing our family record collection from the roof. When my parents lectured me about the records, I didn't feel bad because it had been exhilarating watching them sail. I never thought of myself as doing something wrong but as having exciting adventures.
When I was five I walked to and from kindergarten by myself. There was a sandlot on the way home which was higher than the road. I got the idea to dig tunnels, so my friends and I went home to get spoons and trowels, then came back and dug tunnels and a cave big enough so we could crawl in and hide. One day instead of coming home from kindergarten I walked to my grandmother's house in the next town.
When I was eight and the grass was high, spontaneously all of the neighborhood children, boys and girls, took off our clothes and crawled around in tunnels in the grass naked, but my favorite place to go was the swamp. We'd have to wade across gooey mud to get there, and we'd build rafts by tying wood together and pole across the swamp.
As soon as I got a bike when I was nine, I wanted to go back to the beach because I missed it. My friend Billy and I rode eight miles back to Redondo to go to the beach. We did it all the time but never told anybody.
At the beach there was a closed electric plant in ruins which we'd climb all around. We climbed way up, walking on eight-inch beams, leaping across four-foot spans, looking down to the sub-basements at the old generators surrounded by collapsing walls. We climbed the rungs on the smokestack and could see for miles around. Billy wouldn't climb so high; I was the daredevil.
Being scared and excited were the draw to the experience. I had to call on inner courage. I pushed myself beyond what seemed safe just for the thrill of exploration, discovery, and because it gave me a sense of power.
For a long time my creativity consisted of my internal fantasy world with no outward expression, but by fourth grade I often drew pictures instead of doing the assignments in class. One I remember was a picture of the Good Humor truck with all the kids clustered around it. In school I was considered a day-dreamer and imagined a lot more than I drew. I'd gaze out the window with my fantasy going full-tilt.
In my fantasy world I was many things—a pirate, an Indian scout living in a teepee, taking part in tribal life, dancing around a campfire, wearing feathers in my hair, riding a horse. I was a gypsy living in many lands. At times I preferred my fantasy world to reality.
When we were nine and ten, my buddies and I built forts using hammers and nails, and I was the leader of our club, The Mustangs. When we played cowboys and Indians I was always an Indian. We put on circuses and sold tickets. I was the ringmaster and the acrobat because I could do flips off a ladder. I'd show off on my bike and liked it when people watched me. I'd ride with no hands standing on the seat or do an arabesque standing on one foot.
I got fifty cents a week for doing my chores—mowing the lawns, cleaning up after the dog, taking out the trash. I was supposed to wash dishes but I'd weasel out of it until I was older when I'd cook dinner for my dad and myself while my mom was away working.
My memories of school are quite mixed. The first day of kindergarten I was terrified and kicked and screamed at my dad, but once I was there I liked the teacher and we did fun things like shaking cream to make butter to put on graham crackers. School was the first place I got to do any creative projects because my parents weren't artistic.
Some of the kids were bullies and I was a puny little kid and experienced myself as being smaller than the others. Once when I was playing in the sandbox a boy stole my shoes, tied the laces together and threw them over a telephone wire. I went home crying. We were poor.
Through elementary school the kids were generally friendly, but for junior high we were bussed to a tough neighborhood. It was absolute hell, and I was totally unprepared for it. The first day there I got trash-canned and felt totally humiliated. The next day I got pantsed in front of everyone and that was even worse. There was constant razzing, taunting, and put-downs. I never told my father what was going on. I got beat up a lot. Guys would punch me in the stomach and I'd fall down.
At school I found myself confronting things that challenged the way I saw life. I questioned the 'tough guy' attitude, and once when the kids were egging me on to fight I remember saying, "That's not going to prove anything. So, one beats the other up. It doesn't change anything."
There was a lot of sniggering about sex, and I wouldn't go along with the attitude the other guys had about girls. It cost me a lot in acceptance to be true to myself, but I was true. It was necessary for my own honor not to give in.
There was still a group of friends I'd see at lunch and there were some good teachers. Mr. Stodell had an agricultural plot and was the most remarkable character I ever met—it was like somebody invented him. He wore checked overalls, striped shirts with the sleeves held up with garters, curly hair parted down the middle, and spectacles. He taught us how to organize a garden and about how Luther Burbank got plants to form hybrids by talking to them. I spent a lot of afternoons digging and planting potatoes. I grafted different kinds of fruit on one tree—peaches, cherries, plums, apricots. The music teacher, Miss Daney was maternal, loving. I loved music and sang in glee club and boys' chorus.
By junior high I also got involved in reading adventure fiction. I read every book in the school library so they gave me a card for the city library. I read more than a book a day and entered into a different world in every book. The places and times of each book were the worlds I'd turn to within.
As a child I assumed I'd accomplish what I wanted without thinking about it, that I'd have a home, family, and everything I saw people having around me. I had definite expectations, but I sought my wish fulfillment in fantasy because I didn't think I could achieve my desires in reality. Those fantasies weren't realistic. They were about being brave, powerful, doing great things, being a leader, an adventurer, a gypsy prince.
In my late teens I showed great promise in art design and was rewarded for it. I was the outstanding artist in my junior college and assumed I'd be a successful designer, which to me meant making money and doing things to change the world. Yet something in me worked at cross-purposes to that, and I consistently would take on projects that were too big and fail. Just now I know that what I really want is to serve my highest purpose, to share who I am and my personal vision with the world.