Learning to be Afraid: becoming an artist

Broken, oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″

I recently saw a friend’s post on Instagram about being afraid and working through it, and since then I’ve been thinking about the time in my life 20 years ago when I had to overcome my own fear. But I’m pretty sure, that at some point in our lives, we all have to make difficult choices with uncertain outcomes, and that that process can be justifiably frightening. Sometimes, though, those fears can be overwhelming.

Life has been pretty peachy for me so far but, like everybody else, I have felt deep fear, and in some cases it felt like it was for no particular reason at all. Let’s face it: no lion has ever threatened to eat me! However, those nameless, faceless fears still find a way to bore into my head once in a while.

I decided to become a full time artist more than 20 years ago, when my first child was about two years old, when I started a day-home simply because I couldn’t imagine having to drag my own children to daycare every day. (Please know that I have tremendous respect for all the parents out there that have maintained a ‘real’ job while having babies. It’s not an easy task; it just wasn’t for me.)

Once the boys became less demanding, I figured that becoming a full time artist would allow me to keep working from home. But, above all, it was what I had always dreamed of for myself. At first, I was incredibly excited! I was going to embark on my lifelong dream and spend my time creating works of art. But a couple weeks into it – just about the time my former self would have been expecting that first paycheque for a ‘real’ job well done – fear arrived and made itself at home.  I was terrified.  I had no idea what I was doing, how to go about it, or what decisions to make that would at least generate an income that could pay for paint and canvases. Yeah, I know. Poor planning.

The colour of fear, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″

But in my defence, I really felt that if I didn’t jump into it, I’d never make it happen. Nevertheless, as I realized the magnitude of the uncertainty I had created for myself, I started having daily panic attacks. They would always come in the evenings as I was getting tired, when I knew I had to make a decision. Then a very clever old lady told me, “No matter what you do, one morning you will open your eyes and it will be your 40th birthday. You can wake up as an artist or as something else you don’t really want to be. It’s up to you.” Clearly I had only two options. I could give up my dream and go back to a steady pay cheque with a predictable work path, or, I could stick with it and find a way through the anxiety.

Somehow I knew then I had to push through those panic attacks, so I thought I would organize myself around them. I stopped fighting, and instead welcomed them every day.  I made sure I was set up comfortably on the couch with a blanket, a glass of water and whatever I thought I would need, so I wouldn’t have to move. I tried to focus entirely on the panic attack. And when the waves of shivers and worries came over me, I sank deep into them.  I tried to feel them moment by moment, in every part of my body. I observed them, even if it was uncomfortable.  And, eventually, I came to love them.  

Diffusion, oil on board, 48″ x 48″

It felt that the more I relaxed into the fear, and surrendered to all the physical sensations that came with it, the more I felt a deep connection to the world.  Sometimes, flashes of clarity would appear unexpectedly.  Those felt like precious tidbits of knowledge I needed at that moment – precious life lessons I could put to use right away in my work and in my personal life.

Eventually, as I found a routine with my work, and the first stable sources of income came out of the work I did, I grew out of the panic attacks. With the help of my husband, who is a pro at organizing work and immensely supportive of what I do, I created a structure for my work, some goals, and a way of working that brought enough peace to keep me going. Since then, things have come together nicely and my work is largely fear free. Now I can use whatever fear that creeps back into my life as a source of inspiration for my artworks.

Today, those early anxiety attacks are all a distant memory. But my young friend’s instagram post encouraged me to remember and share my early experiences after I published last week’s blog “Naively Optimistic”. Maybe I wasn’t so naïve after all. Maybe I had a sense that being an artist would be more than a job; that it would become my life’s journey because none of the work we do as artists is done on the surface. It demands deep introspection and recognition of what life presents us.

More change will come in my life. I’m certain of that. In fact it’s just about the only thing that I am certain of! My hope is, that in the face of uncertainty to come, I will have enough wisdom to surrender to it once again, and to make the most of it, using the energy it will stir to create meaningful artwork.

 

 


Making Art: an antidote for today’s anxiety epidemic

Everybody’s talking about it these days. It seems that everyone I know feels anxious or is living with someone who struggles with anxiety.

My zen cell phone cover

In the blog The Anxiety Epidemic, they report that the American National Institute of Mental Health says “… 38 percent of teenage girls and 26 percent of teenage boys have an anxiety disorder.” And they go on to explain that “… this is partly due to incessant smartphone use in general and more specifically, their use for communication purposes.” And I’m now convinced that many grown-ups, like me for example, are equally susceptible to this electronic epidemic because just yesterday my dog, Cisco, made that abundantly obvious.

Cisco keeps me company in my studio every day. He sleeps under foot where I’m working and early yesterday morning I was interrupted by several text messages.   Each time my phone made a text sound, Cisco jumped up from his nap and rushed toward me as if saying “Hey! Grab your phone – it’s calling you!” After about the third text, I realized that Cisco and I both have been trained too well. Pavlov, I’m sure, would be delighted. I can imagine him bragging, “See! She’s almost as well conditioned as her dog!” 

Cisco dozing off under my studio table

Yes, I know, I know. Smartphones are here to stay. They’re practical little tools that make life a lot easier. But, as the blog goes on to say, “… they are having a deleterious effect on our mental and emotional functioning. People who use them a lot (and that is most of us) cannot seem to stay away from them and the research is pretty clear that one major cause is anxiety… we know that some form of anxiety is driving us to check in constantly with our technology.”

But what Cisco taught me yesterday was that we both need a break. He needs his nap at least as much as I need my art. That’s when I can be totally immersed for hours at a time, and emerge completely invigorated by the creative process. I finally realized that when I’m interrupted by my phone, my anxiety kicks in, so that when I try to get back to work it takes a while for the creative process to re-engage. Obviously, I need to turn the phone off when I’m working.

The blog Stress-related Hormone Cortisol Lowers Significantly After Just 45 Minutes of Art Creation offers a solution: Make art, it will lower the level of stress hormones in your body. It shares the results of a new Drexel University study, and quotes Girija Kaimal, EdD who is an Assistant Professor of Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University. She says that the study results where not,“…surprising because that’s the core idea in art therapy: everyone is creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when working in a supportive setting.”

I feel that every day I work. It’s incredibly calming to put brush to canvas, pencil to paper, or hands in modelling clay. I can also see it in my students. Adults, teenagers and kids alike show up at my studio, many of them wound up tight from whatever is going on in their lives. And then, within 20 minutes of shifting their focus to making art, their demeanour changes. They relax their shoulders, they breathe more slowly, and they look and feel better. They’ve given themselves an antidote to anxiety.

Try it! Turn off your phone. Pick up a pencil or a paint brush or a lump of clay and go for it. I promise you’ll be doing yourself a favour.