Fear And Loafing In The Artist's Studio
Fresh off the vine - 16x16, oil on cradled birch panel, this is "Be Grape & Fearless".
Over coffee on a recent morning, a fellow painter thinking of quitting his day job asked how I had managed to find the courage to take the leap into self-employment. What strategy had I used, he wondered, to convince myself to walk away from a regular paycheque and embrace the feast-or-famine world of making and - on an occasional good day - selling art.
Walk away? What do you mean, I asked?
“Look” he said, “most people believe Humpty Dumpty fell. The conspiracy theorists are convinced he was pushed. But shouldn’t we also consider the possibility that he may have leapt off that wall?”
Well, maybe The Egg did but not me. The fact is I’m not good at jumping off of ledges. I do exhibit what some have called a “learned ability” when it comes to getting pushed off of them however. But where my skill-set truly shines, what I excel at, is the falling part. At that, I am unequalled - even though gravity is constantly trying to take the credit for my grand accomplishments in this field. Stupid thunder-stealing gravity.
Anyhow, the fact is my old job disappeared. If there was any conscious choice on my part at that point, it was only to not pursue another 9 to 5 desk gig. So yeah, I got pushed off. So much for courage.
I was thinking of this conversation while working on this piece Be grape and fearless - the latest in my ongoing series of paintings called Explorations. Or, more to the point, I was thinking of the role of fear in our lives. Like a lot of people, most of my life I have dealt with insecurities, anxiety and fear.
Some stuff just triggers all the alarm bells. For instance, public speaking. Glossophobia - the fear of public speaking - is the most common of all phobias. But it wasn’t until about the last five years of working as an “on-air personality” that this became a problem for me. Somewhere, in some dark recess of my brain, a train of thought derailed with devastating consequences.
Virtually overnight I went from being very comfortable speaking in public - a natural, as they say - to having full-blown panic attacks whenever I had to face a live microphone. And I had to do it a few times a week. I only made it through those last few years through the magic of pharmacology. And then - in the form of a pink slip - fate intervened.
So recently when I was asked to take on a public speaking engagement, my first since leaving my on-air job in broadcasting in 2012, the wave of fear threatened to drown me. My first instinct was to start looking around for hills to which I could run. But…wait. Maybe, just this once, be grape and fearless.
I accepted the gig. I did it. I survived. And I was pretty good at it. Or so I’m told... It seems when I'm stressed enough my brain tends to be unable to store memories. Just ask my wife. Apparently we had a wedding day. Who knew? I’m about 99% sure the successful outcome of the speaking gig is attributable to the healing power of art making.
Over the last four years, one brush stroke at a time, the train has found its way back onto the track. I don't think I’ll ever love public speaking again. Nothing left of that loaf but the stale ends. But public speaking isn’t nearly as big a monkey on my back now as it was for a very, very long while.
The thing about fear is that it is everywhere. It fuels the narrative of most of our lives. We soak in fear to such an extent that we become numb to it. We don’t notice it reducing our horizons, narrowing our minds and passing off a constant stream of half-baked lies as manifest truths. Fear makes us hate change. It makes us hate anything we don’t know, don’t understand or can’t predict the outcome of.
And it makes us hate anyone who’s different from ourselves.
Before we realize what’s happened, the clock has run out and we’re left with a pile of regrets for those things we didn’t do or - worst of all - did do out of fear. It's not only OK to be afraid, it's unavoidable. You could blame your lizard brain for that but it'd be like blaming the horse for galloping.
So calculate the risks as much as you need to quell the noise. And, as they say, if at first you don't succeed, you may want to reconsider that skydiving adventure. But, once in a while at least, don’t let the adverse math stop you from going on the kayaking trip. Giving that talk. Splashing some paint around on a canvas. Telling that person that you love them.
Of course, you might drown. You might embarrass yourself in front of everyone. You might make an awful mess. Your love might go unrequited. Welcome to life. It’s a tough gig. Do it anyway. Because the mighty truth that fear makes us all forget is that nobody gets off of this ride alive. You got pushed off the ledge the day you were born.
You might as well enjoy the view on the way down.
See you around the studio.