Follow Your Fear

This week I was asked to write a blog post for the TEDWeekends section of the Huffington Post.  The blog post I wrote is in response to Alexa Meade’s TED talk “Your Body is My Canvas.”  I had strong reservations about submitting what I wrote, as I discussed in this past blog post.  Below is the post, please let me know what you think, I would love to get feedback.

Following your passion sounds like a no-brainer, but it is a path that is frequently full of intense fear and major risks. Fear is common for many artists, and is frequently a primary hurdle in the creative process. As an art student, I was so afraid of failure that I exclusively made artwork that was technically accomplished in order to guarantee “success.” I created paintings and drawings that were accurate and visually beautiful, but which were completely devoid of content and purpose. At the end of four years of study, I found myself with nothing but a bunch of pretty pictures.

I took the completely opposite approach with my current project: I followed my fear.

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Having lived with this condition since age 10, undiagnosed, I found myself so deeply buried in the emotions of depression that I had no sense of self. When I received the diagnosis, it was an incredible shock to see myself clearly, free from the disease for the first time in my entire life. After treatment, I realized I had an extraordinary narrative that I could express through my artwork, but I had deep reservations about telling my story. Doing so meant publicly revealing my history with mental illness, which even in today’s world carries a heavy stigma.

Self-Portrait No. 7, version 2

I had never felt this strongly about a subject before, and I knew that I was on the verge of something tremendous. I knew the only way I wanted to represent the subject was directly, depicting the visual brutality of depression through the vehicle of the human face. I imagined Falling, a series of fifty self-portrait drawings, drawn hyper-realistically as a means of heightening the savage reality of depression. As I conceived the project in my head, I realized that I couldn’t ignore the idea. The only way to relieve this fierce compulsion was to make the artwork.

I am now three years into this project, and the fear that I experienced at the beginning has never really subsided. In fact, it seems like my fears have only increased as the project travels further out into the world and is seen by a wider audience. Most people are afraid to talk to me about the subject matter of my artwork, and I’ve noticed that my conversations at my exhibitions are limited to technical questions about my art materials. Instead, I’ve received moving emails from people sharing their experience with me, describing how much my artwork affected them. I’ve had students of mine approach me privately in order to reveal their struggles. Never before have I witnessed my artwork stimulate such a dramatic emotional response from my audience. Many people have told me that Falling is my best work to date.

In order to realize your passion, you have to be willing to embrace fear and take the necessary risks. Now, I see fear as the ultimate signal that I’m headed in the right direction. I intentionally assign tasks to myself that initially feel insurmountable and intimidating. In the case of Falling, it was the gargantuan task of creating 50 4′ x 3′ drawings, a quantity of artwork that I had never even come close to in my previous projects.

Self-Portrait No. 23

Every semester I tell my students that their artwork should never be easy, convenient, or manageable. I encourage my students to test their limits. I ask them to empower themselves by harnessing their fear as motivation to create their artwork. Recognize your fears, confront them head on, and use them as an impetus to drive your work forward. In this way your passion will be realized.


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