Art and Fear (Candor Alert!)

It’s a funny story actually. I think I may have run all the way to Beirut to avoid my artistic calling. Well, it wasn’t that immediate, but in retrospect it kind of seems that way.

Rewind. Back to the time when I am 19 years old and struggling through my second year at Columbus College of Art and Design. The first year was brutal. I had never done so much homework in my life. And, as any art or architecture student can attest to, the homework was beyond demanding. There was just so much of it! And it all required not only that learned concepts be applied, but it demanded creative problem-solving, originality, and masterful execution. How original or masterful can you be at 1 AM, desperately trying to complete a project on time after a long day of classes and work? I, for one, simply lack the motor skills at that point.

Perhaps it was not as hard as I remembered it. After all, I was struggling with some personal issues at the time, which made things harder.  But my high school art teacher had not prepared me either for the work load or the critiques, which could be harsh and publicly humiliating. It’s no surprise that the attrition rate was very high at that school.

I later met a former student who graduated from CCAD in the eighties. We commiserated over the experience. He told me about how he had once stayed up all night to finish a very detailed charcoal drawing. The next day, the teacher’s “critique” consisted of a single brutal act: she took one hand and smeared the drawing into oblivion. He was tougher than me because he stuck with it and eventually graduated. But he did tell me that after CCAD, his MFA program at George Washington University was a cinch.

I admit it: I was scared. I gave up. I told myself that maybe I wasn’t meant to be an artist after all. I enrolled at Ohio State and went back to my other love: English literature. It was easy compared to art school, even getting through T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland,” “The Piers Plowman” (the Middle English allegorical narrative poem), or all 900 pages of Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (only difficult because I really disliked it). I even rocked my creative writing class! I soon enrolled in the honors program and graduated Summa Cum Laude.

I also met my Lebanese American ex-husband at Ohio State and soon became intrigued by Arabic literature. I wanted to go to the Middle East and study Arabic. Arabic was easy after art school. Living in Beirut was easy after art school. Even earning my masters in Middle Eastern studies was easy compared to art school.

Well, long story short, I did come back to it, obviously. Or I never let it go completely. Here’s a drawing I did on the Nile in Egypt in 2003:

And in Paris in 2002:

Somewhere, in the back of my mind, all of those concepts and abilities rested dormant, until the seed finally took root. So much of what I learned in art school is of great assistance to me now, not least the all-night homework sessions. I accept now that evening and night are not good times for me to work. I’m too tired and my mind is too cluttered with all the experiences of the day. Late morning/afternoon is my ideal time. Still, the experience taught me discipline and patience, even if it took many years for me to fully realize it. In total, it took me almost a decade to come round to making art again.

So why all the fear? Making art is frightening. Every time you resolve to create something, you risk failing at it and calling into question whether you are worthy. Always you are critical of yourself. And others can be very critical as well. Or they completely ignore you, which can feel worse. I think this leads many artists to quit and give up. It leads many others to do work that isn’t their own. The hardest thing is being very honest with yourself, finding your true voice, and sticking with it. It can be enough to make us all want to run for the hills – or in my case, the safety of a conflict-riddled Middle Eastern country.

“Risk,” 2011, Acrylic on Canvas, 9 x 9 inches

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