I'm an artist terrified of the vast, blank canvas

I know I have talent but I'm afraid to paint.

Published June 16, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I graduated from high school nine years ago, and kind of just drifted aimlessly out into the world. For my entire life, art and English (particularly art) have been my great strengths and loves. I've been drawing since I was 3, painting since early high school, and reading voraciously and attempting new novels at least once a year all throughout.

So it seems logical that one of those subjects would be my chosen major for college. I always assumed I'd be an art major. I won awards in high school, even though I didn't really understand the significance of such a thing, and was accepted to special programs. In fact, I was so immersed in art that I let all other classes fall by the wayside and left myself with a GPA that would require me to attend a junior college before transferring to a university. Then, after I graduated high school, something funny happened. I had to work right away in order to get a car, so that I could drive to school, and somewhere in there I became so interested in so many things that I kind of just lost my sense of direction.

Over the years I have continued to paint on my own, although I have not been incredibly prolific, all the while intending to return to school. Finally, two years ago I returned to junior college and embarked on a course of study that I intended to have prepare me for a major in biopsychology, which is an incredibly rigorous major. I'm not even sure what drew me to this major, other than that I have a great amount of interest in how the brain works in response to mental illness, as my mother is schizophrenic. So, for the past two years I've been telling myself that I was going to go on and work in this field, probably teach it at a university, and maybe do some research. Everyone who sees my artwork asks me if I plan on doing something with it, and encourages me to do so, but I always brushed it off, despite the fact that if I could, I would drop everything else and paint for a living.

The past year or so I've been creating a little more often, and my skill has grown exponentially; it's like suddenly after years of stagnation I feel so natural in front of the canvas. My general sense of color and my actual technique have both grown by leaps and bounds, and more and more I have felt the tug to work creatively. It's like I'm seeing the world again the way I used to, everything is something that I can use on canvas as a part of my expression. This sounds like a great thing, and it is, but it is also the reason I need advice.

I was sitting in front of the canvas working the other day and it occurred to me that the entire reason I have not considered an art major as a real possibility since high school is that I am afraid to do so. I mean, one of my major goals has been to teach at a university, and obviously I could do that as either an art teacher or a biopsychology teacher. I think that I have been afraid that if I choose art as a major, that I will fail, I will have wasted my money on a major/degree that won't get me anywhere. I just don't know what to do. Should I take the risk and declare myself an art major and just go for it? Or should I declare another major that, although I find really interesting, is not one of my strengths?

Aimless Artist

Dear Aimless Artist,

You were sitting in front of the canvas and realized you were afraid.

You figured it was fear of failure. But I don't think so. I think it was fear of discovery.

When an artist sits before a blank canvas frozen with fear it is because the subject is too terrifying to admit to consciousness. It is no mystery; rather, it is a truth that cannot be easily contained, that threatens to break one down. So one tries to hold it at bay. Thus you sit, immobilized, holding back the truth.

I think that truth is what you went through as a child, your story of growing up with a schizophrenic mother, how it affected your personality and your outlook on the world. I think that you are afraid to become a painter because if you become a painter you will have to discover the truth of your past. You will have to paint your mother.

It is good to do the things that terrify us the most.

So have her sit for you. Painting your mother will force you to regard her serenely, to study her features carefully and at length. You will learn to see her as she is: her dimensions, her color, her symmetry, her expressions. To paint her accurately you will have to look at her for a long time. In doing so, you may experience feelings that had been buried or frozen. That will be good. You may find yourself weeping as you paint. That will be good. You may hear the sound of icebergs falling into the sea. That will be good. It will be good to feel these things that you have held at bay for so long, and to feel them as a man now, not as a child, as a man capable of containing them and shaping them with your talent.

I suspect that one reason you are drawn to biopsychology is that you have a desire to fix your mother. But there is another way you can fix her. You can fix her on the canvas. Painting is your strength. That is what you need to use to fix your mother.

I know this is all a bit much. But I too wandered aimlessly after high school, and I too am a sensitive person who grew up in some degree of chaos and later had trouble learning to form coherent plans and carry them out.

I think I have something in common with you. I do not mean to frighten you. But I do mean to push you. I think you need to be pushed, as I at times have needed to be pushed. I think you need to spend some time feeling the way you were affected. You need to face this fact: You were raised by a woman who was mentally ill. Her behavior shaped you in unalterable ways. It hurt you but as compensation it also pushed you toward beauty. It is your calling to unearth and portray the way that she affected you. You have been shirking that calling. It is a painful calling and naturally we try to avoid painful things. That is what all the wandering was about. But you could wander forever and this truth would continue calling to you. It is the thing you need to deal with, the dragon you need to slay.

It is your calling, your truth: how it felt to have a mother whose world was a shattered vessel.

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