The Fear Factor



All of us experience fear at some point in our lives. Fear of the unknown. Fear of loss. Fear of success, even. It’s a complicated relationship and one that throughout our lives we come face to face with whether we want to or not. What we resist persists and our deepest fears need to come to the surface to be healed, released and conquered.

As a shy, introverted child I found fear in everything, especially others’ judgements. Life seemed to be a minefield of challenges to be faced. But very early on I discovered my art to be a respite from all that scared me. It felt like a safe place to be….so I lived there constantly, drawing and imagining in my private world. Thank goodness for crayons, pencils and paper!

Throughout my life, like many of you, I was brought closer to fear than I ever thought I’d be. It seems to be the natural order of things. I can see that now.

At  age 14 a bad car accident left my face torn apart and I needed multiple surgeries to repair the damage. Then at age 20, insecure and vulnerable, I married a very damaged man whose personal pain led to years of drug and alcohol abuse. Eleven years later I found my way out of that marriage through intensive counselling, but only after having endured much pain and suffering that only codependency can bring.

So having faced and survived all those early life obstacles, how could the act of making art, the place I always found my solace, be fear generating. Well, it can. It does. And, it will.

It was this deep truth that rose to the surface rather rapidly as I engaged in the mentorship program and my work with Nicholas Wilton. I felt a little blind-sided by it, I’ll admit. I thought I had found ways to push through the fear and resistance when I was in my arts program. After all, I’ve been in my art practice for nearly ten years by now…how could fear be the issue that was holding me back?

This is how deceptive fear is….it lurks away, posing as other things. But when we get right down to it, being able to work authentically, freely and passionately as an artist requires understanding fear and resistance in a new way. Steven Pressfield writes about this very clearly in his book ‘The War of Art’.

Steven states that being an artist takes courage, tenacity and a willingness to meet the dragon of resistance consistently. It takes a willingness to risk, to expose yourself to criticism and most importantly, to understand and companion your relationship with fear.

This became the greatest teaching I received throughout the mentorship program. More important than how to make a painting was the knowledge of what was standing in my way of making that painting…what I was risking, what I had to surrender and what I had to accept…..about myself and how I needed to be in order to work strongly.

I’m still practicing what I learned throughout that time. It will likely be a lifelong endeavour. But I am grateful to know this about myself and I suspect…well, actually, I know….that many artists deal with the same issue. Perhaps you know what I am speaking about.

Feel free to share with me your relationship to fear in your work and your life….either here in the comments below or by sending me an email. I’m fascinated by this topic now and welcome any exchange you’d like to have about it. Bring it on!

Right now I’m working on my “Befriending Fear Manifesto”!

18 Comments On: The Fear Factor
  • Anna Keller Commented On March 30, 2015

    It’s been a big issue for me too, Cheryl, especially lately. I believe we all struggle with fear at times and really, I think if we don’t feel some fear we’re not pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones enough. It’s a sign of artistic growth if we’re feeling that discomfort, but gosh.. that doesn’t make it any easier, does it!? Thank you for this post, it’s helps to know others sometimes go through the same process. I love the idea of your Befriending Fear Manifesto! All the best, Anna

    • cheryltaves Commented On March 30, 2015

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Anna. I think you’re absolutely right in that we’ll feel fear whenever we are pushing at our boundaries and growing edges. It’s a good measure of that for us. The problem comes when it stops us in our tracks. When the fear prevents us from even starting…and that happens for many of us. It feels like resistance, avoidance, procrastination and censoring of our authentic self.

      This is what I’ve been really exploring for myself this past year and as I have become more clear on how it’s been operating in my life and work, I’m wanting to help others…by sharing my truth and opening up a place to talk about it. Thank you for jumping in and acknowledging your own struggle with fear. In future posts I’ll offer up some of the strategies I’ve been using that have helped along the way….maybe you have some you’d like to share as well.

      All the best with your work, Anna…and thanks again, for being here!

  • Chiarina Loggia Commented On March 30, 2015

    Cheryl, I can’t wait to see the new works you have created after embracing your fear. I know they will be spectacular! A few years ago I wrote my own post about fear and how it can become a wonderrful ‘sparring partner”. The link is below. As artists it is so important to recognize the role, and importance, of fear in the creative process. How we manage it will be reflected in the work we create and how it resonates with others. As you know the more vulnerable we allow ourselves to be, the greater connection we will make with our art.
    Ps, I have always connected with yours on a deep level and I know that that will always continue. :)

    • cheryltaves Commented On March 30, 2015

      Hi Chi,
      Thanks for offering your thoughts….and a great blog post of your own about fear! The work you do has really been a gateway for you to become very familiar with this topic. I’ve always admired your courage and willingness to be vulnerable. It makes your work so interesting and engaging.

      To be honest (and that’s what this is all about) I still feel as though I could have pushed further in this work. It’s been sometime since I’ve shown any work and what surprised me was that feeling of expectation that others might have….then fear arrived. So, the work is what it is and I will continue to push at those edges to make it even more authentically connected to myself. Its a journey of revelation that I’m grateful to be on….

      Thanks for your ongoing support for my work, Chiarina….it means a lot to me.

  • WIni Commented On March 30, 2015

    HI Cheryl, You write just like you paint, beautifully. I would write a lot more right now except I’ve just returned from the studio and FEAR has worn me down. I’m gonna take a nap! I wanted to comment on something you mentioned in your newsletter — about artists painting themselves — what they are. This is something I have stumbled on lately, at a whole new level. At an opening the other night I kept noticing how certain paintings looked their creator. Truly look a likes! I think that must mean a very HONEST painting. OK, now it is nap time.

    • cheryltaves Commented On March 30, 2015

      Hi Wini,
      Nice to have you here….oh do I know what you mean. That overwhelming feeling of exhaustion when wrangling fear. I remember a very wise teacher telling me once that was a sign that something really personal (and possibly risky) wants to breakthrough. You’re right on track….enjoy your nap.

      Funny you mention the look alike thing…I’ve noticed it with certain artists’ work as well. Especially when it comes to colour and palette choices. Someone once pointed out how much my hair colour resembled my palette!

      Thanks so much for your comment, Wini!

  • Trish Commented On March 31, 2015

    What a timely article this is. Just yesterday I wrote in my art journal “Embrace what you fear” as a reminder that the discomfort I was feeling about my new ideas was probably a good sign. And what a lovely thing to understand that what I am feeling is common. Maybe even an important part of the creative growth process? Thank you for this post Cheryl. It is both courageous and inspiring.

    • cheryltaves Commented On March 31, 2015

      Thank you, Trish….I also find that writing in my journal has been a great place to talk to my fear. I love that when we get honest with ourselves, then we can support ourselves as well. And yes, our commonality is comforting. This is so much why I wanted to talk about it publicly.

      I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me here and I wish you all the best with birthing these new ideas.

      F.E.A.R.- Face Everything and Rise!!

  • Kristine Paton Commented On March 31, 2015

    Ah, “The War of Art,” what a brilliant book! I think I’ve read it at least ten times (it has a permanent place on my bedside table). Were you as surprised as I was to learn that Steven Pressfield is also the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance? I still get chills when I watch the movie; especially the scene where the young golfer, played by Matt Damon, finally trusts in himself enough to get out of the way of his own success. Brilliant! More great reads about overcoming fear: “Art & Fear, Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking,” by David Bayles & Ted Orland; “A Life in the Arts” by Eric Maisel; and also by Eric Maisel (for when we are thinking of taking the wrong kind of leap), “The Van Gogh Blues, The Creative Person’s Path through Depression.” On a lighter note, there is a lovely little book about art, written by Robert Henri, I believe in 1923, called “The Art Spirit.” Of course, you will never have time to read any of these because you will be far too busy painting!!!

    • cheryltaves Commented On March 31, 2015

      Hi Kristine!
      Thank you for all the great read suggestions…I think I’ve actually read most of them, except maybe ‘The Art Spirit’. I’ll look for that one. I’ve been obsessed with this topic for years now…;-)

      I love Eric Maisel’s work. I was even included in a chapter of one of his books that came out last year…under an alias, of course. He was looking for material for his book ‘Secrets of a Creativity Coach’. I volunteered to do some on-line work with him and he could use the material, if he wanted….I was kind of shocked when he did (because I didn’t think my stuff was all that interesting). But I guess I was a good example of an artist needing some help…it was a turning point for me and led me to working with Nick Wilton…and so it goes.

      Really appreciate your input, Kristine!

  • K. N. Ghiglione Commented On March 31, 2015

    Great post Cheryl!

    I am really excited to see your new works this year!

    I had to do some thinking about what I am scared of. It isn’t a surface level fear of commonality. The ‘fear of disaster’ strikes me everyday when financial and credit card statements land on my desk. I have ‘fear of the unknown’ when my children journey away from home to places undescribed… and all I can do is hope I raised then with a good head on their shoulders.

    Ugh. Here it goes…. My fear with my art is deep seated and hard to shake when it surfaces. You see, I have always have been an artist. I was always creating. Always looking. I was trained as a graphic artist with many alternative classes in photography, printmaking, painting and experimental arts. There is a fine line between ‘being inspired’ by something… and ‘mimicking’ something. In the past it became an asset to be inspired by another designer. The learned ‘skill’ to mimic a design or artwork helped me understand the designer, artist and see what they were seeing and doing. As a learning tool.. this skill was invaluable. However, the siren song becomes strong when one is too successful. The lure of ‘inspiration’ can have a downside into outright copying and plagiarizing. This is my huge fear.

    As a result… I try to watch what influences me and how it might influence my work. And I sometimes do ‘try things on’ to understand what I am seeing and learn from it. I want to do original work, but in this internet connected work I find I am increasingly trying to find my own way – with blinders. I try to understand myself and what influences me from the world around me. I hope to stand on the shoulders of others and be inspired by them but not influenced.

    And to add more salt to the wound….. I keep thinking of the super talented German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). I read about her I was in the middle of design school. I remember reading where she was told by one of her teachers to (paraphrased) ‘never study commercial art… because it would destroy her ‘real’ art inside of her’. I was horrified! Remember, I was reading this while studying graphic design in art school. I felt doomed.

    So here I am… afraid of being ‘overly’ inspired. And afraid I destroyed my true ability.

    Sigh. Do any of the books listed above deal with any of this?

    Thanks for the post. It has caused me to reflect.


    • cheryltaves Commented On March 31, 2015

      Hi Kevin,
      Thank you so much for your contribution to this discussion. I appreciate how clearly you have excavated to the core issue that unsettles you in your work. I think many of us can relate to what you’re saying about being overly influenced by the work of other artists….and I feel this is a very worthy discussion to have.

      I remember when I started in my arts program, on the first day of classes, the director of the collage made his welcoming speech by starting with a quote by Pablo Picasso:

      “Good artists copy, great artists steal”

      There is also a variation of this quote by Picasso “Art is theft” offered in the first few pages of a sweet little book by Austin Kleon ‘Steal Like an Artist’.

      So what does this mean? In Austin’s book he discusses how challenging it can be, with such a long history of art making behind us, to be completely free of influence in our work. He makes a distinction between copying and stealing that helped me to accept this fear for myself as well. Because I know what you’re talking about and have felt that concern for my work also. I don’t think we can help but be influenced by others before us, or what we see around us….it’s what we do with it that counts. How we reinterpret it in our own vocabulary of visual language.

      So perhaps by choosing, as you do, what you allow to influence you…you are only bringing into your awareness what resonates with your particular language. Then as you paint those accents start to inform the work and shape it slightly to a more clear iteration of what you truly want to say. Retaining your ability to be authentically you.

      Again, I appreciate you sharing how fear shows up for you, Kevin. Isn’t it interesting how it has such a role to play?….would love to hear more from you as your reflection on this topic provides more clarity for you.

      Thanks for being here!

  • Wren Katzalay Commented On March 31, 2015

    Hi Cheryl,

    I found your blog about fear quite timely. It’s something that I’ve been aware of and processing the past few weeks. I haven’t been in my studio painting for quite some time, mostly due to my health, but I still felt the need to create. I have felt the calling to write for many years. I’ve always written; journals, bad poetry, inner ramblings mostly, but since last year, I’ve been more focused working on a book; a memoir of sorts. It flowed smoothly for months, weekly essays appeared, and I was in the flow, and then suddenly, I stopped. I convinced myself it was because other things in life that were more important came up and needed to be dealt with, but I knew deep down I was lying. I felt it creep up at first, and then it settled in my chest, as it always does. I recognized its familiar tone humming that old tune through my body, from the times it took hold during my painting practice.
    In the past, I would ignore it, pace, do laundry, eat too much, drink too much, clean the fridge or toilet, or surf the net for hours doing, “research.” This time, I did something different. I acknowledged it, “Hello old friend, what are you here to teach me?” I sat with it for a while, until I got my answer; I realized, I was at a point in the writing that I didn’t want to expose because it scared me. What if someone sees it, and judges me, or hates me, or hates the words I’ve used and thinks I’m stupid? I think this is common. We all just want to be seen, heard, accepted for who we are, flaws, dents, scars and all the complete wackiness of our humanness. I reminded myself that as the creator, I hold the power; I don’t have to show it to anyone, if I choose not to. I can even destroy it, if I so desire. That is when I am able to let go of the fear and do what I am suppose to do which is get it out. Whether it is through the point of a pen or the tip of a brush, it needs to be spoken. Why else would it conjure up so much energy? As artists, we are like torchbearers. We shine the light on the things that scare us, so that others can find the courage to do the same. Once it is done, the fear dissipates and allows space, space to dream, to wonder, to create. It takes courage, and kindness and patience and grace for sure, and when you can step into it fully, it really does set you free. At least until the next time it shows itself….xxx

    • cheryltaves Commented On March 31, 2015

      Beautifully said, Wren…truly. You’ve really touched on something here, I think….as we get ever closer to revealing the truth about ourselves, whether it be through painting or writing, our fear rises to prevent us from exposing our vulnerabilities. Ego protection, perhaps.

      I also love how you came to understand that in order to continue with your work you had to acknowledge the fear and ask it what it is here to teach you….and that you hold the power around who reads it. So potent!

      Lovely to hear from you, Wren…and to know that you’re expressing your beautiful creativity through your writing now. You are indeed a gifted writer…I can tell through this eloquently written comment.

      Thank you for sharing your understanding of this with me…big hugs

  • Carol Sarnoff - Frizzell Commented On April 2, 2015

    Cheryl, I’ve been thinking and writing, in response to your “Fear Factor” essay on and off for several days now, and the more I think about posting my thoughts, the more fearful I become !

    It’s interesting how I feel so comfortable and supported when I’m surrounded by like-minded artistic individuals, whether it’s virtual or not, but that feeling of being judged or overlooked begins to creep in when I get close to presenting an idea or an expression and I start to second guess myself. Posting a quick response shouldn’t cause such insecurity, especially since it is the very thing that’s being discussed here…

    And yes, it’s deep rooted. To put it lightly, for now, I’ll just say that I received seriously mixed messages from several of my closest nuclear family members throughout my upbringing, Fortunately there were many other close role models who countered those negative thoughts and actions, giving me hope and direction to look inside for strength and wisdom.

    When I had first heard artists describing their creative expressions, regardless of the modality, as ” coming through ” them, that they were merely the conduit or instrument, not the actual creator, I felt a sense of relief wash over me. Of course there are certain components of most modalities that must be studied and practiced before one reaches that magical place where images seem to appear unconsciously. I am most grateful for Nick Wilton’s reminders to trust our inner voices and not to fear vulnerability. That is what allows the emergence of powerful works of art.

    When you wrote : ” I believe I am becoming ever more comfortable with accepting what is, who I am and what will be.”, I so resonated with this message. That is partly why I felt ready to accept the challenge of Nick’s mentorship program as well. And thanks to you and Nick and countless other exhibiting, accomplished artists, expressing that feelings of insecurity, between moments of accomplishment, are inevitable throughout our creative journeys, I am learning not to let those feelings throw me off course.

    We all have our own unique mazes to find our way through, yet we have many of the same
    challenges. Thank you for sharing your art, your thoughts and your being. It has inspired and
    encouraged me, artistically and personally.

    • cheryltaves Commented On April 2, 2015

      Hi Carol,
      Thank you for your honesty, and for posting your sincere, heartfelt comment here. I’m so happy that you did and shared about your personal journey with fear. That’s inspiring for me!

      You’re so right about those early influences in our lives – how they can either support or discourage us from being fully who we are. When we get messages that cause us to feel our very nature is wrong it can be so challenging to move past this in our lives and step fully into ourselves.

      Interestingly, I’ve found art making as one of the best vehicles for teaching me how to be with my fear. It actually is a good barometer of where I’m at – my comfort with being vulnerable, my acceptance of myself and my need for others’ approval. Especially when the work is being seen and shared with the public, as we do.

      I love this quote…it really sums it up nicely for me :

      “An artist cannot fail, it’s a success just to be one” – Charles Horton Cooley

      I think it speaks to the very nature of what we do as artists…the courage it takes to reveal ourselves through our work. That itself is success….and a worthy pursuit. Although we may need to be constantly reminded of this as we spend so much time alone in our studios…navigating those murky waters and riding the rising tide of self-doubt.

      So glad to have met you through the mentorship program, Carol…I wish you all the best with your work and personal explorations. Really appreciate you being here and contributing to this discussion. It has added much and I’m sure others know exactly how you’re feeling…and see themselves in your sharing.

      With gratitude.

  • Ruth Andre Commented On May 16, 2015

    I found your post to be more than expected. You speak honestly and openly about real life challenges and fear is one we constantly deal with. I can relate to some of your history, being shy, marring and being in an abusive relationship and the accident. I did not have an accident but I did lose my hearing and with that came a very humbling and beautiful time. I learned a lot about myself and started painting diligently. I had to find a way to still be me. If I can rate my number one fear it would be grief. There are different levels of grief. Grief can take you over and spit you out and then come and go. It has a way of coming in waves and taking you under. I am most interested to see your new works and I commend you on your new found challenge.

    • cheryltaves Commented On May 17, 2015

      Thank for you comment, Ruth…it sounds as if your art making became an important part of your process towards coming to terms with the significant changes in your own life. I’m so glad that you found a way to be yourself and that your beautiful work has come through.

      I also appreciate your insight around grief. I’m sure many can relate to what you describe as the cycling effect grief has – perhaps that is part of it’s challenge, being so unpredictable. You never know when you’ll be effected by it. That uncertainty, and depth of emotional pain are certainly a recipe for fear. I hope that you are not dealing with this presently. If so, my heart goes out to you.

      Again, I so appreciate your participation in this discussion, Ruth. All the best with your wonderful work.

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