When Alex Cook found himself in the midst of darkness, he found renewal from a surprising source.
I was trapped. And my heart was breaking.
About fifteen years ago I was battling depression—and hard. Daily I was pushing, pushing against what felt like walls of stone—fear, sadness, and pain that were encroaching on me, in an almost physical way. And I was making progress.
Over a few years in this struggle—an arduous, demanding journey which felt like a million miles in the wilderness—I could feel that if it really was a journey of a million miles, I had traveled a hundred thousand. Or maybe five hundred thousand. As I struggled, and prayed, and wept, and pushed, and failed, and failed, and succeeded and failed again, I could feel it. I was changing. I was putting miles behind me. And there were thousands upon thousands of miles to go.
In the midst of this, I have to live my daily life.
I’m an artist. I had a painting show coming up. That meant that I needed paintings to show. I needed to get busy. But I felt as though I wanted to cry. Every day. And these were not inspiring, cathartic tears. They were sad, hopeless, gray tears.
All my life as an artist I have depended on my feelings to tell me what to make art about. If I have had a wonderful adventure I painted about it. If I am angry I painted about that. Whatever is happening in my life was what I would use in my work. And I had learned over the years that nothing but really courageous honesty makes for good art. There is no substitute.
I went to the studio to work. I stood there, among my paints, canvases, and thoughts. I didn’t want to make paintings about how awful I felt. I had been fighting and fighting and fighting to feel good. And the progress I had made encouraged me that it was not all for nothing! The progress I felt was about turning outward—away from the downward spiral of inner negativity, into helping others, and simple good things I could see in the world. Making paintings about the enormous well of lifeless tears inside me seemed absolutely wrong! And yet, to make paintings about something else (what would it even be??) felt dishonest and disgusting. Even if I tried to make happy paintings they would have no guts behind them. What would be the point? I felt utterly trapped.
A big part of my struggle against depression was prayer. In fact, I had really been learning to pray. I was learning to give up on things that didn’t work, even if they were the things you were “supposed” to do. No point in prayers that don’t work. So I had been getting really willing to let God tell me what prayer is. A lot of what I had thought prayer is was falling away. One thing I had begun to feel is that prayer can be nothing more complicated that reaching out and being open to what comes back.
In that trapped, awful moment, feeling the stone walls encroaching on me, threatening to make my life impossible, I did reach out. I just asked, with a real, deep longing in my heart, something like, “God, you made me an artist. How can I do this?” And I listened in my silent heart.
What came back was something I already knew. “Follow Beauty.” It was a capital B. I knew it was right, but what did that mean in this situation? I felt sort of let down … “Ok, but HOW?”
I listened again for how to make that directive into action for today. I concentrated. As I did, I realized that I knew, for a fact, that honesty and beauty are inseparable. There is no beauty without honesty. If something is worth doing, there is no faking any part of it.
If I was going to express something, it had to be a real thing, something I felt. I had to be honest. I knew this meant beginning with feeling—no matter how bad those feelings were. AND, I could feel that this was the more courageous option. It meant letting go of the notion that I was in charge, and being willing to explore and let things unfold.
I did begin making a painting about how I felt. It was about tears and loss and grief. It was ok. Not the best painting I ever made. BUT THEN, a magical thing happened. Things had been set in motion by simply beginning. In that same day I made another painting—this one fueled by my love of painting. That feeling had arrived while I worked on the first one. This painting wasn’t about anything sad at all. It was a figure growing, exploring—and it was HONEST.
In the next two weeks I made sixteen honest paintings, and only one of them (the first one) was about feeling terrible. The rest were new ideas that came as I worked. They were real, inspired, and came from exploring—a willingness to move forward at all costs. They were solid. I could feel proud of them, knowing that they were neither forced, false works, nor were they the navel-gazing complaints I had feared they might be.
I put together the show and didn’t even include that first painting. The others were much better and more interesting anyway.
I can’t create feelings. I can’t manufacture interesting, life-filled feelings instead of bored or miserable or sad ones. But, from this experience, I learned that I am never trapped choosing between honesty and happiness. No matter how I feel, as I listen and am willing to live and progress, there will be a life-affirming feeling that arises in me. I didn’t make it. It’s not because I am a particular kind of person or have particular skills. It’s there because Life is, and the moment I am willing to forget about my complaints, analysis, and terror, it’s mine. No matter how intransigent, how cruel, the trap appears to be, it can dissolve.
I continued to labor for another year or so to be free from depression. This and many other moments like it were the waymarks on my journey.
Photos: Alex Cook
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