How do you keep going when you’re gripped by fear? Artist Alex Cook shows you how.
I’m an artist. In my field of work, there is no ladder to climb, exactly. It’s all just making it up as you go along.
As a young man, I began to realize that making art was my calling. I had these ideas, visions that moved my heart so deeply. I found that I was falling in love with the ability to express. I could feel that this is what I’m made for.
When I was about to graduate from college I felt a great weight on my shoulders—OK, I love art but, how do I actually do this? How do I get people to see my work? And how will I pay my rent? I thought of myself, pitifully pounding the pavement, getting rejected by gallery after gallery after gallery. And frankly, who goes into art galleries anyway?? I wanted my work to be seen by people!
Then it dawned on me. If I can get someone to let me paint on the wall of a building, nothing can stop people from seeing my work! Murals. It was a way to cut out the middle man and go straight to the people with my best ideas.
So then I did pound the pavement. But this time with a goal I could feel. Find me a wall to paint!
Within a couple of weeks, I found myself a building owner with a sense of adventure who agreed to let me paint on the side of his building. Amazingly, the wall was on a main thoroughfare into town—hundreds and maybe thousands of cars passing by every day!
Soon it was the day to begin. I stood before the enormous red brick wall, considering. Up to this point, the largest thing I had ever painted was six feet tall. It was a panel, which at the time had been overwhelmingly large. I had only ever worked in the privacy of my studio. My plan this time was to make a painting sixteen feet tall and ten feet wide. It towered over me. And the hundreds of cars passed by behind me.
I went to put the first brush stroke on the wall and stopped. I was overcome with a gripping fear, the likes of which I had never felt before. I couldn’t continue. Couldn’t even put the brush on the wall.
I searched myself. What is this?! My thoughts were flooded. “What if I fail? What if I start and can’t do it? What if I make an enormous mess of this painting, right here in public while all these people watch?!” There was nowhere to hide. Nothing to protect me from the judging eyes of the world.
In my panic and absolute paralysis, I stepped back from the wall to regroup. Then, I prayed. And what I mean by that is that I took all the longing and desire I felt to make something beautiful, to succeed, and reached out in the privacy of my own heart, to what I call God—a loving force of goodness that has answers for me.
My inner experience went something like this:
“What can I do?? What am I supposed to do?? I know I’m supposed to be here!” And then I listened, concentrating.
There was a new thought in the midst of the noise of fear. I remembered that I had been excited to make a beautiful picture—not so I would be seen as a good artist, but so there would be a beautiful thing there.
I began to think of the people in the neighborhood. The folks driving by. Folks coming home from work. Kids walking by after school.
Like a light in the darkness a new thought arrived, as natural as can be. “This is not about how they see you. This is about you giving a gift to them.” The truth of it shone before me. It felt healthy, and clear, and not afraid.
I reflected. If it’s not about me, then I have to be willing to think of them. If it’s about giving a gift to them, then I have to believe that my work is good enough to be a gift. All at once I found myself shifting inside. It simply wasn’t about me. It was about the using my skills, my love, my desire to make something beautiful so that other people could see it and be enriched.
And just like that, after about five minutes, I opened my eyes and looked at the wall. The fear was gone. As if it had been washed away by rain. And what remained was a healthy, excited desire to do this thing I had never done before.
I spent the next ten days working on this mural and had my life changed. People rolled down the windows of their cars and cheered, hollering their support. Folks stopped to talk, asking about the mural, curious. For the first time in my life, I felt the meaning of the word “community”—people connected. I became instantly addicted to creating in public and found the way to reach people with my art.
It’s now nineteen years later and I have continued painting murals every year since then. Over 120 of them in fifteen states and four countries. There have been several other times where my fear rose up like a mountain just as I tried to do the thing I most wanted to do. But this was the first time. From it I saw clearly that if I am doing the thing that is right—the thing I am supposed to be doing—I can learn, let go of whatever is keeping me from it, and I and my community will be richer for it.
Photo: Alex Cook
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