Five faces of fear


Dear Artist,

An idea has been floating around creative circles recently that belief in the infinite potential of our dreams might reduce our ability to address limitations. When dreams fail to deliver, feelings of guilt, inadequacy, depression and self-doubt surface. Art reaches for truth, and fear is a natural hurdle in the approach. Accomplished art-making is achieved not by magic but by developing the character to understand and challenge fear. Better to roll up our sleeves than to suffer death by a thousand delusions.


“Arch of Hysteria”
1993 polished bronze
by Louise Bourgeois (1911- 2010)

Recently, a photographer and an architect came to dinner, bringing their toddler, and the discussion soon turned to dreams. “People give up on themselves too early,” the photographer said. “They’re not willing to overcome the fear that accompanies creativity.” I sat on the floor with their little one and watched her make tentative marks in my sketchbook. “Easier said than done,” said the architect. “Art is a personal offering to which we attach our self-worth.”

In an attempt to get on a first-name basis with fear, I took an inventory of my bad habits. Were they, I wondered, just sophisticated techniques developed over time to manage the quiet terrors that accompany a life in art? I want to rid the world of them — but understanding them will do. Here are the main offenders:


​Louise Bourgeois, 1990, with 1970 marble sculpture “Eye to Eye”

Procrastination (or fear of not meetings one’s own expectations):
The good news is that a 1992 study showed that while 80% of college students procrastinated, they did so mostly when they perceived the task as a struggle, not when they felt they lacked skill. In other words: less pressure, more fun.

Avoidance (or fear of unpleasantness):
I once had a gallery dump me over the phone, and for a long time afterwards I had trouble taking calls. But growth is costly, conflict is a part of life and rejection is necessary for the advancement of our stories. Avoiding confrontation, negotiations, beginnings and endings postpones the truest path.

Cynicism (or fear of being hurt):
Born from disappointment, distrust in the world is overcome by returning to a private, wonder-fuelled sanctuary for experiment and play, ready for fresh victories.

Pedestalling (or fear of one’s own direction):
Focusing on the success of others in the hope that it will rub off on you credits forces beyond your control and detracts from your personal development and uniqueness. Collaborate and share, knowing the value of your offerings.

Victim Racket (or fear of empowerment and responsibility):
Pick up your crown and put it on your head. Moment by moment, idea by idea, we renew the opportunity to think and do differently — our best art is waiting.


​​”Maman” 1999 (cast 2003)
bronze, stainless steel, and marble
by Louise Bourgeois



PS: “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Esoterica: In the midst of facing your own fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland’s 1993 cult favourite, Art and Fear is a handy reader. It explores the emotional and psychological processes by which art gets made — and not made. “What separates artists from ex-artists,” say Bayles and Orland, “is that those who challenge their fears continue; those who don’t, quit.”

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“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” (Emile Coue)

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