Anxiety creativity


Dear Artist,

At exam time in university I used to notice a curious burst of wild creativity. Due to the pressure — when I ought to be buckling down and attending to study — my mind somehow overflowed with inviting new projects. It was at that time that I invented a method of applying paint to canvasses from great distances with the use of a hot-air balloon. Another time it was an idea for a series of paintings based on microscopic examination of a campus quad. I call this phenomenon “Anxiety creativity” or “AC.”

It’s particularly prevalent around show time — that time when an artist is preparing for the sudden-death experience of one-man shows or other exhibitions. The mind wanders every which way, perhaps as avoidance activity for that which truly needs to be done. That’s just one reason I like to call shows “Recent work.” There’s nothing worse than planning a show a year in advance called “An Examination of Worm Holes in Central Africa,” only to find that in the final few months the worm has turned and the real show is about aardvark teeth.

Even the pressure and anxiety that surrounds the mundane acts of daily living — economics, jobmanship, interpersonal relationships or child-rearing can induce AC. Brilliancy rattles her cage and the artist feels trapped in the fecundity of her imagination, in a place of no outlet, unable to find enough hours in the day to manifest her will.

What to do about it? It’s valuable to make notes and not necessarily go to work on the new in the heat of the moment. Life balances out and time eventually frees up for the great ideas that need to happen. Sundays, or other days of relative rest, are good days to take stock and prioritize. In my chronic and probably terminal case, I’m so glad that a percentage of my ideas have fatal flaws that are discovered in less hectic times. Consider putting your anxiety creativity in a plain brown envelope and tacking it to the wall of the studio. Its time will come. Consider crossing your AC ideas with others. For the aware artist, the brain-acid that goes with anxiety is there to be harvested. At this valuable time the spores are spread and ideas breed like crazed mink. It’s part of the business. Let ‘er rip.

Best regards,


PS: “Anxiety is the essential condition of intellectual and artistic creation and everything that is finest in human history.” (Charles Frankel) “Creative people can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of ‘divine madness.'” (Rollo May)

Esoterica: There’s a simple reason for this type of behavior. Artists are often “contrary.” A contrary nature, made more bold by the success that rugged individualism often brings, promotes an “I know better” approach. The behavior is not suitable for those who work on an assembly line. In artists, it’s their secret weapon.


Honor the irrational impulses
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


painting by Eleanor Blair

I disagree with your advice: “It’s valuable to make notes and not necessarily go to work on the new in the heat of the moment.” I know exactly what you are talking about; just when I should be in intense productivity mode before a show, or have to finish a commission, I inevitably get an uncontrollable urge to tackle a big, detailed, or challenging painting that will take too much time and probably won’t even fit into the show. But I have learned to never postpone an impulse like that. In the long run, it seems to enhance my productivity to just go along with it. Whenever I have tried to postpone a painting that I really want to paint, I hit a huge block that clogs up my energy and attention and I don’t get much of the work that I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing done anyway. So I decided it’s best to give myself permission to honor those inconvenient and irrational impulses to go off on some painting tangent, in spite of deadlines. And everything always gets done in time anyway.


Downside to note-taking
by Carol Harkins, Everett, WA, USA

Thank you for identifying and describing the disease that has plagued me. And to think that all this time I have referred to it as Procrastination! I stumbled upon the idea of note taking and now live under boxes and piles of paper. When occasionally I attempt to sort this voluminous collection, I suffer from eye-strain. I imagine that when I die, my children will finally throw much away that I have been unable to part with. Or, like me, they may put it aside until the time comes that they dream of, to sort and evaluate — a time that never seems to arrive.


Fatal flaws
by James, New Jersey, USA

By all means take advantage of the brilliancy of the imagination that happens under pressure. But do not lose sight of the ball. Your understanding of the potential for fatal flaws is valuable. Time finds these. At anxiety time the mind is overburdened and confused and judgment is not always reliable. A little space is appropriate, and wild ideas, while necessary for the artist’s growth, are best when weighed against others and given an opportunity to ripen. There are times, however, when you must give in to the new idea or ideas — it’s often amazing how little time it takes. A benefit of the “quick distraction” approach is that it often gets the brilliant idea quickly out of your system and you can carry on with what you were doing with no regrets.


Hope for AC today
by B. J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA

“Anxiety creativity” came during the last two days as we prepared for a hurricane. In this age of magic technology we were tracking the hurricane, Isabel, for several days while trying to work. Yesterday morning, early, I walked the usual 2 1/2 mile loop near my home and all I could see were the many trees tangled with electric wires and thinking how these trees would soon be down and we would lose all power. I usually see the many greens during this season and grays and browns in the winter and think of mixing color. The hurricane came through last night and for some odd reason we still have power. Most all of the metro area is without power, water, and there are downed trees that block roads as well as flooded and washed out roads. The Potomac is rising so flooding will follow. The winds have died, so I am going out in a few minutes to walk the same walk and see the damage on my loop. Let’s hope the walk will help the anxiety creativity today.


Going around in circles
by Albert Christoph Reck, Swaziland


painting by
Albert Christoph Reck

Yes, yes, yes! “Artists of the world arise!” Because we are the only species with two legs. Left and right and left again. The angels, for instance, they do not have two legs. Their movements are only straight; that means, if they want to change direction, they go zicke, zacke, zicke, zacke. We humans on the contrary, are able to get the curve. That means to turn around. By doing this, we are going in meandering lines. This is something extraordinaire. Every turn or bend is a quarter or a half circle. And if the walker is going round, round, round, he will meet at the end himself; he went round a circle. The wanderer could do it because he was connected to the center point. Wandering in a meandering line, the wanderer is accompanied by center points to his right and his left. Fantastic! We are always connected to a center point. Nothing is pointless during walking. Now we are able to decide to go from A to C, for instance. But if we do not like it at C, we turn round and go back to B. Our walking area is full of points. Nobody is going anymore straight, that means, go to a point in infinity. But everybody knows today, this point in infinity is a lie, we call it perspective. Yes, “artists of the world arise” and do not forget to take a meandering course. Hamba Kahle in the Siswati (African) language means: “Go slowly.”


by Susan Strassberg, Lawrenceville, NJ, USA

I live in fear of going to my studio and painting. I live in fear of not going to my studio and painting. I’ve been a full time mom who was immersed in the kid gig. Volunteered at their school and took care of my folks. I always took an art class and I painted some paintings I am proud of… but always in the company of a teacher. I told myself when the kids were older, my dad’s gone and my mom in assisted living I would have time to pursue the passion I put off so long. I could finally put on canvass all the paintings that have been in my head and heart. I’m terrified. I have never painted alone. So after rereading your letter… “For today I’ll finish one painting” Fear in tow I went to my basement and painted. It was not very good; amateurish, I also started another. I feel better. I do want the security of a teacher but I know I have to start relying on myself. I also know I have to approach art like my job and say to friends and family this is when I work which is all new to me. Do you have any words for a mid-forties mom who finds it is my time, the time I’ve waited for and now faces fear, the fear of being mediocre?

(RG note) Thanks for your heartfelt letter, Susan. A lot of artists will be able to relate to this and I encourage them to write to you. Do you fear play? Can you, in your heart of hearts, reduce your expectations — for now anyway — and just go in there and play? Remember the guilt-free play you had as a child? Remember the joy and happiness that came with just freely playing? Go back to that state of mind. Once more, be ten years old. Play with colours, shapes, lines. Go for one month without scoring a goal — just be in the field — just play.


Walking and depression
by Eva Macie, Atlanta, GA, USA


painting by Eva Macie

I can relate to the anonymous artist’s comments in the last clickback. Depression can set in after any major life change. With the creative person depression often manifests as being “angry, frustrated and bitter and stunned into procrastination and indecision.” In my case it caused me to become isolated and lose friends and associates. Those who have offered support either do not understand the creative personality or charge a fee. Walking is great if 1: I will get out and do it. 2. When I walk I don’t continue to waddle in my “stuff” 3. Listen to some motivational music tapes, i.e., Jana Stanfield’s If I Were Brave or I’m Not Lost, I’m Exploring, etc. I have found inspiration reading the online diaries of some of the contributors to the Painter’s Keys site. I recently read this quote by Marilyn Vos Savant: “Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent.” Also Martha Graham: “There is vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.”


Dumbing down of artists
by Karen R. Hersey, Edgewater, BC, Canada


painting by Karen R. Hersey

In your Changing standards? letter you asked, “…is ‘finding the inner artist’ more important than rising to norms?” The hallmark of our Postmodern Era is that scholars, scientists, technology and the productive arts have been deeply involved in addressing the very question you ask. Unfortunately the junk “sciences,” who dumbed-down the social norm by teaching the mysticism of “inner consciousness,” which is a contradiction, are deeply involved in covering their self-sustaining, social-reforming butts with neologisms, uncertainty and denied principles.

Some of the social memes which have infected the arts are: — “Art is a mystery …all of it beautiful and all of it indescribable.” Other memes like “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”; “Paint what you see”; “Learn by Doing” and “Teach by Demo and Do,” also contributes to the dumbing-down of the majority of artists today. The question arises, If something is indescribable how can it be taught? Is it not the responsibility of every artist to hammer out an education for his mind and then to apprentice for the practice necessary to an intelligent, skilled, culturally significant and qualified artist ? Da Vinci must be laughing his head off at the neo-logistic meaning of “art” in our times.

Fine Art is a derivative from the absolute state of human awareness; it is described by means of principles; art is all about human excellence and commitment to the highest of standards. Courage to stand apart from the pack and speak of artistic integrity and ethics are what art and artists ought to be about. Professionalism, contrary to its popular definition, is a standard of principled integrity. Norms are about mediocrity and ought not to have anything to do with Fine Art if it and culture, by which I mean knowledge and unity, are to be part of what comes after Postmodernism.


“Getting the boots”
by Robert Wanka, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada


painting by Robert Wanka

I have a circle of artist friends whom I get together with regularly and we line up our paintings and we critique each other’s works. I call it “Getting the boots” (a bar term that means taking a beating). The critique we give each other’s works ranges from friendly to fierce. This kind of honest feed back can be hard on the ego, but the results speak for themselves. My skill level has improved, and I have learned to put nothing but my best efforts in front of these guys. My mentors or heroes in the art world are the realist painters, guys like William Bouguereau, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, John Singer Sargent and James Gurney. Standards, quality and skill have meaning for realist painters, in the world of the modern painter such things have no meaning, and it shows.


How does one know?
Bev Sobkowich, Chilliwack, BC, Canada

I can do flower arranging and many types of needlecraft (self taught with very little input from others as to how to go about it). However, painting and drawing are huge to me. Are real artists ever doubtful of themselves? Do you second-guess yourself? Painting is a form of expression that really challenges me because of my concern that I won’t be as gifted in art as I hope to be. I remember as a child, drawing pictures with perfect confidence. Actually drawing well. I am a poet and have even had a friend put music to my poems and we would sing them and it felt good. The one thing I cannot do for a while is walk very far as I’ve had serious complications after two knee replacements on my right leg. However, I can mentally travel anywhere.

But back to art. Where do I start? I want to try even though I am a bit timid about it. I feel safe asking you how to get started. Somehow, you present yourself as a person open to all types of thoughts and you appear to admire those who stand out not because they are famous but because they have contributed to the world. How does one know that they are an artist?

(RG note) Art is largely a self-anointing pursuit where the top credentials are spirit and desire. Begin with the understanding that even disabled and disadvantaged people can teach themselves the skills necessary to thrive. Know that any direction is right for you, and that your personal processes will find your proficiency and your confidence. Know this, but know also that you will never really know.


“Fire duty” made things clearer
Iza Taylor

I am touched, not only that you would take your time to share with us your views and research on topics that are so interesting, but also that you have a way of inducing me to think deeply about the subjects that you write about. I just needed to let you know that what you shared in the Fire duty letter has helped me to solidify just what it is that I am doing. I am a glass artist, successful, self taught, never had an art class and at the same time floundering for what value there is in what I do. It seems so self indulgent to get to play in my studio all day and for what? Well, now I am reminded of the value, magic, wonder, memories and connections that I am helping create. Things are so much clearer now.

(RG note) A press release for the fundraiser is at






Robert Wanka
Waterloo, ON, Canada


Ancient Greek sculpture
painting by Robert Wanka







painting by Tai-Shan Schierenberg, England


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