The studiOH! podcast season 1 episode 3 ‘The fear of everything’’
On the last episode I talked about how I try to identify opportunities and use them to my advantage. I also talked about my work space and a little bit about how I try to spend my time in there. Today, I’m going over to the dark side and I’ll be letting you into the shadowy recesses and weird and wonderful corners of my sometimes befuddled mind. You have been warned.
For me, painting is comprised in equal parts of fear, acceptance and elation.
That sounds quite dramatic but allow me to explain.
Fear of failure and disappointment or even the fear of success. Acceptance that I’ve done my best and the work is as good as it can be. Or just acceptance that the work is as good as it’s going to get, usually signalling a time to stop. And elation that I’ve got through the ordeal of making something new and despite my best efforts at self sabotage, things actually worked out ok in the end. If I’m lucky, things may have turn out more than ok.
The sensation of what we call fear manifests out of the stress and anxiety that forms as the result of a perceived danger. This danger can derive from either a physical action or reaction or it can be brought about by an actual or inferred change to our emotional status. If the fear sensation has been brought on by a physical action, congratulations, because this has probably just saved your life.
Commonly know as the fight or flight response (and in my case it’s almost always the flight option) our prehistoric ancestors evolved this to keep them safe from predators and it still persists today, lurking within our subconsciousness warning us of imminent danger. It stops us from stepping out into motorway traffic or boarding that Jumbo Jet piloted by the alcoholic Captain. This is, for want of a better expression, a rational fear response.
My own personal relationship with fear and my ongoing struggle with social anxiety is a constant in my life and slides more to the irrational side of the spectrum. I explain this as being like a switch in my brain which randomly toggles back and forth between being calm and being in a state of panic. This generally occurs in social situations that ordinary folks would breeze through and barely notice. The way I deal with my fears and anxieties is usually by not allowing myself to be part of a situation in which the switch will trip. Failing that I’ll just try to, sometimes literally, run away from the ordeal. And if that isn’t an option I’ll have no choice but to tough it out and ignore the cold sweats and palpitations.
I told listeners in episode one that I’m easily distracted. I have come to realise that this is one of the copping mechanisms that I subconsciously employ to delay having to face the demons. You see, one of the buy products of having such an unruly fear response also means that I have become one of life’s natural procrastinators.
And I’m very, very good at it.
In fact, I’d say that I was probably an Olympic standard procrastinator, with gold medals in all major events. Never put off until tomorrow that which you can put off until next week. Or something like that anyway. Seriously though, almost anything: any situation, any side project, any subliminal diversion tactic can put a halt to my studio time. Because, well, the more I procrastinate the less likely it is that I have to deal with my fear that I may actually not be a very good painter. Or particularly good at anything.
Sometimes I think that I suffer from what Simon Pegg referred to as A Fantastic FEAR OF EVERYTHING. OK, that’s a bit dramatic. I’m not afraid of everything, that would be silly and inaccurate. But anything that causes a spike in my anxiety levels is something to be avoided.
Despite it being something of a haven, there are particular fears and anxieties that revolve around being in my studio. The main offender and something that I experience each time without fail is my inability to just start a project. Sometimes described as blank page syndrome.I have had to deal with it for years. Admittedly it’s not as bad as It was, and the more time I spend in the studio the the more confident I become about making those first marks. After all the prep work is completed and I’m ready to start putting down colour I find that I have an inability to do just that. Boards have been prepped, sketching is done and even basic underpainting may have been completed. Yet when it comes down to committing to the work I freeze up. This is how I begin most paintings. Or rather, don’t begin.
I could be stuck in limbo like this for ages. Once the first mark is made I’m off and running but sometimes it just might take me a while to get out of the blocks. Perhaps it’s the self imposed pressure that I place upon myself to get it right. I’m very critical of my own work, as, I expect, are most artists. It is a critical view that helps no one, especially me. And to be honest, no-one else really cares or notices if I haven’t put in a top performance.
In an attempt to combat this, I keep a piece of board handy measuring about 12 inches square and I’ll use this to unthinkingly apply paint to, making strokes and random shapes. I have nothing in mind when I do this, I am literally just putting paint onto a surface and after a few minutes of this activity, any apprehension I had has subsided sufficiently to allow me to move on to the main event. I call this my abstract behavioural therapy. It’s a bit like Cognitive behavioural therapy but with less talking and more arm waving.
I’m the same with sketch books. Those off-white pages just stare back at me, defying me to make a mistake. They taunt me with their ‘you’ve paid 20 quid for this perfect moleskine so you’d better not make any mark that isn’t spot on’ attitude. Which is why I no longer buy nice sketch books. I still have a selection of prime sketchbook real-estate, still shrink wrapped and gathering dust on the studio shelves. They will probably never be used. My sister in law bought me a lovely sketch book for my birthday one year. I am ashamed to report that this has never been used. Sorry Lisa, if you’re listening.
These days I source the cheapest note books I can. Or I’ll use discarded printer paper. I have even been known to cut a roll of wall lining paper into A4 sized sheets and use that. Perhaps some of this behaviour comes from when I was a small boy. We didn’t have much money growing up and we soon learned not to ask for things because the answer would always be no. You had to make do with what you had and you never knew when you’d be able to buy new art materials. So you had to make the most of what you had. Mistakes meant you had one less sheet of paper to use so making a bad drawing was never an option.
As I’m recording this, I’m realising how much of a constant companion fear and doubt is.
As well as the afore mentioned fear of making mistakes while working, there is also fear of wasting valuable time. After all, I’m not getting any younger and if I’m going to make a go of this artist malarkey I’d better get a move on. Fear of failure is obviously high up there but in no small amount, also that fear of success. My social anxiety means that I’m most at home on my own, in the studio, safely tucked away from day to day interactions with other people.
I don’t know if I was always this way. Although I have four siblings the age gap between us meant that I might as well have been an only child so, yes, it probably has always been like this. I can and do talk to people, I’m not a complete hermit but confidence has never been my strong suit. My working life has had its ups and downs which hasn’t helped the situation much either.
Rewind to 10 years ago and the office that I worked at for my day job announced that they were shutting up shop. Relocated to be exact. This caused all sorts of problems. Not just for me but for the 80 odd people also employed there. We were all pretty stunned by the news. Some just jacked it in then and there. The rest of us decided to go with the flow because we were assured that we would be seamlessly integrated into the new office, doing the roles that we had all now being doing for years.
In reality, I think that the staff at the new site resented us at first. We were intruders after all. And most of us ended up doing jobs that we had neither trained for or were particularly any good at (I speak for myself obviously). So that offer of being able to still do the same job after the relocation, just turned out to be an in tray full of empty promises. Most folks fitted in after a while but I found it difficult to settle into a routine.
My old office building had been a fifteen minute walk from where we lived. Now I had to catch a bus and the trip, door to door, was almost an hour. I was also being asked to do a job that I had not been trained for, a job which, in my opinion involved excessive amounts of interaction with the general public. For an introvert like me this was truly awful. That’s when my anxiety kicked in big time. The next eight years proved to be a real struggle. But, as I mentioned in episode one, there was plenty of leave to go around. This, coupled with me being able to condense my hours into a four day work week, meant that I could, in theory, never have to put in a full five day week again. It was a small concession but it helped by having that extra day or two to recharge before heading back into the fray on Monday mornings.
I no longer work for the Civil Service, again, see episode one for details on that, but the anxiety problems that I developed in those last years still haunt me.
Interaction within a crowded environment can set me off. Or more accurately, it’s gatherings of people that can trigger an attack. Places and situations where I’m expected to interact with strangers and even, on occasion, with people I actually know. Even family and friends. I can’t make small talk to save my life and heaven forbid if I have to talk about my work. If someone asks me a question, my stupid reptile brain subconsciously thinks that I have to reply with great pearls of wisdom. What actually manifests is a silence that is uncomfortably long followed by some words which sound like they do not even belong in the same sentence together.
I was part of a show a few months ago. It was a small exhibition in a very intimate space. I’d submitted some work which had been accepted and in return I thought that it was only polite to attend the opening of the show. As you can imagine, there were quite a few people already there when we turned up. In any average sized gallery they would have been well spaced out and somewhat avoidable but in the confines of this small area the room quickly became claustrophobic. I was able to make a couple of laps of the exhibition before the terror of having to make eye contact and speak to someone surfaced. So, after only 15 minutes, I bailed out. I couldn’t even stop to speak to the organiser, which I felt terrible about.
My wife understood, which she always does and that is something that I am repeatedly grateful for but never the less I felt like an idiot. Not for the first time and probably not for the last. Perhaps it’s the threat of being caught by surprise with a question that I don’t have a pre-prepared answer for. It’s definitely the fact that I’m not in control of the situation. And speaking of not being in control, another way my irrational fears manifest themselves is when faced with sudden, unexpected or unplanned events.
I received an email a while back. Which isn’t surprising considering the amount of newsletters and spam that arrives in my inbox each day, however this particular one had a subject heading with a gallery name followed by the words ‘exhibition for 2020’. It took me three days to open and read that email. It turned out to be an opportunity to be part of a group show to be held next year. The gallery in question had seen my work on instagram and the writer of it enthused about how they liked what they had seen and how they would like me to consider being part of the show. As it turned out, the gallery who sent the email was located in Australia and they hadn’t realised that I was UK based. So, after replying and updating them on this, they gracefully retracted their offer as they only represented Australian artists.
Emotional crisis everted.
I should have been able to just open the email, read it and deal with it the moment it arrived. But that stupid fear monkey that is always on my back prevented me from doing so. When they told me that because I wasn’t a native Aussie they would sadly have to withdraw their offer I was relieved rather than disappointed. It wasn’t the anticipation of something bad happening. It was the possibility that I had been given an opportunity that I wouldn’t be able to rise to.
Sometimes I can be a complete neurotic mess.
Wouldn’t it be great if I could say to you now that I’ve found a way to slay this debilitating monster? Yes it would. Sadly I have to report that this is not the case.
I still have that day to day struggle with the anxiety demons and my fear of everything. The easiest thing I can do is not to put myself in a situation that sparks an attack. I have researched ways to help such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the like, but the idea of those in themselves just serve to fill me with more fear. But the war against these irrational feelings will continue. I know that I’ll never completely defeat this social anxiety and irrational fears but with practice I may one day be able to hide them sufficiently to outwardly portray an air of inner balance and tranquility. Failing that I’ll just adopt dark glasses and a false beard and pretend to be someone else.
Actually, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
I’ll leave you with a quote that I recently stumbled across from Winston Churchill. These are words that I will try to call to mind when all else fails.
He said: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.”
Which is basically telling me to stop being stupid, to get a grip and to just get on with it.
Here’s to having the courage to continue.
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I’m Michael Statham and you’ve been listening to The studiOH! Podcast