A story about the Fear Project is in the fall/winter issue of Perspectives magazine, an Ohio University publication that focuses on scholarship, research and creative activity (see it online here: http://tinyurl.com/mvyoujd. Read it online here: http://www.ohio.edu/research/communications/FearProject.cfm. (Kudos to Andrea Gibson for writing the wonderful story and to Christina Ullman for creating the engaging page layout.)
After completing a recent fear piece, I looked down at one of the dishes I use to mix paint — and I saw this. Gorgeous! I see two faces, close together, almost like they're embracing. I don't think I could have painted this intentionally if I tried.
It dawned on my today that I had never posted these pages from the Chinese publication Modern Weekly in Guangzhou, China. Thanks to Xiaomei Chen for taking the initiative to get this story in this magazine. This is the first place the Fear Project was published.
A friend of mine translated the story for me (she read it out loud), and I thought it was interesting to be referred to as "The Fear Collector."
I thought I had this great idea for the fear piece on A's fear of being terrified of never learning to be happy: I'd use this person's words as the smile part on one of those ubiquitous smiley faces. Tried it, lived with it for a night, then realized that this didn't work at all.
The Stepford Smiley Face.
Tore it up, tried it, again. No dice. So I went with Plan B and added a more human touch to the faces.
The eyes on this follow me wherever I go.
As I work on each piece, I always notice the scraps of paper and paint markings off to the side. The work in progress can sometimes be as interesting to me as the final piece itself — from an aesthetic point of view. As I created this piece, I was in this biscuit mindset — checking out biscuit images (to see how closely they matched the image of biscuits I had in my head) and reading about biscuits online. There's a whole world of biscuits out there.
I used a thick paper for the biscuits. These paper biscuits were actually quite fluffy. And they were a bitch to cut out. After a while, I started seeing golden hockey pucks here. And the word "biscuit" started to look weird. And I thought a lot about the woman who shared this fear, and how she was force-fed biscuits as a kid. I'll never look at biscuits the same way, again.
Sometimes the remnants from a fear piece really strike me. The leftover paint splotches, the negative spaces in anything I cut out (like the sheep, above), the scraps of paper sitting off to the side, the pencil shavings after I use the sharpener — or maybe the stray glitter that lands in random places (that's what glitter does — travels. And speaking of glitter: I admit it's the corniest, most Martha Stewart-ish thing I use in my fear pieces. I just think of it as my artistic "bling." It's so cool, and I can't resist it sometimes ...).
Every fear piece is always a work in progress. I never know where I'm going when I start. Never know where I'll end up. Each fear pieces carries with it its own small fear of the unknown.
Tess Marshall, the creator of the blog The Bold Life: Inspiration for Fearless Living, contacted me soon after the NPR story came out about the Fear Project and asked me if she could feature a Q & A about my project on her site. I've included some excerpts below (and made a few minor edits/changes). There's a lot here about the Fear Project and my thoughts on fear in general:
How did this all get started in the first place?
I teach courses in publication design, and in my classes, I talk a lot about moving beyond the fear of that scary blank page.
The Fear Project sprang from my own fears, one of them being how to manage the creative process. I also watched my design students struggle with their own fears of creating and taking visual risks, and I wondered how to best encourage them to move past creative blocks.
I was deeply inspired by the concept of “automated directives,” where one brings more structure to the chaos of doing creative work (I was introduced to this concept while watching a creativemornings.com video presentation of Oregon-based illustrator and educator Kate Bingaman-Burt).
sitting at my kitchen table one evening, I started the Fear Project. I
simply wanted to explore other people’s fears through their words and my
visuals. As a former newspaper designer, I felt this compulsion to
approach my project in a more journalistic way. I asked people what
their fears were, and I either wrote them down, or I used my iPhone to
record them describing their fears.
The topics have run the gamut and have included failure, losing a child, centipedes in the shower, the impulse to jump off high places, small holes, escalators, dying alone and needles. Participants in this project have included neighbors, students, colleagues, family members — and as the project has grown, more and more people I do not know have reached out to me with their fears.
I decided that for the first seven months, I would create and post online three fear pieces a week, come hell or high water. What started out as a personal exercise to ignite my own creative process slowly evolved into something more universal and more substantive.
After I created my 90th fear piece (a mini goal I set for myself), I just kept going and never looked back. I've created more than 125 fear pieces so far, I think. Actually, I've lost count.
How does drawing one's own fears help a person?
I have a heard from a handful of people that after seeing my visual interpretation of their fear, they feel less burdened by it. One person told me that she saw humor and lightness in my piece about experiencing bumpy rides on airplanes, and it made her less afraid to fly.
Another person said that seeing her fear in a tangible way made it "less scary." She said she felt a sense of peace and less weighed down. Another person wrote on his blog that as he approached an impending surgery, "being able to share my fears [with Julie] and have her create art actually felt very supportive."
want to make note that I am not a psychologist — I have zero training
in the field of any kind of therapy. So, my ideas behind the power of
art to express fears is just based on my intuition and personal
I have come to learn that many people feel validated after seeing their fears visualized in an interpretive, yet non-judgmental way. They can come face to face whatever fears they have in a non-threatening way.
What prevents people from breaking through fear?
Again, I'm not a psychologist — but I have my own layperson hunches about what prevents people from breaking through fear. I think, to start with, it stems from a fear of simply naming the fear, of truly owning it.
People may believe they're alone in having a certain fear. They may feel shame. They can't find a way to face it, so they bury it, or do their best to ignore it.
As I worked on my project, I made a conscious decision not to explore the concept of fear in a formal, scholarly way. I did not want to get bogged down in others' definitions of what fear was, where it comes from, how people cope, etc.
When working with someone's fear, visually, I allow myself to "feel" my way through the making of the piece. I let surprises happen. I try not to analyze what I'm doing too much.
Having said this, I am at the point now where I feel ready to start making a concerted effort to read more about fear and how pervasive it is in our culture.
What have you learned about fear in your process?
During my process of illustrating other people's fears, I have become much more aware of just how pervasive fear really is. I'm starting to notice more and more how the topic of fear creeps into the collective conversation (interviews, articles, essays, everywhere) — and I started to think about how fear can be either crippling to people, or a driving force to motivate people to move past it.
People often ask me if it’s depressing to work on these fear pieces. I’ve never internalized all these fears coming my way (although I’ve certainly shared some of these fears).
What I didn’t expect were the responses I’ve received from people. When people express gratitude, or tell me they feel less alone with their fear, I am more aware of how fear is such a common thread for just about everyone.
I have met very few people who are truly stumped when I ask them what their fears are. One thing I notice about these (few) people is that they are very laid back and they never appear to get ruffled, ever.
What's your best advice on overcoming fear?
Oh! If only I practiced what I preached, when it comes to letting go of fear. I'm not really sure what my general advice would be for others to overcome fear. It probably depends upon what the fear is.
My tendency, with myself and what I tell others, is to "Dare to suck." I know that sounds crass — but it's just shorthand for taking risks and proving to yourself that the sky won't fall if you fail.
The "dare-to-suck" sentiment was drilled into me when I worked at a newspaper that embraced taking chances and trying new things. In the classroom, I encourage students to go for that far-fetched idea and risk falling flat on their faces.
When it comes to some life decisions that extend far beyond homework assignments, or art projects, etc., I'm all for "jumping off the cliff" and then, well, landing and having faith that you'll figure it out.
I know, I know — platitudes galore here. I can only speak from my own experiences with fear — but I have found that facing the fear head-on and walking through it is one way to lessen its power. Sometimes, I've discovered, things are a lot bigger and scarier in our own heads.
Tell us about one of your own fears that you still struggle with?
I may dwell in this world of fear with my artwork, but, fortunately, I am not frozen with fear in my day-to-day life. I've done some things that some people might consider to be fearless, and I certainly felt fearless when I was doing these things, at that time — I've lived in different states, tried on different jobs, gone on a six-month hike with little of that experience under my belt.
I've said "yes" to many things, before I had a chance to let fear blurt out the word "no." I just deal. I have learned that "Onward!" is a powerful word and attitude.
One general fear I have has to do with the awareness of the fragility of life. I was in a serious car accident in the mid-1960s, when I was 6 years old. My dad was driving the car, and he crashed into a telephone pole. (Whenever I visit home, I am hyper-aware of that particular site when driving by.)
I flew through the front windshield, and had major head and facial injuries. My parents were told at that time that if I lived, I'd be a vegetable. The doctors were wrong. I was out of the hospital in two weeks, and I recovered. A couple of surgeries later in life helped minimize the facial scars.
After the accident, I became acutely aware of this fine line between the different paths one's life can take. In one moment, I was just a kid playing with dolls, wearing my new watermelon-print dress.
In the next instance, I was unconscious, had glass shards in my head and face, was covered in blood and near death's door.
So, this fear has to do with crossing over that line, again. There's no telling when or how it will happen. It can be anything. I could fall off a curb, crack open my head and die.
I could get hit by a driver who's texting. I could … go on and on here. I read news stories about the most random things happening to people around the world, and I think, "Oh My God. What if that happened to me? What if I get that extremely rare flesh-eating disease?"
My life could be so different in an instant. Or it could be over in an instant. But, as I said, this fear doesn't have a huge impact on my daily life. I try to keep it on the back-burner and think, "Onward!"
Do you draw your own fears?
I have drawn a handful of my fears. My intent, when starting the Fear Project, was to focus more on other's fears. When trying to produce three fear pieces a week, though, sometimes I found myself sitting at the table without a fear to draw, so I'd work on illustrating one of my own.
I've visualized my fear of having a brain aneurysm, my fear of playing an instrument in front of others, my fear of driving down the road and encountering an idiot driver who's texting.
When I got sick last summer, and was dealing with some pain, I visualized some of my fears around that (and they were horrible little drawings, but I just didn't care. I still posted them).
With this project, though, my main focus is still to visualize other people's fears.
I have this outrageous fantasy of walking around the world — could take me four or five years — and talking with people along the way about their fears. I'd illustrate along the way. I often wonder what we call have in common, as humans worldwide, when it comes to fear. I want to learn about it first-hand.
In the last couple of days, since an NPR story (http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2013/08/15/209019104/how-to-draw-out-your-worst-fears) appeared about the Fear Project, I've received many fear submissions from people everywhere. I can't even express how touching it's been to read through these fears. Well, I can express my gratitude — or at least I can try. That's where the visuals come into play. That's why the words here are sparse and not spectacularly well-written. I express through marks on the page. Through color. Through strange-looking faces and figures.
(To those who contacted me with your fears: thank you so, so much. I will be in touch. I would like to illustrate ALL of the fears I've received. Just give me a bit of time.)
Someone contacted me just the other day and asked me how I responded to those who say things like, "But I can't draw! How can I draw my fears?"
I don't believe you have to know how to draw. I'm convinced you don't have to know how to draw! My drawing skills are weak (which doesn't bother me at all). Drawing was something I struggled with in college, when I took all those still-life and life-form drawing classes.
When I create my fear pieces, I try to intuit a person's fear and
not think too much about what it "should" look it. A red mass of scribbles on a page can symbolize fear of blowing up out of anger. Thick black lines are pretty scary: they can stand for any number of fears. Just the act of making marks, while thinking about fears, makes me feel like I'm working through them, or understanding them. Naming them. Disassociating from them. It's really not at all about the quality of the "drawing."
I would encourage people to try hard not
to let their inner critic get the best of them and to just mess around with
whatever art supplies they choose — while they're reflecting on their
fear — and then see what comes out. There's no right or wrong here.
I really struggled with this one. As I thought about this parental nightmare scenario, I headed down the darkest road, aesthetically — dark paint that got all muddy, red splashes that didn't make sense. I stepped back and felt compelled to add some light — so I carved out some paper that I painted bright yellow and worked it into the mother's heart-shaped arms. But it was a little late in the game. (I also realized that this piece had a similar quality to a fear piece I had done earlier, about a mother worrying about her special needs child.) This scenario could happen to anyone — and it's probably happened to some of us. This scenario makes me think about the fragility of life and how things can change in an instant.
I put the "Fear Lite" label on it when posting this. Lots more people than usual responded to this piece. I'm guessing people welcomed the break from the day-today grim news out there. (I posted this on the day of the train crash that killed 79 in Spain.)
I always feel like I'm behind the curve when it comes to anything digital (hey — that's why I designed this site on squarespace!). So, so many things to consider, change, do, get immersed in. It's great when it's fun and challenging — not so great when it's overwhelming and distracting.
A breakthrough piece. One of my favorites. But also one of my worst nightmare fears. Imagine going to prison for something you did not do? Others commented on this particular fear: "Sometimes we imprison ourselves emotionally and socially and know no way out." "Happening to many with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Our country must do better." And "This is why I oppose the death penalty: because wrongfully executed is even worse. My own irrational fear is the electric chair."
This was the first fear piece I created for this project. It's not very good, but it does have a special place in my heart. I just asked my husband, Jody, what his fear was, and this is what came out.