The adventure of becoming a West Coast Abstract Artist, has led me closer to finding my Ikigai. I have seen a few things pretty clearly over the past couple of weeks and I’m now aware of what I DO NOT want to see happen. I do not plan on being surprised by my negative thinking habits and the confusion that it can cause so here, in no particular order, are some changes that are going to be implemented immediately:
I'm a West Coast Abstract Artist who struggles with anxiety and negative thinking.
Thankfully I'm not alone. I wanted to thank Tiny Buddha for including my article, "My Proactive 8-Part Plan For Beating Anxiety and Negativity".
The response to this has been overwhelming. Thank you all for commenting, sending messages, emails, etc. I am truly humbled.
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The abundance of ocean art and surf paintings is proof of just how much inspiration the ocean gives.
I've just returned from Baja and although the surf Gods were not really stirring things up in my favor this trip, I left Mexico reminded, once again, of the power of Mother Ocean. Visually, there is nothing in comparison with looking out over the vastness of the ocean. There seems to be no end, and in comparison to the self centered, ego driven, social media heavy life that people in our culture gravitate toward, the ocean puts us humans in our place and makes us remember how small we really are.
Mother Ocean astounds me. Graceful, beautiful, and I am yet a twig in comparison to her power.
Mentally, the ocean seems to change my brain waves. My gerbil wheel of a thought process slows down when I'm ocean side allowing me to ponder more deeply and not be so reactive. Physically, the ocean lets me know that I am nothing in relation to even her "small surf", as seen by the mighty mouse of a wave that grabbed me under water, flipped me around 4 times, and injured my back on the last day we were there. (An hour later I was standing in a taco shack and salt water came pouring out my nose.) At times she beats me down, but in doing so I get stronger and stronger.
But I love her so. Even if she kicks my ass every now and then. She keeps me in check. She helps me remember what's important. She reminds me to be present in my life. And she encourages me to keep challenging myself even when I feel I've been beaten.
While my art is not as "surfcentric" as some, it is certainly influenced by the ebbing and flowing of the tides and the ever changing, yet somehow repetitive surface of the water.
Below are images of some of my very favorite ocean and surf inspired art.
These artists see Mother Ocean through the eyes of water dwellers. If they're anything like me, a piece of them feels like it's missing the longer they're away from the sea. Sand in my toes and water up my nose. Yeah. That's my happy place.
Wolfgang Bloch: Wolfgang's painting are moody, mysterious and alluring; reminiscent of the the beauty and danger of the ocean. Calming to look at yet uncomfortable in their darkness and distance, these paintings are the simultaneous trepidation and elation I experience sitting on my surf board on the edge of the ocean. So joyous to be on the water yet unsure about the world under my dangling feet and the white thunder that will inevitably come rushing towards shore.
Untitled NO. 175, Mixed Media, Wolfgang Bloch
Untitled NO. 7, Oil on Vintage Painting & Wood, Wolfgang Bloch
NO. 1025, Oil on Wood Panel, Wolfgang Bloch
Untitled NO. 3, Oil on Vintage Wood, Wolfgang Bloch
Pelican, Reclaimed Indonesian Teak, Ross McDowell
Hammer Time, On Reclaimed Indonesian Teak, Ross McDowell
Honu, On Reclaimed Indonesian Teak, Ross McDowell
Complexity, Water Color By Heather Ritts
Purity, Water Color By Heather Ritts
Fourth Watch, David Macomber
Wind and Waves, David Macomber
North County, Joe Vickers
The Original Birdy Beach, Joe Vickers
Panhandle Summer, Joe Vickers
The drawing at top was done by me about 4 years ago. Just pencil on paper.
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Fear Makes Me a Better Artist, Mountain Biker, Surfer, Skier, Mom, Wife...
Half way through my bike ride I stopped, ripped off my helmet, threw it to the ground and immediately burst into tears. I had been mountain biking regularly for about 3 years and I couldn’t understand why I was still so scared. I kept waiting for it to let up; for the fear to subside so I could bike with confidence; so I wouldn’t tremble whenever I went around a blind turn or when there was a sheer drop-off just a few feet away. It never got better. The moment I got on the bike, I was scared. That was all there was to it. As I picked up my helmet and inspected it for cracks, I asked “why on earth am I doing this to myself?”
This is the same fear I encounter every day in my work as an abstract artist. Fear is alive and well and looms in my studio like a dark cloud. It follows me to the computer when I’m trying to figure out marketing and social media. It gets blustery when I sit down to write blog posts (because I’m a visual artist, not a writer!). It starts to drizzle when I think about the future and if my choice to make art my living is a prudent thing to do.
After that bike ride, I made a decision to stop riding. I would no longer try so hard to do things that scared me like that. That evening, I ran into my buddy, Nick. (No, not on my bike…at a concert.) Nick is also a mountain biker. I vented that I was tired of the fear, tired of feeling timid, and that I just didn’t understand why it wasn’t getting better. Then Nick told me something that changed my life: IT NEVER GOES AWAY. He said that after years and years of riding, he still gets scared and get this…he likes it. It’s part of why he rides. ?????????WTF????????? Nick encouraged me not to quit and to embrace the fear. It was a tactic I had never thought of.
Mountain biking on Applegate Lake. It took me a long time to get used to the sheer drop-off to my right. Photo by Chris Goodyear.
Fear and Art is Another Version of Fear and Life
When I call myself an artist, I feel scared. When I start a new painting, I’m scared. When I decided to quit my job, and pursue art, I was so terrified that I got acid reflux and had to quit drinking coffee (true story). But here’s the deal: some of the things that bring me the greatest pleasures in life are things that I’m scared of. Mountain biking, surfing, skiing, being a good mother and wife, abstract painting… I have the same reaction to them all. I’m scared of failing so I work harder at it.
Abstract Art Inspiration Comes with Accepting the Reality of Fear
What Nick said to me changed everything. I got back on the bike, this time, with a reframe of fear in my mind. “Ok Fear! You’re here! I’m here! Neither of us are going anywhere so let’s try to work together, yeah?” I started peddling and a strange thing happened. When I knew that fear was a natural reaction, it didn’t scare me as much. It didn’t go away, but I wasn’t paralyzed by it and it didn’t influence my motor skills. Riding became smoother and I became a better biker.
I have written before that I used to live my life driven by fear. It’s true. But what I have been able to do through outdoor sports like mountain biking is to re-define my relationship with fear. There are times when fear means “STOP NOW” and there are times when I can brush it off my shoulder.
Smiling on the Dread and Terror portion of the North Umpqua trail.
Photo by Chris Goodyear
The Freedom of Art: Doing My Art Anyway Even If I Am Scared
Think of it in terms of a different emotion, happiness. When I found out that I was going to be published in an art journal, I was so happy that I bounced up and down and hugged everyone around me and shrieked in excitement. But does that mean that every time I feel happy that I need to do an ecstatic freak out dance of happiness? I would go so far as to say that would not be normal behavior.
I have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into. I don’t know if I will succeed as an abstract artist but maybe all I need to do is live with that insecurity knowing that it very well may never go away. I do know one thing, staying still is no way to move forward. There a sure-fire way of falling over on a bike in a creek crossing and that is to stop peddling. I think I’ll put one peddle in front of the other and keep moving. Through moments of doubt when painting, through insecurities that tell me I’m not good enough. I’m not going to stop and stare at that because then I’ll just be stopped and one thing is for sure…I do not enjoy and have never enjoyed being still. I got things to do and people to see and paintings to paint and hustles to hustle. Onward!
Artwork at top is Divide and Conjure 12x12 on Birch Board
"My Hustle has a Hustle." - Artist Ronald Sanchez
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I have not been in the ocean for over 2 months, which is the longest lapse in the past 5 years or so. I have been working on a website, setting up and keeping up with social media, learning how to create ads, reaching out to potential customers and making art. On top of that there is family, which is always a priority, and rest (because if I don’t get enough rest, apparently I go bat shit crazy). What has been lost? Exercise and getting to the coast.
I’ve been trying to be better about exercise and I can gerbil at the gym with the best of them, but I need to get outside. I’ve been thinking about my love for surfing, mountain biking and skiing and why those activities are part of my art practice; part of my formula for creativity.
Me surfing in Del Norte, CA. Photo credit: Christian Dalbec
When I was in art school at Boston University, Professor Peter Hoss http://www.peterhoss.com/, my drawing teacher and the only teacher that I really connected with, made us read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Zen and the Art of Archery. While I haven’t read either in over 20 years (I probably should as a refresher), they resonated with me so deeply that I scored the highest in the class on the written tests pertaining to these books. It boggled my mind that I could see the message in these books so clearly and yet be so uninspired by art school. In the most abbreviated and loose interpretation, the Zen books are about getting lost in the moment. Going to such a meditative space when engaged in an activity that you love, that all else slips away and time melts. Even though I wasn’t happy in art school, I clearly knew what that was like and recognized that I felt it when making art.
Me in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Photo credit: Chris Goodyear
When I am on a surf board in the ocean, I do not have time to interpret the thoughts in my head. When a wave is approaching me, my body and mind are one and I can only “do now”. It puts me in a present state the same way that flying down a trail on a bike, or down a mountain on skis does as well. There is no time to think about my actions, I just have to trust that my body will react to what my brain observes and know that if I simply relax and roll with it, I have the best outcomes. Engaging in these sports feeds the part of my brain that is able to let go and just be.
Skiing on Mount Shasta. Photo credit: Chris Goodyear
Each time I fill up that bucket of present-being, it flows into every part of my life. My art is richer, deeper and more complex. Balance and composition are not such a struggle. Color choice is not overthought. It is easier to surrender to the moment. One thing flows to the next in a smooth and graceful stream of action and a painting appears.
When I don’t fill up that bucket I am more resistant to that stream. When that bucket is running on fumes, I overthink and swim against the current. I can keep it from running out entirely by practicing seated meditation each morning and getting out to hike, but my brain can still get lost in thought when doing both. I need to be part of the speed that gravity creates or to feel the power of the waves. Engaging with forces that I cannot control results in an overflowing abundance of present sight. I have to focus on, and only on, what is happening NOW. The ticker tape of thought is paused and instinct kicks in. Brain and body work together in a brief moment of synchronicity, where there is no time to question either.
That being said, I best be planning to get to the ocean soon. Even if just for the day. Even if the surf report is less than ideal and that blasted south wind is whipping. I need to get out, paddle around, say hi to the sea lions and literally be immersed in nature. So down the Redwood Highway I go to the wind lashed, foggy, rugged, temperamental paradise of the Northern California Coast. Time to inhale the marine layer and get lost in the sound of the waves. Surf’s up y’all.
Painting at top is Quiver 28"x22" Mixed Media on Canvas - A gift for my amazing surfer dude husband.
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My Mom always encouraged me to listen to my gut. To be honest, I wasn’t very good at it at all. Strike that…I could hear it, but I was terrible at basing my decisions on what my instincts were telling me. I would become confused by what I thought others’ expectations were of me. What did they want me to do? How could I best please them? It has taken me a long time to not only listen to my inner most self but also base my decision making on these gut reactions.
Step 1: Throw some paint on a panel.
I brought a serious art practice back into my life about 3 years ago when I quit drinking. It was during this time that I had to learn how to do basic things…like how to make decisions based on my best self. To thine own self be true became words to live by. Words that I had heard a million times but never truly grasped their meaning.
This re-learning became the hardest process that I have ever gone through to date. I realized that I was a liar. Sounds harsh, I know, but I had lived my life ignoring what I knew what was best for me because I was scared others would disapprove, and thus I had lived my entire life coming from a dishonest place. It was a blow. I had always prided myself on being a good friend, a good Mom, one whom others could depend on, but how good a person could I be when underneath all of these good deeds was a horrifying resentment of nearly every person I had a relationship with. “I made these decisions to make you happy and it’s not working out at all!!! How dare you?!” Or, “I did this for you! So obviously it is your fault!”. I was under the illusion that if I based all that I did on how it affected others, I was not only a better person, but I was selfless and giving. It was a lie. I was doing a disservice to myself, my family, my friends. It was heartbreaking to realize how I had let myself down and in turn, let everyone around me down as well.
Step 2: Try some letter stensiles and paper with a random floral pattern.
Step 3: Add more paint in a totally different palette.
Step 4: Add crazy dense pattern and some striped paper.
There’s a Luscious Jackson song where at the end they chant “Live Slow. Die Old”. I have taken these words to heart over the past three years. I lived hard and fast the first 36 years of my life and slowing down feels good, but I admit, I get squirrelly. I enjoy listening to my teenage daughter’s drama at school because I miss drama. I don’t miss drinking, but I miss the excitement. It makes risk taking with my artwork easier because it is risk without any fallout. I can take a screwdriver to the wood panel that I’ve been working and scratch the heck out of it. I may not like the outcome, but then again, it might be awesome.
I believe that in my art, there are no mistakes. Only opportunities that come from taking chances. It keeps me fresh and alive. It creates interest and depth. It makes the rebellious twinkle in my eye stay bright and let’s face it, I do and have always tended to lean against the grain and that is where I am comfortable…and that is ok. It’s who I am and TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE. So excuse me…I have a few canvases to go and blow up.
Step 5: Draw large graphite oval. It was obvsiously missing.
Finished painting here and at top is called Brainiac 30"x30" Mixed Media on Panel
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I am a master of disguises. Not just because I grew up in New Orleans and I’m quite the experienced costumed reveler. No, I am a master because you would never know that I battle anxiety and to a lesser degree, depression every single day. Outwardly I have spent the majority of my life an extravert, a social director, hostess with the mostess and, up until I quit drinking, the life of the party. First one out and last one up.
Alcohol allowed me to hide in plain sight the feelings of inadequacy and fear so I could be alongside my peers in what I perceived to be how one should be in order to be social and popular. When alcohol stopped working for me and sobriety crept in, I was suddenly an introvert. The social anxieties that I had hid from for 36 years were suddenly ever present, terrifying, disorienting and at times debilitating.
Coming to grips with the fact that I have probably always been an introvert wearing an extrovert costume was an insight into myself that wasn’t all that welcome. The people that I saw as “cool” were most definitely not introverts. Without drinking, the mask became harder to put on. I could only be myself and I have never necessarily liked myself very much. My physical attributes were never “in style”. The things I was good at have never been the “right” things. I have never felt right in the world. I know exactly what Smokey Robinson was feeling when he wrote Tears of a Clown:
Now if I appear to be carefree
It's only to camouflage my sadness
In order to shield my pride I try
To cover this hurt with a show of gladness
That’s what it was…a show. Three months after I quit drinking, I started painting. I have an art background, but I had not stoked that fire in many years, and painting was never my favorite medium. But so it began. Not having many painting supplies (I had long since given away most of them from my art school days) I started with simple paintings on paper. I would sit in the corner of my dining room and paint; sometimes for hours at a time. I didn’t know what I was trying to paint or if I had any clear intention at all, but I could feel the pull of a far off realm encouraging me to dive into the paper, into the color, to make any stroke with the paint brush that popped into my head.
I wasn’t at that point thinking about color wheels or composition. It was a call from my Self to myself. I began painting with fervor, experimenting with anything and everything that came to my hand. It was within these arts induced trances that I was calm, breath and heart beat steady, without thought of the terrifying thing called sobriety on which I was embarking. In fact, I wouldn’t be thinking about anything.
Photo of me feeling camera shy...and scoping out some waves
(Photo Credit: Chris Goodyear)
It was and is an active meditation for me and it carries over into my every day. The more I practice this, the more influence it has on my confidence. I can speak up with a greater ease. I’m not so worried about what people are saying about me (because let’s be honest….usually they’re not saying anything at all). I am sometimes amazed at what I create. The process is what keeps me active and the end products make me proud. This is not me pretending to be anything. This is not a deception because it would be impossible to fake it. It is as honest as I can live and honesty is the base of my confidence; it is unshakable. It allows me to live peacefully in the present, leaving resentments and expectations at the door.
I’m always expecting something to go wrong. I’m constantly taking deep breaths so my heartbeat doesn’t pound in my chest. I’m scared of saying or doing the wrong things around people that I don’t know very well or who I look up to. Three years and a body of work later I know now what has happened. Without getting into a long spiritual conversation, I can say that I was given a gift. I began painting at the same time I started a seated meditation practice and began taking surfing to another level. These are all the same practice and when I don’t tend to these activities, my anxiety grows and depression is usually pretty close behind.
Staying active in mindfulness is about as easy as getting to the gym to exercise. So hard to begin and yet the feeling of accomplishment and nourishment is unparalleled. So I keep at it. I know that my feelings are not always facts but I do know that when I paint, the dire feelings that I have about going to the grocery melt away. The fear of living up to everyone’s expectations is squashed. I actually feel more beautiful when I paint and more comfortable in my own skin. Even when I’m not happy with how a painting is going. At least I am doing it. I’m putting myself out there. I’m taking chances. I’m excited about what comes next instead of terrified by it. Those feelings stay with me after I wash my brushes and clean up my studio. I am less likely to slip into negative thought patterns and I am in general, a happier person.
So I think I’ll stick with it. Plus, I see how far I have come over the past 3 years and instead of being terrified that I’m going to lose it or that people won’t like it, I am excited to see where it will go next. I look forward to surprising myself over and over again.
Painting at top is Storm 28"x22" Mixed Media on Canvas
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