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When I was 23 years old, I painted my first mural. Northampton, Massachusetts, 1997.
My art was my life. And the thought of peddling it door to door, being rejected by gallery after gallery was more than I could handle.
In a moment of inspiration I thought – if I could just get someone to let me paint their wall, nothing could stop me from sharing my beloved pictures with the world!
To get there, I had had to do some things I never did before. I walked around town searching for walls I might be able to paint. I asked at stores and businesses “Who owns this building? How can I contact them?”
I was making it up as I went along but amazingly, after some weeks I received a call back from a local building owner. The answer was yes. I could paint a mural on his building.
I was getting a degree in painting at the University of Massachusetts. I painted all the time. In my home, at my studio on campus – but always in private.
It gave me freedom to make mistakes, explore, try new things, fail, start over, succeed, celebrate, and feel.
The wall for this mural was on the main thoroughfare in town. Hundreds of cars drive by every hour.
Here’s the thing: when you do something you’ve never done before you can’t be prepared for what’s going to happen. There’s just no way to know what’s going to happen.
I had my design – a broad-leafed tree of life, 16 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It felt infinitely larger than anything I had ever done before.
I took out my brush, opened the paint and went to begin, but I froze. In a moment, I was overcome by a gripping fear so powerful I could not proceed.
“You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
The Grip of Fear
My thoughts screamed: You are going to fail! What if you ruin this wall – right there in front of hundreds of strangers? What if they all think it is so stupid?
It was a degree of fear that was not normal to me. I was stunned.
But I literally could not proceed. The terror was too great.
This fear of being exposed as a fool, a failure, was coming right from my most sensitive place. No longer safe in the privacy of my studio, every phase of the creation of this painting would be visible to passers-by.
I knew something had to change, or I would simply have to go home and not paint this mural. But it had all felt so right!
I stood there, brush in hand, closed my eyes and prayed. “What can I do?!”
RELATED READ: How to Not Fear Failure
Deep Listening in the Thick of the Moment
The sound of traffic faded. I forgot where I was and just concentrated, listening for some kind of new idea.
Over the period of a few minutes, a new thought arrived in my mind like the sun dawning over the horizon. It was utterly new to me.
This is not about you or how people see you. This is your opportunity to give a gift to the very real people who live in this neighborhood.
That idea sat in me for some minutes. I sat with it silently, stunned again at this concept which turned my prior state of mind upside down.
In essence, it meant, “Your fear, as enormous as it feels, is not really relevant here. Your work, because it IS good, is meant to enrich others.”
My pictures were precious to me. But could I be so bold as to consider them a gift to the community?
Then, glory: I found I was falling in love with this new idea. My work IS for others!
I began to feel it through and through, and as I did it was as if the idea grew in me so large that there was just no more room for the fear. My excitement to create this painting which, for the first time ever in my life, really would reach people, overcame me.
A rare kind of joy filled me as I realized I was now able to begin the painting.
The Spoils of War
Over the ten days that I worked on that mural, I met lots of people, talked about the mural with countless strangers, and my life was changed. Riches poured forth from the experience.
First of all, I showed myself that I could do the very thing I had most feared that I couldn’t. The mural succeeded.
Not only was it not a failure, but it was also a vibrant success. People had slowed their cars driving by, clapping and shouting approval as they passed.
The very people I had feared would judge me, had become a source of joy for me. I could see and feel that my idea, my mural, had communicated with many of them.
I had a new understanding of “community”. Each face passing on the sidewalk and in the flow of traffic on the street is a being that matters.
They each, just like me, have feelings, hopes, fears, the stories of their lives. And if they have those things, I can reach them my art.
It landed in my heart with a soulful certainty – I will be a muralist. And I labor to bring beauty to these beloved people.
“When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle
A Crazy Idea
Fast forward seven years. I’d made my way painting murals, sometimes fighting for every inch of success, sometimes with great, generous moments of progress.
I’d become used to the idea of coming across an idea that I loved and worked to make it a reality in the world. It was exciting and hard.
In those days, I drove a humble 1993 Mazda 323, white. Guaranteed – no heads turned when I drove by.
One day a dreamy idea floated into my mind. It was my little Mazda, but instead of its blank whiteness, it was painted to look like a little brown bird.
I smiled at the thought and went back to my business.
Some weeks later I had the same thought. I smiled again and imagined that little car zooming around my neighborhood.
The thing is, the thought kept coming to me more and more over a year. It was a really cute fantasy!
But then, about a year after I first began dreaming of this bird car, it dawned on me – I’m gonna do it! I got really excited about it.
I drew up the design and went out to begin. And as I went to make the first mark on the hood of the car – it happened again!
That fear came crushing down on me like an avalanche. One minute previous all had been well, and now I was filled with terror.
A cruel voice in my thoughts announced, as certain as gravity, “They will pity you. They will shake their heads and pity the poor village idiot. You will be shunned.”
All anonymity will be gone. Everywhere I go, I’ll be the poor idiot who thought he had a good idea, but really just went too far.
I was, again, paralyzed. I had no tools to deal with so vicious and terrifying darkness.
I closed my eyes and prayed. I’d grown so used to following my ideas – why did this feel so horrible??
I simply reached out, listening – “What can I do?!”
What Do You Stand For?
Very quickly, almost like a response, a new question arose in my thoughts – a question for me. “Do you believe in beauty?”
It seemed unrelated, but I considered it, willing to go along. My heart’s answer came quietly, quickly. “Actually, yes, I do. I believe in it more than anything.”
I knew it was true. Every time I worked on a painting what I was really doing was loving beauty. It was perhaps the most life-affirming thing I knew.
And then, as if it were a mathematical proof, the next step asserted itself: I believe in beauty. I know I will go to any length for it. Without beauty, there is no point in anything else.
And with that, the threat that people will pity me remained, but I found that I didn’t care. I realized then and there; I was willing to stand by beauty.
If beauty instructs me to do something that makes me look foolish to some, I will do it. Beauty is right and those people (if they even exist) are wrong.
And the punchline again, as if it were the refrain in a song: It isn’t about how they see you. This is a gift of beauty for the very real people who walk the streets of your neighborhood.
Standing Out for What You Believe In
I made the bird car and drove it everywhere. Never once did anyone ever say anything mean about it. But I did receive countless compliments, applause (yes! As I drove down the street!), and one note under my windshield wiper: “You have the best car in the city.” Children often tugged on their parents’ hands and pointed, smiling and laughing.
One of my previous thoughts had been right. I did lose a lot of anonymity. Everywhere I drove my car called attention.
I realized this was a necessary step forward in my mission to help people through creating beauty. Every day as I step into my car I am consciously affirming my commitment to stand out on a limb for beauty. I accept the honor of the job.
“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” ~ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
These experiences of reaching out and finding answers in my times of great fear leave me feeling loved by life, the universe, God. Whatever name I put to it, my experience tells me that if I reach out for guidance as I strive to do my most real work, I receive that guidance.
Through countless difficulties and challenges that guidance has been there. It often brings ideas that cause me to have to change, grow, and do things I never did before.
It often is demanding, giving me my work to do. And as I honestly strive to do that work, it brings beautiful, real goodness and healing for myself and others.
If that’s a real thing, I want to share it.
You Are Loved
In late 2013 I was working on a mural for an elementary school in New Orleans, LA. The principal of the school intimated her desire to help the students feel loved and cared for as they walked through the halls of the school.
I felt a deep honor as I considered the important challenge that laid out for my mural. How to actually cause these children to feel and recognize how precious and important they are?
As I have learned to do, I listened in the deepest inward way I could. I focused my desire to have my art really be effective in people’s lives.
A question came. Do we have to be subtle about this? Can’t we just say it directly?
I tried to think of the words that I had most longed to feel at the hardest moments in my life. Within the larger mural I wrote:
YOU ARE LOVED
YOU ARE NEEDED
YOU ARE IMPORTANT
YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL
YOU CAN DO IT
The Most Important Message, Everywhere
Upon finishing that mural I realized that I had come upon a large idea. I began to imagine the words YOU ARE LOVED, 15 feet tall on the sides of public buildings. I recognized the airy, exciting feeling of the hope of making an idea into a reality.
Since then I have worked to connect with schools, worship communities, prisons, and anyone who was interested. We are making YOU ARE LOVED murals in the real world.
Sometimes, even now, so many years later, I find myself feeling fear about what I am about to express.
Last year, beginning a YOU ARE LOVED mural in a prison in Massachusetts I felt the nervousness that this was too sensitive a thing to say in so rough and mean a place. At this point, it is a familiar feeling.
It was easy to recognize that voice. Yes, it feels like fear – but now I recognize it as the voice that proves to me that I’m doing the right work. I’m pushing my boundaries and bringing beauty to places where it doesn’t usually get brought.
“The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” ~ Fredrick Beuchner
Fear is a Gate, Listening is a Tool
From these and many other similar experiences, I feel confident that fear is a gate. It comes, sometimes powerfully when I am beginning to attempt something important.
Fear presents the appearance that the gate is locked, and there is no way to go through. But there always is a way.
Listening is the tool that arrives at the key to the lock. It is a deep and trusting willingness to reach out to the universe, God, intuition – our deepest knowing.
In this article, I have related stories of when listening produced quick and complete answers. Other times in my experience it has required patient and persistent listening and asking.
One thing I feel sure of: there is a voice out there, willing and able to present us with the perfect idea, even at the darkest time. And its ideas are light, generous, and cause us to turn outwards to serve.
Fear is not the end of the path. It is our invitation to listen!
Over to you –
When you listen deeply what do you hear?