Sunday, July 1, 2018

Vulnerability in Art and Life

Iceworks 55  oil/cold wax on panel 12x23" © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

I taught a cold wax painting workshop in abstraction this past week at St. Lawrence College in Brockville, Ontario. I've never had so many beginners in one class before. Two had never ever painted. One hadn't painted in 4 years. Three made art using other media. Only two painted regularly in landscape and abstraction. What a challenge! In our morning discussions, I gradually came to understand that the main challenge each artist had to face, was their vulnerability. Of course this is the case in every class. I suppose I was more clearly made aware of it though in this workshop. 

As an artist, you come up against yourself all the time. There's no way to hide who we really are. "I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one." John Steinbeck

I've written many times before about vulnerability  Here, and here. Yet it still comes back into my life, not only in my own painting, and again as I begin to teach a new class, but also in the lives of most of the people I teach. So I'll keep revisiting it each time it appears to see if I can find new ways of looking at it.

In her wonderful book, Daring Greatly Brené Brown writes of vulnerability. She describes it as the experience of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure that we face every day. Vulnerability isn't weakness, she says, but "it is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage." 

 It's important to stay vulnerable. To do that we have to keep learning at whatever age we are, not only learning, but challenging ourselves to try new things to walk new paths. Our level of discomfort is a good measure. It can be a signpost that this is a direction to follow. Many authors have written about the fear of blindly stepping forward in a new direction which can be like walking through thick fog.

Henry Moore said that "the secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is––it must be something you cannot possibly do!

In the book, The Art of Possibility, the authors talk about mistakes and vulnerability. “Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and ‘cool’, once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Rite of Spring.  This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain every fibre of his technical resources to accomplish it.  A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point.  And when told by a violinist that a difficult passage in the violin concerto was virtually unplayable, Stravinsky is supposed to have said: “I don’t want the sound of someone playing this passage, I want the sound of someone trying to play it.” 

Of course, learning the skills is crucial. But there's vulnerability at every level in making art: going to your first workshop, applying to enter work in your first juried show, being rejected from your first juried show and perhaps many more, starting a new series, or having your first (and subsequent) exhibition(s), whether in a restaurant, your home or a gallery.  Each of us has to challenge ourselves to move into the discomfort of vulnerability, of fear, and of rejection. That's where the treasure lies. 

"In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing." — Vincent Van Gogh


  1. Dear Janice, This post is absolutely beautiful. You hit the cords of all who have felt this vulnerability. Your sincere advice is, as always, healing and ensuring. My best, Sylvia

  2. Wonderful, moving, spot on!
    'It must be something we cannot possibly do' : the fear we face every day, and the determination to plow on regardless, the most stimulating and and at the same time terryfying way of life! Thank you for explaining our constant contradiction/duality. And I (probably) wouldn't have it any other way
    Liz x

  3. THANK YOU!!!!!
    my heart is in a better place for having spent these past few minutes with you and your writing. Happy birthday.

  4. Also, I don't see where to sign up for your blog

    1. HI Gwen Thanks for your kind words. You can sign up for my blog in the top right hand corner of the page. Best, Janice