Six Months of Being an Artist and Getting Out of My Own Way

Self portrait by the artist (thank you, self-timer cameras!)

Self portrait by the artist (thank you, self-timer cameras!)

Six months ago, I had just quit my job and started my first day of work at the easel. It was exhilarating. But no amount of exhilaration can go unfettered for six months. Soon though, the vast openness of my days and the years of associating work with a laptop brought on a fear that gripped me with the deepest self-doubt I have ever experienced.

I hit my lowest point at the end of June, just a month into this adventure. I watched all six seasons of Scandal in one week. Yes, yes I did. As the last episode came to a close, I was faced with the naked truth that I was getting in my own way. Defiantly choosing to pursue art had been the first time I took a hard turn off the life path that I was expected to lead, but I realized that my paralyzing fear stemmed from the anticipation of feeling wrecked and foolish if I gave art my all and failed. So I held back my all.

On the first day of July, I met up with my family for a road trip through the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Nature has always helped me feel renewed and grounded, and this trip reminded me that I create not for anyone or for any success, but simply because I need to. I woke up just before the sun to capture its rise above the mountains and the shadows across the tall grass. I tossed aside water and provisions (thankfully my husband, Sam, prioritized those things) to make room for pastels and notebooks as we hiked through brush and up cliffsides. I scribbled down the shapes and colors that I saw and felt as we went along. Literally scribbled! I could feel myself letting go of needing to feel like I had arrived at where I wanted to be and just take in the fact that I was always going to be moving. I captured photos of my family roaming across the land, journaled my thoughts and awe, and with my scribbles came back from the mountains knowing that this new life journey would be full of worthwhile struggles I could overcome.  

The Grand Tetons - Mountains I

The Grand Tetons - Mountains I

The Grand Tetons - Tall Grass I

The Grand Tetons - Tall Grass I

The Grand Tetons - Mountains II

The Grand Tetons - Mountains II

Reconnecting with nature prompted me to think about other elements I need to be my best and do my best work. My parents are engineers so telling them that their business school educated firstborn was going to be an artist was a shock to the system, to say the least, but I made it clear that I needed their belief in me. It meant the world when they told me they were visiting Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for the first time because now there was an artist in the family.

I continued my morning routine of drawing myself nude as one-line portraits as a meditative practice but I needed to give structure to the rest of my new workday. I’ve always been an early riser so I enrolled in a morning painting studio twice a week to take advantage of my best hours. After a couple of weeks, working at my easel from morning to noon became a habit. I also took a short pottery-throwing class to explore a completely new medium without any expectations, which gave me the freedom to mess up along the way to finding what works.

After a six-year hiatus from swimming, I reentered the pool for hour lap swims and was astonished. This new, yet familiar, addition to my day surprised me the most because it was as if I had never left the sport. It reminded me that at one point in my life I didn’t know how to swim at all. And now, after swimming competitively for thirteen years, being in the pool felt second-nature.

In the moments I feel like an impostor instead of an artist, I remind myself that we all start somewhere and that this is my beginning.

A critical part of my new mentality was realizing, accepting, and celebrating the fact that nobody does it alone. After I quit my job, I felt like I was on my own. No external deadlines for the first time in my life and the glorified image of the lone artistic genius kept me from reaching out. The American Dream that bolsters being an independent, self-made success has followed me since I was a child when my family immigrated here. The reality is so much more meaningful and true.

It was our family’s accountant who not only helped me get my ducks in a row as a self-employed artist but also connected me with her artist husband. He introduced me to regular gatherings and art opportunities in St. Louis. I went to the next gallery opening he suggested and the first person who approached me was a talented artist who shared with me the ways he has found success - before humbly accepting the award of the night. One of my friends who is involved with the arts has been endlessly supportive in connecting me with artists who not only made me feel understood but also expanded my relationships with clients. I didn’t grow up surrounded by many artists so getting to know this community has shown me that this impossible dream I once had is actually possible.

It has been the sheer belief in me from my family, friends, artists, patrons, and strangers that has helped me get to this point. The past six months have seen me at my most terrified and my most determined. This isn't going to be easy, but few things worth pursuing are. It's the fact that I'm choosing to give it my all that makes these struggles worthwhile. 


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Diana ZengComment