I never knew what I wanted to do with my life. When it was time for me to choose a subject to study in college, I chose Chemistry. I didn’t choose it because I loved studying it. I was being practical. Analytical subjects like Math and Science came to me much more easily in high school than creative ones. I kept going until I got my Ph.D. That is how I started life as a Chemist. I never considered the possibility of becoming an artist.

Later in life, I needed to choose a new career. I chose Information Technology largely because I was good at analytical thinking and problem-solving. I was a logical, analytical, left-brained person.

I never thought of myself as artistic. I was good at math and other logical and analytical things, like science and computer programming. I just assumed that was who I was and there was no changing it. I didn’t feel terrible, I was very good in the realm I had shoehorned myself into. Somewhere deep down though, I harbored an idea to be an artistic and creative person. I wasn’t consciously aware of the desire, but it dribbled out from inside me at times.

I used to tell my wife that if I was ever struck by lightning and I was lucky enough to survive, I wanted the opportunity to start over and reboot and rewire my brain to work differently. I wanted a new operating system for my mind, that of a creative person. If I were ever in the hospital recovering from such an accident, she was to put a musical instrument in my hands immediately so I could start over anew.

For a long time, longer than I should have, I did nothing to pursue it. In the words of Peter Gabriel, “I went from day to day, though my life was in a rut.” I could not muster the courage to make a meaningful change in my life. I was stuck. Trapped. My children were grown, and the house was paid for. I was in a fortunate position, but my life lacked meaning. All of my motivation in life had been extrinsic. With the meaning sucked out of my life I was empty, like a deflated balloon. I had nothing to give.

This was the existential crisis that finally caused me to seek out and work with a therapist.

We worked on how to get out of the old life that no longer served me and into a new one. It is a long and detailed story that I will write about in detail. For now, I would like to talk about how one aspect of my new life, the artistic part, came to be.

My therapist suggested I explore some of the online tools that help identify personal values. I needed to ensure that the new life I was building was in alignment with my values. I completed a few and we discussed the results. Creativity ranked at or near the top of all the value inventories.

We talked about what I wanted my future life to look like. I kept wistfully bringing up the vague idea about creativity that appealed to me, but I had no idea how to act upon it. I spent my adult life working in technical and scientific fields, but now at 54 years old, I was looking for a new path. I never considered myself capable of creating art. The idea itself appealed on some level, but the thought of actually putting it into practice caused anxiety.

Finally, and fortunately, after a few such conversations, my therapist sent me home with a homework assignment. I appreciate her focus on results and progress. She handed me a few blank small squares of paper and explained what I was to do with them. I needed to go home and draw a square border just inside the edges of the paper. Then I would fill them in with random shapes and patterns. I could draw lines across the square freely that would create spaces. I was to fill those spaces in with patterns. The term used to describe it is ‘zentangle‘.

Eager to complete my assignment and bring the results back to therapy the following week, I sat down at my desk to start filling in the square. I felt anxious, I had no idea where to begin. The sight of an empty blank space was intimidating. I hesitantly fiddled around choosing a few colored markers, and then started. I slowly drew a few curved flowing lines across the square, I drew more that bisected it and created new, random shapes.

It was stressful at the start but got easier as I progressed. I could not remember a time in my adult life when I had done anything like it, just drawing for drawing sake, creating something without a plan. I was uncertain how it would turn out. I needed to get comfortable with uncertainty in my life. Certainty is what kept me in the career I hated for so long. 

After a few minutes of creating empty curved random shapes on the paper with my swirling lines, I decided to start filling the shapes created with patterns. There was no plan. I changed colors from brown to blue and filled some shapes with straight lines, and others with squares or hearts. After a while, the little square looked quite full. I had done it. I felt relief. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I signed it at the bottom.

My first work as an artist

In our next session, we discussed how I felt while I was drawing the zentangle. We talked about how I experienced fear and anxiety at the sight of an empty page, and how I eventually worked through it and created a drawing out of nothing for the first time since I was a child. My therapist encouraged me to create another the following week. 

In the second week, there was less stress. As I sat down and stared at the paper, an idea crystallized out of nowhere. I couldn’t see the finished product, but I was imagining a pattern of overlaid squares. With an idea, but not a plan, the pen moved more quickly and assuredly. I finished in less than an hour. I was far more pleased with the result this time. I finished that week’s assignment early and I wanted to keep going.

A few days later I looked out of my back window and saw the fall leaves on the trees. A thought came to me, I should draw the trees. I love the fall, I have looked at the colors countless times. This was the first time in my life I ever thought to capture them in a drawing. Not only was I drawing, but I had an idea, and I was inspired. This was all new. The tiny colored marker drawing of the fall trees behind my house is still on my wall today, along with all the other little squares. They remind me of how I got started. 

I talked with my therapist about the progress we had made, it felt good. I decided it was time to work on a slightly larger scale. I felt inspired to buy a starter watercolor set, some paper, a few brushes, and the watercolor paint in little round pans that young children paint with. I watched tutorials on YouTube and followed along. I started painting simple landscapes, trees, then birds. I eventually allowed myself to have better art supplies. I felt undeserving of them at the start. Gradually, that feeling went away.

Slowly, the paintings improved. I created an Instagram account to share them. I still feel a little of the anxiety I felt in the beginning when staring at an empty page. I still to this day will cut a large piece of paper in half so that I am working on a smaller scale. I’m not all the way there, I am still working on it. 

A few years have passed since my start. I still paint and draw, and I have added more creative pursuits to my life. I started a website and wrote personal narrative stories. I bought a camera and learned photography to capture birds on our many trips. I started as a Scientist and an I.T. guy who occasionally thought about being a creative person. Now, I am a creative person.

Today, I call myself an artist. I certainly don’t do it for a living, I am not interested in trying, but it is my hobby. More importantly, it is now an important piece of the person that I am today. It was a missing piece for my entire life. I never could have envisioned this happening. I liked the idea, but never thought it was possible. Yet here I am now with this new part of me, a part I certainly would not have without the help of my therapist and the continued support of the people around me. All of which, I am grateful for.

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