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What I Learned about Art (and Life) by Staring Down a Grizzly

Last summer I had a close encounter with a grizzly bear. As might be expected, it was a significant event. . . but what’s unexpected is how it has shaped my view of both my life and my art.

The story begins in Glacier National Park where I was visiting our son. My sister-in-law and I had split off from the guys, and were taking a very short trail back to the hotel.

We thought it was such a short trip that it wouldn’t be a problem to go on our own. Certainly we knew there were bears in the park, but bears tend to shy away from the more populated areas. Surely all the bear hype was just that—hype?

Well, it wasn’t just hype.

Lesson number 1: I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again.

Anyway, down the trail we went. The path slowly became dense with brush and trees, and I started to get uncomfortable. Talking loudly and walking quickly to alert any bears that we were on our way, I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning to see what it was, up on hind legs popped a young bear not ten feet away!!

I looked him full in the eye and we stared at each other for a beat, long enough for me to register some real fear. (Note: You aren’t supposed to look bears in the eye!)

Now you might think this a stretch, but hear me out:

How often has your art gotten you into any real danger? My guess is, not often! So what are you afraid of? Why are you not doing more with your passion for art?

Could it be that you looked your “bear” in the eyes and became afraid?

He’s a big bear. He’s powerful. He could consume you and your life or at least change it forever! If you really pursue this art thing, it might turn out to be a huge failure. You could lose all your savings if you quit your day job and can’t make a profit at it. You may discover that you’re a no talent hack and you were just deluding yourself all along! It could be a huge disaster! Or. . .

Back to the story.

I looked the bear in the eye. Time stopped.

Then, with a rush, the bear came bounding out of the brush towards us! We screamed and ran—hearts beating outside our chests! Yes ran. (And no you are never supposed to run. Your odds are next to nothing that you’ll ever outrun a bear.)

So why did we run? In short, because our instincts took over. We all have that same instinct. My sister-in-law lives in Montana and is married to the director of Parks for the state, so she knew better. We both did. And yet, we ran! We ran because there was imminent danger and we let our fear dictate our actions.

The lesson here?

Practice so you are prepared when the “bear” in your life pops up!! What is the bear you fear? Figure that out and then prepare and rehearse so that when you meet him (which you will!) you are prepared to live through it!!

Luckily for us, the bear ran straight as we ran down the path, and he disappeared into the dense cover on the other side behind us.

If there’s another lesson here, it’s probably this: I don’t take unnecessary risks in life, but I’ve learned that calculated risks (especially in something like my art) will not kill me. It’s highly unlikely that the outcome will be as bad as you think it will be. You must take some risks in your art to get any further.

It’s interesting how these things stick with you. Later, when recounting the traumatic encounter to my son, I was still very shaken. I had literally cheated death! My heart raced when I thought about it.

He knew what I was feeling, having had a similar experience himself. “Mom,” he said, in a very deep way, “You’re more alive now than you were before.” But what he didn’t know, was how profound that statement was for me. . . I was indeed more alive for having that experience.

Do I want to meet another bear face-to-face? Not on your life! Yet it re-affirmed some things:

First, that the “here and now” is really all we have. Second, that the things I worry about are seldom as bad as I think they are. And third, that keeping my eyes open and being prepared is a great way to keep the fear and self-doubt at bay.

I want to live more intentionally. I have a greater sense of urgency to experience life, and art, more fully. And I don’t want to waste another moment with the unnecessary.

I guess I have a grizzly bear to thank for that.

Read more from Michelle at michellemorrisart.blogspot.com.

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I look at a lot of art, and the one thing I see quite often among artists who haven't been painting very long is the tendency to be too timid.

It is, of course, difficult to be bold when you aren't completely confident in your skills. . . but painting is always a dance between not going far enough and overworking a piece. If you're not on the line between those two things,. . . read more

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