The Sacred Arts,  This is Me

Performance Anxiety

I can’t do it. There will be professional artists in the audience.

What if they see how amateurish I am?

I’ve never taken an art class. Ever. I may be an artist, but I am not a skilled artist.

These are the thoughts that raced through my mind when the associate pastor at the church we’ve been attending asked me to paint during the worship service.

However, you could really insert this conversation into my head any time someone asked me to perform a skill.

Case in point:

Times I’ve been asked to play the piano at weddings/funerals/plays/church.

Times I’ve been asked to sing on the worship team.

When I’ve been asked why I don’t do theatre anymore.

When I’ve been asked when someone could read something I’d written.

I loaded up easel, oil paints. Carried canvases and rags into the tiny sanctuary. My hands shook as I unfolded the easel’s legs and screwed them into place. I hastily ate a donut, hoping it would stabilize my blood sugar. I mean, my blood sugar must have been out of whack, right? My heart was racing.

I had done this before, actually: years ago. Back when my faith was strong and I had no questions about my place in the world. I painted simple landscapes. I knew I could do landscapes, carefully copied from my favorite photographs. The risks were small with landscapes.

However, I don’t paint landscapes anymore.

During the church announcements, the prepped canvas kept drawing my eye. I must admit, I didn’t hear too much of the brief sermon, either. I kept visualizing what colors I would mix, how I could improve the composition.

Would I take the risks I’d been tentatively making with my art during the past year? Or would I play it safe, layer on the easy color choices?

What would do when I’d inevitably make a mistake?

This tiny congregation that I appreciated for the concentration of skilled artists suddenly seemed very intimidating.

We prayed. The worship team rose to take their instruments. I took a big gulp of water, approached the canvas.

God, do this for me. Please.

I squeezed out the colors I’d selected for my palette. Squirt of Alizarin crimson. Dab of cadmium yellow medium. Squeeze of French ultramarine. The remainder of Viridian, rolled up like a tube of toothpaste. Generous swaths of titanium white and ivory black. Linseed oil to improve the flow of colors from brush to canvas.

I cut into the shades with the palette knife. Selected my favorite brush, the one of mink hairs that belonged to my great-grandfather.

The music began; the work absorbed me. Colors mostly told themselves where to go. When dissatisfied with the focal point of the composition, I washed over it with turpentine and transformed the center to a glowing star on the horizon. I stroked pure crimson across conceptual waves in warm shadows. I dabbled yellow on the foamy whitecaps as they burst into flame.

I sang along to some of the songs as I created a landscape straight from my brain, something I’d never done before. A landscape that didn’t look like a landscape you’d see by Lorrain, or Corot, or Cezanne. This landscape didn’t look like something by the Natalie I was in my prior life, either.

When the music stopped, I felt mildly jarred out of myself. Didn’t we just start?

I wiped down my brushes, swished them in turpentine. The painting still wasn’t done, but it had definitely started coming to life.

UPDATE: Here is a photo of the work-in-progress.

Unfinished Landscape 1

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