The Artist’s Journey In Art And Life

Artists Journey In Art
The Artist’s Journey In Art And Life by Nancy Hillis, M.D.

I was invited recently to give a talk at the San Francisco Opera Guild on the topic of the hero’s journey in art and how the artist’s journey and hero’s journey are related.

I was delighted because this is a topic I’m passionate about. I believe that your artist’s journey is your very own hero’s journey.

Thinking about this brought me back to memories of being seventeen years old, but that’s another story we’ll get into soon enough…

The Story Of The Artist’s Journey

Many of you have asked me to tell you the story of how and why I created The Artist’s Journey courses, workshops, vision boards and workbooks.

I’ll begin by telling you how it all evolved.

It began when I started teaching abstract painting workshops at Stanford Sierra Camp in 2010.

I’d been painting and sculpting for years. Indeed, the moment I finished 7 years of internship and residency in internal medicine, radiology and psychiatry, I began studying art with a passion.

Fast forward to 2015 when I created my signature online course: The Artist’s Journey: 3 Secrets Of The Masters.

I’m not a digital native. I could send an email and search on the web but that was seemingly the extent of my technical ability.

But a fire burned in me. A fire that wouldn’t be extinguished by fear and doubt and second guessing.

I wanted to guide artists to trust and believe in themselves in their art and lives.

I’d been guiding people for years in my existential psychiatry practice in Palo Alto, California, to face their darkest fears, wrestle down the dark angels of their self doubt and finally believe in themselves, believe in their dreams.

I wanted to bring my work to more people

I had a dream of bringing my work to more people, but I felt lost. I didn’t know where to start or how to begin.

And then one day, the muse appeared.

Jeanine Blackwell.

Jeanine’s the force of nature behind the scenes who guided me to believe that I could move past my fears of technology and get my message out into the world.

Fortified by her belief in me, I created my online course, The Artist’s Journey, and the rest is history.

Hundreds of students from over 23 countries have studied with me in this course and I’ve learned so much from each and every one of them.

artist's journey course
The Artist’s Journey signature online course

Additionally, in the past three years, I’ve enrolled over 20,000 students in my email course: The Artist’s Journey: Creating Your Deepest Work. Below is a page from The Artist’s Journey email course.

Artist's Journey email course
A page from The Artist’s Journey email course is much loved by artists all over the world

Another thing I offer is The Artist’s Journey Workbook. I receive emails every day from many of you artists who have written to tell me of how this workbook has transformed your lives as you reflect upon your artist’s journey and your art. This workbook is a deep dive into exploring and reflecting on why creating is so important to your journey of self expression.

Below is an image from the workbook.

Artist's Journey Workbook
The Artist’s Journey Workbook guides you to reflect on why your art is vital to you

You’ve also explored The Artist’s Journey Vision Board and told me how much it has helped you document and map out the elements of your artist’s journey. As you can see, there are areas where you write out your big Why, the perils you face, resources and provisions you have to help you, your greatest fears, your aha’s and transformations and finally, living your big, juicy artist’s life.

Here’s the vision board below:

Artist's Journey Vision Board
Mapping your way on The Artist’s Journey

The Artist’s Journey

I’m so excited to tell you about my forthcoming book, The Artist’s Journey which is part of the series of works, writings, courses, workshops and public talks I’ve created over the years.

This book reflects the understandings of a lifetime, attained through working with clients in psychotherapy for over twenty years, interviewing artists on my previous television program Creativity And Consciousness, as well as observing and teaching artists in The Artist’s Journey courses. My book is coming out this fall.

But for now, let’s look at excerpts from the talk I gave on the hero’s journey in art.

San Francisco Opera Guild Talk

The talk begins with lines from my favorite writer, Dante Alighieri.

In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in a dark wood
And the true way
Was wholly lost
-Dante Alighieri (1265–1321)

In the opening salvo of The Divine Comedy by the great poet Dante Alighieri, Dante speaks to us across the centuries about the hero’s journey.

Indeed, I believe Dante was writing about the experience of living your life, living in the known world, yet yearning for something more.

He felt lost.

Many of us can relate to this experience.

Life presents these moments, over and over again, where the true way feels wholly lost.

Indeed, you find yourself at a crossroads.

You’re at an inflection point where the difference between this world and the next is gossamer thin

The pivotal moment when the world offers up a gift to you.

And you could miss the moment.

Because sometimes it’s subtle. It’s not obvious. Yet, it’s there.

Will you see it? Will you feel it? Will you experience it?

Or will you turn your face away?

Perhaps, you turn away and miss the moment. We all do, in innumerable ways.

Yet, sometimes, we wake up.

Sometimes, we imagine the possibility of saying yes to the yearning in our hearts.

No more ‘waiting for Godot’

And there’s this existential moment when you realize that you can’t wait any longer.

No more waiting for Godot.

This is the existential moment when you realize that you’re searching for meaning or a feeling of aliveness. It’s the moment when you realize you can no longer keep putting off your dreams.

This is the moment when you realize you must say yes to your yearning, you must say yes to the call to something deeper, something meaningful and alive.

I’m reminded of a German saying which may originate from China:

Find joy in your life,
It’s later than you think

I’ve been haunted by Dante’s words in The Inferno, the first book of The Divine Comedy, since I was 17 years old.

Years later, at 34, I saw a sculpture of Dante in Rome, and wept.

There he was, Dante, the giant intellect spanning the centuries, rendered in marble

My hero.

He was there, in his element.

I felt chills as I gazed upon his visage. I experienced an ineffable, inarticulable connection with him.

The Artist's Journey_Dante's Inferno
The genesis of my artist’s journey began at age 17 when I read Dante’s Inferno

I was in love with his mind.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the story, back to my 17 year old self.

Like Dante, I felt lost. I was searching for something and I didn’t know what it was

I had outgrown high school.

I had thought about graduating a year early the summer before, but when I realized this, it was too late.

And so I was stuck.

Stuck at a school where I had to go to the library to read Shakespeare’s Hamlet on my own because my school offered no honors classes or gifted programs.

I started to suffer migraines. My body knew the truth. I felt lost and bored.

Artist's Journey Inspiration
My beloved copy of The Divine Comedy

And so I’d stay home many days and read Dante’s Inferno, only to show up for Bill Matchett’s 6th period Physics class, or Carl Whitfield’s Trigonometry class, because these were the only classes I looked forward to.

I praise these wonderful science and math teachers from my high school to this day, because they believed in me. I never became a scientist or mathematician, but I found one in the love of my life.

In reading about Dante’s journey into the depths of hell, I felt that he understood what I was experiencing and what was at stake.

As graduation loomed in the foreground, I felt at a crossroads.

What would my life look like ahead?

I had no idea.

I was about to step into the unknown.

I was about to begin my own hero’s journey and ultimately, my artist’s journey.

The Artist’s Journey Recapitulates The Hero’s Journey

It goes something like this:

  • You’re living your life
  • You yearn for something more
  • Something calls you
  • You refuse
  • The mentor shows up
  • You say Yes
  • You cross the threshold from the Known to the Unknown
  • There are Perils
  • You face yourself in your Dark Night of the Soul
  • Transformation: Trusting Yourself
  • Return
  • Back to your life, transformed
  • You yearn for something
  • Something calls you…
  • Ad infinitum…and the cycle repeats

Let’s look at the hero’s journey | artist’s journey visually:

The Artist's Journey_Known To Unknown
The artist’s journey | hero’s journey is when you’re at a crossroads. It’s the existential moment when you realize that you’re searching for meaning or a feeling of aliveness. It’s the moment when you realize you can no longer keep putting off your dreams. You simply must say YES.

You’re living your life, your regular life in the Known world, and yet you yearn for something more.

You yearn for an experience of yourself, of expressing yourself in the deepest way, in a way that’s unknown to you. It’s inarticulable.

Artist's Journey-Yearning
You’re searching for something- meaning or a feeling of aliveness

And yet it scares you.

You feel uneasy, unsure. You doubt that it’s possible.

What if you get rejected? humiliated? abandoned? What if this experience you yearn for places you in mortal danger?

And so you resist. You refuse the call.

Artist's Journey-refusal -call
You’re called to your Artist’s Journey but you refuse

At first, on your artist’s journey | hero’s journey, there’s the Refusal. You reject the call of your yearning.

The Guide

But the guide shows up.

Artist's Journey_Guide
The Guide shows up to light the way in the darkness. Just as Dante had the great Roman poet Virgil to guide him through hell. You have a guide to help you through the Unknown.

The guide could be a mentor, teacher or other artists. The guide encourages you to say YES to your dreams.

The Inciting Incident

Artist's Journey-inciting incident
The inciting incident in the artist’s journey is when something happens and your life is never the same again

There’s a moment when everything changes. Your life is never the same. This is the inciting incident that nudges you to finally plunge into the Unknown.

Artist's Journey_Plunge into the Unknown
You finally say YES and you plunge into the Unknown. Into the terra incognito of your soul. You’re on your journey to finding and expressing yourself.

And then…

Perils

But there are perils.

Artist's Journey_Perils
There are perils at every turn. Self doubt, inner criticism, second guessing, overthinking, procrastination, even resignation.

Life’s A Trap

How will you get through the perils? What if you don’t survive the ups and downs of finding and expressing yourself in your art? What if you hate your art or feel that you’re not a “real artist”?

The Dark Night Of The Soul

On that glad night,

in secret, for no one saw me,

nor did I look at anything,

with no other light or guide

than the one that burned in my heart.

St. John of the Cross

These words by St. John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Carmelite priest and mystic wrote about the dark night of the soul, the moment of greatest self doubt and despair when things seem meaningless, as if the bottom has fallen out of your life.

Artist's Journey_Dark Night
The Dark Night of the Soul of The Artist’s Journey is the moment of greatest self doubt

The dark night of the soul is the moment of your greatest self doubt. This is the moment when you wonder: What was I thinking? Why did I say YES to this journey?

This is the moment you feel like turning back, reversing your decision.

It would have been easier, more prudent to just stay with the status quo, to stay with the Known.

And this is the moment you must face alone because it’s about facing yourself. It’s about grappling with the dark angels of your despair.

Transformation

And yet, by facing yourself, facing your fear and your deepest self doubts, you experience a transformation.

The transformation is that of finding and expressing yourself, reaffirming yourself, and trusting yourself in your art and life.

These are the treasures of a lifetime.

The Artist's Journey of transformation
The transformation is trusting yourself on your artist’s journey

Resurrection

The transformation of your artist’s journey has been variously described as a kind of resurrection where parts of you die off so that other parts of you can live. You’re born again to yourself.

The resurrection grants you the energy, insight or potency to take your journey through to completion.

Return

And finally, you return back to your life, transformed.

Artist's Journey_Return
On your artist’s journey you return back to your life, back to the Known. Transformed.

And so you return to your life, transformed from the wisdom gained on your artist’s journey and you’re fine for awhile…until you feel the yearnings of your heart’s desire for something more…

And you hear the call…

And you answer it…

And you’re immediately plunged into the Unknown.

And the cycle repeats throughout your life.

The Question Is Why?

Why do you say “yes” to your artist’s journey?

Why do you insist upon following your dreams?

This journey is not for the faint of heart. It’s arduous. It’s scary. It may be humiliating.

Success is not guaranteed.

You may fall on your face, over and over again.

You may feel like King Arthur in search of the holy grail and wander in the dark, dank forests for years with no end in sight.

You may build a beloved kingdom like King Hrothgar of Denmark in Beowulf only to have your men terrorized and murdered night after night in your mead hall by the marauding monster Grendel. And of course, as a wise king, you call for the hero, Beowulf, to come face the Unknown and transform the kingdom (and Beowulf’s life).

So why do you say YES to your artist’s journey? Why do you go ahead anyway, even though you’re terrified and success isn’t guaranteed?

The moment you say yes to your artist’s journey, everything changes

Artist's Journey-say yes
The moment you say yes to your artist’s journey, everything changes

The Search For Meaning

The artist’s journey, which is informed by the hero’s journey is a search for meaning.

You only have so many hours in this life to experience and express the ineffable, the wonder of being alive and what it means to you.

  • What will you do with the time you are alloted?
  • Will you traverse the reaches of your imagination?
  • Will you explore unknown territory, allowing the inarticulable to express itself?

Or will you refuse?

Artist's Journey refusal
There are dangers and unintended consequences to staying in the place of refusal on your artist’s journey

The Dangers of Refusal

We often focus on our fears and avoid that which scares us.

The danger is that we feel the yearning for something alive and meaningful, we hear the call and yet we refuse.

The danger is if we stay in refusal. It’s one thing to refuse, even a few times. But it’s another thing entirely to stay in an attitude of refusal of the call.

The unintended consequences of resistance and refusal is to become like a barnacle. A creature dating back 20 million years, barnacles are arthropods carried by the currents and constrained by their own shells. They live their lives seeking surfaces to cling onto. In the process, they harden and calcify and wreak havoc upon the bottoms of ships, eroding the surface and leaking toxins into the ocean.

Or you might become like Darth Vader in Star Wars. A Jedi knight trained by Obi-Wan Kenobi, he made a Faustian deal and went over to the dark side.

Or like Bluebeard in his castle who was walled off psychologically and frozen into a macabre repetition of murdering his wives.

Refusing the call to your most alive and meaningful life is to become deadened to the spirit, the mystery, the ineffable that lives inside you.

The Artist’s Journey Is About Rediscovering & Affirming Yourself

Artist's Journey-affirming yourself
Your artist’s journey is about saying “yes” to your dreams

On the artist’s journey we’re continually evolving as we search and find our way as we create. We find and express ourselves in meaningful ways.

The artist’s journey is about renewal.

It’s about confronting our most difficult challenges and wrestling them down in our search for meaning.

Imagine the hero as an idea or concept

Artist's Journey-Beethoven
The hero’s journey/artist’s journey can be an idea

I was talking to my partner, Dr. Bruce Sawhill, about the hero’s journey in the abstract as a general principle of artistic composition.

Here’s a big idea we explored: What if the hero’s journey, the artist’s journey, could also apply to something not human like ideas or concepts?

Imagine listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example.

Imagine that instead of a person, the hero is a theme or melody.

The melody goes through a whole bunch of experiences. In the Fifth Symphony it’s as if the melody as hero, perhaps representing the self, is under attack, under duress or challenge by its environment.

There’s the individual statement, then a statement in another key, a distortion or mutation of the theme and finally a reassertion of the theme.

A piece of music can have a hero’s journey

The abstraction is that the melody has an individual character to it, a signature.

In the course of a piece of music, it gets distorted, modified, reflected. Lots of things happen to it.

It gets bent, kneaded, twisted and pushed.

But eventually, it comes back to itself just as the hero does in the hero’s journey.

Artist's Journey-music
The hero’s journey/artist’s journey in music

The melody goes through a test and emerges stronger

The hero’s essence comes out through a test, while a musical theme undergoes a test.

It gets distorted, it gets thrown into different keys, perhaps minor keys, it gets different harmonies and inflections to it.

Finally, it reasserts itself and it’s individuality in the end.

It comes back home to itself just as the hero does.

Likewise, on the artist’s journey, we’re continually losing and re-finding ourselves

Even in our earliest play, we’re exploring a nascent form of losing and finding and re-finding ourselves. The childhood games of peek-a-boo and hide and seek are forms of playing which reflect the recurring concept of being lost and found. The child delights in the experience of being reflected and mirrored in the eyes and expressions of her mother and father. Basically, the child is finding herself in her mother’s eyes.

Artist's Journey childhood
Losing and finding yourself and being reflected in your mother’s eyes again and again in childhood play.

I remember reading years ago about Heinz Kohut, the self psychologist, commenting about the babyhood game of This Little Piggy.

He believed that this game recapitulated the feeling of falling apart and coming back together again.

As each little piggy goes in different directions and has different experiences, perhaps this reflects the feeling of losing oneself, of unraveling.

Then, there’s the return. The little piggy comes “all the way home”, back to the place where there’s a sense of cohesiveness, of unity, of finding yourself again in the reflection of your mother’s eyes.

Full Circle

Back to the teachings of the master.

Artist's Journey-Dante
Dante Alighieri

Back to Dante.

Dante was lost in the middle of his life, searching for meaning, for truth, for aliveness, for true love, for himself, for Beatrice, for God.

The Search Is Everything

It’s not so much the answer but the question that matters.

It’s not as much about finding as about searching.

It’ s not so much about knowing as about questioning.

So The Question Is: How Do You Come Home To Your True Self?

How does the hero’s journey, the artist’s journey show up for you in your life and art?

Are you answering the call of your longing for your deepest, most authentic life and art?

Reflect on all the times you answered YES to your yearning for something more. Recall all the times you went ahead and plunged into the Unknown, even as you were afraid.

The Invitation

I invite you to ask yourself this: What is your next hero’s journey | artist’s journey?

The one you simply must say YES to?

Artist's Journey say yes
What is the dream on your Artist’s Journey that you simply must say YES to?

From my studio to yours,

Nancy

P.S. Leave your thoughts and comments below. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.


Originally published at Nancy Hillis.