The Fear Project

For the past couple of years, I have been working on the Fear Project, which explores other people’s fears through their words and my visuals. The fear themes run the gamut and include failure, losing a child, the impulse to jump off high places, escalators, dying alone, dealing with terrifying daymares and needles. Participants in this project have included neighbors, students, colleagues, family members — and as the project has grown, more and more people I do not know have reached out to me to share their fears.

People often ask me how this project got started. A couple of years ago, two things in my life came together: one, I was thinking a lot about the own fears in my life, and two, I felt ready to start a long-term creative project. In terms of fear, I had this vague idea that as I got older (I’m now in my 50s), I would naturally shed many of my time-wasting worries. I have no idea why I thought this. I could not have been more naïve.

"Fear of Being Wrongfully Imprisoned" by Julie Elman

Perhaps I had been reading too many news stories and focusing way too much on the catastrophes unfolding on a daily basis around the world. I found myself thinking far too much about disease, suffering and death. I was far from paralyzed with anxiety, but I knew that whatever was going on with me, I had to confront it in some way.

Out of the blue one day (this was in February 2012), one of my design students sent me a link to a video that featured an illustrator who talked about the benefits of “automated directives” — where one brings more structure, a timetable and a loose set of rules to help rein in the chaos of doing creative work. I completely related to her approach. It was an A-ha! moment for me.

"Fear of Losing Voice" by Julie Elman

I sat at my kitchen table that evening and decided then and there to work on a project about fear. I wanted to explore what other people were afraid of. As a former newspaper designer, I felt this compulsion to approach my project in a journalistic way. I asked people what their fears were, and I used their words in my work — like quotes in a story. (My intention was to focus on others’ fears, but on a few occasions, I illustrated my own, including having a brain aneurysm, performance anxiety, encountering a texting driver on the road.)

After seeing my visual interpretation of their fears, many people have told me that they feel less burdened by them and feel validated after seeing their fears visualized in an interpretive, nonjudgmental way. They can come face to face with whatever fears they have without feeling threatened.

Personally, I have become much more aware of just how pervasive the topic of fear really is. I think about how fear can be either crippling, or a driving force to motivate people to move past it. This project has resonated strongly with people, I’ve discovered — simply because of how deeply embedded fear is in most of our everyday lives. Everyone can relate.


PUBLICATIONS (print + online)

2013: NPR The Picture Show: “How to Draw Out Your Worst Fears,” by Kainaz Amaria, features a story about the Fear Project and a slideshow of 13 fear pieces.

2013: Featuring magazine: Art Journaling, Mixed Media and More: The article “The Fear Project,” by Marcia Beckett, includes information about the Fear Project, as well as the inclusion of five fear pieces.

2013: Modern Weekly: Six fear pieces appeared across eight pages in this magazine published in Guangzhou, China. The title of the main article, by Xiaomei Chen, roughly translates to “The Positive Side of Fear.” (I am referred to as “The Fear Collector.”)

2012: The Photo Brigade: “Drawing on One’s Fears” by Julie M. Elman. Wrote posting about the Fear Project for a freelance photographic community blog.

EXHIBITIONS  (physical spaces + online)

2014: Fear Project: Hillel at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio. Nearly 40 fear pieces are currently being shown in this solo exhibition.

2014: Women of Appalachia: Their Stories and Their Art (traveling exhibition): Baker Multicultural Art Center at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, and Park View Gallery Artisans, Chillicothe, Ohio. “Fear of staying fat,” “Fear of dying alone” and “Fear of a brain explosion” were included in these group exhibits.

2013: Drawing on Your Fears: Coburn Art Gallery, Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. Forty-four fear pieces were shown in this solo exhibition.

2013: Small Works, Big Talent: Las Laguna Gallery, Laguna Beach, Calif. The fear pieces “Fear of making a decision” and “Fear of speaking honestly” were shown in this national exhibition.

2013: Athens Voices, USA 2013 (traveling exhibition): The Dairy Barn Arts Center, Athens, Ohio; Athens State University in Athens, Ala.; and Arthur Butcher Gallery in Athens, W. Va. The fear pieces “Missing the shot” and “Bees, hornets and wasps” were shown in thisnational juried exhibition.

2013: 2013 Artkudos International Competition: “Fear of breaking one’s back” was selected for this juried online art exhibition.

2013: Coburn Goes Small: Coburn Gallery, Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. “Fear of being imprisoned” was shown in this national juried exhibition.

2013: Less is More: Small Works in a Great Space: The Mitchell Gallery, St. John’s College, Annapolis, Md. “Fear of being stuck in a job” was shown in this national juried exhibition.

BLOGS (featured + mentioned)

2013: UPPERCASE magazine (blog): “the fear project,” by Janine Vangool, features a posting about the Fear Project, along with three fear pieces.

2013: MoMA Talks (archive): This mention of the Fear Project also features three fear pieces. MoMa Talks was a blog maintained by educators at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

2013: DesignTAXI: “Illustrator Literally Draws Out Fears With Her Expressive Art” by Dorothy Tan. Short description featured about the Fear Project, along with eight fear pieces.

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