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My Wave of Dread

"The Evening of the Deluge," J.M.W. Turner

Back in 2003 I didn't know it yet, but I was nearing the end of an almost decade-long artist block. A block that meant I could not bring myself to keep a sketchbook or make a card for a friend, much less bring a brush to canvas. Despite the fact that I'd always drawn, that I'd thrived in art school, and that I'd always wanted to be an artist, I couldn't make art.

I struggled hard and constantly against whatever was holding me back, but it felt like pushing against a wall.

More precisely, it felt like a huge cold wave had knocked me down and was holding me under water. No matter how hard I struggled, no matter how many New Year's resolutions and birthday promises and middle-of-the-night anguished talks with myself, I could not force myself to stand against that icy wave and make something. For a decade.

Until I did.

How did I beat the wave? It was a process. There was at first just a slight softening, a tiny degree of warming, a receding.

Looking back it has become a neatly-told story arc: I did some personal work, enough to make me brave enough to try some artsy projects, and took some classes. I crossed paths with some truly inspiring artist teachers, painted a portfolio, started a blog, and by 2009 I was showing in galleries and had magazines interviews and a long waiting list of students. My husband Nowell and I opened a teaching studio, he produced my instructional videos, and we now run an online art school that supports us both. I have gallery representation and invitations to demo for art conferences and requests to judge contests. My artwork and my teaching attracts collectors and students from all over the world.

It looks like a grand sweeping story arc...But it actually feels very, very different.

So I want to share with you what it's really like:

It feels more like getting knocked over by that wave, over and over, and standing up again, over and over.

"Snow Storm," J.M.W. Turner

The wave is my constant companion. It tries to drown me, and I find new ways to sidestep it, run from it, dive under it. It is sneaky and conniving: As soon as I enjoy something a tiny bit it sets goals and calls it work and makes me dread it. My wave of dread is just as creative and determined as I am - because it is of course, me.

More than once a year it convinces me I am not an artist. These episodes can last for minutes, days, or weeks.

But my wave of dread has become more tamed over the years, more familiar. Instead of holding me down and drowning me in fear, it is more like an annoying visitor. I can roll my eyes at it, even laugh at it. I hum along to it: "Ok, yeah, this is the part where you tell me my ideas are dumb and my brushstrokes are dumber, I get it, I've heard it before, go on, have your fun, I'll wait."

So I've mostly conquered it.

But very recently, I've come to realize something brand new about my wave of dread.... Something that until recently felt impossible to believe: The wave is not in fact dreadful or evil or bad or even slightly mean.

"Rockets and Blue Lights..." J.M.W. Turner, 1840

It's not anything to fight against. It's just a season - a few days or a few weeks or a few months - when I am still an artist but I'm just doing other things. Or, more likely, not doing much at all, just being. Or just surviving.

I have certain steps I've developed to stand up and get myself back to the easel, but they no longer feel difficult or like a struggle. They happen when the season is right. The wave is just a rhythm, part of the rhythm of the year and the rhythm of a lifespan, and it only becomes icy and dreadful if I push against it; it's only crafty and deceptive if I try to out-think it; it only holds me back if I try to control it.

So that's what I'm sharing here with you on my trusty old blog. I sat down to write a letter for these times, these crazy end-of-2020 days, and I ended up writing about my wave, because it feels like we've all been knocked down this year. We will need to stand up, not just once, but again and again, and the good thing is, we already know how. We've all been knocked down and we all stand up, over and over. We feel drowned, we survive, we stand up.

And when we are ready, we return to the easel.

I'll meet you there.

Happy New Year,


"Lake of Lucern," J.M.W. Turner


Jan 31, 2021

Thank you. Just read this again and it was so reassuring. And helpful--especially talking about a season, acceptance, not fighting it.


Sadie Valeri
Sadie Valeri
Jan 01, 2021

Thank you all. Your comments all mean so much to me. To share and feel seen and understood is the ultimate gift.


Dec 31, 2020

Wow. You are an artist with words as well. This message could not have come at a better time for me. Thank you for all you do to share your knowledge and insights.


Dec 31, 2020

I think many of us needed this reminder today, thank you! What a year. I hadn't made any art in months, but started again this week and miraculously remembered everything you taught me. It felt like coming home. Thank you for being the most extraordinary teacher and friend.


Dec 31, 2020

Sadie, thank you for sharing your experience. The same thing happened to me, but in my case it was about thirty years in which I was retired and did not produce anything. However, during all those years I had the secret pride of being an artist and I knew, deep inside me, that one day I would return, without knowing exactly when.

That day came four years ago, when I began to learn again and returned to drawing and painting. Now I am 58 years old. I don't know how many years of life I have left, but I know instead that I have this day to paint, and on many occasions one day was much more than I consider…

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