What It Feels Like to Punch Fear In The Face

Seems like most everybody makes excuses. Or is afraid to wrestle with themselves until their old self lies exhausted in the dirt, yelling uncle… and the new you stands-up, walks away and doesn’t look back.

Here’s one person who doesn’t make excuses, and continues to punch fear in the face.

Chuck Close is a world-renowned artist. He paints large-scale portraits, measuring several feet on each side. And his portrait paintings are so impossibly and unimaginably detailed, that they’re mistaken for photographs.

But, even if Chuck Close knew you as a dear and close friend, he probably wouldn’t even recognize you.

Close has what neurologists call prosopagnosia. It’s believed to be caused by brain lesions that have damaged the brain. It’s also called face blindness.

Here’s what that means. Chuck Close isn’t able to recognize faces. It’s why, even after years of being married to his wife, Close didn’t recognized her.

The condition is rare.

You’d think prosopagnosia would make it more difficult to paint portraits. But according to Close, that thought didn’t even occur to him.

Close said, “I was not conscious of making a decision to paint portraits because I have difficulty recognizing faces. That occurred to me twenty years after the fact when I looked at why I was still painting portraits, why that still had urgency for me. I began to realize that it has sustained me for so long because I have difficulty in recognizing faces.”

And if that weren’t enough, there were other major difficulties that would impact his ability to create art.

In 1988, after delivering a speech in New York City, Chuck Close had what he has come to describe as “the incident.” A spinal artery collapse resulted in him having a seizure. It was cataclysmic, and Close lost essentially all movement from the neck down.

Close worked hard for months in physical therapy, but only regained a minimal amount of movement in his arms and would have to spend the rest of his life in a motorized wheelchair.

But his desire to create burned within him, and fortunately, Chuck Close was driven to try.

So he strapped a paintbrush to his wrist, and went to work using what very little movement he had.

As is the case with all real artists, his work evolved.

Close continued painting portraits on large canvases. But now he would have an assistant begin by dividing the canvas into small grids. And with the brush strapped to his wrist, in each grid Close utilized paint and paper to create a small work of art.

And each grid contributed a piece to the overall portrait. The resulting image was pixelated – and compelling.

Here’s what Chuck Close can teach you about what if feels like to stare down fear.

a) It Takes Courage

Imagine this. You have honed your skills to the point where you can paint a face on a 9 ft. X 7 ft. canvas with such exacting detail, that it is mistaken for a photograph. And then you lose all those skills. And yet somehow, you have the wherewithal to make the decision to start all over again, fully knowing that whatever you do, will have to be done with a small fraction of the capability you once had.

The magnitude of courage necessary to move forward is frankly hard to fathom. To better understand how daunting this must have been, imagine other professions that require decades of neuromuscular training before attaining world-class performance – a ballerina, football player or race car driver – and after experiencing what Chuck Close did – their deciding to begin again.

b) Success Is Uncertain

Of course it is. That’s why you’re afraid.

Never let anyone define what you are capable of by using parameters that don’t apply to you. – Chuck Close

c) It’s Hard

Ditto. Maybe unimaginably hard. Begin the work.

d) Nobody Can Do It For You

Nobody could pick up a brush and paint while Chuck Close sat nearby giving instructions. That’s coaching or teaching, not painting.

What’s more, nobody but Close could experience the struggle that would shape his work into something entirely new.

e) It Leads To New Possibilities

What a loss it would have been if Chuck Close stopped making art after his incident. Instead, he strapped a brush to his hand and continued; and in the process created a new way of seeing and thinking about portraits – and created hundreds of new paintings.

f) There Is A Choice

Looking over some of the paintings Chuck Close has done since his “incident,” it’s kind of impossible to imagine that he might have made the decision to NOT paint. But of course, he very well could have made the very understandable decision to never paint again.

It’s good he made the choice to continue. And not just because the world is inspired by his work. But because it would certainly have been a dire world for Chuck Close if he did not make the decision to continue to create.

I don’t work with inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work. – Chuck Close

g) It’s Never Over (As Long As You’re Alive and Creating)

Although Chuck Close is nearly 80 years old, he’s still on the journey of reinvention. In the past couple years, he has separated from his wife, relocated to a geographic area far from the comfort and support of his many friends, and he continues to experiment with his art to the point that he’s dismaying art critics and confounding friends.

And here’s what Chuck Close knows. Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.


Tom loves building meaningful businesses and technology (with people who care). Follow him on LinkedIn. Reach him at tomtriumph.com or on Twitter @thomastriumph

Other articles on LinkedIn

Contact & Connect with Tom

Connect with Tom

Send a Message