This Artist Collects Your Worst Fears and Turns Them Into Something Great

The Fear Project uses art to visually interpret the parts of life that scare us the most, normalizing fear as a part of ourselves.
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"The Fear of Debt," featured in our latest print issue.

YES! Illustration by Julie M. Elman.

All illustrations by Julie Elman.

Julie Elman, like many artists, struggles with fear of the blank page. The creative process demands risk-taking, resilience, and messiness. An associate professor of visual communication at Ohio University, Elman understood the expectation to practice what she preached. To move beyond her fear and to explore what she was teaching her students, she conceived the Fear Project.

People submit their fears to the project’s website, and Elman visually interprets them, bringing them to life. Perhaps the most interesting part, aside from the striking visuals, is the resulting effect. The venture brings different fears together on one interface, normalizing and destigmatizing fear as a bad part of everyday life.

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The Fear of Wrongful Imprisonment

Though Elman admits that she is no psychologist, she posits that, to a certain degree, sharing and voicing a fear can be validating. And after validation comes solidarity. “I can try to translate the person’s description of a fear into something visual that others can relate to,” she explains.

Psychologist, author, and professor Noam Shpancer says that speaking out about difficult experiences or fears provides a sense of strength, security, and relief. Thus, one scared voice becomes a community of empowered voices. “We tend to find solace in the knowledge that we are not alone in our troubles,” he explains. In psychology, it’s well established that confronting fear is essential in learning to manage it. The Fear Project’s root in the visual only emphasizes this. “Great art articulates for us things about ourselves and our experience that cannot be easily and well expressed otherwise,” Shpancer adds. Like what Elman does: She opens a forum to explore fears among us.

She approaches each submission, each fear, the same way: Don’t overanalyze, just do.

The Fear of Losing Control

Dubbed the “fear collector” by Modern Weekly, Elman describes how what began as an experimental exercise evolved into an ongoing creative undertaking. “It didn’t take me long to get past any fears I had about pumping something out and putting it out there. The good, the bad, and the ugly—I posted them all.” The subsequent pieces range from the fear of moths to the fear of peeing in front of others. She always follows her gut, creating high-impact images through the use of vibrant, screaming color.

The majority of her pieces include passages from actual submissions while others feature what is called “asemic writing.” This kind of illegible, nonspecific writing adds texture and, in Elman’s opinion, captures the very core of that person’s fear. “I imagine what the person might be saying, or shouting, at that time, and I scribble out those words without making them legible. In some way, I think this infuses the spirit of that person, and his or her fear, into the piece I’m creating.” It is this relationship among fear, individual, and artist that drives the project forward, making fear acceptable and tangible.

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The Fear of the Unknown

Elman isn’t sure what makes fear so compelling. On a personal level, she says she wants to avoid dwelling in the negative and believes that fear’s universality, in contrast to the lengths we go to conceal it from others, dictates many of our choices. Ironically, still a worrier by nature, Elman understands that finding ways to push through beats the bleak alternative: “Sitting at home, curled up in a ball, avoiding that very thing that scares us most.”

Fear, she says, either cripples or motivates, and the ones we grant control to almost always have the potential to provide us with the most memorable moments.

To see more of Elman’s “Fear Project,” visit her website at www.fear-project.com.