#VenusOnMars Artist Talk

Show notes

  • Gaia Toscano, Art Advisor at SFMOMA Artists Gallery, welcomes the audience and introduces the gallery, the artist, and this body of work.
  • Space travel has captured our imaginations as a blank canvas for a better world. “Is that canvas really blank? How might we paint a different future?” [3:40]
  • #VenusOnMars is a metaphor for balance–within ourselves, with one another, and with the world. [4:47]
  • Zooming out and looking at the future from a different angle, starting with the question, “How do you want the future to feel?” [5:30]
  • How I explore that question through two groups of paintings: The Geometric Group and the Kinetic Group. [7:15]
  • Sharing the creative process behind these works. How #VenusOnMars is a constant state of rebalancing. [12:45] 
  • “How do you want the future to feel?” Leaving the audience with this powerful question towards a softer, stronger, and more beautiful future. [14:45]

A working professional's search for creativity, purpose, and peace

I recently launched my book Something More: A Working Professional's Search for Creativity, Purpose, and Peace. I'd love to share with you the author Q&A led by Majo Molfino, women's leadership coach and host of podcast Heroine.fm. The event was held on February 8, 2017 at the tea room of The Center SF with over 60 people in attendance.

This book is for you if you’re thinking about...

  • Pursuing your creative calling while working full-time
  • Exploring your many different interests, while navigating the purposeful and the practical
  • Going on an inner journey, either while working or by taking a sabbatical

After ten years of not making art, I started making art again while working full-time in Silicon Valley. My adventures took me to the bare wooden floors of yoga studios, the white walls of art studios, and even to an anarchist bookstore and the city dump. Through it all, I found the core of what was looking for all along: a true feeling of self-acceptance.

You can find the book here.

Show notes

  • Starting to feel restless after five years of working in tech. Felt that I lacked self-efficacy. Gradually realized this feeling was related to my creativity. [4:15]
  • How I decided to take a sabbatical. Responding my desire to grow and to recharge. [8:40]
  • How I worked on creative side projects while working full-time. Taking art and writing classes on evenings and weekends. Making art or writing during the evenings and early mornings. Managing expectations. [10:22]
  • As a daughter of immigrants, managing cultural beliefs that influence my decisions. [14:25]
  • Reconnecting with my body to better manage my inner critic and listen to my intuition. [16:57]
  • Recognizing privilege. Moving through denial and guilt. Recognizing that it’s possible to have gratitude and desire something more. [21:13]
  • Managing my inner critic through meditation and journaling. Overcoming perfectionism through deadlines, faith, surrender, self-acceptance, and service. [23:10]
  • Reclaiming 10 years of my life. Learning from the experiences of older women. Seeing how this questioning affects all aspects of my life, including purpose, partnership, and parenthood. Making decisions with intention [29:02]
  • Fully accepting my many interests. Being flexible about how I make money and express my creative and analytical sides. [35:40]
  • Reaching a feeling of true self-acceptance. Makes it easier to manage my many interests. [38:08]

Your personal board of directors

How I expanded my set of role models to reflect the way I want to bring creative expression into my life

  Original artwork by Bernadette Cay

Original artwork by Bernadette Cay

In the words of Aristotle, “Man is by nature a social animal.” That’s why “what other people think” can become a creative block, as you saw in my previous email on creative permission

Each of us have different layers of social support. For example, there are folks I would interact with daily (friends, family and coworkers), to communities I interact with weekly or monthly, to role models I admire from afar.

I have deep respect for Silicon Valley’s pantheon of leaders, such as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Sheryl Sandberg. The careers of these leaders are of course highly creative and interdisciplinary, but there are a lot of different ways to integrate creativity into one’s life. 

In bringing creativity back into my life, I noticed that I needed to expand my set of role models to include people who expressed those elements in ways that interested me the most.

I remembered an unusual assignment from college: each of us had to create a “Personal Business Plan.” A business plan is usually intended to help a company with strategic planning. It includes stuff like the company's vision statement, the company’s product/service offerings, market opportunity and market risks. 

For this assignment, we had to create a business plan for our lives as if we were a company, e.g. describe our vision for our lives, our strengths and skills, etc.

Companies can have a board of directors to help lead the company. For this assignment, we got to nominate a “Personal Board of Directors” of people whose “superpowers” could complement our own skills.

Here’s the twist: The “board members” could be real of fictional. They could be dead or alive. No need to have met them before, or to share the list with anyone.

I didn’t think about this exercise for years. Now, as I encounter creative and interdisciplinary people in articles or conferences, I add them to a doc that’s an ever-growing list of virtual "board members."

When I have an idea for new project, a decision to make or I’m feeling discouraged by my “inner critic,” sometimes it helps to think about how one of my “board members” would have approached it. This practice helps me feel less alone as I navigate my interdisciplinary creative adventures and puts my fears into perspective.

How have your role models inspired your creative journey?

Nature does not ask permission

Moving from fear to creative permission, and what actually happened when I started making art again

Original artwork by Bernadette Cay. Paper and acrylics on Stonehenge paper.


As some of you may know, I had stopped making art for 10 years, before starting to make art again around this time last year. 

In examining my creative blocks, I noticed something odd about one of them: I was waiting for someone to give me permission to make art. As a “good student,” I was used to getting permission and seeking external validation before taking action.

Because making art wasn’t practical, I didn’t feel like I was “allowed” to do it. I felt selfish and guilty for wanting to do something just because I enjoyed it. At its core, this was fear: fear of some kind of punishment or social ostracization.

I realized that such permission would only come from myself. Furthermore, whether or not anyone gave me permission to make art, the desire for creative expression was not going to go away.

At peace and alive

I smile when I think about what actually happened when I started to make art again on nights and weekends: Instead of pain or punishment, I felt at peace and alive. To my surprise, instead of social ostracization, over the past year I’ve strengthened existing relationships and made new ones among viewers who resonate with my art. 

This quote was one of many pieces of wisdom that helped me reframe those beliefs and start making art again. It’s also the inspiration for the above piece of art, from my latest group of work.

“Nature doesn’t ask permission. Blossom and birth whenever you feel like it.” – Clarissa P. Estés

Creative quest #1: Cycles of life and death

My approach to exploring some of life’s most uncomfortable questions and how they intersect with tech and art

“Cycles of Life and Death” by Bernadette Cay. Charcoal and pencil on kraft paper.

Creative quests

As a “scanner” with many skills and interests, I’ve been experimenting with different ways to fit art into my life. I’ve finally found one that fits: creative quests are now the foundation of my current artistic practice. 

Here’s my process:

  1. Pick a theme and ask questions. I pick a theme that’s top of mind at this stage in my life and the questions I have around it.
  2. Collect different perspectives and experiences. I collect interdisciplinary perspectives, offline experiences and tech trends around the theme to help inform possible answers to the questions.
  3. Make art. Someday, maybe later this year or even years from now, I may make art about it to share the journey with others.

The themes tend to be on the weighty side of the human condition, themes I know I’m not alone in having questions around. 

Instead of an academic point of view, I hope for the quests to be experiential and from the point of view of a working professional. How might a working professional explore these bigger questions without going to graduate school? How might the answers inform daily life?

The structure of my creative quests are a contrast to my otherwise analytical way of thinking. They are driven by process and curiosity, not by the execution of a pre-defined result. Instead of a definite “start date” and “end date”, my intuition will help inform when I’ve satisfied my interest. I don’t aim to find definitive answers to these difficult questions, but rather to consider them for myself.

Creative Quest #1: Cycles of Life and Death

Why these topics? Why explore them now?

I’m on sabbatical from the tech world and discerning my next steps. There’s endless advice available on how to approach one’s career. 

Another perspective to consider is something to the effect of, “In light of knowing I will die someday, how should I live?” Taking it one step further, how might you consider that question without living from a place of fear? 

Such thought experiments have been useful wake-up calls for me before. For example, a guided visualization of my funeral was one of many inspirations for starting to make art again after ten years.

“For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.” – Sally Mann

These words from photographer Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still describe one part of my interest in this creative quest. At the other end of the life spectrum, the beginning of life is top of mind as friends and colleagues around me are starting families and as I’m discerning my own choices around this.

Life, death and tech

In the past five years alone, it’s become much faster to create new products and services (e.g. AWS, mobile app development tools). The question is now less of the “how” to build but more about the “what” to build.

What technologies are we creating to support these important life processes? Some that come to mind are Honor (in-home elder care) and Winnie Labs (parenting).

What about technology that enables more meaningful connections and life experiences, given what matters most at the end of life? Some that come to mind are the proliferation of delivery and in-home services, 7 Cups of Tea (online therapy) and Hey Vina (Tinder for making platonic female friends).

How does the belief that you’re not going to die affect how you live? When I mention this creative quest to one engineer, he looked me straight in the eye and told me with absolute certainty that he is not going to die, citing life-extension endeavors like Calico.

How can birth and death be more spiritual and embodied experiences? Birth and death are currently highly medicalized experiences. Yet there’s a yearning for something deeper, as evidenced by the growing demand for birth doulas, end-of-life doulas, improvement of hospital architecture and more natural burial practices.


Here are some notes from the three months so far that I’ve been on this creative quest. The experiences so far have focused on end of life. I hope to do more around the beginning of life later in the year.

Zen Hospice Project

The Zen Hospice Project applies mindfulness to the dying process. Their Guest House is a six-bed residential care facility in the Haight. I heard about the Zen Hospice Project through BJ Miller’s TED Talk.

I participated in a workshop on mindful caregiving. We did an exercise to face our own fears around death, to avoid projecting them onto the patient. 

In addition, this exercise shifted my perspective on life and death itself, showing that as we age, we gradually lose our skills and abilities (e.g. motor skills, vision, memory). We were invited to consider the emotional impact of these painful losses and the impact to one’s sense of “self.”

YG2D Open Mic Event

YG2D” is “You’re Going to Die,” a movement to “bring people creatively into the conversation of death and dying.” I attended one of their sold-out monthly open mic events at The Lost Church in the Mission. Folks can sign up to tell a story, sing a song or read a poem in this safe space. The stories and performances, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes hilarious, brought the audience to both laughter and tears. One beautiful poem that was read was The Well of Grief.

When Breath Becomes Air

At thirty-six years old, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. This beautifully written book explores the question, “What makes life worth living in the face of death?” The exchanges between Kalanithi and his oncologist were especially interesting to me. Each time Kalanithi asked about how much time he had left, the oncologist had the same reply: “What’s most meaningful to you?”

Your help

These creative quests can also help cultivate the practice leaving room for serendipity. Several of the most interesting experiences I’ve had or books that I’ve read on this creative quest came from recommendations from friends, from events I saw on my Facebook News Feed or from other unexpected sources.

If you have any related resources you’d like to share that you’ve found interesting about the cycles of life and death, such as podcasts, articles, experiences or events, please let me know.

Don't know where to start? Try a creative quest

Find the momentum, focus and permission to bring an idea to life

Detail of "Awareness" by Bernadette Cay. Watercolor on newspaper and lokta paper.

What is a creative quest?

A creative quest is a multi-day program to help jump-start your creative process. Once you’ve designed a process you trust, you show up and do it. Even if you don’t want to sometimes. Even if it seems like you’re not seeing “results” right away.

Choose your own adventure

Creative quests have played an important role in my artistic journey. A daily drawing project (similar to Elle Luna’s #The100DayProject) was the momentum I needed to start making art again after 10 years. For the full story and tips on designing this type of creative quest, read on.

A creative quest can take on other forms, including a physical voyage. “Walking artist” Hamish Fulton walked +1000 miles across the UK in 47 days and made art about it. Photographer Reuben Krabbe took a team on an expedition to the Arctic to in search of a once-in-a-lifetime shot of skiers in front of a solar eclipse

A creative quest can also be an introspective process, no travel necessary. Examples include the book The Artist’s Way, a 12-week self-guided process to unblock and deepen your creativity. You can live your whole life as a creative quest, as in Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

Benefits of a creative quest

  1. Momentum. The emphasis is on moving forward with the process and less on the results.
  2. Focus. A creative quest helps narrow focus without closing off new ideas.
  3. Permission. For some, it’s permission to make time and space in our lives for creative expression. For me, it’s permission to explore topics that are sometimes uncomfortable.

Creative Quest #1

Creative quests are the foundation of my current artistic practice. One creative quest I’m on now is around the cycles of life and death. So far, this quest has brought me to the Zen Hospice Guest House in the Haight, an open mic event at The Lost Church in the Mission and more. Read on for more about this creative quest (and how you can help) >>

For those of us who aren't 100% fearless

After years of thinking I needed to “overcome” all my fears before taking action, one observation made all the difference

When “rationality” is fear in disguise

Every step of the way, fear has cast its familiar shadow. Fear of not getting a job amidst the 2008 financial crisis. Fear of making the wrong choices. Fear of illness. And so on.

I had considered my fears entirely rational and absolute truth. Reflections of the inexorable laws of nature and economics. Furthermore, as a modern “fearless” woman, I wasn’t supposed to have fears anyway.

Whenever I had an idea to create anything or to do something outside the Traditional Life Path, I told myself, “I’ll do X when I have addressed all of my rational concerns.”

That would make sense, right? To first “overcome” all of my fears before taking action.

I’m thankful for the educational and career momentum I’ve had over the past 10 years. Yet oddly, as a result of this way of thinking, I still felt “stuck.”

Desires > fears

About this time last year, when I was discerning my next steps and had just started making art again, I met with some people whom I admired. I realized that they didn’t live in an alternate universe, where there was nothing to fear.

They lived in the same world, with the same physical and economic hazards. They weren’t 100% “fearless” either. They woke up in the middle of the night with their concerns too.

However, I noticed that one difference was that their desires outweighed their fears. They were clear on their desires. They wanted them strongly enough that they were willing to do what they could to manage their fears and pursue their desires anyway. They weren’t waiting for their fears to go away entirely.

They would take one small step and then another in the direction of their dreams, with their fears and desires side by side, forever.

This observation inspired the artwork above. Big thank you to the brave folks who contributed your fears and desires!