Artistic Voice Part 1: Listening

In the original discussion on artistic voice, I posed a simple question: 

How do we as artists cultivate our artistic voice?

I brainstormed on this question for a while, and came up with five methods that artists can (and do) use to help clarify, inspire, and challenge their own artistic voice.  I’ve decided to start with one of the simplest and most accessible tools: listening.

Artistic Voice Part 1: Listening

How do you define an artist?  Personally, I paint the “artist people” with a big, wide, background brush: I think everyone is an artist.  Some folks, however, choose to dedicate a considerable chunk of their life and energy to creating expressive arts – the traditional arts we know as dance, painting, sculpture, music, et cetera ad nauseum.

What distinguishes these folks as artists, apart from what they create?  I like to think of it this way: we all have voices in our head.  Artists actually listen to them on a regular basis.

[Note: I acknowledge that for some people, this is not a subject to be taken lightly.  This is exemplified in a recent New York Times articleI mean no disrespect to people who have to live regularly with voices in their head that they cannot mute.]

Moving right along: for the majority of us, we have various ideas, distractions, and other bric-a-brac that calls out on a regular basis and tries to derail our rational thinking process.  I believe that an artist is someone who actually stops and listens to those voices, takes their council, and tries to translate what s/he hears through their artistic work.

More than just listening to our inner voices, we artists generally learn to listen to the world around us with greater temerity (or at least greater curiosity).  The simple act of listening – to other people, to the earth, to ourselves – is a powerful tool for the artist.  By listening, watching, touching, tasting, and yes, smelling, we as artists gather all the materials necessary to create a piece of art with meaning, substance, and form.

“Active listening” reminds me of boring grammar lessons and “critical reading” exercises from elementary school, but there is something to be said for its intended purpose.  Active listening, as its name suggests, is a process by which the listener is engaging with what s/he hears.  Usually this is taught to mean that you use your active listening to create pertinent questions by which you can actively participate in the conversation.

Let’s look at an example:

Imagine a neighbor is telling you about a recent mishap with the lawnmower.  As this neighbor tells their story, your mind starts to create a story.  This may have nothing to do with neighbors, or lawnmowers, or mishaps.  Maybe your thoughts have to do with the relationships people have with their misfortunes, large and small.

Your neighbor rambles on, and you are now engaged in a multi-layer process: you’re listening to what your neighbor says, and processing that input.  You’re connecting that input with another concept in your mind.  Finally, you’re using those connections to generate a few key questions that you’ll either ask, or seek the answer to amid whatever your neighbor has to say about that unfortunate lawnmower incident.

Then again, you may just fill in the blanks with a crazy story of your own.

Now that I’ve dragged you through the laborious part, let me be concise:


Artists can use careful observation of themselves, their world, their fellow artists, and their own thought processes to help sculpt their own voice.  By listening carefully and often, an artist gains clarity on what precisely s/he wants to say with their work.

Recently, Anita Marie Moscoso of Owl Creek Bridge shared some of her own thoughts with me regarding artistic voice.  Anita Marie wrote,

“In music you have to hear it in your head in order to play it – I’ve learned that in order to write a story I have to see it first.”


Anita Marie’s thoughts clearly describe that simple act of listening that is critical for any artist: even if you don’t compose your work quite as she describes above, you still have to “listen” for it in your own inner workings.  That process of listening is what helps you find your artistic voice, and practice (the subject of Artistic Voice: Part 2), helps you direct that process.

Let’s hear from the peanut gallery!

Where do you like to visit?  What are your favorite places – real or imagined – that you like to go to watch or listen?  How do you engage with listening and observation as an artist?

Next in the artistic voice series: practice, practice, practice.


8 Responses to Artistic Voice Part 1: Listening

  1. Anita Marie says:

    It’s all about the voice isn’t it Jade?

    And the more you write or draw the stronger it becomes- it’s all about becoming comfortable with that sound. Once you have that you’ll be confident enough to say what you need to say without sending it through a filter.

    This is a great article and I can’t wait to participate more in the discussion

    Anita Marie

  2. Ester says:

    i personally have found that listening to a mental dialog causes me to doubt, whereas feeling the world (listening to my emotional heartbeat) helps me stay in tune with the visual language of art. The difference between you and I may be that your method of expression comes in writing, and I think that creating visuals that communicate have to come from feelings that are not expressed in words (at least for me). Listening is definitely crucial, and I start to see who I am based on my relationship with what I’m listening to.

  3. JLB says:

    Anita Marie, your word choice is appropriate – “becoming comfortable with that sound” of your own artistic voice has been a real focus for me in recent years, and I think that the artists I really admire most are the ones who have found their way to that voice (by one means or another) and stay true to it as it evolves.

    Ester, thank you so much for offering another perspective on this! You’ve actually done a much better job at explaining something I was sharing with Anita Marie about how I write poetry – for me, writing effective poetry is different than my other writing, as with stories and essays. Listening to that “emotional heartbeat” you mentioned is precisely the way I work with my poetry. If I don’t disengage from that “mental dialog” you described, the poem comes out rather… “angular” or contrived, or at the very least more formulaic. Thanks again for offering another take on this topic.

  4. Bernita says:

    One has to be in a state of awareness before the linkages come, perhaps.

  5. Excellent post! I like listening to the emotional heartbeat as an idea. I read and listen to a lot of poetry so that it becomes second nature and I hear poetry all the time. With visual art, i am open to things other than sound, but it still feels like listening in some way. I love going to art exhibitions and the cinema, walking (anywhere, whether nature or built up areas, but always being observant and open to what’s going on round me).

  6. JLB says:

    Bernita, at the very least, keeping the door open a crack can’t hurt. 😉

    Crafty Green Poet, I like your comment about “hearing” poetry all the time – I’m not sure if this is quite what you meant, but especially when I’m in a strong writing phase, I start to hear poetry in everything.

  7. Erica says:

    Great thoughts! thanks for sharing.

  8. […] week, we’ll explore Part 2 of our discussion on artistic voice.  I also have some thoughts to share on the kinetic arts, and if I can ever get caught up on all […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: