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 article. I 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.
“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.