Musings on Voice

How Do You Find Your Voice?

A recurring theme with polymer artists is that they long to find their artistic voice. A worthy desire! We all want to express things that are unique to us.

I don’t believe, however, that it’s something you go out and find. You already have it. You just have to get out of your own way.

Your handwriting is distinctive, right? You form each letter pretty much the way you were taught but somehow, you can’t help but put your own unique slant on each letter. Somehow, by the infinitesimal motions of your hand, you create a line of text that is so distinct that anyone familiar with your writing would instantly know who wrote it. And your brain does it without even being aware of the formation of each letter. It’s perfectly automatic because you’ve done it a million times.

If you pay a lot of attention to your handwriting and then try on different script styles, trying to find the one that fits the best, will it help you find your ‘true handwriting’? No, not really. You develop your own handwriting by…well…writing the words. Sure, paying attention to the way you hold the pen (technique) will make neater handwriting. But it doesn’t change your voice.

Want to develop your own voice? It’s already there. It’s YOU. Your own particular way of making aesthetic choices or holding a tool or deciding when something is done. The best way to refine your own personal artistic voice is to make things your way. Not imitating others. Not using kits. But by making, doing, using the materials, and becoming comfortable with the choices that will shape the work into something that is unmistakably YOU.

What Does Your Voice “Look” Like?

It’s easy for me to say that we all have a voice. But when you look at the polymer clay work you’re doing, not all of us see something distinctive. How can you find your voice, and how do you know what it looks like when you find it?
We all have a voice. It’s in everything you do. The way you make choices. The colors you choose to wear. The way you arrange furniture or organize a closet. The way you walk slowly or cut vegetables or sweep the floor. It’s…well…um…YOU. So why don’t you see any “you-ness” in your artwork?

Well…and I’m going to be painfully point-blank here….have you allowed it to be there? Are you allowing “you-ness” into your work? Or instead, are you making things that follow a procedure? If you make a skinner blend sheet, apply a silkscreen, cut it with a cutter, and glue on a bail, how can “you-ness” make its way into what you made? That’s a formula. (And formulas have a place, but not when looking for your individual voice.)

Can you draw? If you’re like most people, you’ll respond that you can’t. That’s because drawing is a complex skill (kind of like handwriting), and it takes practice to do well. Most of us learned early that it’s easier (and safer) to draw lollipop trees and triangle-roofed houses rather than drawing what we see. We learned to rely on a formula rather than learning how to draw well. When you try to realistically draw something now, it likely looks pretty rough because you’ve never developed this skill, just like a first-grader who is learning to write.

So back to your voice. You’ve probably been hiding it with formulas for so long that it’s rusty. But it’s there. Trust me. And the people who are close to you can likely see it already.



Developing Your Voice

I’ve written before about the idea that we all have a unique artistic voice, how it has nothing to do with your medium or the techniques used, and even if developing your own voice really matters for most people. Let’s take this one step further. Assuming that it matters to you to explore your artistic voice, how can you do it? How can you develop and refine it?

The simple answer is to create original work. A lot of it.

If you are following formulas (tutorials, projects) or adhering to the aesthetics of a specific trend, you will not see your own voice. It just won’t be there. That’s like trying to be the best chocolate chip cookie maker when you’re following the recipe on the bag. You can do a lot with technique (mixing, scooping, preparing the pan, preheating the oven, etc). But ultimately, there’s just not enough room for enough variation to express a unique voice or vision.

50 Times

I discussed this topic with Claire Maunsell once and she explained that her favorite process for refining a voice is to do the same thing 50 times. She said that by the time you’ve done something 50 times, your own voice can’t help but be there.

She’s not talking about using the same cookie-cutter idea 50 times, making 50 identical items. Instead, make something, totally from your own head, start to finish. Then look at it, decide what you like and don’t like about it. Then make it again, incorporating those changes. Then repeat. 50 times. Take it where you want to go. Explore the way you build the piece. Refine, develop, and try again.

It’s in this refinement, over and over, that you can’t but allow your own voice to come out.

Do a Long-Term Project

Earlier this year, I did a 100-day project where I made a vessel each day. I wasn’t thinking about voice when I did it. I was just trying to make a vessel each day! But toward the end of it, I looked back and could see a trend. You’ll see clean lines, clear colors, a lack of decoration, presented in an orderly way. Not in all the vessels! But overall. And then when I look at my website designs for TBBT and Polymer Clay Love, it’s the same thing. I can also see less than savory aspects of my personality in those vessels, too. Such as my tendency to rush things. In the end, we can’t escape ourselves.

Keep Making

Last week when I showed pictures of the work of various artists with a clear voice, there’s another detail that I didn’t mention. They’re all prolific. They make a LOT of things. Over and over, again and again, finding new ways to speak the voice their heart already knows how to say. Look at the work of Melissa TerilizziShelley AtwoodLynn YuhrSarah ShriverKatie OskinAlice StroppelBonnie BishoffBrenda Billy Tan, and Genevieve Williamson for an idea of what I mean. Each of those artists is singular and unique; their work cannot be confused with anyone else. We all already have that kind of singularity, but it takes a lot of practice to be able to express it so clearly.

Keep being you!!

What IS Voice?

Before trying to see your own voice, it’s helpful to understand what a strong artistic voice looks like in another person. Voice is a nebulous concept. It’s not clear like genre. Everyone knows what kind of books Stephen King writes. But that’s not voice. Lots of people write horror novels. What is the particular, unique, specific way that Stephen King crafts his characters, inserts dialogue, and build suspense? What makes him so unique out of the tens of thousands of authors who work in the same genre?

Okay, here’s a test. Who made this sculpture?

You probably recognize that this was made by Christi Friesen. There are so many things about it that just screams “Christi”. It’s organic, flowing, animated, bends reality, has bright colors, includes nuances of color and shading, has blingy embellishments, is unpolished and tactile, is full of whimsy, and is…frankly…loud and weird. Everything Christi does is like that. Have you ever met her? SHE is like that. Anyone who knows Christi is not surprised when they see something new that she makes. She’s so…Christi. Here’s more of her work. See what I mean? Now THAT’s voice.

It’s easy to assume that it has to do with the techniques she uses. But it doesn’t. Artistic voice seems to pop through no matter what medium an artist uses. Here’s a doodle that Christi made. See? Same flavor. Totally different materials. This one even has a different style (reminiscent of Japanese anime). But the flavor is still Christi.

Okay, so what does this look like in ordinary people and not esteemed, experienced artist superstars? I brought up handwriting for a reason. It’s one of the few ways that all of us show our natural voice. Here’s a snippet of my dad’s handwriting, describing some tools he made.

Note the flowing sweeps of line, ends that poke out, curves, large loops, everything’s a bit slanted, absent of fine details, and it’s large and open, but it’s still orderly with neat(ish) margins. Now does it surprise you at all that he made this about 10 years later?

Do you see the voice here? There’s a flavor. A way, that each of these artists moves materials to make a thing. It’s not about techniques or genre. And it’s not about choosing who to be. It’s already there. Now you don’t always see this voice in my dad’s work. He still does a lot of formula work. He looks to the work of others and takes commissions and explores new avenues. You can see what I mean here on his website.

Do you still think that voice has to do with the techniques you use? Think for a moment about cane-makers. Below are some talented cane-makers who cover things with their canes. Their work is clearly THEM. But they’re all doing the same process with the same material. The difference is their voice.

Covered teapot by Layl McDill.
Polymer tray by Jon Stuart Anderson.
Polymer clay tabletop by Bridget Derc.

It takes a long time to develop and refine and be clear about your voice. To push past the influences of others. To allow yourself to embrace something so seemingly fleeting.

But does it matter? What if you aren’t interested in all this fussing? What if you just want to get on with making things. Is that okay?

Does Voice Matter?

In the old art vs craft debate, strong feelings arise about the ‘worthiness’ of what an artist creates and how that’s separate from what identifies as craft. I’m not going to go into that. It’s a topic for another day.

I’ve realized that the term “art” and “artist” have developed a new meaning in our polymer clay world. Much of the world sees art to be all about FINE ART, like the stuff you see in museums and high-end galleries. Art critics discuss the various merits of the artists and there is a certain fine (some would even say hoity-toity) sense to this. But polymer artists tend to use the word “art” to mean something else.

“I take what I’m doing seriously and aesthetics matter to me and I’m not doing anything with popsicle sticks and googly eyes so it’s obviously not a hobby or a craft and don’t you dare put me into that category. I’ve worked hard to learn these skills and it’s art, dammit.”

I hear you! (I have a LOT more to say about this…again…a topic for another day.) I will always be a champion for excellence, quality, building your skills, and enjoying your work. Regardless of what we call it!

But voice is a concept that comes from the world of fine art. Monet and Renoir often painted the same subjects, but their voice is completely different. Voice is the je ne sais quoi that distinguishes an artist’s work from another. It’s what makes you look at a painting and know if it’s by Salvador Dali or Yves Tanguy, Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque, Rembrandt or Da Vinci. If you are striving to make your way in the world of fine art, it’s imperative that your work has a unique voice. It’s called voice because it relates to having something to say. A message. Fine art, typically, has one. Each piece tells a story (even if it’s sometimes completely impenetrable!)

What is your goal?

If your goal is to be a fine artist, you’d be well-served to develop a strong voice. If you’re selling your work in galleries and want to get top dollar for unique pieces, voice is important so that people know your work is yours and you can command the market for it. But does voice matter if you’re making ornaments for a local craft market? In that case, focusing on quality and branding is probably more important. And if you’re just having fun and learning skills and enjoying the process of making things for your home, the people you love, and maybe dabbling on Etsy now and then? Voice, in that case, is a heavy self-imposed expectation that just does not matter.

Developing your voice is a choice. If you want to do it, there are ways. But if you don’t? Cool! No problem! We’re all enjoying this wonderful medium in different ways. The act of creating is a miracle that makes our lives so much better. Here’s to doing it well, however you feel moved!

“Young Girls in a Rowing Boat”, 1887, by Claude Monet.
“The Seine at Asnieres – The Skiff” by Pierre Auguste Renoir.
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