Finding Your Voice, and Your Unique Style

Starting a New Life, Italywise

I’ve always preferred Bernini’s style of David, to Michelangelo’s. Yet, there is no right and no wrong, when it comes to self expression.

Part of the journey to finding your voice, in art and in life, means finding your unique style. Much of our conditioning insists on sanctioned modes of expression, which can muddy the waters and stymie us from stepping into a style of being and expression that feels authentic.

My experience is that most people have to hack through life with a metaphorical machete to find what feels genuine for them. I believe a fundamental human dilemma is believing we all need to share the same reality or approach to life. Why else would our intellects have evolved, yet our attachment to war and conflict not abated?

One of my favorite singers, Vonda Shepard, speaks to the challenge of finding one’s authentic voice, in the midst of society’s conditioning, in her song Mischief and Control (from her album It’s Good Eve, available at Amazon.com), referring to the “painter” in all of us, as she seeks to express herself. For me “control” is a creativity-killer, and “mischief” speaks to the importance of play in finding your voice, while learning to ignore the chorus of other voices…

…But there’s an army of voices
She might have to get through… – Vonda Shepard

While my dear Momma Liz continues to coach me from the great beyond, I remember her always urging me to experiment and to try different approaches on my journey to finding my own style. She also reminded me that the world would be full of people telling me to follow their paths, and to not be discouraged.

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Finding Your Voice, and Learning to Play

I believe the word “should” can be your greatest nemesis when it comes to learning to play and to “finding your voice”. As I wrote in the first installment of this series, to “color outside the lines” probably has been the most important advice left to me by my artist mother. The “shoulds” of our conditioning will keep you prisoner to preconceived concepts of how life is supposed to be, and they will leave you in narrow world that doesn’t reveal to you the magnificent possibilities of self-expression.

Easier said than done. Oh, how I wish I could toss all my “shoulds” to the side of the road, and proceed happily on my journey. But, I’ve found it’s like pulling weeds. The first step is being aware of them and seeing their roots, which go way back to childhood when potent influences, like society, the church and the school system began training our brains and behaviors into becoming well-behaved and perfect little beings.

At the beach and ready for mischief.

At the beach and ready for mischief.

We do know how to play, but most of us have forgotten. Playing was like breathing as children, but as adults all too often we look at play simply as a diversion from the more difficult realities of life vs. being a rich source for unearthing the treasures that exist in every one of us.

While, like most people, I experienced many powerful “molding” influences to keep me in line as a young child, my mom’s approach to art was a good antidote. Liz was fearless in playing and experimenting in her studio, and in the classroom. She would think nothing of going outside our house and tearing off an interesting piece of bark from a tree, and taking it into her studio and glueing it to a canvas, and then building a painting around it. She did this with many found objects, and I loved her “collage” period. I liken it to her swimming around all the possibilities for creative expression to find what resonated with her. And, different themes and media resonated with her at different times. She exemplified the metaphor of letting the river (of creativity) take her on an undisclosed journey.

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Finding your voice – in art, and in life.

Finding your voice sometimes can take a lifetime. We often have to dig our way out of a mountain of conditioning, and voices telling us how things are “supposed” to be and what is “acceptable”. Confusion ensues, and we can be afraid to color outside the lines. Because discovering one’s own voice is such a rich topic, and one central to the fabric of my being, this post will be the first of four installments.

I was blessed to be born to a mother full of life, and with a love of teaching. My mom, Liz Smith-Cox, was a highly influential art educator in the public school system. Her students remember the powerful impact she had on their lives, in the art classroom, and in life in general. I remember how she recognized my artistic abilities at the age of five when I crafted the “Happy Squirrel” out of terra-cotta clay. The little guy had movement, and personality. She kept putting clay, drawing paper, crayons and pencils in my hand, and encouraged me create or draw anything and everything that struck my fancy. No limits.

The woman who taught me to find my own artistic voice - my mom, Liz Smith-Cox.

The woman who taught me to find my own artistic voice – my mom, Liz Smith-Cox.

Then, I entered first grade, where I was under the tyrannical rule of a mean old lady, Mrs. Anderson. Someone had “taken the meat out of her sandwich” years before, and she was keen to rule with an iron fist, and a hard set of rules as to how things should be done. Why such an embittered soul was put in charge of joyous, and impressionable young children is beyond me. On my second report card, Mrs. Anderson gave me D in handwriting. My mother was dumbfounded, and when she met with the teacher to gain an understanding of why, Mrs. Anderson explained that handwriting included “coloring” and I was refusing to color within the lines of the drawings provided. It had nothing to do with my penmanship. My mom was furious. I think this is one of the first times I understood the force of my mom’s belief that creativity should be unfettered. I also remember how she stood up at a PTA meeting and gave a man a thorough dressing down for suggesting that all that was needed for art in the schools was some crayons and a coloring book. “Coloring outside the lines” became a recurring theme and mantra in her many years of teaching and workshops.

My Momma Liz was a tiger when it came to protecting and encouraging the individuality of the creative voice. I am incredibly blessed that she nurtured me along in this regard, as I believe such a foundation has helped me find my voice much more easily. This isn’t to say that I haven’t taken detours into what I believed was the accepted way to go, but something always has harkened me back to my own path.

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Piano Piano – The Art of Slowing Down

Why rush? I’m asking myself this question more and more. Italian life, and the emphasis on slowing down to savor the present moment, steadily has been exposing my American conditioning of go, do, and achieve.

Italians value slowing downs and enjoying the moment.

Italians, as a general rule, value slowing down, connecting with others, and enjoying the present moment.

My favorite saying here in Italy is “piano, piano” which translates as “slowly, slowly” or “softly, softly”. You’ll be hard pressed to find this exact translation if you refer to an Italian-to-English dictionary. This puzzles me because it is used so frequently. My best understanding is that it originates from musical terminology, and is an indication to approach and play a particular piece or section of music more slowly and softly. Nonetheless, it has become a new mantra.

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Lost in thought, or anchored in the present?

 

Clouds are an oft-used metaphor for thoughts...

Clouds are an oft-used metaphor for thoughts…

A fair warning…this post is going to be fairly philosophical. I feel compelled to share these rather personal musings with you, since I believe I’ve been asked by life, as part of this major move to Italy, if “thinking” and “thoughts” are serving me, or if I am their prisoner.

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that, somewhere along the way in my development, I adopted the belief that thinking was my most powerful weapon, and my best armour to the perils of life. I suspect the real shift or enslavement to thought (vs. “being”) began somewhere around ten or eleven years old when I began plotting a strategy to ensure I would always feel safe in the world, and to get what I wanted. And, this is when I began living locked away in the tower of my mind. This is what I mean by being “lost in thought”.

In retrospect, I see the enormous energy drain that resulted from living this way – watching, thinking, worrying and controlling. This didn’t reach the breaking point, or the point at which I realized “There has to be a better way.” until I made the decision to move my life, lock, stock and barrel, to Italy. I left the security of the familiar, and I couldn’t have asked for a bigger transition that demanded incredible patience, and asked me to “do my best” while simultaneously telling me “to let go”. Old habits don’t die a quick or easy death.

“Trying to change thought with thought is like trying to bite your own teeth.” – Alan Watts

I’ve listened to a fair number of Alan Watts’s lectures. He has always been a great source for shaking up my usual perspectives on how things are supposed to be. This particular quote hit me between the eyes. A few simple words had described the mental battle I had been losing in trying to change myself and adapt.

I came to see, and doubt, the belief that I could use the power of my mind (thinking) to conquer or muscle my way through anything.

This has lead to some other personal realizations.

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Trusting life can yield surprising results…

The two "miracle" kittens are happily frolicking outside the house.

The two “miracle” kittens are happily thriving.

If you’ve been following my Italian adventures on this blog, you may have read my post “Courage, and building a new life” in which the challenging circumstances surrounding the birth of three feral kitten taught me about moving ahead in the face of uncertainty. When I last wrote, Micia finally had started producing milk and the two surviving kittens looked as though they had a fighting chance. This was almost two months ago, and I’m happy to report that they are thriving, and frolicking about in our little neighborhood. I named the kitten with the strong black and grey markings “Fonzie”. His little sister is still awaiting her name. You see, until a more careful examination recently, we didn’t realize she was a female. I’m particularly attached to her since I remember when I was huddled up with the newborns, warming them individually in my cupped hands. She was the one who wrapped her tiny paws around my forefinger, and started nibbling on the tip of my finger. She encouraged me to keep going, and she was the one who helped me understand that it wasn’t an inability to feed – it was Micia’s initial inability to produce milk.

These kittens, as well as our dear indoor cat children, Oscar and Francesca, are constant gifts leading me back to the present moment, and away from obsessing about the future.

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Let Life Happen

Giallo - A Study of Love, in Yellow

Giallo – A Study of Love, in Yellow

Let life happen. Be present. These two important lessons keep presenting themselves. When I trust these two mantras, I’m amazed at what happens.

I captured this scene in Trastevere, Rome, when my dear friend Susan was visiting and we leisurely were strolling through the neighborhood after lunch at Grazia & Graziella (always a colorful and delicious experience). Not only do I love how yellow creates a focal point for this image, I also love this moment of tender affection.

This is an example of how life can orchestrate a scene for me, without my attempting to manufacture or control it. I’m learning that, when I open up my personal aperture, instead of maintaining a narrow focus looking for something in particular, life delivers something immensely better than any preconceived idea. My job is to be present and to be aware – and to be quick on the draw with my camera.

Having spent quite a bit of time in Rome, I’ve come to observe countless tourists glued to the their cameras and their smartphones. They seem to be intent on capturing every moment of their experience. In a way, it’s like grasping, striving to hold onto life vs. letting it flow. I see this because I have been the same. When I have been in that mode, life seems to flatten out, losing it rich sense of dimension – all in the pursuit of “holding on” and being afraid of missing out. And, at those times I have ended up not being fully present for the many wonderful people in my life.

I know my conditioning and my predisposition is to try to muscle my way through life. Now, I’m learning a path of relaxing into the flow of life, and trusting in what is and what will be. Because conditioning doesn’t just fall away without time and awareness, I’m certain life will keep bringing me opportunities to build these fledgling muscles. Patience, and more patience.

Relaxing into the moment does not mean being passive and waiting for life to deliver everything to my doorstep. As I have been writing this post, Simone has been downstairs listening to a YouTube interview with Oprah Winfrey. In yet another moment of synchronicity I heard Oprah describing her approach to life as “preparation leaning into the moment of opportunity”. This sums up an important point for me – do the hard work of preparation, and then allow opportunity to present itself.

The hardest thing for me to digest, is that my thinking brain cannot conceive of all that is possible. Becoming untethered from incessant thinking is a new and strange thing. Yet when it happens, I find myself experiencing an alertness that is peaceful and expansive. I’m grateful when these “windows” open up, and I’m also learning not to grasp, or lament when those windows seem to slam shut. All in due time…

Be sure to check out this and other photos and paintings in my online gallery.

 

 

Courage, and building a new life.

CourageLeave it to the birth of three kittens to teach me about courage and learning to let life take you on a journey…

Seven days ago it was Sunday afternoon, and our sweet feral cat Micia was crying just outside our front door. Her water had broken and we knew her kittens would be born soon. Just two hours later we heard the faint cries of the hungry newborns coming from the room below our sun room, which houses the water heater, bundles of kindling, and some plastic tarp. I was sure Micia would take good care of her babies. I went to bed that night confident that all would be well when I awoke in the next morning.

The next morning brought distraught cries from Micia. She was waiting for me at the front door, and she quickly moved in the direction of the kittens, looking back to make sure I was following her. When I entered the room housing the kittens, my heart sank. The three kittens were lying on their backs, they were not moving, and their tongues were protruding from their mouths as if they had painfully departed from this world. I picked one up and I felt a cold, stiff body. Micia looked up at me as if to implore me to “do something.” What could have happened in the course of the night?

I was convinced they were dead, so I put them in a basket and began the grim task of finding a proper burial site.

Then, I saw the faintest of movements. They weren’t dead, just on the verge of making that transition. My head was spinning. What could I possibly do? I ran in the house, read about hypothermia and dehydration of newborn kittens on my Ipad. I was going to have to wing it. So, I went back to the tiny room, and I took each kitten and held them individually in my cupped hands, stopping to stroke them and give them whatever comfort and warmth I could. Micia was steadfast, sitting next to me. She was confused. Her eyes never left me, and they conveyed a trust and hope as she watched me.

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Simplifying and Pruning Back

Cutting back the overgrowth in all areas of your life can free up space and energy for the things that really count.

Cutting back the overgrowth in all areas of your life can free up space and energy for the things that really count.

Friday, March 13. Today, I was furiously attacking the shrubbery in the front of my Umbrian home. How dare it be thriving so much that it would impede the amazing view of the surrounding mountains? But, why was I pruning with such fervor? Then I realized this was a metaphor for aspects of my life that have become so overgrown that the “view” to the rest of the world was becoming obscured.

I have a wonderful life. I live in italy, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have a wonderful home and an amazing partner. So, what’s the problem?

I have been in Umbria for almost five days. I came here to tackle a ton of stuff to get the house in readiness for making it home base for most of spring and summer. An ambitious “to do” list for my six days here (I’m heading back to Rome tomorrow night) was heavily weighted towards purging and pruning. Simone recently has been steering me towards books and online resources for simplifying and “tidying up” one’s life. I think he was sharing this information as a form of intervention. You see, I’ve allowed parts of my life to become overgrown and I have not been traveling “light”. I’ve been a great example of consumerism, subscribing eagerly to the belief that by adding more material possessions I was nailing a key part of the formula for happiness. Now I realize the pursuit of more has been crowding out who and what is truly adding to my happiness.

While this isn’t an earth-shattering realization for many of you, it is for me. Making a public confession is cathartic. As I write this, I’m wondering why it has taken so long for me to wake up to the facts that I am a hoarder – not the extreme kind you’ve seen on the news or in documentaries, where people live amongst stacks and stacks of useless stuff while sharing their living quarters with dozens of cats or dogs. I’ve been a hoarder simply because I’ve accumulated more stuff than I need or use. When I open my closets they’re jammed with so many choices (shoes included) that I become overwhelmed and opt for something familiar and comforting. Could my happiness really be about quality and not quantity? Could I feel more spacious and centered with less things vying for my attention?

Listening to Barry Schwartz’s TedTalk “The Paradox of Choice” was what initially help to wake me from my “gotta-have-more” slumber. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is now helping guide me towards a less cluttered life.

As of today, I have officially donated and “retired” at least 1/2 of my clothes and shoes. This involved five giant, packed, heavy-duty garbage bags. I almost strained my back trying to get them out of the house. Mind you, this was already after divesting myself of about 1/3 of my stuff when I moved from the States. Obscene? Yes. And, I am tempted to make yet another pass. I won’t believe myself anymore when I tell myself that I’ll use something “someday”. It’s a lie.

Soon I will tackle other areas of accumulation – most notably my computer data. Don’t laugh. Now that I have a new MacBook Pro to replace my very old iMac and MacBook Pro (over six years old), I’m downsizing, and planning on working with only my new laptop paired with a larger monitor. However, I’m a bit more intimidated by this task because I am weighed down by data – files and files of photos and documents. Again, I’ve been kidding myself when I say I’ll use it all. Time for major data pruning.

The list for pruning goes on and on…including the prolific growth outdoors here in Umbria. AND, and last (and certainly not the least) are the contents of my overactive mind. That is a topic worthy of its own post.

Staying on top of all of these things, and not allowing the same accumulations to insidiously creep into my life, is a step towards a freer mind and heart. More time and attention for the things that bring authentic happiness – my partner, family, friends, art, writing, and this wonderfully inspiring country called Italy!

A surprisingly inspiring bus ride on a rainy morning in Rome.

A rainy early morning on the 3B in Testaccio, Rome.

A rainy morning on the 3B in Testaccio, Rome.

Thursday morning, March 4, 2014. Beauty can show up in the most unexpected ways when you open your eyes and step aside from your normal perspectives.

I woke up this morning…reluctantly. Outside was cold, steady rain. I’m a sunshine man. I live to see the sun, and I usually pout internally when the sun is in hiding, and when I have to face inconvenient weather elements. Still, I roused myself, took a shower, had a strong coffee, bundled up and headed out to catch my bus to my intensive Italian language class. I couldn’t shrug off the class, because I paid handsomely for the course (worth every euro), and I didn’t want to lose my bearings in the middle of a very important segment on pronoun placements when using imperative verb forms.

My normal commuting strategy for less-than-ideal weather is to pop in my ear buds, navigate my Iphone to YouTube or ITunes, and shut out the world until I arrive at my destination. But, today, I was more keenly aware of this inclination and made a different choice. I purposely packed away my ear buds and made a conscious decision to pay attention to the world around me. I put my Iphone in readiness as a camera.

I looked everywhere, observing how the citizens of Rome were dealing with the weather. I first scanned the landscape inside the bus, and then my gaze move outside. And, I discovered that the rainy window on my left was presenting me with a different perspective on the world. So, as we approached the subsequent bus stops, I started clicking ways. Here you see the results – a pretty significant departure from my usual photographic style. With only slight color enhancements, these images are basically un-retouched. I love how they capture the mood and essence of the morning and the weather, and how they feel more like paintings than photographs.

I’m experimenting and playing. I can hear the voice of my Momma Liz urging me to play, to color outside of the lines of normal convention…and to not be afraid to fail. Thanks Mom, you still reside within me and inspire me.

While this post is primarily about art and creativity, today’s experience is helping me to relax the tenacious grip I have on the steering wheel of life. I’m learning to let go of a mountain of conditioning and preconceived notions of how life is supposed to show up, and to quit trying to control everything. Life has a funny way of taking you to places and experiences that can be pretty damn amazing if you just get out of the way.

 

A quick and simple shot through the rainy window on my daily bus ride.

A quick and simple shot through the rainy window on my daily bus ride.

Art and magic is everywhere. A rainy buswindow adds a beautiful filter for the world outside.

Art and magic is everywhere. A rainy bus window provides a beautiful filter for the world outside.

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