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.

What I find remarkable about mom’s powerful artistic influence is that she was raised by a mother who was the epitome of strictness. Meemaw, as we called her, was not one to cross. Mom often would remark that, when she was growing up, Meemaw was all business.  Our grandfather, Warren died when mom was still in college, and I know she grieved deeply. You see, Warren was adept at play (which drove Meemaw crazy) and, fortunately, he instilled the love of mischief and play in little Liz. Still, I could see mom’s struggles, at times, with adhering to accepted norms, but she leaned more and more into the power of play as she grew older. She encouraged me to do the same.

Meemaw Plays Scrabble - by Liz Smith-Cox, acrylic

Meemaw Plays Scrabble – by Liz Smith-Cox, acrylic

My personal demon is perfectionism. Fortunately it doesn’t rule or immobilize me, but often I have to endure and ignore its insistence that “You’d better not screw up”. As an artist, if you only proceed forward when you feel assured of success, probably you’ll produce a lot of “safe” art. Whatever your “art” is in life, do you want to look back on what you have created as something unique and soul-satisfying, or something that kept you out of trouble and provided approval by sticking to the rules laid down by others? How many stories have we heard of people in the their later years being asked what they would have done differently in their lives? A frequent answer is “I would have taken more chances.”

Learning to play in the fullest sense will take courage, and a willingness to ignore the experts and the purists who claim some kind of deified knowledge of the heavenly-blessed approach to creative expression. Just look back at history and the countless examples of new forays into artistic expression that were met with derision and rejection. The Impressionists initially were considered renegades. The Eiffel Tower was considered a monstrosity by many, yet it now stands as the classic symbol of Paris.

When you play, I urge you to embrace failure as your friend. If you want to play, and experiment with different approaches, failure can be one of your best teachers. Its lessons help you course-correct on the way to finding the sweet spot of your own voice. For many of us, it has been pounded in our heads that failure is something shameful. Maybe it’s time to turn that notion on its ear, and realize it is an invaluable element in self-realization.

Lastly, I encourage you to be the one to define what is “play” for you. Don’t let someone else tell you what play should look like or feel like. You’ll know the truth for yourself because you’ll feel a lightness and expansiveness that is your soul’s way of urging you onward. I’ve read quite a bit on the latest brain research – how the two spheres function, and how you can rewire your brain, much like reprogramming a computer. I see the right brain as the rich, spacious playground in which to explore my greatest potential. Residing here, in this creative center, gives me a sense of connectedness, and peace. I’m fully aware that my left brain is loaded with an arsenal of abilities – logic, verbal reasoning, math (also linked with spatial conceptual abilities of the right brain), and sense of time. However, I’ve come to believe that the left brain best functions as the servant and helper to my right brain. I know what it’s like when my left brains has the reins, and it’s not so great. I feel contracted and mired in an endless loop of thinking and analyzing, and very little emerges creatively.

Now that I’m living in Italy, the scales are shifting, and I’m finding the time and space to explore my creativity and to play – more than when I was wedging my personal creative pursuits into the open spaces, which were few and far between, when I had a corporate job that commanded most of my time and attention. Just yesterday, I began sketching out my first oil painting on a large scale. Gulp. I’d love to know how it’s going to turn out, but I know it’s time to jump into the sandbox of possibility and see what happens.

Stay tuned for the next installment, which focuses on finding your unique style and creative signature.