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.

Even though I am writing about finding one’s voice in the context of being an artist, I believe the lessons I’ve learned apply to life in general – and to the search for finding your authentic self. Funny how art and life are so inextricably intertwined.

Unearthing your authentic voice can take some work, so have your pick ax handy.

This often involves a bit of doing, especially if you are swimming in all the shoulds and don’ts of our conditioning. In many cases it is like undertaking an archeological dig, to remove all the noise getting in your way. Artistically, this has been an easier path for me, since my mom always prodded me to look at things from a different perspective, and always with fresh eyes. I was taught that art is a potent language of expression – one that communicates the full gamut of human experience and emotion. Yes, both dark and light. My mom also had a knack for understanding and supporting that the view from every individual set of eyes beholds something different and precious. She was a master of coaxing out the creative spirit in me, and countless other people.

My mom always liked interesting “characters” and she seemed to avoid idealized beauty, especially when it came to people. Liz was highly influential in this way, and I found myself drawn more and more to depicting older people whose faces were topographic maps reflecting their personalities and their lives. I love telling stories, and such faces speak volumes. I almost aways start with the eyes, and build a painting from there. If the eyes aren’t “right”, and if I don’t feel as though I’ve captured the person, I just have to scrap the painting and start over, or move on to another subject.

In finding my voice, I’ve had to fend off opposing opinions, and fears from other artists. I was once told by a commercially successful artistic that I “should” avoid painting Greek widow women wrapped in black garb because it seemed too similar to a black burka, and therefore “might turn off potential clients”. This artist’s work was beautifully executed, but I felt like the soul was missing. Sure, he had landed a successful formula, and was duly cranking it out and raking in the dough, but I just couldn’t bring myself to approach my art like that.

From the invitation of a mother-son museum exhibition.

From the invitation of a mother-son museum exhibition.

Another artist whom I admire immensely, was and still is an amazing watercolor artist. Being the primary breadwinner in her family, she bent to the directives of her gallery and painted florals, which were selling briskly. But, executing art in this factory-like manner wasn’t bringing her joy. I happened upon a conte crayon sketch she had done of a woman brushing her hair and, in my opinion, it was spectacular and full of life. I asked her best friend why she wasn’t doing more of this. Her gallery had convinced her there wasn’t a market for “that” kind of work. Not much raises my ire, but this kind of soul-killing stranglehold that galleries and art critics have on artists makes my blood boil. My hero, and the artist whose work has always been highly influential to me is Andrew Wyeth. He rose to fame and success, and stayed there. What is remarkable about his ascent is that he accomplished it as a realist in the midst of an explosion of abstract expressionism. Critics and many art purveyors scoffed at his work and called him a mere illustrator. They couldn’t stand that his work resonated with so many people. Maybe you’re not a fame of realism, but I invite you to do an internet search of his work, particularly his Helga series.

One’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes – Andrew Wyeth

The journey to finding your own voice can take many twists and turns. In the journey to discovering what resonates with your soul, love is a trustworthy guide. Without love, you may find yourself just going through the motions. I believe, as your internal compass leads you closer and closer to your unique voice and expression, you will feel the love that will transport you from doing into being. This has been my experience. Dear Momma Liz modeled this for me, and even though I sorely miss her constant presence, she still coaches me from the great beyond. I can hear her now, saying, “Now that you’ve found your voice, remember to play, and never forget to color outside the lines.” More on learning to play in the next installment.