Mixing metaphors I know, but its a convention convenient.
How does one find that unique quality of work and process that lead to a personal voice or style? Today I worked with my friend Susan Marcus on a longstanding book project that has grown out of our mutual history as arts educators and graphic designers, and strengthened as separately we explored personal creative paths in different arts media. Now back together we are hoping to bring the content to a new shape in a book for parents and educators called New World Kids.
At its most basic level, the question posed by these parents is "How do we find out who are children are as creative beings?" And that's the same question I hear adult artists and would-be artists ask, as well.
I believe – and my belief is supported by more than 30 years of work with children in creative learning environments – that each of us is born with an innate preference/leaning toward a particular way of perceiving and giving form that is directly connected to what I (and my colleagues in this work) call the Sensory Alphabet. This vocabulary of non-verbal qualities – line, color, shape, space, light, texture, movement, sound and rhythm -- is a way of thinking about and organizing one’s individual strengths of perception and invention. Looking at one’s preferences and natural tendencies through this lens serves as both a way to self discovery and as a bridge to understand other creative work. This vocabulary is not just an artistic one – it can hold as true to creative work in business as in design, in science as in art.
Think about which of these constructs is easiest for you to notice, to manipulate, to play with –is it pattern (rhythm) or texture or color? What did you love as a young child? Which of these elements are most important to you in your home, your environment? What artists do you resonate to? Design exercises and experiences for yourself that feed your mind’s natural interests, or find teachers that share your sensibilities (look at their work and see what they say about it) who can provide classes that feed your perceptual strengths.
An understanding of your own creative style in terms of this vocabulary can be the starting place for finding your voice – and even help you find the best and strongest medium for work. For example, if color is my strong suite, I might take time to do dye and discharge samples, study Albers and other colorist’s work, take photos exploring color themes, investigate watercolor and glazing, look at color as understood by chemists and physicists, etc. If movement is a strong suite, I might see how to incorporate moving elements in my textile work, take up techniques that use my body in strenuous and challenging fashion, look at how movement blurs an image and how to capture that sense with dyeing or printing, I might even want to dye fabrics and construct garments for dance performances or architectural installations with moving components. Texture, color, line and shape ARE design "terms," but what if we think more broadly about these? Consider these consepts as the equivalent of the written alphabet for a non-verbal syntax.
Most of us have three or four of these strong suites that interact in interesting ways and can pose intriguing puzzles for our work. Tracking down your strongest perceptual elements is usually just a matter of paying attention to preference, to what you notice in a space, to the materials that call your name. Journaling about childhood preferences and doing detective work in your closet, your home, your memory bank can help you name your sensory strengths. What do you fill your personal world with? How do you doodle? What do you wear and why? Is it about color or culture, ease or movement, tactile quality or interpersonal message? There's no wrong or right answer to any of this. What is, what is. It's just that as adults we may have so many "non-individual reasons" -- for protective coloring, for cultural or tribal survival, to fit in or stand out or for keeping the peace -- lots of "outside" reasons for our likes and dislikes, our playtime and routines, that we may have forgotten to pay attention to what it is we really love. Look there. Love what you love. Its the first step to finding your style as as artist, to singing your own song.