Developing your own artistic voice from your unique story
I sometimes get messages asking how I create my mixed-media artworks: what materials I use; how they’re constructed; how to preserve the petals… Now, we artists can be precious about our processes, and I hope that the reasons why might become clear through this post - it's usually more to do with authenticity than fear of being copied. For me, process has always been a way of thinking, and it can feel disingenuous to say to someone, "here's the process, off you go", when it omits this most essential part of the work. That said, my work is particularly labour-intensive, and I think that this labour can lead people in their own directions, so I will usually share what I can in the hope that it might encourage the enquirer's own creative solutions.
But I had a message recently asking whether I would ever use artificial flowers and butterflies, and it got me to thinking that in fact, maybe answering a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would be inadequate - that there's a larger question than process here that needs to be addressed.
So in this post, I thought I would explain some of my background, some of the themes that inform my work, and perhaps this can form a better roadmap to creating an artwork than learning by rote the practices I use in making. Because, I suspect, anyone wishing to create their own artwork, might in fact be wishing to end at a destination other than mine.
I’ve always viewed art as a means of communication. It’s an alternative to writing; it simultaneously explores and expresses ideas, but for me, visual art is a more ambiguous, less defined, and that’s a place where I find a lot of truth. But considering art as communication - as language - is useful as you can approach it methodologically in a similar way. With words you need two things: vocabulary, and something to say. The combination of these two things is your artistic voice.
Your vocabulary is your visual language: it’s the skills you have accumulated, the application of marks or stitch or sound.
I grew up with the influence of my dad, who, though not artistic himself, brought us up around paintings, visiting galleries, noticing the way artists had captured the light or the fold of the fabric on canvas. And I grew up with the influence of my mum, an avid crafter and maker, attending her classes where we learnt stitch and beading, weave and texture. And I grew up with my art teachers - from school through to postgraduate study - who taught me to analyse, to deconstruct, to build. My visual language is an amalgamation of these things; it’s the wonder of the old master painters, the humility of the stitch, the craft and interrogation of years in the studio. My practice couldn’t have manifested itself without these things, it’s a reflection of me and my lived experience.
So when you’re thinking about your own visual language, think about the skills you’ve accumulated over your life. Do you have an aptitude for textiles, for paint, for words? Can you build structures, make things that move, nurture a garden? These things, and the strange ways in which disparate skills can come together, are the things that will inform your vocabulary and make it true to you and your individual experience. It’s useful to look at other artists’ work because the work that resonates with you likely resonates because it reflects a part of you. But is it the process - the vocabulary - that speaks to you, or what it says?
My own artwork is about time, loss, mortality, joy. It’s a grappling with the loss of the person I used to be, the person I could have become, a grasping towards the innocence and simple joys of youth. So it’s appropriate for me to ask the questions: how do we stop the decay? How do we find value where it has been lost? How do we stop time from corrupting the beauty of this tiny moment?
So when I was asked if I would ever use artificial flowers instead of dried flowers, my answer is ‘no’, because it wouldn’t then speak to my questions. But someone with a similar vocabulary but grappling with different questions may well have answered ‘yes’, and that would be just as valid.
The trouble is that over time, the things you want to say can change or become more nuanced. And then you’re forced to consider: is the vocabulary I am using able to answer these questions? How can I expand my vocabulary to meet these new concerns? This can be a slow and disruptive process, and in my experience, the vocabulary only grows as you continue to expose yourself to new experiences and influences, to learn new skills and develop the complex networks between these disparate influences. Your artistic voice continues to develop as your life grows in unexpected ways.
So go ahead, make art, experiment, make mistakes, use artificial flowers if it speaks to your concern. But most importantly, don't be afraid of your own voice.