Jenny has been working hard for the last year, learning the skills and techniques needed to produce a good solid portfolio. She’s got business smarts and she understands how to price for success. She is realistic and ambitious. So if she’s ticking all the boxes there must be another reason why she’s booked this creative coaching call with me. After a few “getting to know you and your business” questions I ask her, so let’s get to the bones of it. What do you want to get out of this call, how can I help?
“I’m frustrated” she replies “although my work has improved dramatically over the last year I still don’t feel like I have my own style. I don’t stand out. You wouldn’t look at my work and recognise that its mine.”
The insight is spot on, and it’s an issue many artist struggle with.
“How do I develop a style, that is at once recognisable as mine”
Think about your favourite artists, whether musicians, painters, photographers or writers. If you had to do a blind test I bet you could single out your favourites by just looking at their work or listening to a few bars. You might even be able to single out other artists in the line up who have been influenced by your favourites. So how are they doing it? You might be surprised to learn that in many cases if you asked them they may not even be able to tell you themselves.
I had my suspicions about what was stoping Jenny from being able to fully represent her true self in her art but I needed to dig a little deeper. I continued with our talk and I probed a few topics, checked for resistance and emotional responses. And about 1/2 way into the call there it was. Jenny and her family had experienced a life shattering family tragedy a year earlier, the type of tragedy that you never fully come back from. One that has marked her life as before and after. The “after” her is changed and will bear the scares for a lifetime. Jenny doesn’t “advertise” the event in her business life. She doesn’t hide from and she’ll talk about it if she’s asked directly but she doesn’t put it out there in the world for everyone to see. “It’s too private. It’s still too painful”. I asked Jenny if she felt that she could allow parts of her “after” self, parts of her raw emotion into her art. To allow parts of her story in. But she’s not not ready and I understand that and respect it. It’s not my place to push or pressure - this topic is so much bigger than me and my experience and I can’t begin to know what she’s going through. What became clear though is that this is why she feels that her work isn’t representative of her - it doesn’t speak of who she truly is, because for self preservation reasons she has to keep some of the emotions back. In Jenny’s case it’s understandable and probably safer for her for now. Only she will know when she’s ready to reveal some of the depths of her emotions in the art that she creates. But for most of us who feel that our art is not authentically ours we must ask ourselves are we putting it all out there?
Consider this. If you to take a picture of yourself, covering up parts of your face, showing only a cheek here, an eyebrow there, maybe a hand in the corner of the frame, do you think people would recognise it as a portrait of you? They would have to be very familiar with you to recognise the sum of the parts. The same is true in your art. If you don’t create with all of yourself, channeling your authentic self through your creations then the resulting work will not be recognisable as uniquely yours. What makes an artist’s work unique is the same as that which makes the artist themselves unique, in fact that which makes every single one of us unique - our experiences, our pain, our joy, our longings, our fears and our hopes.
Amy Cuddy, author of Presence, explains what transforms a good ballet dancer even a first or second soloist into a Principal Dancer is not simply learning more precision or technique, it is not the mastery of the moves alone. The Principal Dancer will become one with the music, their partner, the role and the audience, moving as one. They will invest their entire authentic selves into their expression of the music and we the audience, whilst we may not be able to articulate exactly why we are moved, we will experience a truth of being in the presence on the stage.
This is what we need to bring forth in the art that we create, in the work that we do and even in the life that we lead. It’s not just for creatives. The “art of presence” and the development of ones “positive authentic self” is a growth that will enrich everyone. It allows us to handle situations of high stress or momentous challenge at our most effective. When we stop fearing or hiding from ourselves is when we begin to shine.
*Whilst Jenny is a real client of mine, her name has been changed for privacy purposes.