BEMIDJI -- "I'm a really strong believer in listening to your inner voice," says Marlon Davidson. "A lot of people turn it off, and absolutely do not listen, and go another way."
Davidson has approached most of his nearly 80 years of life with a great deal of thoughtfulness and a strong intention to listen to this voice -- even when it isn't easy. An accomplished visual artist and published author, Davidson taught art for more than 25 years at a public school in St. Paul, and later at Bemidji State University, before retiring to focus on his art and writing full time. He currently lives in Bemidji with his partner of 56 years and fellow artist Don Knudson. They are the owners of Donmar Studio, where they produce individual pieces and collaborations that combine Davidson's pen and ink collages with Knudson's wood sculptures. Their work is featured in public and private collections throughout Minnesota and beyond.
At an early age, Davidson learned the importance of listening to his heart and being honest with himself. In high school, one of his art teachers told him he had real artistic talent. She said, "You can't turn your back on this. You have to confront it with honesty." That was when Davidson first began to consider pursuing art professionally. "She made me realize I wanted a creative life, and that it was different than other pursuits. I learned early on that it might not be as lucrative or as honored by the public, and that I would probably have to struggle to have it; and that some people might look down their noses at it and scoff at it. And that was true -- I did meet that kind of attitude a lot when I was younger."
Yet, other kinds of work he tried did not give him the same sense of enjoyment and meaning. "I did sales," he said. "I worked in a furniture store and a hardware store. I did a number of things to make money to go to college and I never felt fulfilled at all in any of those pursuits. I didn't feel like God was looking down with approval on what I was doing. I found out when I was doing art that I had a feeling like no other. It was satisfying, I was being fulfilled. A bell rang that was the right bell when I was doing creative work."
Davidson's willingness to listen to his inner voice honestly also helped him to come to terms with his sexuality. Davidson says he knew he was gay in high school, but "masqueraded as straight to make life a little easier." However, by the time he was 17 he was uncomfortable pretending to be something he wasn't, and he came out to his friends and family. Soon after graduating from college, he met Knudson. The two began building a life together and Davidson took a teaching job as an art teacher in St. Paul. "It was the 1960s, so it wasn't an easy time to be a gay man." he acknowledges. But like before, honesty won out. "I am not going to live a lie."
Davidson has no regrets about his decisions; directly facing his inner truths has allowed him to be more honest in all areas of his life, both with himself and with others. This is especially true in his writing. He's journaled daily since his 20s, published a memoir called "The Pig Barn," and has had numerous poems and articles appear in print. "Honesty is a theme I keep coming back to," he says. "When I write a poem or when I write an essay, one of the things that's always in my mind is 'am I fabricating anything?'" He enjoys how the process allows him to get closer to the truth about himself and the world around him. "I am explaining myself to myself, and helping myself to understand my life and who I am and the world I live in."
Davidson's honest and heartfelt approach to life has also greatly influenced his art. By simply paying attention to what he felt most connected to and moved by, his own unique style began to emerge. "I developed a style just by pursuing my creative dream," he said. "It happened in a natural way. I didn't intellectualize and say 'I'm going to paint in this way.' I found the thing that was most satisfying to me was pattern and ink and the repetition of natural forms. Nature was my source. It always has been and always will be."
His artistic collaboration with Knudson also developed naturally. For many years, he and Knudson were happy doing their own separate art. Then, in 1982, they were visiting the south shore of Lake Superior. "It was like a moment happened," Davidson recalls. "We found a wooden box that had been washed up on the shore and had broken into pieces. And we just thought: we'll take these home." Once home, Davidson began laying the pieces into one of Knudson's wooden frames, and they suddenly realized they were making a collaborative sculpture. "That's the first inkling we had that we could do something." says Davidson. Their first full collaborative piece still hangs on their living room wall, three decades later.
Listening to this inner voice has helped Davidson flourish, both personally and professionally, and he has been eager to give back and help others find their own success. After having taught for over 30 years, he currently serves on the Bemidji Public Arts Commission.
Fellow Bemidji artist Lisa Robinson says of Davidson: "Not only has he thrived in his own art life but has been a willing mentor for other artists like myself. Marlon has been an arts advocate in so many ways throughout his life and has made a difference in many people's lives."
"What does happiness mean?" Davidson asks aloud. "It can have a frothy meaningless connotation, and it can also mean some depth of satisfaction with your life when you come to the end of it; that you did what you were supposed to do and lived the life you were supposed to live."
Davidson can say, with honesty, that he has the latter. "I have a great life. I mean, who could ask for a better life than doing creative things all the time?"
Brooke's Tips for Applying Davidson's Wisdom to Your Life:
• Create space to listen to your own inner voice. Davidson believes that we each have an inner voice that can help us better understand who we are and the paths we should take in life. When we live our life in a way that is aligned with this voice, we feel a sense of rightness -- the right bell being rung. If we don't make the effort to listen, it is easy to feel lost, confused, and inauthentic. Try finding ways to disconnect from the hectic routine of your daily life a little each week so you can quiet your mind and simply listen.
• Develop a daily practice. Whatever it is you want to do in life, find a way to do a little of that each day. There's no substitute for consistent practice. Davidson found the most helpful means of developing his own unique artistic style was doing art on a daily basis. The same is true for his writing.
• Focus on the possible gains. When faced with a new opportunity or choice, it's common to think about all the things that could possibly go wrong, so much so that we often ignore what could go right. While it can be smart to examine possible challenges, you'll never move forward if they're all you let yourself see. In order to listen to his inner voice, Marlon had to take some risks in his life. Focusing on the things he could gain, rather than lose, helped him to do this.
Brooke Wichmann of Bemidji is a certified life coach and has a master's degree in peace education. She owns Connectivity Coaching, and is co-director of Inner Compass Consulting. You can read more on her blog at livingonpurpose.areavoices.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.