by Sue Martin
Visual artists usually express themselves visually rather than verbally, so when it comes to finding the words to put in an artist statement, a grant proposal, the title of an exhibition, or the name of a painting or sculpture, we're at a loss. Yet, words help communicate to viewers and buyers a larger story that may shove the needle on the purchaseometer into the "buy" range. Or words may tell those browsing the newspaper for must-see exhibitions, "skip this one."
So what words do you use as part of your marketing strategy? To answer this question, I invite you to embark on a soul-searching journey of discovery. On this journey, we will search for the answers to: What motivates me to create art? What is the meaning I want to convey in my art? What attracts others to my art? If you're pretty sure you've thought through these answers, you may skip to the later section Tips on Writing and Editing but I find many artists need to start at the beginning of the thought process.
What Motivates Me to Create Art?
Some of you might answer this question with, "Who cares?" However, it matters to some of those who browse galleries and wonder about "How do artists come up with these ideas?" a real question asked by a friend on a gallery stroll.
Certified business coach Molly Gordon
offers a guided thought process to help us explore this question. She suggests these additional questions: "How do you feel when work is going well? What are your favorite things about your work?" Spend some time jotting down answers, not worrying about word selection at this point, but in a relaxed fashion as though chatting with a friend.
If you have a preconceived notion about what belongs, or doesn't belong, in an artist statement, set those notions aside for now. This is the exploratory stage for gathering ideas. You can filter them later in the writing process.
Some artists paint in response to the beauty around them. Others are more interested in responding to social issues, irony, juxtaposition of nature and man-made objects, and countless other more abstract ideas. Be honest about your motivation. Above all, advises Lance and Jacqui Larsen
, who presented a workshop on "Writing About Your Art,"
for the Utah Arts Council in February, you want your artist statement to be credible.
What is the Meaning I Want to Convey in my Art?
This question may apply to your art in general, or it may describe the meaning of pieces in a particular exhibition or series of works. Again, there are related questions that may help you get to this answer: Why am I spending time on this? How do I feel when I'm working on it? How do I feel when I decide it's finished? What do I expect others to understand when they see it?
Here, I'll share some of my own thought process. After my mother died last year, I began a series of paintings based on stories family and friends told about her. Though my mother and I were always close, I realized as I listened to others' remembrances of her that I had never fully appreciated all of her dimensions. As I painted I was expressing Mom's legacy, all of her many roles and the meaning they had for those in her life.
So was this a form of art therapy for myself, or did it have meaning for others? As I cared for Mom in the last six months of her life, kept in touch with friends, and made new acquaintances, others shared their own stories caring for parents, resolving family conflicts, learning new things about people they thought they knew so well. Though sparked by my own experience, my paintings are not just about one mother, but about the many little-recognized dimensions of other mothers until their deaths unleash a legacy of stories and memories.
The choices we make about the mediums and techniques help us convey meaning. To explore those choices, consider these questions from Molly Gordon: "What is your favorite tool? Why? What is your favorite material? Why? What patterns emerge in your work? Is there a pattern in the way you select materials? In the way you use color, texture or light?"
Jot down your answers to these questions even though it's still too soon to know which ones may make it into your final artist statement. At this point, we're still exploring. If you are an intuitive artist, these may be thoughts you've never tried to articulate before. You may be surprised at the words that flow onto your paper.
You may want to take a break from brainstorming at this point and take your research in a different direction: What do other artists say about their work? Pick several artists you admire and see if you can find their artist statements. If well known, there may be books about them in the library. If lesser known, you'll likely find information online or on their own web sites.
You may also browse one of the online galleries where you can see images and statements of other artists. Caution: everything you see will not necessarily be effective. The Larsens suggest that the following make for ineffective artist statements:
· Confessional (Don't be so personal that it gives a negative impression.)
· Overly sentimental (The fact that your grandmother encouraged your artistic pursuits may not be interesting unless it's directly related to your paintings.)
· Delusions of Grandeur ("I'm the 21st century Sargent." Really!)
· Clichés ("I love color." Yes, and . . .?)
· Autobiographical (Your training and work as an artist may be interesting, but you don't need to describe your birth and your first art lesson.)
What Attracts Others to My Art?
You may not know the answer to this question unless you ask. Gather a group of friends, including, if possible, some collectors of your work. Have some of your work on display, and ask them to talk about it. Resist the urge to interrupt and explain things; instead, take notes and occasionally ask probing questions "What do you mean by that? How does that make you feel? Say more about that characteristic of my work."
If this seems a little uncomfortable for you, of if you feel your presence might inhibit open dialogue, ask someone else to conduct this little focus group for you, taking notes or recording comments for your review.
As you review notes, highlight the words that ring true for you, as well as those words that seemed to resonate among the group. These words may make it into your statement later.
While you're looking for the attraction factor, consider these questions suggested by the Larsens: "How does your current work relate to your earlier work? Do you have a unique approach to your materials, process, or subject matter?" Some art collectors are particularly interested in unusual technique or use of materials. Describing your creative process may attract those collectors.