The Artist Statement: The Power of Words

Artists are so visual that they often overlook the power of words. Believe me when I tell you that words – the way they are written and/or said – ARE important. You CAN harness that power and use it to express yourself in a unique and effective way. To connect, create a bridge between you and your viewer. A bridge that might just turn a viewer into a buyer and a buyer into a collector.

If you are doubting what I’m saying about the power of words then think of this. Remember the saying “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never harm me.” It’s definitely not true. In fact, words can do lasting damage. This sounds negative but have you ever wished that someone had used one word in place of another because it would have alleviated the pain they caused or it wouldn’t have been painful in the first place. Words can go straight to your heart. They can change a meaning of everything you just said. They can change the tone of a whole book – and require the author to go back and revise the entire book. Similar to a painting. One dot of red may change the whole thing and require you to go back and rework the entire piece.

As you can see I love words. Editing has become like a creative crossword puzzle to me. Here is an exercise that incorporates using the power of words….

After you have a solid piece of writing, it answers all of the questions that a viewer may ask and you think you are satisfied then go into a room and read it out loud. Does it flow off your tongue? Does it feel good to say? Are there any words or punctuation that you stumble over? A sentence that doesn’t flow properly or convey exactly, exactly what you mean. One word can interrupt the flow of an entire sentence, an entire piece of writing.

Two of the most powerful tools I have found are the Dictionary and Thesaurus. Look up just one word and read the entire definition and suggestions of other words to use. You’ll be amazed and find things you never thought of before. Here is an example:

Inspiration: in(t)-spe-‘ra’-shan, – (,)spi-/in (14 century) 1.a: a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate with sacred revelation. b: the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions c: the act of influencing or suggesting opinions 2: the act of drawing in: specific The Drawing of air into the lungs. 3a: the quality or state of being inspired. b: something that was inspired. 4. an inspiring agent of influence.

This can also be a marvelous tool if you feel stuck. Here is another exercise:
Write a list of words that describe your art and look them up in the dictionary or thesaurus one by one. It opens the doors to your mind and your heart and suddenly the words will just flow. Start to free write about what each word means to you if you’re still stuck after that.

Another exercise is to have someone else read it out loud to you, after you’re completely finished with it. As they read it you will see if they understand the meaning of what you have written. You can also see if they stumble over words or sentences. Listen carefully. Having more than one person read it is also good because it will let you see who your artist statement resonates with.

Remember that an artist statement is never really finished. Your process and technique will change. You really should review it every three to six months and see if it needs tweaking. If you have followed the steps in the previous posts and in this post congratulations! You have completed your artist statement. Getting over the hurdle of writing your first artist statement can be the hardest thing but once it’s complete you know you will have something you can really use. It will be easier to change and keep up with. You will be able to talk and write about your work with confidence. You will be able to write grants, fellowships, residencies, press releases, exhibition proposals and so much more. Galleries like artists who can write and who can talk. This is the second major step to your success.

The Artist Statement: Idea Party

One idea that I really love is to have what Barbara Sher – author of Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want – calls an “Idea Party.”  For the artists statement what this amounts to is asking a group of trusted friends to come over and talk about your art.  What you will do is put out some wine and some snacks, your art and having them talk about the art.

It’s interesting to see what other people say.  They may bring up ideas you never even thought about and you may even get a new direction for your work while you’re at it.  You’ll want to record it somehow because you want to be fully engaged in the conversation (and not be stuck writing things down).  Inform everyone, of course, that you will be recording this before they come and it will be absolutely confidential.

You should start by asking a question.  Ask them what they think about a painting, the color in the painting, the shape, the size, etc.  Encourage them to ask you questions and be sure to note what they’re asking.  (The most effective artist statement answers the questions your viewers have).

A few days later, get into that quiet place with a pen and unlimited amounts of paper and turn on the recording.  Sit there and listen and take it all in.  Absorb without writing.  After you’ve listened to it once, listen again and this time write, write, write away. Write down the questions that your friends are asking about the art, write down your own ideas as they randomly come to you.  Be open, be free and enjoy!  I hope by this point you’re beginning to enjoy writing and finding it as creative and inspiring as I do.  Remember, most of all don’t edit, yet.  I’ll give you tips about that later.  Keep following these steps and you’ll be successful because I’m not just training you to write your artists statement, I’m training you to write in general.  To be successful you will have to write, fill out applications and apply for things.  Writing is key to success but it shouldn’t be a burden.  Enjoy it!

Sources
Wishcraft: How to Get What you Really Want, Barbara Sher with Annie Gottlieb, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 2004. http://www.barbarasher.com/index.htm

The Artist Statement: Getting Started

When I tell artists about writing and how important to their careers it is I usually get a look of dread. How do you put something so visual into words? Artists are not usually articulate about their work, a lot of times it comes from the unconscious. The language is visual so how do you articulate in speech and writing what you are doing?

Many artists also tell me that their grammar is not good or their writing is not good. However, everyone has a story to tell and this is your chance to tell the story of your art. I’m going to give you, here, a few tips about writing.

I used to confuse the artists statement with the bio. The bio is a narrative version of your resume. Pick a few of your greatest achievements and highlight them in your bio. The artist statement is something that answers the questions your viewer may have about your work. It engages them and brings them into a deeper level of understanding. It creates a relationship between you and your viewer. It’s what can turn a viewer into a collector.

I used to be nervous about making an artist write their artist statement because sometimes the art of making art is not really knowing what your doing. Then someone pointed out to me that it can be an exploration, a process that brings the artist into a deeper understanding of what they are doing, who they are and what their direction is. If you are one of those people that hates writing, think of this as an adventure. A discovery if you will and you will enjoy it.

First and foremost remember that writing is a process. In my last job as the Executive Director of Women’s Studio Center we had many writers and I would see their work again and again in our writers forums. They would revise past pieces and bring them in for feedback. Until they got it right. They loved it and reveled in the details. Think of it as creative as making your art and if you can be articulate you will not only succeed but soar.

I like to start with an exercise called free writing. Get yourself into that creative mode where you are one with the paper and let the words flow. It doesn’t matter what you say or how it comes out, don’t worry if the grammar is correct. Just let it out. You can start by saying “I’m stuck, I don’t know what to write. Writing about art is so hard. What shall I say?…” Keep on going and it will eventually come out. Leave it aside and come back in a few days and look at it. Then piece together the good parts or free write some more.

Another great exercise is to have an “art idea party.” Put out your work and some wine and a few snacks and invite some friends over. Ask them to talk about your art. To ask questions and see what they think. It can be a difficult situation to take notes in so you can turn on a tape recorder. (Make sure your friends know that you will be taping it for your own private use first). Ultimately you will want to answer the questions that the viewer has of your art so this is a good way to get started.

Remember that writing is a process and developing your artists statement is an ongoing process. As your art evolves so will your statement. It’s a work in progress but getting the first one out is ultimately important. You will use it in all kinds of applications – grants, fellowships, residencies – and in catalogs, press releases and more. By being in touch with your art and your direction you will know which opportunities to seek out. In the coming posts I will be talking more about the writing process. I love writing so much and want to share some secrets and tips that I have learned over the years. I also want to make the process easier for you and eliminate the intimidation. Writing can actually be fun and inspiring. Your artist statement can be the most inspiring thing you do.