Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

The Words to Describe Us

Detail of a work by Jacqui Larsen

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.

Tips on Writing and Editing
Thus far on the journey, we’ve gathered data and clarified our thinking, and connected how we feel about our work to how our audience feels. Now it’s time to assemble these ideas into something coherent and compelling. Molly Gordon’s web site offers the most helpful outline I’ve found. She takes us from the brainstormed word lists we’ve created to suggestions for the first three paragraphs of our statement:

· “First paragraph. Begin with a simple statement of why you do the work you do. Support that statement, telling the reader more about your goals and aspirations.

· Second paragraph. Tell the reader how you make decisions in the course of your work. How and why do you select materials, techniques, themes? Keep it simple and tell the truth.

· Third paragraph. Tell the reader a little more about your current work. How it grew out of prior work or life experiences. What are you exploring, attempting, challenging by doing this work.”

Write in the first person, just as though you were talking with the reader. Use those words that you and others feel are important in describing what you do. Use colorful language that may set you apart from other artists.

Once you’ve written a draft, set it aside for a day, then return and revise it, perhaps adding things that help distinguish your work and deleting information that isn’t likely to compel the reader’s interest.

Jacqui and Lance Larsen suggest showing your draft to a writer who knows something about art. “Be open to receiving a critique,” they advise. “Remember that your writing needs to stand on its own, be independent of your art work.”

Based on the feedback you receive, rewrite your statement and then proofread it (multiple times) to catch any typos or grammatical errors.

Beyond Artist Statements
Though artist statements are often the most challenging written descriptions of our work, the words we use to title exhibits or individual works of art can be equally challenging. This business of naming – as a marketing tool – will have different solutions, perhaps, at various times in our careers.

For example, as a relatively unknown artist, I doubt that exhibit names like, “Sue Martin – A Retrospective,” or “New Works by Sue Martin,” will attract any but close friends and family. On the other hand, a gallery or museum need only mention the name Wayne Thibaud, and whether it’s a retrospective or new works, people know that name and will flock to the exhibit.

The lesser known artist may use simply descriptive or intriguing and clever names for an exhibit. Again, it pays to know what attracts people to your work. You don’t need a title that will appeal to everyone because your art doesn’t appeal to everyone. For example, look at the exhibition listings in this issue of 15 Bytes, starting on page 8, as I did last month. See which titles intrigue you enough to climb in the car and go look, and ask yourself why. Last month, these were some of my favorites:

· Angela Woods at IAO: Art and City Living. Why? I enjoy urban art because it’s a bit more unusual and interesting than rural landscapes (though I like those, too).

· Justin Angelos at Tin Angel Café: Snakes and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails. Why? That’s just so unusual and whimsical, I have to see what it’s all about.

· Works by ten artists at Red Butte Garden: “The Nature of Sustainable Art.” Why? I’m a compulsive saver of “stuff” that might be used in a piece of art and I’m curious about what other artists are doing with recycled materials.

Your picks may be completely different from mine, and that’s exactly the point. These titles either told me enough to know I’d be interested, or sparked my curiosity to see what it was all about.

And how about naming pieces of art? Again, well known artists may do just fine with pieces titled, “Untitled #10,” or “Barn with Red Door,” but perhaps a title that’s a little more interesting, mysterious, or meaning-laden might work better for the rest of us artists and our viewers. At the Utah Arts Council exhibit, Untitled, viewers were asked to give titles to paintings. The viewers’ suggestions demonstrate a range of responses to what they saw – from purely descriptive to emotional or silly. Blue Critchfield’s surrealistic painting of a man punching a monster (the most simple description I can give it without interpreting/adding my own meaning) elicited a range of titles from “Persistence” to “My Year Performance Review with the Boss.”

Think about those who like your art and buy it. Are they more likely to be attracted to titles that are descriptive, abstract/conceptual, or whimsical/humorous? Which type of title best fits your work, its meaning, and your personality as an artist?

Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But it might be a rose by another name that would attract the buyer for your work.

Next month I’ll present another word challenge – how to write a news release that publications will use.
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Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.

Categories: Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

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