Here’s the handout from a wonderful class last night — not at all the same as being there, but this version has live links!
Writing An Artist’s Statement, TEXTILE CENTER, Minneapolis, October 7, 2014
My beloved partner is a scientist; he’s convinced physics explains the world. I’m pretty sure poetry does. Makes for interesting dinner conversation. Here’s the thing, though. While physics certainly existed before language and poetry, we humans needed crafted language — poetry — to explain physics to each other.
ART = PHYSICS AND POETRY
Physics is what allows us to manipulate materials into art, and physics holds the materials together to match the artist’s vision. (Or fails to hold them together, in the case of intentional or unintentional deterioration.) Poetry is what the physical manifestation of art says to us, how it connects to us as humans.
Words tell the story of the art and the artist — that’s the artist’s statement.
“In general, an artist statement should address what you make, how you make it, why you make it and your understanding of your work’s meaning.” — from the Writing Center at Claremont University
Here’s a word person talking about an artist: He still does not really believe that an artist needs occasionally to use words. David Hockney’s English teacher when he was 13 years old
And here’s a musician talking about words: I like to think that when I sing a song, I can let you know all about the kicks in the ass I’ve gotten over the years, without actually saying a word about it. — Ray Charles
The challenge in writing an artist statement — in writing anything, really — is to write like we speak. To say what we mean, and trust that our experience, our truth, our story will shine through.
The goal by the end of the two-hour workshop is for everyone to have at least an elevator speech about their work, a sound bite. (OK, we can say ick! But sound bites existed long before modern media communications — it’s how we humans listen.) Here’s my elevator speech when people ask me what I do: “I’m a freelance writer. Most of my work this year is with older adults who want to write their life stories — fascinating twist to 30 years of telling stories with essays and poetry.” Gives me openings to say more about life story writing, or about essays and poetry, depending on which my listener is most interested in.
I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances. — Anne Tyler
On to a review of the exercises we covered:
LIST POEM #1
Write MY ART at the top of a blank page
Freewrite 3” – everything that comes to mind about what you make, how you make it, why you make it, what it means to you
End with a noun, concrete depiction of material or tool. Use adjectives if you like.
EDIT — circle anything you like or want to work with, cross out stuff that doesn’t belong
LIST POEM #2
A painted picture is like a vehicle. One can either sit in the driveway and take it apart or one can get in it and go somewhere. — Mark Tansey
Write MY ART at the top of a second clean page
Freewrite for 3” — Where does your art take you?
Freewrite for 3” — Where do you hope your art takes others?
EDIT — circle anything you want to keep, cross-out what you don’t
Sometimes I see the world as one gigantic sewn image, held together with small, neat stitches.— Sherry Brody. Dollhouse Room by Miriam Shapiro and Sherry Brody features Brody’s handmade lace
Top of new page, write the noun from the last line of List Poem #1
Now the Microscope/Telescope part: Most of us tend to write from big picture to small — which can result in too much extraneous background before we get to the action or tension or question. This exercise helps focus our writing on the essentials first, then we add background. We write three paragraphs. (Or we write lots more than that and winnow it down. Working from abundance, we say.)
Write these pages one at a time:
1) OBJECT — Describe your materials and tools, noting anything unique about the way you use them
2) SETTING YOUR STORY/CONCEPTS/COMMUNICATION — how do you use these materials/tools and what do you make with them? Tell us what that means to you, or what you’re communicating or questioning or exploring. Use List Poem #2 to help you start.
3) ACTION/TENSION — How do 1 and 2 interact in your work to reinforce or contradict one another? What does your art DO?
EDIT BY GUT — put these paragraphs in the order you like them at the moment
In class, we share our writing and ask others to respond to phrases and concepts they find effective, or to ask us questions about something they want to know more about. We can also ask family, friends and colleagues for this type of feedback at this point before proceeding.
EXERCISE 4 — FINISHING WITH QUESTIONS
Good writing, writing that we humans want to read, either asks or answers a question. And the questions are almost always more important than any particular answer.
Suppose no one asked a question. What would the answer be? — Gertrude Stein
There are certain mysteries, certain secrets in my own work which even I do not understand, nor do I try to do so. — Georges Braque
I’m not qualified to, nor particularly interested in, generating a discussion about art vs. craft. But I like this definition from Mary Hark, an expert papermaker who teaches at MCBA and the University of WI-Madison: “Tension is what makes art. Tension is what draws our eye and holds our attention.” There’s tension in unanswered questions, sometimes even in asking a question. That’s a good thing. It’s an invitation for people to engage with you and your art.
EDITING THE THREE PARAGRAPHS — WHAT’S YOUR QUESTION? TO CONVEY THAT, WHAT’S MISSING FROM YOUR STATEMENT? ARE THERE WORDS OR SENTENCES THERE THAT YOU DON’T NEED?
It is not hard to compose, but it is wonderfully hard to let the superfluous notes fall under the table. — Johannes Brahms
FURTHER REFINING. LATER. AT HOME, OR WITH FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES. OR THE PEOPLE SITTING NEXT TO YOU IN THE COFFEE SHOP. Again, put these pages you’ve written in the order you like them at the moment — go with your gut. Read them tonight. And again tomorrow or next week when you have time. Live with your words for a while; make notes and doodles to yourself. Then try to connect these paragraphs into a story, adding and subtracting words and sentences until it tells your story. Re-arrange your paragraphs as you like, and strive for three beautifully constructed paragraphs that only you could have written about your work. Our best art, and best writing, comes from our gut, our heart, our core, whatever we call the essential part of ourselves that makes each of us a unique human being. We can trust this to connect us — and our work — to other human beings.
Even in the most sophisticated person, it is the primitive eye that watches the film. — Jack Nicholson
Every story is completed by the reader. — Grace Paley
Analog: Textile Center Library, local libraries, Springboard for the Arts workshops and services (some of them free), workshops posted on mnartists.org, other artists working in your area or other areas.
Upcoming mnartists.org workshops about their new web site, free at Walker Art Center:
Thurs, Oct 23, 2014 5 – 7 pm
Thurs, Oct 30, 2014 5 – 7 pm
Alan Bamberger’s site artbusiness.com has an excellent article: “Your Artist Statement: Explaining the Unexplainable”: “On this planet, people communicate with words, and your artist statement introduces and communicates the language component of your art.”
Leslie Pontz, recent Mondale Gallery exhibitor, wrote a beautifully direct statement about her art
Matt Siber’s advice for a photography seminar at Columbia College, Chicago explains how statements “provide insight into the artist’s concept and motivation behind making the work.”
Daniel Blight’s advice in the UK Guardian on the pitfalls of International Art English: “…writing about your work should be an open and compelling activity…”
Iris Jaffe on hyperallergic.com: “The Anti-artist-statement Statement”
Robin Grearson on hyperallergic.com: “In Defense of the Artist Statement”
Cara Ober on BmoreArt.com leaves her notes after teaching a class at Maryland Institute of Art on Professional Practices for Visual Artists: “What does your work DO?”