What Stands Between You and Writing an Artist Statement or Professional Statement?
Is it a dry creek bed, or the Grand Canyon? A closed door, or the Chase Manhattan Bank vault? Or maybe, it’s the whisper of many doubts: Artist statements are so predictably icky. What can you say about your work that someone else can’t simply see? What’s the point of words for a visual experience? How am I going to be authentic, but not arrogant? Sincere, but not sentimental?
And yet, you know that pros consider artist statements an essential part of a good portfolio (or About Me pages essential to a web site). Gallery owners are relieved by your professionalism. People who love your work will know more about you. Offering your audience more ways to connect with you increases their delight, as well as the perceived value of your work. But, goodness, all those daunting words between here and there!
For artists, words are a completely different experience from the tactile world of art making. Paper and paint inhabit the world of our senses, while words remain the detached curios of our mind. If we’re an Independent Professional, we want to reserve center stage for our business. Once in a while, when the two worlds of work and words connect, language entices our senses and engages our imaginations, and we love it.
So what stops us from using words to describe our art? Tell about ourselves? These are the same words that have been with us since we could walk. What causes us to be deeply suspicious of language, one of our fundamental connections to being human?
The answer, in part, relates to a fatal combination of art critics and education. Art critics use language as scepters of judgment. If words are the messengers that determine our self-worth, then by all means, kill the messenger. Formal education uses language as bastions of control. If we are told when, where and how we can, or cannot, use which words, we grow to mistrust our relationship to language. The mistrust smolders underground, mostly unnoticed, until our words are thrust into a container, like the artist statement or About Me/Us web page.
Suddenly, words make us visible targets for judgment and criticism, so we hide our discomfort at this possibility with what we consider rational responses. “My work speaks for itself.” “Statements are inconsequential to my work.” “I have nothing to say that my work doesn’t already convey.” And the list goes on.
An opportunity, like writing a personal or artist statement, often causes us to second guess every idea we ever had about our work. We convince ourselves that we have nothing, really, to say, or for certain, nothing of value. Our first instinct is to either turn off the light and head out of the studio or office, or pump up our peacock feathers.
But running away only confirms our unspoken fear: there must be something to run away from. And pumping up encourages us to use flimsy or pretentious words to smother over our mistrust of language. This, in turn, fuels our perception that language related to our work is simply ludicrous.
Luckily, there is an alternative. Try pretending, that you have a lot to say, which is neither self-important nor trivial, but relevant and revealing. Imagine that all of your objections have been met and you are simply going to write whatever you believe to be true, at the moment, about your relationship to your work. Because, the good news is: you can recover your own words.
Why and how do you do what you do?
There is an unselfconscious language about your work, which you use all the time. Every time you talk or think about your work, you create a relationship between words and your chosen passion. The trick is to learn how to catch yourself doing this, and then faithfully write it down. Yup, I said: write it down. How else will you engage that part of your brain for continued support and help?
But why bother at all?
Because an artist statement or personal statement builds a compelling bridge between you and your audience. An inspiring statement gives the people who see your work another reason to remember you. It’s reinforcement, clean and simple. And there’s not an artist or independent professional around who can’t use a little extra reinforcement to make it’s way through the crowd.
Equally important, a statement gives you the opportunity to see what you do through the eyes of language, to validate your creation and profession from a new perspective. Really, you can’t lose! You can only procrastinate.
Want to get started? Try this:
–TAKE care: Treat your statement with the same care that your treat your work; after all, all of it is you.
–GATHER raw materials: Use a notebook that is lovely or practical and keep it with you in the studio, in the car, in the office, beside your bed and take a few weeks to catch any fleeting thoughts that come to you about your work. Give your self permission to gather. Selecting and sorting comes later, when you have enough in your basket. Find a writing pen or pencil that flows smoothly across the surface. Make it a tacticle pleasure.
–TIME: Make a specific date with yourself. Respect this time. Do not tolerate interruptions.
–PREPARE your internal space: Close your eyes and conjure up your worst critic. In your mind’s eye, lead this person out of the room. Give them another task, besides breathing over your shoulder, say, climbing a tree, skipping stones, or going to the local library. Tell your critic not to come back until you are ready. Critics are terrified of being abandoned, that’s why they are so tenacious, so reassure yours that there will be a place set just for them at the editing and revision table. Critics are also stubborn. You may have to do this more than once.
–WRITE more than one: Like different works of art, a statement also thrives on change and rising out of “the moment.” What suits this month’s work may not work for the next month. Independent professionals need to revisit their intentions from time to time, and writing a new personal statement gets the juices flowing.
–GIVE yourself permission to make mistakes: Let yourself write badly. Crumple up lots of paper balls and throw them in a corner. It’s the beginner’s way. Then, when it comes out great, which it eventually will, you will know the difference.
–WRITE as much as you want: Winnowing down is so much easier than filling in later.
–DON’T hesitate to ask a professional: Some things just beg for help. If you find yourself endlessly circling a dead pigeon, really…aren’t there other things you’d rather do and still get that statement written?