Writing an artist's statement
The Well-Placed Quote
I’m a writer as well as a visual artist, but I too struggle with artist statements. It is difficult to see your own process and art in any sort of objective way, much less verbalize it. One arts leader I met has his artists gather in small groups and write each other’s artist statements for just that reason. We at HopeArts haven’t tried that approach, although it seems a good idea. Instead we created a handout to go with the Call for Entries that suggests ways to go about writing it. Below is an expanded version of that. (See Displaying the Art for more on why we think artist statements are valuable.)
Don’t leave writing it until the last minute. You need time to put it aside for a day or more to get a fresh view of it. It also helps to have someone else look at it, and they need time, too.
Begin by asking questions.
If you are exhibiting a body of work, don’t explain each piece, but write about your work as a whole. However, if yours is just one work in a themed exhibit, you may want to describe how your piece evolved in response to the theme.
Take the answers that energize you the most and expand those. At this point you can write as much and as badly as you want – ramble, ignore grammar, forget complete sentences. Just get as much down as you can. Later, decide what parts convey your strongest feelings about your art and move those parts to a new file or piece of paper.
Now, edit. Your goal is not to explain what the viewer is already seeing, but to tell a little story about your experience making it.
Finally, ask someone to proofread it for spelling and mistakes.
The Well-Placed Quote
Many Christian artists quote from the Bible in their artist’s statements. What a joy to read a well-placed Scripture! But sometimes artists use Scripture quotes because they don’t trust themselves as writers. The skill of the writers and translators of the Bible is not usually in question, so quoting them is a safe choice.
Any quote can be distracting in an artist statement if it seems artificial, and Scripture quotes may create unique barriers for the viewer/reader that you do not intend. Here are some things to consider when you want to use a quote.
Keep the Quote Valuable and Short
Any quote in an artist’s statement must be necessary to the story you are telling. You really just couldn’t say what you mean without it. The right quote creates depth, by adding another layer of meaning and beauty to your own words.
A quote usually works best when it is short – only one or two verses or sentences. The longer it is, the more likely the reader will skim over it, and then you lose whatever impact you hoped it would have.
Often the best way to incorporate a quote is at the beginning or end of the statement. Any quote longer than a phrase inside the body of the statement can interrupt the comfortable flow of thoughts.
Connect the Dots
Connect your quote to the rest of your statement by referring to a word or phrase in it or by continuing the thought it starts. The quote cannot “speak for itself” – in other words, the viewer/reader cannot read your mind. A connection that seems obvious to you may not be not apparent to someone else.
Use Jargon Thoughtfully
Scripture-quoting can be a form of jargon. Jargon" is a word or phrase that is a substitute for a more complex thought. It can be useful when you are speaking to someone who knows the code – a way of getting to your point without explaining all the assumptions behind it. But does your audience know the code? Will anyone in it be less familiar with Scripture than you? Will everyone share your theological assumptions about the particular code phrase you are using? A phrase like "justification by faith" might perplex a new believer. "Dying to self" may communicate something quite different than you intended to a nonbeliever. If you want to refer to a complex concept, instead of quoting Scripture as shorthand, consider explaining what you mean in words that a broader audience will understand.
Consider the Venue
Similarly, if you are exhibiting in a secular venue, you may choose not to quote Scripture because some people will immediately reject everything else you say (including your artwork). An artist statement speaks for you in your absence. You don’t have the opportunity to discern anything about your viewers, as you would if you were conversing with them. If the Spirit leads, by all means quote Scripture! But do remember that your artist’s statement is an introduction to you and your art, not a sermon.
Write What You Know
Finally, do you think quoting Scripture in your artist’s statement is an easier way to "preach the gospel" than proselytizing directly? Some of us introverts and visual communicators feel shy talking about our faith. We might be tempted to use the distance that writing puts between us and the reader to make up for our inability to be bold in person.
Comedians talk about honing their routines by performing before audiences in small clubs. Only after weeks or months of experimenting do they take the polished product to a larger audience. Likewise, if you are using your artist’s statement to evangelize and you have not made your mistakes in person, you will probably make them in print.
Hope and the Visual Arts by Kate Van Dyke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.hopeva.weebly.com.
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