“Tell me about yourself” is one of the most dreaded interview questions, and if you’re an artist, “Tell me about your work” can be just as headache-inducing. Many artists spend countless hours agonizing over how to phrase statements for exhibitions, class assignments or applications. Whether you’re a student artist or a working artist, at some point you’re going to have to write about your work. There’s no avoiding it. Here are five tips for getting started with that dreaded artist statement:
1. Write in Your Own Voice
It’s easy to misunderstand how simple an artist statement really is: tell your audience how and why you make your art, in your own words. It’s as simple as that! Maybe you’ve read other artist’s statements and thought, Wow, this sounds pretentious and it’s difficult to understand, but that’s how an artist statement is supposed to be written, right? Wrong. If you can’t understand an artist’s statement, it isn’t very good. Artist statements should be written for a general audience.
Don’t feel pressured to use academic-sounding “artspeak" because you want to sound professional. You will sound more professional if you use clear language that a broad audience can easily understand. There’s no need to pepper your writing with buzzwords, obscure references and vocabulary that you yourself do not understand. Think about it: who will be attending your exhibition? An assortment of friends, family and strangers—people of different ages, other artists, and probably a bunch of people who have absolutely no background in art. You want to write something that is accessible to a wide variety of people.
What would you do if someone came up to you at an art show and asked, “How do create such great texture in your oil paintings?” or, “How did growing up in Idaho inform your video installations about potato farmers?” You would explain your artwork using simple, everyday language. That’s what you want your artist statement to do—your statement is simply a conversation with the viewer. As artists, we are sometimes tempted to say, I’ll let my art speak for itself, but sometimes viewers have questions that cannot be answered by simply looking at the artwork. The purpose of an artist statement is that it can speak for you if you’re not standing next to your art.
2. Think About Your Audience
Keep in mind where your statement is going to appear and who is going to read it. Is it going to be posted on a gallery wall next to your work? Printed in an exhibition booklet? Uploaded to a website? Are you applying for a grant or a juried competition? Regardless of where your statement will appear, you want to keep it relatively short and explain your art in a way that is accessible to everyone in your audience. For example, if you work with encaustics, you might want to explain that it is a type of painting involving wax, because not everyone knows what encaustics are.
If you are an artist who creates whimsical watercolors and some of your work is scheduled to be displayed in the children’s section of the public library, you might want to write your statement so that it can be read by an elementary student. On the other hand, if you’re writing a statement for an MFA application, it might be a good idea to use some art theory terminology in an effective way.
An artist statement is not only about catering to an audience—it’s also an opportunity for you to gather your thoughts and reflect on the direction of your work. Writing about yourself and your work has the potential to help you develop and grow as an artist. You might find that putting your thoughts to paper will help you look at your own art in a new way. Now that you know how simple an artist statement really is, the next two steps will help you get started quickly and easily.
3. Start With a Bang, Be Confident, Be Detailed!
Try to avoid starting your statement with any of these phrases:
“My work is…”
“My work is inspired by…”
“In my work,”
Each of these statements is pretty bland. You want to pull your audience in immediately, especially if you’re in a position where people are judging your work among multiple applications. Even in a non-juried exhibition, gallery visitors probably won’t continue to read more than a couple of sentences if you have a boring opening line. If you feel stuck when crafting the beginning of your statement, go ahead and write it with a boring opening. When you’re totally finished with your statement, go back, cross out the boring bit and see how it reads if you start without it. Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to begin your artist statement, so don’t get hung up on doing it the “right” way.
Another thing that can improve an artist statement is CONFIDENCE. Do not fill your statement with phrases like, “I want to…” or, “I’m trying to…” or, “I am attempting to…” Too many phrases like these make you sound uncertain. Just state you’re doing: “These paintings highlight some of the difficulties of growing up on a cattle farm” or, “My sculptures are a way to explore the joy of dance in all its forms.”
Also avoid comparing yourself to great artists in your statement—you run the risk of sounding absurd and pompous. And if you use a quotation from a famous artist or author in your statement, do not use a long one or spend too much room explaining its significance—the artist statement is all about you, after all. As you write the body of your statement, don’t be afraid to go into detail; just don’t go off on a tangent! The next tip in this article will help you stay on track.
4. Explain What, How and Why
The core of your artist statement is explaining to your audience what you create, how you create it, and why you do what you do. The what and how parts are super easy—what do you make and how to you handle your medium? Give your audience a general explanation of your creation process.
- “I have always been fascinated by the process of building multiple layers of acrylics on canvas and scratching through the layers of color in a subtractive process. I like to use a limited palette and work on a large scale—most of my work can barely fit through my doorway!”
- “When I start a sculpture, I begin by listening to music. Jazz has always helped me in the creative process; I see the relationship between music and visual art as symbiotic. Before I even begin to carve away the first sliver of wood, I begin my work in my mind, in tune with the music.”
It might help to think of your artist statement as a story with a beginning, middle and end. How do you start your process? What happens in the middle of the process? How do you know when you’re finished? You can also describe how your current work relates to your previous work.
The why part of your statement doesn’t need to be a profound explanation, but it shouldn’t simply be “Because I like making art.” What do you hope audiences will take away from your work? Do you create art because you want to make others happy? Do you do it in an attempt to release powerful personal emotions? Do you do it because you have an inexorable itch to draw what you see? People make art for many different reasons and each reason is valid. Your artist statement is a great opportunity to explain why you produce art and present your thoughts in a clear and organized way.
5. Re-read and Relax
Your artist statement is not the be-all, end-all of your career as an artist. It’s OK if it’s not perfect. That being said, you should definitely proofread your writing several times and get a friend (or two) to read over your statement as well. It always helps to have a fresh pair of eyes review any piece of writing, especially if it’s going to be displayed in a gallery or submitted for review. You want your artist statement to look as good as your artwork!
>>>>>>> For a writing worksheet and a downloadable version of this guide, click here.