Artist Statements: Capture Your Speaking Voice
Does your current artist statement reflect the artist you're becoming this year? is the question posed by Gigi Rosenberg. Telling your story and your artworks' story is valuable to both you (the artist) and to your reader (jury/grant committee/patron).
As an artist, this is an opportunity to create a living document reflecting your art and aspirations. For the reader, the statement provides a window into understanding who you are and what your vision is.
I have read hundreds of artist statements as a show director and juror. These are my tips to help improve your statement.
Don't Sound Generic
Almost every artist statement I have ever read starts out with the words "My work is", "My painting/drawing/sculpture/jewelry is inspired by", or "In my work". You are in a competitive field and need to stand out. Develop a strong first sentence. Explain clearly and precisely why you make art, what it means to you and what materials you use. Tell a story about something that moved you into making a specific body of work. Draw the reader into your world.
Keep it short, this is an introduction and a supplement to the visual information, not your life story. Use first person, it seems to help in writing a clear and straightforward narrative.
Phrases like "creative expression of feelings," the description that X artist has been "making art since they were a small child," the declaration of "finding the extraordinary in the ordinary" and the "juxtaposition of daily life and spirituality" are all general and derivative.
Instead ask yourself "What are you trying to say in the work?" "What influences my work?" "How do my methods of working (techniques, style, formal decisions) support the content of my work?" "What are specific examples of this in my work" "Does this statement conjure up any images?"
Qualitative descriptor of the work like "excellent" or "beautiful" is also off limits because they are subjective and don't get to the heart of what the art is doing. Viewers don't need to be sold on the quality of the work - the statement should, instead, explain what the work DOES.
Use active rather than passive tense, and find verbs and adjectives that really strike to the heart of what it is you do. Thesaurus.com,Dictionary.com, and Etymonline.com are useful websites to help with finding great descriptors.
Materials and Media
In an age where art is usually experienced first online, you need to explain what the work is. Don't assume your viewer knows what and how you do it. Always include an explanation of your media. What materials do you use? What tools do you use? What is the scale of the work? Be as specific as you can.
Concept and Subject Matter
Your subject and concept are not necessarily the same thing. Your subject is the actual image you depict or reference. Your concept is the reason or idea underneath it all. Concept goes deeper and offers the reason for making the work in the first place.
Explaining one or two influences on the work and placing it into an art historical continuum shows that you understand what you are doing and why. It also may invite smart comparisons to your work. Avoid artspeak and pretentious language. If your statement is difficult to read, it will NOT be read. Don't try to impress the reader with your extensive knowledge of art criticism or vocabulary.
Be honest and try to capture your own speaking voice.
One of the best resources is Gigi Rosenberg's The Artist's Guide to Grant Writing. This book provides concrete steps in grant writing but those lessons are directly applicable to writing a great artist statement.
Cartoon at top: Calvin & Hobbs by Bill Watterson, July 15, 1995