By America Meredith (Cherokee Nation)
A valuable tool or a harbinger of dread? Your artist’s statement can be the most intimidating thing you write. You’ll find bios on every aspiring artist website but far fewer statements. Yet, a good artist’s statement can arouse curiosity, lure the public out to your exhibitions, and inspire them to more deeply engage with your artwork.
An artist statement is an integral component of an artist packet, which includes a bio, statement, images, and image list. Today, these also form the backbone of your online portfolio. Artist statements can be about a single work of art, a series of works, and a general statement about who you are as an artist. The last component is by far the most challenging, so this is what we’ll discuss here.
An artist’s statement can be a single paragraph—several paragraphs are preferable—but your statement should never be longer than one page. While a bio can be written in third-person (e.g. she grew up in Nebraska…; he studied in Vancouver…), an artist’s statement has to be written in the first-person perspective (e.g. my printmaking technique…; I apprenticed to carve…).
To start, you might read the statements of artists you admire. Don’t copy. Instead, find inspiration from others and then push away from what other people are writing to craft something uniquely your own.
A good example of an artist’s statement is that of Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary. He uses a straightforward, conversational tone. Links to this and the two following examples are at the bottom of this article.
Without her artist’s statement, the public might not understand that Melissa Melero-Moose (Northern Paiute/Modoc) creates her own painting medium that is environmentally safe and embodies her commitment to safeguarding her homelands.
Ligwilda’xw interdisciplinary artist Sonny Assu’s statement is only two paragraphs long but it sets a tone. It’s concise, elegant, and packs an emotional punch.
heather ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw) proposes four lenses in which to better understand Indigenous art. Try these to examine your own artwork, and jot down your responses.
- Materiality. What materials and techniques do you use? Do you gather them?
- Metaphor/Symbolism. Does your work use overt symbolism that the public can “read” or subtle metaphors that they may not be aware of? Are there repeating themes or motifs?
- Kincentricity. How do your family, clan, tribe, community, plans, animals, and the natural world around you inform your artwork? Have others inspired your work?
- Temporality. How does your art relate to the times in which we live? If the techniques you use are ancient, why is it important to continue them today?
Or you can try asking yourself other questions to spark ideas:
- What emotions do you hope to elicit from the audience?
- Are there any words in your language that relate to your artistic practice or could spark conversation? For instance, the Diné word hózhó means so much more than simply beauty.
- At public art events, what do people ask you the most? Do you want to address any of these questions in your statement? If you think the questions aren’t on the level you would like to discuss, how can you elevate the conversation to more interesting topics?
An open secret is that most of the art world can’t stand “artspeak” or what critic Gilda Williams calls “International Art English.” Yes, there is a basic art vocabulary that visual artists are expected to know but purposefully using complex, obscure terms when simple ones will do doesn’t impress readers. Instead, it turns them off.
Please don’t say you’ve always wanted to be an artist since you were a small child. This is so common, it’s a given.
Don’t say the art speaks for itself! It doesn’t. Meanings and techniques might seem obvious to you, but you are writing for readers who are most likely not artists and who come from different cultures and backgrounds than you do.
The Writing Process
If you have writer friends that can help you, let them, especially with editing (since no one can edit her or his own writing), but your artist’s statement still needs to express your viewpoint.
Writing and editing are two very different thought processes. Don’t try to do both at once by trying to write perfectly in the first go-around. Novelist Anne Lemott popularized the idea of the “Sh—y First Draft.” Your initial draft is likely to be terrible, but no one else ever has to see it, so just get it out there—on your computer screen or on paper. You might have to write page after page of garbage to get to the good stuff. No one else needs to see the process. Jot down whatever pops into your head. Many writers find it helpful to write in a cheap notebook with a free-flowing ballpoint pen. When I get stuck, I write outside on my back porch.
When your draft is ready for editing, it’s great if you can find someone to help you edit, but don’t let others insert their narrative into your statement. If they have suggestions to help your voice come through more clearly—with corrections in grammar, spelling, and punctuation—then take their suggestions. You do want to follow basic grammatical rules of the language in which you are writing, which is going to differ dramatically from your everyday spoken language.
Get a little space from your draft—several days or at least overnight, so you can see it with fresh eyes. Countless times I’ve gone to sleep thinking that an essay is so well written that it won’t need corrections, only to be horrified the next morning by the word salad on paper. If that happens to you, don’t be dismayed! Instead, celebrate that the hard part is over! Cleaning up rough writing is far easier than writing it in the first place.
Use Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check, then use Grammarly, a free online app, which can help with basic spelling, punctuation, and grammar. You can cut-and-paste your statement into Natural Voice Reader, a website that will read your words aloud, so you can listen for errors and general flow.
Each paragraph should focus on a single idea. Statements should never be longer than a page. There or four paragraphs will work.
Every word that doesn’t contribute to meaning, distracts. Trim down the fluff. Words and phrases like very, really, there is/are, I think, or I feel can usually be removed with losing any meaning.
You want every piece of your artist packet to be clean, clear, and concise. You want readability, not jazzy graphic design. Use an 11- or 12-point font and a font found on most computers. Every item in your packet, including your statement, should have your name, mailing address, phone number, and email on it on the top. If emailing computer files, put your last name in the filename, something like doxtater_statement_2019.docx. You can send Word documents, PDFs, or both (Word docs allow people to easily cut and paste).
Don’t Fear the Artist’s Statement!
Your artist’s statement will help steer the conversation around your art, through press releases, articles, gallery text, catalogues, and hopefully monographs. Use it to take the conversation where you want it to go—to get to the heart of your artwork.
Your statement is a living document, so feel free to change it as you and your art evolve and grow. You are already putting yourself out there via your art. When you contextualize your art and highlight what is most important about your work, you will draw more people in to engage with it.
You can post questions on the First American Art Magazine Facebook page at facebook.com/firstamart. That way, multiple writers, artists, and art professionals can offer their perspectives!