Writing an artist statement is one of the more challenging things we’re asked to do as artists. Outsiders may think it strange that a measly paragraph simply stating what it is we do and why we do it would be so difficult but it really is (no matter what level you’re at as an artist).
Over the past few weeks I’ve had my Color Theory class write their first artist statement. I think this has blown their minds a bit. In my experience, it is not typical to write such things at a foundations level. But, as I’ve discovered recently – my artwork is still about the same thing now as it was when I was in foundations classes – I just didn’t realize that this was why I was making work. I wasn’t asked to write an artist’s statement at all until I took a Special Topics course offered the second to last semester of my undergraduate degree (that would be after 4 years of school mind you).
It would have been helpful to me to have begun to articulate what I was doing at a much earlier point in my academic career so I’m making my students do it sooner rather than later. This is my version of yanking off the band-aid.
What my foundations students are currently creating is generally assignment-driven; however, they are still exploring ideas and themes that are significant to them in some way despite the perimeters of each project. As artists, our focus changes as we change because whether or not we want to admit it – our artwork does reflect who we are on some level. And, wherever we go – there we are… ah, Dylan…
Being asked to physically articulate what is floating around conceptually in your head and in your work is beneficial on a number of levels. One, it makes you actually address whether or not you’re successfully communicating your ideas in your work by forcing you to lay out what exactly it is you’re trying to say in the first place (you’d think this was something we already do as artists but you’d be surprised). Two, it strips away the BS factor – you may (as my grandmother used to say) “talk wonders” about your work but what you create will either effectively support your intentions or it will “shit cucumbers.” If your work doesn’t say what you think it says then it’s up to you to find clearer ways to communicate. Three, writing an artist statement provides a foundation you can build on as your artwork and goals as an artist change. You can refine, revise, add to, and clarify your point of view as you discover more and more about yourself as an artist.
I asked my students to start by using Claes Oldenburgs “I am for an art…” manifesto/statement as a model for making their own declarations about what kind of art they love, what they believe art should do, and what they feel makes art “good” – from there they evaluated whether or not their artwork fits into these statements. If the work doesn’t stack up then new goals are discovered – if the work does exemplify the concepts outlined then they take away something they can discuss in their artist statement. I try to encourage them to use their own declarations as a way to self-evaluate how effective they are as an artist and to constantly add new declarations to their list as they go. (I did it too – it was very helpful.)
I am personally still changing my artist statement about every 6 months. It looks nothing like it once did but – surprise, surprise – it still says just about the same thing!
In my thesis meeting yesterday I discussed my current artist statement with my adviser who commented how vague and “almost” cliche some of my phrases can be. Her advice was to brainstorm what I actually mean when I use specific words.
For example: I use the work “self” a lot when writing about my artwork – but this word can actually denote a great many things and the connotation changes depending on how and where I use it in my writing. To better articulate my concept I need to choose more accurate and appropriately significant words.
I recently attended a CAA professional skill-building workshop in Birmingham, AL and was advised by the primary guest speaker, Larry Jens Anderson of the Savannah College of Art and Design, who said that it’s absolutely essential to make every word say something that is unavoidable accurate about your work. Anderson was a brilliant speaker and I took away a great deal of things from his session. (I’m sure I’ll refer to other things mentioned in this workshop further down the line.)
I want every word to say exactly what I mean. So now, as a strange foil to the saga of my students plight, I am faced with more revisions on my own artist’s statement. I don’t want to vaguely reference an idea or concept and have my audience glaze over and begin to drool. And, because sometimes knowing what you don’t want can be just as beneficial as knowing what you do want, I feel like I’m at least half-way there. (And I have some good notes to work from too… that always helps.)