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Writing an Artist Statement: Consider the Magician

by Luann Udell on 11/19/2015 7:12:27 AM

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews.  Luann also writes a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft.  She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry).  Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.  She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art.  She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...."

 

Telling the “how” undoes all the magic you’ve created.

 

One of my favorite workshops to teach is how to write a powerful artist statement. I love ‘digging in’, like an archeological project, uncovering the inner motivations and yearnings of artists.

 

Someone suggested I should actually charge for individual services. And so I took on my first paying client, for the magnificent sum of what they would have paid for a class--$25.

 

My first client argued passionately for technique. They wanted a step-by-step of the process. They insisted that hardly anyone knows about it. (Inlaid wood. Got it? Good.) I spent some time trying to convince them otherwise, mostly because I was too tender-hearted to tell them most people didn't really care. But he was adamant.

 

I finally lost my temper. “Look”, I snarled, “you know who REALLY wants to know all about your techniques? OTHER WOODWORKERS!!!!!

 

In the end, they took my piece and paid me my $25. If I’d known it would include two hours of arguing, I would have charged $250.

 

Yes, sometimes--okay, often--people will ask you about your techniques. Yes, as an artist working in a fairly new but immensely popular medium, I get asked a lot how I achieve the effects I do. And sometimes I tell people a simplified version of the hours-long process it takes to create my time-worn, ancient-looking artifacts.

 

But I am here to tell you....

 

Most people don't really care.

 

And almost nobody really wants to know.

 

I can almost hear that collective gasp of astonishment and horror. Stay with me.

 

Focusing on the 'how' and the 'what' is not really what people want to hear, though they think they do.

 

Telling people in great detail how you make your work, and what you make it with, is like a magician telling you how he did his magic trick.

 

We all know there is no such thing as magic. We know magicians are masters at handling their materials, masters of misdirection, and masters of storytelling. But we love having our disbelief suspended for a few magical moments. Do you really think David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear? (If you do, please read no further, there is no point.)

 

And here's the real kicker. When I am told how the trick was accomplished, I am vaguely disappointed. I can feel the magic slip away. It's why the ending of movie or a book of, "...and then he woke up and it was all a dream" is so disappointing, and feels like a cheat.

 

In my own experience, I have found, time after time, that those people who are inordinately interested in my techniques over the story of why I came to make it, and what it means to me, fall into four categories:

 

1) They are artists themselves and want to make one, too.

2) They are teachers, and they want to teach it.

3) They really just want to know how it's made. That's it.

 

Very few of these people actually buy a piece of my work.

 

4) They are intrigued by my work, fascinated, moved deeply. And asking how it's made is their way of sussing out why they are so taken with it.  It’s the brain’s way of trying to make sense of what pulls at our heart and soul.

 

And eventually, most of these people DO actually buy something (though not necessarily right away.)

 

When I talk about my techniques, I use metaphors (“…a process like puff pastry, or samurai sword making…”) and shorthand (“…I use a scrimshaw technique to bring up the detail….”) I always…always…use these brief explanations to segue into why this cave and why I do this work.

 

I've learned not to overwhelm my actual collectors with too much technical detail. Again, Bruce Baker puts it succinctly in his seminars: Potters want to tell about their titanium glazes and the firing cone of their clays. But their customers want to know if there's lead in the glaze, and if they can use it in the microwave.

 

And if the clay piece is by Janis Mars Wunderlich, you probably don't even care about that.

 

A few years later, I was thumbing through a regional magazine, and came across a featured artist piece. There was my woodworker! They’d added a bit about their process, and the photos of their work was lovely.

 

But when I read the sentences I’d originally penned, I almost cried—they were still that powerful. It made me go back and look at the work again, even though I’d written it. And that, my friends, is a sign of good writing, and a good artist statement. (As opposed to the ones that make you scratch your head and go, “Wha….??”)

 

Be generous with your knowledge. Share your enthusiasm with your audience. Rejoice in your choice of media.

 

But never forget what is deep in your heart, where your true story is--the story that will resonate with the hearts of your true collectors.

 

It’s not really about the (polymer) clay. The clay is just a way to tell my story.

 

 

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Related Posts:

Respect Your Collectors Part 9

Questions You Don't Have to Answer: A Question From an Art Teacher

The Artist Statement: Art writers want information

Tell Me A Story: Tell a Better Story

Just for Today: Try Something Different


Topics: Art Business | art criticism | art marketing | artist statement | FineArtViews | inspiration | Luann Udell 

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 17 Comments

Irina
via faso.com
Thank you Luann for your honest , intelligent article .

K. Henderson
via faso.com
Very good, realist article. We artists hang around other artists so much we don't see the Magic in our work. You are right:Don't spoil the illusion.

Bert Sibley
via faso.com
I am sitting here saying out loud ...a big THANK YOU! You did a great job of describing how we; as artist: tend to think everyone is as involved with this new creation of mine as I am.
I agree, we think too much and listen too little.

I believe the best answer I've heard from an artist ; in describing their new work; is "This art make me feel good about me and my art" . One sentence says it all.

David King
via faso.com
I try to only describe the "why" in my statement and my blogging rather than the "how". I agree that most collectors really don't care about the "how" or if they think they do would probably be disappointed by the answer.

Heidi Zielinski
via faso.com
Great nuggets in this article. You're a wonderful writer and I appreciate what you have shared!

Mark Brockman
via faso.com
If someone asks about my technique, I will explained it, but simply. You can tell when you are giving to much information as thier eyes will glaze over. I don't care why they want to know either, but it is nice when someone asks.

Like David though, I'd rather talk about the 'why' then the 'how'. But sometimes I'm not sure they want that either even though they had asked. I wonder because even though I try to keep the 'why' simple too, thier eyes glaze over.

Maybe I talk to much!?

Jong Lee
via faso.com
Speaking of which...I just looked at your website and I think it is fantastic! And best "artist statement" I've ever read!

Barbara Blair
via faso.com
Your artist statement is excellent. I love it, and am inspired to incorporate one of my ocean poems into mine. I also love your website, and your "Animal Stories" page - magical. Thank you for your article.

Nenad KojiÄ
via faso.com
Great inspiration in so short text. Bravo Luann Udell.

Walker Stevens
via faso.com
Good Article Luann; I find the people who really want to know my 'techniques' are artists. I always tell them the entire process, if they're seriously interested, and I tell them, "Take notes."

Buyers want the shorthand version, if that, which is fine. Buyers usually want to be able to tell their friends 'why' they purchased one of my works. They want to be able to 'sound like they know what the big deal is' about my technique, which is fine.

I believe in the old adage, "The copying of your work is the truest form of a compliment." I don't 'just' want to be copied, I'm happy to explain in detail how I do my 'generational' and 'three-dimensional' works.

I sell quite a bit of art; and, my art is pretty 'pricy.' If I can help another artist to achieve their goal of being a 'Professional' artist, and actually make a living from the proceeds of their work, then I'm happy to have helped them realize their goal.

God has blessed me greatly in my life. Just keeping me alive, was one of His biggest jobs! For me to 'covet' my blessings, and not pass them on would be a grave error on my part. I hope I get a 1,000 artists a day who want to learn generational and three dimensional artistry.

Warm Regards,
Walker

www.walkerstevensfineart.com
www.saatchiart.com/walker_stevens_fine_art
walkerstevens@walkerstevensfineart.com

Walter Paul Bebirian
via faso.com
if people don't get new ideas - inspiration - motivation - thoughts and whatever else is possible to get from looking at an image - then what I have created is meaningless to them - and that is OK - since there are some 7 billion other people on the planet who just might get one or all of those things from any one of my images -

from another perspective though - that one that gets it might be one in 7 trillion or 7 zillion people who comes after the 7 billion on this earth currently have long gone and left the planet -

this is not my difficulty -

it is my focus to continue to create and if I throw a little marketing art into the mix and that helps then so be it -

remember what someone said - was it Leonardo ? - artist see what others only capture a glimpse of - can I help it is everyone has time or interest or the ability to only capture a very vague glimpse of what lies right in front of them?

Luann Udell
via faso.com
You've all inspired another blog post today! Give me a bit to get it up, then visit my website for the blog tab.


Carol Hopper
via faso.com
I wish you would have included some examples. Your article is mostly about what not to do and I truly appreciate that. Yes, I like a story too. How about some examples?


Luann Udell
via faso.com
Carol, there are examples in my article on my blog today.
And your homework for the weekend, should you choose to accept it, is to do some deep thinking about WHY you do what you do, and WHY you use the techniques/tools/process you use.
"I love color", "I love light", "I love nature" etc. are not allowed as reasons. Keep challenging every answer you give with 'why?" until you can't stand it anymore.
Then ask it again.
Then I can give you some examples. :^)

Shun Lee
via faso.com
Luann is totally right about do not go into details about your art work, the real collectors do not care. I do not care to teach any body how to create my art work either. If any body really want to learn how to paint take my class, otherwise enjoy my creations.

carol a. grigus
via faso.com
thank you, Luann, for your Brilliant article...
..the why...in some detail..
I plan to add a bit more of the 'why' to my statement....!....










 

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