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Are You Guilty of this Originality Sin?

by Sue Smith on 10/1/2009 11:44:44 AM

This post is by guest author, Sue Smith.  This article has been edited and published with the author's permission.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Artists live and die by originality.  So why do so many of us commit the following artistic "Originality Sins"?

No, I'm not talking about our artwork; I'm referring to our artist statements.

One of my recent gallery responsibilities was to write blog posts for an upcoming landscape show, and for the past week I've been transcribing and editing artist statements.  Each artist was asked to supply a brief bio and artist statement, as well as a statement about their paintings - where they painted each one, their experiences, preferably something that would connect the viewer to their work.  My job was to craft a marketing/publicity piece on each artist, and to build their internet presence and generate excitement for their work.

The first few artist statements were interesting, but then a sense of deja vu emerged. Statement after statement read almost identical.  As a memory aid for myself - as well as for you, dear artists - I've come up with a list of the Originality Sins that we artists seem to commit most often. (Don't worry, the names and circumstances have been changed to avoid embarrassment.)

Sin #1:  "I discovered my love of art in childhood." 
Honey, everyone loved art as a child.  Who didn't dig into that box of Crayola crayons?  Almost every artist bio started with this sentence - or a version of it.  But unless there was something unique about your childhood, don't fall into the trap of thinking real artists must have been artists all their lives. Malcolm Gladwell noted in his book, Outliers, that it takes 10,000 hours of concentrated effort to become an expert. (Editor's Note:  We have pointed out before, that Gladwell, while likely correct, was by no means the first person to offer the "10,000 hours" theory.  In fact, we discussed a similar idea on this very blog well before Outliers was published.)  What counts when establishing your artistic credibility boils down to the following:  your artistic influences, your philosophy, your accomplishments, and the strongest elements in your work. All you need to communicate is that you've been working long enough to be an art professional.

Sin #2:  Recounting your total 30 year work history on the way to becoming an artist.
This issue tripped up several artists.  Your background is pertinent as it applies to the art you make, your philosophy, and inspiration, but we don't need to know how you did "this" and then "that" before retiring and devoting all your energies to art.  Such a narrative reveals lack of focus or fire in the belly for being an artist. Your reader (the gallery director or show juror) might conclude that you're more of a hobby painter than a serious artist....ready to move on to some other diversion when you get bored.

Sin #3: Not giving the gallery the information it requested.
Dear artist, I am writing your blog post and it's going out to thousands of readers who the gallery is hoping will be so enamored with your story and art that they'll call the gallery immediately to purchase your artwork.  But, I'm sitting here looking at...a one sentence statement that doesn't relate whatsoever to your artwork.  As much as I'd love to, I can't make up an entertaining story about how you nearly fell off the cliff while trying to capture the perfect view. Nor can I reconcile your description of how "the ocean in all its moods" is your primary influence when your accepted painting features flowers.  And then there was the story that sounded remarkably like one recounted by a famous art blogger in a recent post.  In all fairness, most artists did a little better on the "story" request than they did on the bio, but there were a few who left me wondering if they'd read the gallery request email all the way through.  Or maybe they were one of those hobby painters ready to move on to a career in golf.

I know that it's hard enough for you to write about yourself without me poking holes in it.  It's easy after you finally get something down on paper to simply use it for everything.  Or you might secretly worry that your resume isn't "impressive" enough, so you fall back on that whole childhood thing - but the risk is that anyone reading your bio is thinking "I loved art as a child, too, so what's so special about this guy?"  And that's not what you want them to be thinking.

So what should you do? Consult an expert.  In the meantime, here are a few ideas for you to consider for your own writing...

Artist Bios: Some of the most effective bios came from artists who focused only on the pertinent points: A concise description of their artistic identity, their influences, a brief description of education and training, how long they had been working as a professional artist, the unique qualities of their work, a mention of family, place and date of birth or where they were living to personalize the information, and a summary of organizations, awards, exhibits and gallery associations.  This was followed by a standard listing of accomplishments organized by date.

Artist Statements:  Nearly every artist used these same words to describe their work: how the "beauty of the landscape" inspired them and how they hoped to "convey emotion about the subject" when they painted.  I think this is the biggest Originality Sin of them all - and it's so easy to correct.  Words are just as powerful in creating images as your paint and brushes. Don't be bland or predictable.  Realize that dozens of other artists are using the same words to describe what they do.  That ought to energize you into searching for a different way of saying it.

Artist Stories: It never hurts to be prepared to talk about your work. Simple, human, authentic. And it never hurts to give it a little thought, and then provide your gallery with everything it requests.

Above and Beyond: You're probably thinking - this is all so obvious!  But I don't exaggerate when I tell you that most of the artist statements (some from professionals) contained one or more of these Originality Sins. Not because the artists didn't care, but because these are the insignificant details we don't even notice - at least not until we read 40 different versions of the same thing.

Imagine what the gallery director reading hundreds of these things must be thinking...

Just a thought.


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Loading comments...

Deber Klein
Good post, good points made. My personal favorite artist's statement sin to hate is the one in which the artist strives to sound "deep, profound and artsy-fartsy-beyond-your-wildest-dreams". Like arteests who wear the little French caps and double breasted smocks, they are trying too hard. Even if their art is awesome, their statement may seem contrived or gimicky. My suggestion to artists who don't write is this: Keep it short. Keep it sweet.

Lori Woodward Simons
Sue, you have provided a great service to artists with this post. I've often been bothered by seeing the "as a young child" line.

Although I have to admit that I did take up art at the age of three when I tried adding my own statement in crayon to our family's collection of original oil paintings.

Back to your blog post. Important reminders that we need to put a bit more effort into how we present ourselves on paper. Thanks so much!!!

Dan Turner
"Imagine what the gallery director reading hundreds of these things must be thinking..."

They should be thinking "We need to toss this to our marketing team" instead of forcing artists to do the gallery's work for them. If the ART is fresh, powerful and exciting, then let the gallery create whatever statements and back story they think they need for their various audiences. If the art is sub-par, fancy artist statements don't help.

Clint Watson
Dan, I do agree that galleries shouldn't force work on the artists that the gallery should be should be doing.

However, I think Sue's point is that it's not possible to read an artist's mind. As a former gallery owner, I recall the artists we performed the best for were the ones who did provide us with good, well written materials and insights into their works, instead of taking a "that's not my job" approach.

It seems like it should be a team effort. As an example going the other direction, I regularly framed, added wire and hanging devices, varnished paintings, re stretched paintings, etc. One *could* argue that's the *artist's* job - but, again, I didn't mind as we all just tried to do what needed to be done as a team.

I have always believed that marketing should start with the artist. If I were an artist, I would never want to put my career into the hands of someone else's marketing team.

Again, just my opinion.

I thank you sincerely for your thoughts.

Clint Watson

As a follow up - I also want to clarify that you do bring up a very good point. Here's an example of what I mean. We did sometimes work with artists who were not comfortable with their writing skills. In those cases we DID often have (or hire) a writer to sit down and craft a really good bio or statement (usually through interviewing the artist). In those cases, we would donate that bio back to the artist so he/she could use it at exhibitions with other galleries. Again, team effort.

Lori Woodward Simons
That's interesting Clint, in the 90's, Tilting At Windmills Gallery in VT hired me a few times to interview artists and write bios for their upcoming shows.

Sue Smith
Lori, I also cringed at the childhood reference, as I used to say *I still have the ceramic pig I made over half a century ago*...
Dan, certainly an artist affiliated with a gallery can expect benefits such as you describe. My post was directed at emerging artists who often participate as "guest artists" in a gallery that does not know them or their work.
Clint, yes, for any venture to be successful it should be a *group* effort. Thanks so much.

Spencer Meagher
Of all the thoughts expressed in this article the one that captures my attention is the concept of being "succinct". Say as much as possible in as few a words as possible. This holds true in writing resume's. You have to grab the attention of the reader as quickly as possible and can not afford to "fatigue" them.

Good article.


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