Curator, writer and educator Camilla Brown recently led a workshop for Redeye called Refreshing your artist statement. Here she sums up her advice to help you approach writing about your own work.
Developing your artist's statement is about creating a language for your practice. But it is also about finding your artistic voice.
It is an empowering step to take and it is very helpful to you as an artist. Writing about your work requires you to step back and place your work in a context. You have to find a way to articulate the what, how and why of your practice.
We all do our work for a reason. We all have aims and things we want to communicate to the world. Most artists and photographers have interesting stories to tell and they have to find a way to communicate not only in images but also in words.
But of course, this is not easy. Many creatives have problems writing, not least as many will have been told in formal education they cannot write and will lack confidence putting pen to paper. There is no shame in working with others on this – writing can be a collaborative process. But taking responsibility for your artistic voice is down to you – as the author of your practice – and you alone.
How do you begin? Start by trying to write what you do and why you do it using just 150 words. Put yourself on the spot. Try not to overthink it. Just get words down on paper. Often best to handwrite this section and then put into a computer. If it is easier to say it – record yourself and transcribe.
By saying what is on the top of you head you are forced to be succinct; direct and lucid. This is how to develop the best statement. These 150 words will be the first paragraph of your statement. It is also likely to be the only paragraph that anyone will read! Depressing but true.
The second paragraph will say more about how you make decisions whilst making your work. How and why you select material and techniques (please do write about process – we want to know how you do what you do). Third paragraph tells the reader about your current work and how it has grown from previous concerns. Your work may be eclectic and varied – but you will need to consider threads and themes or approaches that relate one body of work to the next. The final paragraph will be a potted biography listing key shows, works and projects.
What you should avoid:
Generalisations: define and consider your terms – consider your work conceptual? Explain what you mean by that.
Artspeak: we know what this is; don’t use words that seem clever and current but are meaningless and vacuous. Always communicate clearly and in an accessible way – you don’t want to put your audience off.
Self-importance: you may feel the need to validate yourself and your practice – but don’t make arrogant claims “this is the most important documentary project ever made…”
Past tense: although you are having to step outside your work and consider it from an objective distance – write in the present tense. It is more vibrant, immediate, engaging and personal.
Obscure references: if you refer to films, music, literature – explain your sources. Otherwise you can make your reader feel ignorant and stupid, and this alienates them.
Once you have made your attempt at this – leave it for a week. The text needs to be left to incubate. You need to come back to it fresh to edit and refine it. When you look back at it you need to interrogate it and make sure it works. Ask yourself these questions:
- What are you trying to say with your work?
- Why are you (as opposed to someone else) making this work?
- Why should anyone else care?
Think about how your work speaks to others. It may be your passion but why do you think anyone else would enjoy the work? Try to keep sentences short.
Struggling to start? Be free and easy here and start with a list of words. Enjoy language and revisit your favourite writers and books. Make a list of words you like and then think if there is a way to include them in your statement. Love language and writing. Good words can unpick things for you – words that have multiple meanings are helpful. Also keeping language varied avoids repetition and ensures the text is interesting.
Last stage – get your text read by a critical friend. You are not writing for yourself, but for others. So, make sure what you have written makes sense to someone else. You don’t want typos or spelling mistakes. Make the most of online sources such as Grammarly to do a proofread for you and check grammar. These tools are out there – use them.
Final advice – start today. Take small steps and begin the process. It will take time. But the sooner you start the sooner it will be done. Once you have written something you are happy with, you can use it in so many ways. This will be a work in progress – evolving as your work develops. But that first 150 words is most likely going to stay the same. So, you will only have to do it once!
Image credit: From The Universal Penman by George Bickham