This week, Kwabena Gyane dives into the creation of an artist’s statement— what to include, what to exclude, and its multiple purposes to every artist writing one.
There are very few things in this world that can shake an artist to the bone, scatter thoughts in one’s cranium and induce palpitations in that muscle in one’s ribcage like an artist’s statement. Trying to get any creative to talk about what they do is usually met with stares and stutters, so imagine asking one to write about it?
To a novice artist, an artist’s statement could be a novel term that was thrown around in conversation with other creatives, so the anxiety of writing one has not hit just yet. However, there is no need for it to, at its core an artist’s statement is all about you as the artist, and who can write about your creative work better than you?
An artist’s statement acts as your voice to an audience before you even utter a word, helping shape how your work is viewed and provide insight into the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’ What your piece is, what it is trying to tell its viewers, why it was created, and why it is conveying certain themes.
It acts as a bridge between artist and audience, giving them details they may not have noticed or considered. This is not to shape their thoughts to match the artist but to give them the entire picture so they can view your work in its complete complexity.
Typically, an artist’s statement is roughly 150 to 300 words. They function best if they are succinct. However, longer statements are not uncommon, although the longest they tend to be is a page and no more.
Artist’s statements differ based on what they need to convey to the readers. A short project statement gives readers a brief overview on an individual body of work and its themes. A full-page statement touches on your work, the themes, the medium typically used, the techniques and the inspirations behind your creative pieces, making it a longer version of a short statement (not to be confused with a short *project* statement).
It is important to note that your statement is not a curriculum vitae (this is not your time to talk about your work history, your career accomplishments and every possible relevant skill), it is not a manifesto (you are not writing this to declare anything in such a manner), it is not an aggregation of words informing the readers about every pillar of art history (you are not here to teach your audience), nor is it a checklist of art jargon (so maybe impasto, nastaliq and Neue Sachlichkeit should take a backseat unless they are vital)
We know what an artist’s statement is, we know what it is not, we know its primary function – but what occasions require one?
Artist’s statements are needed in a range of events; grant applications to fund your work, exhibition proposals to display your pieces, introductions to potential customers, graduate school and teaching position applications. They even come to your aid when a critic needs to review your work.
An artist’s statement allows you, the artist, to articulate your creative process, giving you the opportunity to understand your work from a different perspective, so as the audience begins to create a connection with your work, you solidify your own.
So how does one go about writing an artist’s statement? Are there any tricks to ensure yours stands out in a crowd? Any potential shortcuts that lead to a page being filled with words that draw the eyes and keep them there? Not necessarily, as an artist’s statement is yours and yours alone, it already stands out, it is after all unique to you and no two artists have the exact inspirations, motivations, techniques, and topics.
There are no instantaneous shortcuts to writing an artist’s statement, for a short piece of work it does take time and although it may feel like a dreadful experience, with patience, preparation and pacing, your statement will say what needs to be said and draw your audience in by the time they reach the last syllable.
As an artist, you already understand that with every piece of work, planning is essential, and your artist’s statement is not different.
As previously mentioned, your statement provides your readers with the ‘what’ and the ‘why,’ it also needs to give them the ‘how’. Answering these three questions is the bare minimum your statement should do if it seeks to make your audience, whoever they may be, understand what they are looking at and give them the necessary push in the right direction to pull out key information from your pieces.
Take your time with your statement, there is no need to rush it (unless you are reading this and your deadline is mere hours away; if so, plan and pace yourself better next time, you are an artist after all). Speeding through your artist’s statement is a guarantee to a haphazard and unprofessional piece of text, and that does you no favours if your audience cannot comprehend what it is you are trying to tell them.
Deep breaths, make sure the ambience is right and answer the ‘what’, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. Brainstorming can be an excellent way to jot down responses to the three, these can be single words or paragraphs, it is your draft phase, anything goes.
If it helps, have your pieces in front of you, take a good look at them. This could spark ideas, the ‘what’ is the easiest; is the artwork mixed media, a sculpture, a photograph, a print, a painting? What medium was used?
The ‘how’ is our moderate question, how was the piece made? Let the audience peek into your process, the techniques you employed to turn an idea into an item of inspiration.
‘Why’ is usually the hardest question for artists as it requires introspection, you need to understand what inspired you to make this piece, what motivated you, why was it so important that it needed to be released in such an artistic manner.
The ‘what’ draws their eyes, the ‘how’ let them peek, the ‘why’ lets them gaze, the synergy of all three must be perfect to create a compelling artist’s statement.
This is your own statement so always use first-person pronouns and an active voice, your audience needs to know this is you speaking and not someone else regurgitating your words to them. Your artist’s statement highlights your authority over your creative piece and your creative processes, make sure your audience is always aware of this.
Depending on the audience, decide on the tone of your artist’s statement, this should complement those who will be reading it. While academic and humorous tones can shuffle in and out, the emotional tone of your statement should always be constant. The art piece may get their attention, but it is vital to get them invested in the backstory as well.
It has been said several times in this article, but it must be said once more: your artist’s statement is uniquely yours, so avoid cliché as much as possible. Using generic language adds nothing to your statement, it only makes your text sound flat and uninspiring.
Your statement is meant to be concise, so choose your words wisely, ask yourself how you can create a story that captivates with the least number of words. This may make you feel anxious but remember you do not need to give the reader everything all at once, give them the most important answers, no need to include trivial matters. Your statement is only an introduction opening the door for more questions about your work— treat it as such.
An artist’s statement works best if the language used is simple. This does not mean a mundane statement. It means making it easier for all readers. Accessibility is key with your statement.
Once finished, as with every written work, check for spelling and grammar, read it aloud and have your friends and peers read it to get feedback, especially on clarity.
As an artist, writing your statement is both a nerve-racking and exciting experience. Your first drafts may not be the stellar statements you envisioned, but as you continue to understand your art in its distinctive complexity, writing a statement becomes easier.
You are an artist and you already know practice makes perfect – so, go ahead and write your first word.