Why talk?

24

Dear Artist,

Yesterday, a New York art consultant emailed with a list of questions:

henry-moore_kansas-city

“I have always liked sheep, and there is one big sculpture of mine that I called Sheep Piece because I placed it in a field and the sheep enjoyed it and the lambs played around it. Sheep are just the right size for the kind of landscape setting that I like for my sculptures, a horse or a cow would reduce the sense of monumentality. Perhaps the sheep also belong to the landscape of my boyhood in Yorkshire. ” (Henry Moore)

What inspires you to create your work?

How do you relate what you do today to the art of the preceding decades?

Are you very interested in what other artists of your generation are making today? Does that inspire you or do you push forth your own direction despite what goes on anywhere else?

How do you see your work moving forward in the future?

Later that evening, we faced each other across a crowded room. I listened as she shared her response to a life-sized installation of 300 hand-made clay magnolia petals, her wonder tumbling out of her like a tipped box of crayons. She referenced her background as an historian of the decorative arts and her passion for porcelain and works of craft. She reminded me of the ardent enthusiasm that can smile over from the other side of the art world. I felt like a small but connected planet tucked into orbit around a bigger, throbbing heartbeat. When it came time to answer her questions, I confessed like a geyser.

As a maker, you may or may not feel it necessary to talk about art. Some artists are downright superstitious about the practice — work, afterall, should speak for itself. “It is a mistake for a sculptor or a painter to speak or write very often about his job,” said Henry Moore. “It releases tension needed for his work.” Why can’t people just look at the art and take away whatever they want from it? Why talk?

grace-hartigan

Sweden, 1959, oil painting by Grace Hartigan

As part of her presentation, the art consultant introduced my paintings by reading aloud an old artist statement. Upon hearing it, I curled and thought of ways to improve. Here are a few ideas:

Keep it simple.
Write it in language everyone can understand.
Offer answers to a few basic questions:

What inspires you?
What does it signify?
What is your process?
What makes it unique?
What does it mean to you?

The Who, What, Why, When and Where of your work can be communicated in clear language as a support to that which otherwise prompts reflection, attraction and connection. “I cannot expect even my own art to provide all of the answers,” said Grace Hartigan. “Only to hope it keeps asking the right questions.”

bradley-sabin_flower-wall

Pewter Flower Wall, 2015, Ceramic and Steel Screws, installation by Bradley Sabin

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” (Theodore Roosevelt)

“When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.” (Henry J. Kaiser)

Esoterica: In writing an artist statement, avoid jargon. “Artspeak” is not familiar to anyone but a handful of academics, and can confuse and alienate. If it’s magic, rarity and complexity you’re looking for, try to harness a universal human truth, and put it in a simple sentence. Better yet, ask a gentle friend to write your statement for you. This way, you can get back to painting.

“An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.” (Jean Cocteau)

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24 Comments

  1. As a painter I paint what inspires me and people who had inspired,influenced and touched my life .I paint something that is created in my thoughts and from my heart imaginary or fantasy !I hope viewers may see what are in my paintings that evokes their own inspiration and fantasies.There are trends that do not appeal to me and I am not able to do . I continue painting the things and the thoughts that come in my mind and claim it as my own.I try to see what improvement can be made in my own work perhaps in the composition and colors that should be there. I keep my negative thoughts about others’ work and praise what I do like .

    • Raymond Mosier on

      Those are my thoughts as well Edna. The things which inspire me as a painter and the expressions of them seem to me to be individual and personal. I see no way to do differently. I see so much today with my contemporaries which I consider derivative and certainly do not inspire me to do anything but follow my own path.

  2. Excellent thoughts, Sara. Thank you. You presented both views of whether it is even a good idea to TRY to discuss one’s own art it a wise manner. I recall a famous female dancer (Martha Graham, I think, but my aging brain might be confused) who, when asked what her dance meant, replied that if she could say it in words, she would not need to dance. I am from the opposite viewpoint in my own art, feeling a passionate desire to discuss what and why I paint and sculpt.

  3. Sara, as an artist and poet, I am learning to speak in plain, beautiful language, and then stop. In the silence often comes the appreciation for what I do.

  4. When I was very young, almost every day I used to draw for hours, lost in my own little world. I did not question why I created. Being poor, married, with the responsibilities of a young child, I became a successful businessman who still continued to paint because I had a desire to. ( Interestingly, you can get the same creative rush designing a successful new million dollar product as you do when you finish a painting you have worked on for weeks). Now that I am an old man, who does not have responsibilities and can easily afford to do exactly what I want to do, I now create digital art every day. . I still do not consider why I must create it. Sometimes, people actually buy these images. I have no idea what they see in my art nor do I care. What I create pleases me and that is enough. Does the selfish pleasure I take in creating visual images make me any more of or less of an artist?

    • NO, JAN ……I TOO AM OLD, GOING ON NINETY……BUT PAINTING TO PLEASE YOURSELF DOESN.’T MAKE YOU LESS AS AN ARTIST,,,,,,,,FOLLOWING THE DEATH OF A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN, MY WIFE OF FIFTY FIVE YEARS, MY GRIEF WAS SO INTENSE, I MIGHT HAVE TAKEN MY OWN LIFE, IF I HAD NOT SAT AT MY EASEL EVERY DAY, MONTH ON MONTH, YEAR ON YEAR, PAINTING PORTRAITS OF HER AT ALL TIMES OF OUR LIFE TOGETHER……I WAS PAINTING FOR MYSELF, AND IT HELPED ME IMMENSELY TO CONTINUE MY LIFE….NOW I DO PORTRAITS OF FRIENDS, WAITERS, BARTENDERS, BARBERS, GROCERY CLERKS WHO TREAT ME WELL, AND HAVE ADDED THEIR TREASURED PETS TO MY PORTRAIT PAINTING. …I AM A TRULY BLESSED WIDOWER WITH MANY NEW FRIENDS DUE TO MY PAINTING………….MY BEST WISHES TO YOU……………………………….

    • Lillian E Walsh on

      IAN: I am delighted to see your name on this site. Often have wondered what happened to you.
      I have two of your paintings I purchased at an art showing at the Office of Mental Health in Albany NY. If you truly are the SAME Ian, I want you to know that those whimsical paintings on less than perfect paper are hanging in my studio these days. I often look to them to get me started. Do contact me directly.
      Lillian Walsh Rose Patel studio

  5. I agree with Henry Moore and Jean Cocteau. This is my artist’s statement:

    I was a loner as a kid, an only child, the kind that grow up to be serial killers, bank robbers or artists. I wasn’t interested in killing but tried robbery, stole a watch in the third grade but got caught and took up art. They haven’t caught me at that yet.

  6. Sara, thank you for this article. I find it hard to talk or write about my artwork. I prefer my artwork speak for itself. But if I want to market my artwork successfully, I’m gonna have to learn the vocabulary of arts and learn to write/speak so I could better articulate the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of my artwork. ArtsyShark Feed has a lot of examples of artists’ works and how the artists articulate and explain what they do and why. From the statements the artists wrote, I presume the following questions were asked of them:
    – How/When did you start drawing/painting?
    – Who/what inspired you to make arts?
    – Or where did you get your inspiration to draw/paint?
    – What was your experience in the arts?
    – How and when did you decide to pursue a career as an artist?
    – Tell us about your paintings, and why would people be interested in your arts?
    – Tell us about your exhibitions and awards.
    – Do you have any marketing advice to share with new artists?
    End of list. It will be a while yet for me to answer these questions.

  7. Frank Mitchell on

    I can imagine giving good answers to your queations 1,2, 3, and 5
    1/What inspires you?
    2, What does it signify?
    3, What is your process?
    4, What makes it unique?
    5, What does it mean to you?
    But on Q4, aside from the fact that each person is unique, what does this mean?

  8. I am fairly new to painting in acrylic …….and what I am going to say may be upsetting to many. I dont seem to be able to find my own style. I find images on line, either photos or other artists works that I like and I “copy” . I feel guilty about this but I don’t know “how” to find my own style. I’d be interested in knowing how others started painting.

    • Many years ago, an artist friend and I decided to exchange paintings. I so admired her naive style of painting and wanted to paint in that style. I procrastinated at my end of the exchange. One day I realized why I was procrastinating. I was holding myself back by not expressing my own style. My paintings have improved over time because of practice but the core style can still be seen.
      Alan is right. Copying is good painting practice. One exercise would be to put your most recent copied painting away and paint from memory. What was the essence of that painting? Why were you drawn to it? Paint that essence.

  9. In answer to Muriel’s comment about finding your own self and the making of copies, there is an excellent film called “Finding Forrester” starring Sean Connory. It is about a Pulitzer winning novelist who became a recluse and by chance befriended a young and very brilliant high school student and became his writing mentor. He started the boy copying an unpublished short story of his own and told him to let go and follow his own direction when he felt that could happen. I don’t remember his words, but basically that was what he said. And it goes from there into a beautiful friendship and the boy learned a great deal from that point on.

    Balthus is a very good example of a great painter who taught himself (though he grew up among artists and Rilke was a close family friend who encouraged young Balthus in his drawing) to paint by making copies of details of Piero della Francesca and Masaccio frescoes. Many of the great painters copied other painter’s works. That’s as good a way to learn about painting as there is. So know that copying good paintings is important, and you will find yourself in time. And don’t be impatient.

  10. I love the idea that my art speaks for itself. I paint abstracts – from nature or just from my head – but the finished product is often not discernible as the original inspiration. I prefer to call my works “Untitled # number, next” and leave it to the viewer to imagine all for themselves. I have been called lazy – unfinished etc. What do you think?

    • Carol: NO artist is lazy…. this is not a lazy person’s activity. If you desire to be good, keep on painting, taking classes and going to art shows….. copy? No! but get ideas and make them your own! keep at it.

  11. Artspeak: What an artist does (or doesn’t do) from the moment he/she gets up in the morning until he/she goes to bed at night. Some speak with line and shape- others with color and value- and some use words. Some speak to themselves in a sort-of schizophrenic fashion. Some praise their gods while others curse their devils. Some makers make- while others break- to get to an end result.
    My abstract fiber work speaks for itself- but that doesn’t mean anybody gets it or anybody hears it- or worse- anybody WANTS to hear it. I’m of the school of thought that suggests that if you can’t tell people the what- why- when- where and how- then you haven’t figured it out yourself. More than once I’ve been disappointed by an artist’s inability to speak about their own work. I think it’s an essential part of the puzzle. So yes- you may be lazy if you haven’t developed the ability to both produce- and deliver a meaningful rant about your delivery process. Sorry. But this refers more than anything- to how we’ve been distanced from our creativity in so many ways- so much so that we have to find our way back to it from the outer limits or the twilight zone. If what we do was just so much more generally accepted as a REAL JOB- it might not be such a struggle to talk about it.
    Ya just wanna make art for yourself? Go for it. Ya wanna succeed as a working artist in the world? Learn how to talk about it too. Ya wanna have your work mean something to more than just you? Make sure you invest your personal meaning into both the process and the outcome- and if necessary- to explain yourself.

  12. I like it when an artist gives me a hint of what was in their mind. I do not like artwork with abstract titles (such as work #9). When I look at those titles, I feel like it is just an exercise of playing with the media and not a reflection of what was in the artists heart and mind (if anything) at the time of the making. We as audience do not have your perspective of history, what you were influenced by, or what you are about. I just took a MOOC course on Understanding contemporary art and it helped tremendously to have the mythology and references explained. So much art today revolves around the personal mythology of the artist, rather than “universal signifiers” (go artspeak) that I think the artist owes the audience at least a hint of what influenced the piece or why it is significant.

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