TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #5: My Art Speaks for Itself

Myth: My art speaks for itself. I don’t have to explain anything!”
Reality: Your art will sell better if you can tell your story, create an emotional connection with your audience, and inspire a desire for your work.

We all know the scene:

Artist’s work on display, artist standing off to the side, aloof and austere, sniffing at any plebeian who dares ask a stupid question like “What is your work about?” or “So why do you like to paint green people so much?”

If we can’t tell what the work is about, it’s clear we shouldn’t expose our ignorance by asking.

Here’s my own personal observation:

Artists who won’t talk about their art, often can’t talk about their art. That is, they don’t know how.

Knowing how to talk about your work will also help you write a stronger artist statement. A strong artist statement is important because it is often the first way many people will “hear” you tell your story about your art.

There are as many ways to approach making art as there are artists, and as many reasons to buy art as there are customers.

Here are some ways not to talk about your art:

PROCESS If we talk about our work at all, we often fall into the easy trap of talking about process.

Process is important, to a degree, but there’s gotta be more. I’m not going to pay you by the hour to mow my lawn with a pair of manicure scissors unless you have a really compelling reason.

Yes, some people want to know how we make our stuff, where we learned our craft, where we get our materials. But in my humble experience, many people who care only about my process, want to make something like my work, not buy it.

Here’s a good example. For years, if the first question people would ask me was, “What are these artifacts made of?”, I’d answer, “Polymer clay”.

And once I said that, rarely did the person actually buy something. Often, their first reaction was to actually put down the object they were holding.

Even talking to them at this point, telling them why, had little effect. The spell was broken, and their interest was lost.

I finally wised up. Now I say, “I use polymer clay, and if you look over here, there is a wonderful little piece I wrote on why I chose to use it as my medium.”

Now people are engaged again, reading a short but powerful sign with beautiful examples of all the artifacts I make. And this has ended in more sales. (Hint: The key to why this works is in this paragraph…)

ACADEMIC when I read an artist statement filled with academese or art speak, I sense someone who is afraid to get up close and personal about their work. That, or my eyes roll up into my head, my toes curl and I fall over from total boredom. But then, maybe that’s just me.

RESUME At most shows, when you read the accompanying artist statements, artists carefully list their education, the classes of other, more famous artists they’ve studied under, and the awards they’ve won. Most sound like they were written to impress other artists, perhaps a worthy goal, but I’m guessing most of us would rather impress our customers. They may not realize their statements sound like every other artist in the show. Or they think that’s the way it “should be done.” At the very least, they sure don’t know how to make theirs stand out.

FUN Frankly, I don’t care when an artist tells me they had “such fun” making their latest design. Because why should I care if they’re having fun?? I want to know why I should be compelled to part with my hard-earned money, and make space in my already-crowded home for something new. I can tell you it won’t be because the artist giggles while she works.

I’ve taught many artists about how to write a compelling artist statements, how to write a strong press releases, how to give a powerful interview for the media. It’s very simple, really.

All we really have to do is think about a little three-letter word….

Why?

I tell them why….this cave. Why…this point in my life. Why…I use polymer clay. Why…I use these fabrics, those markings, this presentation. I even have a story about the beaver-chewed sticks, and how they contribute to the story.

So why do you do what you do? Why do you choose to do it this way, with these materials?

Most importantly… Why should your audience care??

I believe the work I make sells to people who a) are blown away by the work itself, and b) feel a powerful connection to the stories I tell about the work.

When we talk in a deeply meaningful way about what our work means to us, other people listen. They will feel the truth of what you say. Remember all the times my customers say, “When you said that, a shiver went down my spine”…? Or, “Look, my hair is standing up!” (Yes, these are actual customer quotes.)

They are hearing the power of what my work means to me, and they are responding to it with something going on in their own lives.

That is connection. Human to human connection. Empathy, resonance, heart to heart. Inspiration. The recognition that we as human beings have these things in common: A need to love, and be loved. A desire to belong, and be an individual. A need to protect, and be protected. A desire to remember, and be remembered.

Don’t be ashamed or self-conscious about admitting your humanity. It is to be embraced and celebrated. Hey, we’re all in this together, and nobody gets out alive.

And when you do that, with honesty and integrity, you will find other people will respond.

How do you know if you’ve done a great job either talking or writing about your art? Basket artist Joanne Russo passed on a terrific tip she heard: An artist statement should make you want to go back and look at the work again.

If you still don’t know what to say about your work, then invest in Bruce Baker’s CD on “Dynamic Sales and Customer Service Techniques”. It will be the best $20 investment you ever make in your art biz.

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8 Comments

Filed under art, artist statement, booth behavior, craft, customer care, marketing, mental attitude, myths about artists, press release, self promotion, selling, telling your story

8 responses to “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #5: My Art Speaks for Itself

  1. Hello Luann.
    I have been following your series and I love it so completely. It is just the words that I need to hear as I try to sort out my own life as an artist.
    I am most moved by this post. “When we talk in a deeply meaningful way about what our work means to us, other people listen. ” I have a natural gift of gab and a way with words. And words are such an important part of my wearable art, whether it is right out there in front, or the choice of names, or the story. But it is in relating my process, my thinking, my inspiration, my Muse with my clients, particularly in a one-to-one situation, that I find the most success. And I agree that it doesn’t come as easily for others as it does for me, but if you love your art and you believe in yourself than how can it not be easy? I love what you create because I see such a loving care in it, and it is a medium that I admire, but have no talent (or patience) in. I thank you for being such a wonderful mentor to those of us who are stretching ourselves to find where in the world our art wants us to be. Thank you for the inspiration today! Enjoy the day! Erin

  2. Melissa H.

    Luann,
    I echo the same thoughts as Erin. I am at a point in my life where I am trying to figure out how to merge into a career as an artist, my true calling, and leaving my dead-end job (and steady paycheck). I don’t know what that looks like yet, but each day I am hopeful (or trying to be) I will reach this goal. Thank you for your words and guidance. This post was especially helpful, as I am someone who doesn’t like to talk about myself, and I need to branch out and find a way to verbally express my art, my feelings, and learn how to connect that with people.
    All the best to you.

  3. I love this essay, thank you so much for writing it. I often tell people that my business is about relationship in many ways. I think maybe what you are saying is related to that idea. However, it gives a concrete way of thinking about the relationships. Why is a very good thing to ponder, even to ourselves. I think I’ll ponder that a bit more.

    My work in handknitting pattern designs is changing. It’s going more complex. WHY? Because that is what makes my heart sing. If I cry when I see a photo of a “vintage” Turkish sock, then I might just need to follow that gut passion!!!

    My beginner students can use the patterns I used when the WHY was a desire to help my students create easily and comfortably.

    In my case, I don’t do art shows, so my customers may not meet me in person. I am going to think about how I can express WHY in the media which speaks for me when I am not present.

    Lovely. Thanks again.

  4. Erin and Melissa, thank you both for such thoughtful responses. Something you reminded me of: When we take the time to think deeply about why we make the art we do, we also distinguish ourselves from every other artist. It’s the ultimate branding! :^)

    Hello Lynn, so nice to hear from you again! You’ve been in the art world so long, it’s an honor to hear this essay spurred your thinking further. :^)

    I have one more question for you: WHY does your heart sing when you make more complex work? WHY do you cry when you see a photo of a vintage Turkish sock?

    And when you uncover that level of emotional depth, take it even deeper. Ask “why?” again. When I do this for someone else, I tell them I’m holding their feet to the fire!

    Eventually, we come to our core values, our true heart’s inspiration. And THAT is what will ring true.

    You will know it. There is a physical change in people’s demeanor when they reach that core. Once you’ve seen it in someone, you never forget it.

    Keep up the good work, and keep me posted! :^)

  5. Great article. I just wrote something similar for ArtId explaining to artists the importance of telling a story as a marketing tool. Glad I stumbled here.

  6. Hi Luann, holy synchronicity. I missed this post first time around. Today I sat down to write the outline for a high-profile lecture opportunity about my work and wondered how to pull it all together so it will touch a large audience. And as soon as I read what you wrote in this post, I knew EXACTLY what I need to do. Your words and thoughts have arrived on my horizon precisely when I need them. Thank you for your insightfulness and sharing and the universe for reminding me that we always attract just what we need!

  7. Maria, glad you agree that the story is key. Oh hey, that rhymes!

    Jeanne, glad I could help. It’s eerie how how our thoughts resonate with what’s going on in other people’s lives. Yet another reason to just get what’s in our hearts, out into the world. Thank you for letting me know. :^)

  8. Hey groovy point made regarding people wanting to know about the “process”.

    I remember a lady asking me at an exhibit, “How did you put this piece together,” to which I simply replied, “…with paint and a paintbrush.”

    To be honest, I am a bit cheeky most of the time, but this time I kind of felt a bit of “Ooh, probably should not have been so obvious dear boy” because I felt the air instantly go heavy after I said it.

    But as luck would have it, the lady’s partner burst into laughter. This of course forced the lady to chuckle a bit too.

    A lot of my exhibit marketing is purposely catered for all the questions I have received from people passing through my stall.

    For example I have one poster with my face looking as if I am about to break into a yawn, and the caption says, “Yes I do commission work, but only for you and no-one else.”

    My marketing techniques have worked because they are kind of like icebreakers. People feel like I am quite approachable.

    The thing is though, if you are a bit stiff, a bit pompous… I am not really fussed if you buy any of my art anyway. It’s not about money; it’s about getting to know people and sharing your creativity.

    I like “groovy” folk who can have a laugh. I don’t see why your marketing can’t simply be an extension of who you are. Why follow the herd? I don’t think you should be insulting or arrogant, but I think it’s totally ok to have some fun with it.

    Hey great post by the way. I think your blog is a bit super (wink)

    Strength and honour

    Carl

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