WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL? Sometimes There’s a Bigger Story.

Cliches are boring. Your art deserve better.

In yesterday’s article, I shared my first story about my artwork. It was “good enough” to get me going and to sustain my first artistic efforts.

Many, many people are content with this “first story” or their “little story”. Trust me, I’m not here to judge anyone. If what you are doing is working for you, don’t change it.

But if you are wondering if your work can forget a more powerful connection with your audience, if you hunger for something deeper, read on.

When I talk to people about their art, I often get pat answers.

“I just love color!”

“I’m happiest when working at the wheel with clay. There’s just something about it that centers me.”

“I love making other people happy.”

I’ve learned that if you dig a little deeper, you will find true treasure. I learned this by being totally clueless about gallery talks.

So what’s wrong with pat answers?

Because they are cliches. I love this quote from an article by Grammar Girl:

Good writers avoid clichés wherever they might lurk. Novelist and essayist Martin Amis said, “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”

…..cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart…..

A cliche has low energy. When you settle for a cliche, you sell yourself short. You short-circuit your power. By trying to protect your inner life, you actually create a wall between your and a potential audience.

A pat answer is a way of putting people off the trail of understanding who you really art.

The “I just love color” thing. Look–everybody loves color. That’s not why you’re doing the work you do.

“I’m so happy…” Okay, first of all, we know you must be happy working with clay, or fiber, or glass, or words, or music, or you wouldn’t be doing it. Have you ever heard an artist say, “I absolutely hate what I do, but it sells”? (Well. Okay. Yes, I know some artist are burned out and DO hate what they do, but they’re usually so crabby we don’t want talk to them anyway.)

Second, what does that do for me? I asked a very well-known artist about her new work. She kept saying, “I’m having so much fun!” I had to bite my tongue to refrain from saying, “I’m supposed to pay $1,500 for this piece because you’re having fun??!” Sweetie, I’m sure you’re a wonderful person. But I need a better reason than that to spend that kinda money on you.

So what’s wrong with the “I-want-to-make-people-happy” reason-I’m-an-artist? (Or the equally lame “I want to help people.”) Think about it–What would really make people happy is if you walked down the street handing out $100 bills. (Most guys would be even happier if you did it in the nude, but I like to keep things family-friendly here.)

So let’s say what we mean to say.

What you’re really saying is that what you do is a way of engaging with the world that is fulfilling and deeply satisfying, and puts you in a state of grace, and joy. And there are real and personal reasons why it does.

There’s that word again…..

WHY?

Here’s one example of working through cliche to cachet. During a mentoring session, I talked with an artist about her work. She talked avidly about her craft, but it just seemed like something was missing. Sure enough, she mentioned in passing that her other avocation was gardening.

And she really perked up when she talked about gardening.

When I asked her why she loved gardening so much, she gave the usually pat answers about pretty flowers and being outside. When pressed, she grew exasperated–didn’t everybody love being outdoors? (Believe me, not all of us are wild about hot weather, mosquitoes and black flies.)

I pushed harder: How did she feel when she when she was in the garden?

She felt safe.

It started when she was very young and home was not safe. I didn’t pry for details, let’s just say there was just a lot of tension and anger and harsh words).

And being outdoors is where she felt safe.

Now, she doesn’t have to share that story with her audience, if it’s too personal.

If she wants to share it but doesn’t want to tell it over and over, it can be her artist statement.

She doesn’t have to ditch her craft, which was also satisfying, and become a full-time gardener.

She doesn’t have to “to” anything.

But recognizing her real story, a poignant story about a child who didn’t, who couldn’t understand the unhappiness and discord in her home, who found comfort and haven in the garden, will bring emotional and spiritual power to her art.

Understanding what yearning was filled, what hurt was healed, will create a bridge between her artwork (and her) and the people who are drawn to her work.

Because these themes–moving past fear, finding solace, being healed–are richer, deeper, more evocative human, more honest emotions than simply loving color or fabric or flowers or clay.

Some of you will come to this moment of self-awareness naturally. Some will need to have your feet held to the fire. Some of you simply won’t care. That is your choice.

But know that if I buy your stuff collect your work, it won’t be because you just love color.

It will be because something about it that is lovely and poignant and human is calling to me.

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12 Comments

Filed under art, artist statement, craft, inspiration, life, marketing, mindfulness, self promotion, telling your story, What is the story only you can tell?

12 responses to “WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL? Sometimes There’s a Bigger Story.

  1. I like the thought that all writing is a battle against cliche. That is a premise that I should use more often.

  2. I’ve got tons to say but don’t have time to leave a longer comment for a while. Just wanted to let you know real quick that all week long I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next post, and I hope this string keeps going for a while yet. :)

  3. Wholeheartedly agree with Charity.

    Also, I think many of us fear that our reasons why just aren’t good, or interesting or valid enough so we refuse to dig deeper.

  4. I agree with the notion that the reasons we do what we do are deeper than the cliche remark, but I also know that exposing everyone to those reasons isn’t appropriate either. In my own experience, I have seen the look of boredom, disinterest or downright fear come across the face of a person who’s asked about my work when I launch into my thoughts and feelings about why I create it. I’ve learned to gauge the question and more importantly the questioner before replying.

    • Excellent point, Michelle. The most important person who knows the story is YOU. The rest is a conscious decision on where to go with it. And conversation with a customer is always a dialog, not a monologue.

  5. Luann,
    I just started following your blog recently. It’s the right information at the right time for me. Although I’ve made my living with my art for the past 20 years, I’m reluctant to call myself an “artist”.

    I have a project that’s been on my heart for several years. Your “digging deeper” has encouraged me to face my fear, take the leap and get on with it.
    Good or bad; I know this is where the treasure lies.
    Like the previous posts, I truly look forward to your insights. Thanks!

  6. Ben David

    I have read this series and your previous writings about artist’s statements. Thanks very much – as someone who’s worked in Marketing departments I think it’s spot on.

    Three observations:

    1. Is it in the work? I can think of a lot of instances in which a craftsperson is doing… generic or abstract work, not directly related to a story. This leads to:

    2. Customers also have stories. Sometimes shutting up and letting an engaged customer keep THEIR interpretation of your work is the way to close a sale – and “connect with others”.

    3. Traditional Jewish literature on self-improvement instructs one to avoid speaking a deeply-held truth that they are still assimilating. Telling releases some of the psychic “pressure”.

    I think some artists instinctively want to protect their motivation in a similar way.

    • Excellent questions as always, Ben. I think some of your questions will connect with future articles. But briefly…..
      1) It can be in the work, or in the artist. Even in generic or abstract work, there is a reason–a story–WHY we would be drawn to this particular way of working rather than another. In even broader terms, why we were drawn to even be an artist or craftsperson as opposed to being a doctor, a therapist, a teacher. Remember the waitress in Studs Terkel’s book WORKING http://www.amazon.com/Working-People-Talk-About-What/dp/1565843428 who was fulfilled and proud of her work? There’s a story there.
      2) Yes! See my response to Michelle. We can’t force people to listen to our stories. :^) I’m saying that KNOWING your story is a way to build confidence, focus, mindfulness and authenticity.
      3) YES!! The “why?” technique helps people realize/recognize something bigger and deeper is going on. The process of discovery itself is ongoing and ever-changing. And there’s a lot to be said for “holding a place”, a quiet place of contemplation, for that process to come into being in it’s own time.

  7. Thanks for an insightful article. I think as artists we sometimes have trouble putting into words that which we are able to put into images or form, and maybe too often resort to cliches. Your article has inspired me to think more about the story that only I can tell. That story is what can bridge the gap between artist and customer. Our story can draw them into the living room of our heart and bring them to decide to purchase our work.

  8. Luann, this is great stuff. I think you need to write a book! ;)

    I can echo the post above that talked about “the look of boredom, fear, etc…” It really IS important to guage the tellee (listener) and adjust conversation accordingly. We make this decision with every person we talk to, of course.

    Looking forward to more!

  9. Well done, well said.

    And thank you so much.

    Jan

  10. Debbie Wachel

    Another inspiring post Luann! I echo Jen M.’s plea that you should write a book – I’ve nagged you about this a few years ago. Actually I believe you have enough material for more than one book.

    Thank you for all your posts, but particularly this one – it’s timing was perfect since I just had to update my artist statement in an effort to be admitted into an art show.

    Inspired by this post, I finally have an artist statement that tells my unique story & allows people to understand the “me” behind my art. I wonder if I was finally able to do this now because I recently figured out who I am and what my art really is?

    The journey has been a very long one and is far from complete. Like April, I have so much self-doubt. I know this sounds “corny” but your blog has helped me so much in finding myself and my art. Thank you so much!

    My new artist statement is at my blog:

    http://debbiewachel-artist.blogspot.com/2010/06/new-artist-statement.html

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