ARTISTIC LICENSE

What do you do for credentials when you don’t have any?

(This article was originally published on March 7, 2003.)

Recently, an artist on a discussion forum I participate in posted a plea for help. Her work was accepted into an exhibition. The organizers requested the usual artist credentials from her: resume, artist bio, degrees, etc.

After “wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes”, the she began to panic. Her work is something she’s picked up late in life. She didn’t attend art school. She hasn’t exhibited before. Though she feels her work is solid, she just doesn’t have the credentials. What should she do?

Here was my advice:

It would be tempting to puff up the slim credentials you do have (remember the ‘domestic engineers’ of the 1970’s?) Don’t do that.

Our society seems to demand credentialing for everything. If a plumber has to have a license, or a hair stylist, then maybe artists need one, too.

But what are credentials for, anyway?

It’s wicked easy to get caught up in the credentialing thing, and to overlook what’s really important.

A resume, bio, list of exhibits and a stack of art degrees amount to paper affidavits. They are “proof” to the world that you have been educated in your art; that you’ve paid your educational dues; and that you’ve made the effort to get your work out there through exhibiting and shows.

There are some situations in life where this kind of proof is important and necessary. We don’t want to have surgery by someone who “feels in touch with his inner surgeon” but hasn’t gone to med school.

Fortunately, being an artist does not require a license.

If you haven’t gone the traditional route of artist credentialing, then use another way to present a cohesive, narrative story about the who/what/when/where/why and how of “you, the artist.”

Who you are, what you make, why do you make it, and how did you get to where you are now? Where do you plan to go next? And how serious are you about this whole thing, anyway?? That’s really all that the bio/degree/award/exhibit thing is trying to say, in a more “official” format.

In my mind, a lack of credentials can be freeing. Starting from “nothing” gives you an open door to talk about your art in a more direct and down to earth way. Here are tips on how to do that:

1) An art degree shows you’ve taken classes to master your techniques.

So how did you learn yours? Did you take workshops? Read a book? Stay up late after work and on weekends, painting/knitting/carving into the wee hours? Did you teach yourself? Do you now teach others? Did you swap sculpting lessons for babysitting? Did you apprenticed yourself to a potter?

Talk about the passion you discovered in yourself for this art stuff, and what lengths you went to acquire the skills to do it.

2) An art degree shows you had a vision or goal to make art part of your life. You studied it, and put in the time and effort to get a degree.

You can demonstrate that you, too, have a vision for your work, and that you have steadily pursued it. What are your processes and techniques? Did you experiment? Did you develop them yourself? Did you research antique processes and recreate them? How did you come up with that particular approach or outlook? Have certain artists, cultures, whatever, influenced your style?

3) Use the education you have.

I have two college degrees. Neither of them are in art. So I mention them in relation to how they’ve influenced my work. For example, coursework for an education degree taught me the importance of storytelling. My art history classes provided me the original inspiration for my Lascaux cave-themed imagery, as well as a well-rounded education on art made around the world, and throughout history.

But don’t just stick in stuff hoping to “fill up” the page. Whatever you put in, make sure it relates in some way to your artistic self.

4) Exhibits show that you’ve made a serious attempt to get your work out in front of a variety of audiences, and that your work was good enough to be selected.

Remember: We all have to start somewhere. Everyone has a ‘first show’. So, this one is yours!

You can present enough “credentials” for this purpose by providing a brief summary of what you’ve done to get your art out there. You can show you’ve been making the same kind of effort. Have you done craft shows? Do you have an audience, and steady sales? How has the audience for your work grown since you started?

Awards simply show that someone thought your work was pretty darn good, or unusual. Are there other ways for you to demonstrate that? Anybody famous buy one of your pieces? Has your work appear in a magazine or on TV? Did you get into a terrific, exclusive craft fair the first time you applied, just because your work was so drop-dead terrific?

4) Credentials only encourage a collector who already likes your work.

Keep in mind that ultimately, the person who purchases our work isn’t really buying it because of a list of shows or exhibits I’ve been in or how many awards we’ve won. It may help them feel more confident about their initial desire to buy, but that isn’t why they buy.

They buy it because it moves them emotionally, and because it says something special to them. Something powerful is going on in the work, and they respond to that. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

In fact, years ago I revised my own brochure.

I used to have a list of exhibits and books my work has appeared in, in an attempt to establish myself as a ‘serious player’.

I took it all out,. I replaced it with a little blurb about why I make the art I make.

I’m learning that people only have to talk with me a few minutes to realize I’m a ‘serious player’. Ultimately, it’s all about my work, not the hoops I’ve made it jump through.

When you put your piece together, avoid the ordinary. Be bold! Don’t go on about how much you love color–heaven help us, all visual artist love color!

Don’t make too big a fuss about how much you wanted to be an artist when you were little. It’s cliched. Say what you did. Me? I papered my freshly painted bedroom with hundreds of drawings, all carefully hung with six or seven pieces of scotch tape, as high as I could reach. (Standing on furniture to do so.) My parents were impressed, but not in the way I’d hoped.

Think about the special things in your life, things that may seem ordinary to you from familiarity. Is your studio on a mountain top? Did you build it yourself out of hand-hewn lumber? Are your materials unusual? Do you go dumpster-diving to find your stuff, or hound recycling centers for their glass bottles?

What do you do that no one else does? What is your inimitable style? What is your personal story?

On the other hand, don’t get all obtuse on us and try to bury your lack of credentialing paper with high-falutin’ phrases and five-dollar words. As Bruce Baker, a consultant and speaker for craft and art world issues always says,

“People have a built-in bullshit meter. If you rock that meter, then they will never believe whatever else you have to say. Make sure what you say is true.”

Stick to the essence of who you are and what your art is. Make it interesting, and make it unique. Keep it true. Keep it simple. Make it powerful.

Oh, and remember…Use the credentials of this show as credentials for your next one. There! Your first official credential!

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12 Comments

Filed under art, artist statement, craft

12 responses to “ARTISTIC LICENSE

  1. Jeanne DesJardins

    That was a great article, some good nuggets in there as well as good advice.
    It is an encouragement for those who have not fit into status quo and still have hope.

  2. Thanx for the encouragement. As another self-taught artist, I feel the pressure to puff up my shaky credentials. I agree it’s better to tell a good story.

    • Folks, remember, the new in thing is NOT to have credentials! “Outsider art”…. :^)

      This is a stretch, of course, from the original definition, but that’s where it’s going.

  3. This may be one of my favorite posts. Lovely, thoughtful writing on a tough topic.

  4. LOL, that was a good laugh to start the morning!

  5. Just do not admit to being self-taught. There is no such thing. I am an artist. This is the art I make. This is what it is about. This is why I make it. This is why you should look at it. My mother showed me how to write, draw and paint at a very early age, now some sixty years ago. Did the career thing. did the family thing. “Today, and for the rest of my life, I am an artist so just what is your problem with that?” I guess I can afford to be hard about it.

    • Love this part:

      “Today, and for the rest of my life, I am an artist….”

      As for THIS part:

      “…so just what is your problem with that?”

      It’s not that it’s hard, it’s unnecessary (unless someone is being a jerk about it.)

  6. Loved the blog and shared it on my fan page! I have heard from well-known instructors in workshops I was in about what they see as LACKING in fundamentals in art school graduates, and have an artist friend who has a degree in art that feels it was a waste of time. Every artist is self-taught, no matter the training. If we are serious, we will study and practice, not trying to take shortcuts, and it will show up in our work.

    I have some limited credentials, but don’t often list them. I decided early on that I don’t take time to read them from other artists’ bios, so why should I torture people with more of the same? It’s so much more interesting to hear what inspires them, their art/life philosophy, or why they like a certain technique they are working with, etc. That is the kind of information that you can pick up on in their art endeavors. Thanks for sharing the perspective!

    • Pam said

      I have some limited credentials, but don’t often list them. I decided early on that I don’t take time to read them from other artists’ bios, so why should I torture people with more of the same?

      Spot on, Pam! This is my message: What do your customers want to hear? And what will forge a bond with them?

  7. Excellent article and good points. Thank you.

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