What is a body of work, and how to you make one?

One of the most puzzling and hard to answer questions in the craft world is, “What exactly is a “body of work”??”

It’s a little like the definition of pornography. We know it when we see it, but it’s hard to pin down.

And like other worthy artistic and professional goals, sometimes the harder you pursue it, the harder it is to achieve.

Simply put, a body of work is a collection of artwork or craft you’ve produced that has a recognizable, personal style. It is immediately identifiable as a specific artist’s work.

As an example, I remember the first time a customer told me she was walking down a city street wearing one of my necklaces. A complete stranger walking by stopped and exclaimed, “You’re wearing a Luann Udell!”

Sometimes we think of certain attributes or materials as delineating our “style.” Think Joanne Russo and her signature porcupine quill baskets: Joanne’s signature style

Except Joanne’s newest body of work has nary a quill to be seen. And yet, when you see it, you know it’s her work: Joanne’s newest baskets

So our style can include our signature touches, yet transcend them too.

Some of my “gimmicks” are the beaver-chewed sticks my fiber work hangs from, my ivory techniques and my little horse artifacts.

Yet my “style” is more than these, too.

It’s the “whole thing”, the gestalt. The layering, the textures, the use of unusual colors. The details…the intricate stitching, the beads. The addition of the polymer artifacts. The presentation, the overall “look” of ancient artifacts. You can see all these elements in my wall hangings.

And, in my case, the story.

Part of my recognizable style is the passion that comes from me “digging” and searching for my artistic self. There’s a unifying story people sense. It’s about how I almost never found the artist in me, how my artistic potential was almost lost to the world–just like the Lascaux cave, the original source of my inspiration.

It’s sharing this “dig” that inspires others, that resonates with them as they look for their own path in life. That narrative thread weaves its way not only through my work, but around it, uniting it and strengthening it into whole cloth.

A dear friend and fellow artist saw my booth at the ACRE-Las Vegas show this spring. She said, “I can’t get over your new booth! It’s beautiful! And your work…. All those exquisite little artifacts, that new soapstone, the new pieces. It looks like….it looks like a miniature museum. It looks like you shouldn’t be touching the work.” She paused. “…but you can!!”

She has known me since my very first wholesale show, she has watched my work grow and evolve, she would know my work anywhere. And yet, it still has the capacity to surprise and delight her.

That is a body of work.

So how do you get one?

I wish I could answer that question easily for you. But it’s not an easy question.

My first words of advice would be: Relax!

And…just do the work.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of time. Spend enough time doing something, a certain number of years making stuff, and your style eventually emerges. Over time, a preference for certain things–certain clays, certain processes–emerges. They may even become “signature”.

Part of it is making the work, over and over, until it comes so naturally and effortlessly (relatively speaking) that there are no conscious style decisions. I don’t mean you aren’t thinking about the details (“Would red work better here? No, definitely the yellow!”) I mean you are unconsciously making those choices in a consistent way that says “me!” Certain ways of putting colors together, certain aesthetics emerge. For example, it’s really hard for me to make “simple” necklaces. For me, the more beads, the better.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make the same thing over and over. I know some artists who dabble in all kinds of styles and media. Yet each one comes through with that artist’s certain identifiable style.

It can be about perfecting your techniques until they are solid. I cringe when I see polymer clay work with smudgy fingerprints, and poorly finished jewelry made with cheap findings and tawdry components.

Yet some artists work with common, ordinary materials–and still create beauty and awe with their works. They have achieved a certain “grace” in the way they work with these components, no matter how simple or organic the “glue” it goes together with. Think Andy Goldsworthy with his deceptively simple “techniques” and ordinary leaves and sticks and mud:

But all these aspects emerge and develop naturally, as a result of simply making the work you love, the best work you can make. Consistently.

Once you’ve invested the time and the effort into just making the work, if your signature style has still not emerged, then it’s time to dig deeper.

And here is where taking the energy to write an artist statement can help.

I believe that going through the process of writing an artist statement can help clarify what your art is about. What you are about, as an artist.

And that is what a body of work reflects: What you are about, as an artist.

So if you’re stuck at a point in your artistic career where the dreaded “body of work” seems as elusive as…well, a lucrative body of work–then try going through the exercise of writing or updating your artist statement.

Because sometimes thinking about who you are as an artist, and what you are saying with your work, can be a powerful took in developing that elusive “body of work”.

If that doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll think about this some more.

Here are some essays from my old blog that may help you get started:

Passion in Your Artist Statement

The Artist Statement Revisited

The Artist Bio/Statement–Tips for Making Yours Memorable, Personal–and Quotable

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

7 thoughts on “BODY OF WORK”

  1. Luann,
    As a long time art junkie, I have recently stumbled upon a way to make art that satisfies me and gives me room to improve while still making successful pieces along the way. And yes, dare I say it, a recognizable style. I have worked for a long time trying to achieve this goal and not wanting to copy anyone else. I’ve discovered along the way that I don’t want to mass produce the same objects nor do I care now about selling so much as just getting good.(I make a living outside of visual art but this is my passion) It’s just a wonderful feeling to finally find a process that is exciting enough to pursue but not so intense that I feel like it’s too much of a stretch.
    Thank you for your posts. I have been following you in wonderment. I think it’s great that you take the time to share with the rest of us who are simply trying to find our way.


  2. Luann,
    Accept my compliments.
    Your blog is clean, elegant.
    It tells me at a glance your artistic taste.

    I was fidgeting yesterday. Not just yesterday, this whole week. I was doing a work of art with words. I submitted three articles to this week. Writing one article of 500 words took about 5 hours. That was big chunk of time for a practicing doctor. I began fretting and wondered if I was spending too much time on a single piece of article. I told my daughter that I would have flunked in her school exams or essay writing competition where along with word limit there is a time limit too.

    You have the gift of the gab. Tell me does it take such a long time to perfect and polish an article?

    Another penchant for artistic finesse. Yesterday I decided to shape my blog and learn various features [widgets, pages, navbar] that wordpress offered. I could not complete. Today I woke at dawn and logged in to wordpress. In order to know how blogs look, I decided to peer at someone’s blog. The first click on the homepage brought me to your blog. I am greatly impressed by the serenity of the blog.

    I shall be going back to my blog to continue with where I left yesterday. I have to learn about widgets [it sounds like witches].

    I am leaving the question for you to reply: Does it take such a hell of a time for garnishing blog page and writing an article for publication?

    Have a good day, Luan.
    Dr. Ashok Koparday


  3. Hmmmm….If I say, no, it doesn’t take long, you may think it takes no effort to put these essays together.
    If I say yes, it takes a lot of time, you may think I should spend more time on my art.
    I think the good answer is, when something rises up in me that I feel needs to be said, there’s almost a compulsion to get it down “on paper”.
    The trick then is to say it clearly and well, without saying it twenty times, and without fretting TOO much about perfection.
    And last, I’d say I spend a heckuva lot more time editing than actually writing. :^)
    Oh, and thank you so much for your comments and compliments! And I only learned enough about wordpress to get writing. You probably know much more than I do already, from the sound of things!


  4. I love reading your blog (old and new)! You have been amazingly helpful to me and I’m sure to hundreds, maybe thousands!

    Just a quick question, your blog on WordPress, appears in tiny print and it is light, I’ve tried several different things, thinking it was my computer, but just wanted to know has anyone else noticed it? Maybe since I’m around the corner for the “Foxy Fifties”, it just my eyes, but I’ve love to see this blog in larger print! But if it’s not possible, it’s well worth me pulling out my magnifying glass! Have a great weekend!


  5. Hello Indigene, thank you for your comments! I wish I could change the font size, but unfortunately, that’s apparently very difficult to do with WordPress. I may have to change the entire look of the blog to get a more readable typeface. Apologies until then, I know what you mean. :^)


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