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: