Get into the habit of thinking why we make the choices we do.
(9 minute read)
In last week’s column, I shared how thinking about the “why” helps us write a more powerful artist statement.
Some people got it right away. Others, who are just as good at making their art, were baffled. Believe me, I understand! When I first considered writing an artist statement, I looked to see how others were doing it. Which, I believe, is why most of us continue to use the Artsy Bollocks method of creating an artist statement. (I see they now even offer an “artist certification” generator for those of us who didn’t go to art school or who didn’t study with famous artists.)
What inspired me to dig a little deeper came from a speaker, Bruce Baker, who shared why a good story was so important.
Baker has retired from the lecture/workshop circuit, but you can see more about him here.
When a potential customer or collector first sees our work, it does have to “speak” to them first (although they may not know why it attracts them.) That is our “product”, the work that grabs their attention. “Oh my goodness, I just LOVE this piece!”
The second stage is the price. “How much is it?” To which we might reply, “That is a hand-formed, pit-fired clay vessel and it is $350!”
Bruce always added a slug of humor to his presentations, and went on, “So if they don’t faint, or walk away, here’s the next critical part of making that connection, especially if they don’t just buy it on the spot….”
And if we don’t nail down our story, we run the risk of the energy ebbing away: “Well, I’ll have to think about it, thank you! I’ll be back!”
My story is critically important for selling my work. Oh, like you, I’ve had the occasional customer who simply bought something, and as I was wrapping it up, they would ask, “So what’s it made out of?” But that’s pretty rare.
From the very beginning of my art-making, most first encounters were more like this: A person enters my space (my booth, or my studio). I greet them and give them a very brief intro to my work. I end with, “It’s okay to touch and pick things up, and if you have a questions, just let me know.” And then I do my best to leave them alone until they signal that it’s okay for me to talk to them.
Early on, people would walk by my booth, do a double-take, and come inside. They would look and suddenly find a piece that intrigued them. They do a head-tilt. (A more experienced friend said that’s what people do when someone is trying to “figure something out”, unconsciously accessing a different part of the brain.) (I have no idea if this is true or not, but I DO see it happen a lot.)
When I would ask, “What are you thinking?” (I was new to this, so though it’s not the best “opening line”, I was hoping to decipher how people viewed my work.)
They would almost always say, slowly, thoughtfully, “It’s absolutely beautiful, and I’ve never seen anything like it.” Sometimes even, “What am I looking at??” (in a nice way.)
Not all people, of course. I learned early on that my art wasn’t for everyone, but I did find an audience for it, which is all I care about.
I now have many stories to begin the conversation. I explain why I chose the medium I work with. I explain its benefits, to me, to my collectors, and to the planet. I share where my inspiration comes from, and why it is a story that speaks to us all.
But I rarely, if ever, saw that same deep dive in other artist’s statements.
What changed for me, when I heard that presentation, was my willingness to be vulnerable, to be honest, and to share what was in my heart. I was an “outsider” in the art world, I always felt like an outsider. But telling my story felt like recognizing I had a place in the world, regardless.
Years ago, I ran through the exercise for a friend, helping them untangle their own story. After reading her story, I bombarded her with “why” questions. It helped them focus on every single decision they make while creating their work. I wrote down her last comments: “ I don’t want to get too analytical in what I say about myself in this statement but I am also trying to look a little deeper and try to answer your questions. I often don’t think about these things so much when I choose a subject to paint but not thinking about this doesn’t mean that there is not a thread to it all. Thanks for making me think!”
And that’s the trick of it, the trick to writing a good artist statement.
My favorite strategy: When people say, I like to paint this, this way, etc. I ask them why? Over, and over, and over again.
Think about it. We make hundreds–no, thousands of tiny choices every day. Everything from the time we choose to get up in the morning, the breakfast cereal we prefer, the route we take to work, to the grocery store we shop at, going in the car we bought, filled with the gas station we go to, shop with the cart (or basket) we pick (As in do you bring one in from the parking lot? Or prefer to get one in the store? Or avoid the one that still has paper trash in it?), and fill it with the brands we select in the aisles.
We choose the names of our children and our pets, and the doctors and vets that see them. We choose whether to take on a married name or not, our dishes, the color of our bath towels. We choose our way of exercising (or not to exercise), the people we befriend, the restaurant we go to, the entrees we order (or never order!) etc., etc, etc..
Our days are filled with tiny choices, most of which become habits. When they become habits, we eventually forget that first they were choices we’ve made.
All based on a myriad of conditions: Our taste. Our preference. Our budget. What works for us, what works for our partner/family/social circle, our life.
We do the same thing when we make our art.
Especially with our artwork! We choose the color palette, the medium, the glaze, the composition. We eventually acquire our own distinctive style. We have artists who inspire us, teachers who educate us, mentors who encourage us, spouses/partners/friends who cheer us on (or not). We make our own decisions about which shows, galleries, and events work for us, and which one’s don’t. We market our work in dozens of different ways, from postcards and signage to social media (or not!)
There are not only hundreds of choices of WHAT we make, but hundreds more after that. The kind of paint we use, the substrate, time we paint, what we paint. I could go on, but surely by now, you get the picture!
To move efficiently in the world, we make these choices–and are usually totally unaware of them. Soon we take them for granted. And we assume that everybody else has made the same choices, for the same reasons.
But that’s not really true, is it?
I know “special snowflake” is a popular meme these days, mostly because we’ve come to see it as derogatory. Yes, we are all special, but does that mean each of us should be treated uniquely?
Because knowing we all, as human beings, have so much in common, always, always has to be balanced with how distinct and unique we are, too.
And that has been a “thing” since those ancient, prehistoric times, too.
Even those ancient caves that inspire all have much in common. But each one is distinctive, too. There’s no single way to paint a bull, a horse, even a handprint. (And handprints on cave walls are a subtle, powerful way of realizing how many people participated in the ceremonies associated with those paintings, even down to a good guess about their age and gender, based on size and finger length ratios.)
Maybe a clueless potential customer (and I can be one!) can’t tell the difference between your work and someone else’s.
But you do.
You may focus on why yours is better, or worse. Whether yours sells, or why it doesn’t, and theirs does. Why their work got into that gallery or show, and yours didn’t, or vice versa. So will your true collectors.
But it all boils down to the hundreds of small choices you made along the way. Because that other artist made slightly different choices.
So your homework today, should you choose to accept it, is to think about as many choices as you can:
Why do you focus on that particular medium? (Or why do you choose to work in several?) Why do you use that tool, that process, that style?
Why did you chose those objects for your still life? Why did you arrange them the way you did? Why do you even like to paint still lifes? Or why do you not?
Why do you paint/draw/collage/sculpt/sing/dance/insert-your-creative-work-here the way you do? I know artists who are capable of using any medium but CHOOSE colored pencil work. Not because they can’t do anything else, but because it feels right to them. (Which is why I hate it when people automatically believe that some media are “better” than others.) (In cave art, the techniques varied from brushing, daubing, and spitting ground-up pigmented rocks to incising and carving.)
It can help to have a friend, a good friend who you trust with your help, fire these questions at you. It can help to have someone else (same qualifications) to take notes.
It helps to notice when you become exasperated, too, or even angry.
Because all that prodding gets you closer and closer to the why of everything you do. Are. Want. Create.
It gets to the heart of Y*O*U*.
And that’s a pretty powerful place to be.
Try it. Let me know how it works. Let me know where you get stuck.
Remember, if it feels too personal, you get to control how much of your story to share.
But knowing your story is a major game-changer in understanding your own work of your heart.
It’s worth it. For you, and your audience.
Because we all have a story to tell.
If you enjoyed this article and know someone who might enjoy it, please feel free to forward this to them.
If you received this from someone, and liked it, you can subscribe to more artists’ views at the Fine Art Views