WayBack Saturday! ARTISTIC LICENSE: Credentials, Degrees, Awards….and Passion

I had plenty of college, but that’s not where I learned how to be an artist.
This post was originally published on March 7, 2003. Still relevant, IMHO!

Artistic License

Recently, someone on a discussion forum I participate in posted a plea for help.  A show the artist had been accepted into was requesting the usual artist credentials: resume, artist bio, degrees, etc.  After “wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes”, the artist 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, and though 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?)  It’s wicked easy to get caught up in the credentialing thing, and to overlook what’s really important.  Our society seems to demand credentialing for everything.  But what are credentials *for*, anyway?

A resume, bio, list of exhibits and a stack of art degrees amount to paper affidavits, “proof” to the world that you have been educated in your art, you’ve paid your educational dues, and 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 (sounds like a contradiction of terms to me), then you have to think of 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?  And the chance to add, 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 a way, starting from “nothing” gives you an open door to talk about this in a more down to earth and direct way.

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?  Teach yourself?  Swap sculpting lessons for babysitting?  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.

An art degree shows you had a vision or goal to make art part of your life, then you studied it, and put in the time and effort to get a degree.  You can show that you, too, have a vision for your work, and that you have steadily pursued it.  What are your processes & techniques?  Did you experiment, develop them yourself?  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?

Use the education you have.  I have college degrees (also not in art!) and I mention them in relation to how they’ve influenced my work–coursework for an education degree taught me the importance of storytelling, coursework in art history provided me the original inspiration for my Lascaux cave-themed imagery, etc.  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.

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

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

I like to keep in mind that ultimately, the person who purchases my work isn’t *really* buying it because of a list of shows or exhibits I’ve been in.  That list 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 my work, and they respond to that.  Everything else is just icing on the cake.

In fact, last month I revised my retail customer 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 out, replacing 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.

Try to avoid the ordinary when putting this piece together.  Don’t go on about how much you love color–*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.  Someone once addressed this one–we *all* wanted to be artists when we were little.  Avoid cliches.

Think about the special stuff in your life.  Is your studio on a mountain top, or do 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 obtuse 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.  Stick to the truth.  Keep it simple and powerful.