By Denise Beusen, Assistant Adminstrator of The Exemplary 2016
This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in winter 2016.
Many of you reading this have exhibited for years; for you, it’s inconceivable that anyone could offer a new perspective on artist statements. Others, for a variety of reasons—possibly including the very need to write an artist statement—have never exhibited. Because The Exemplary is just around the corner and many of the exhibit categories require or recommend an artist statement, I’m going to relate my evolution in preparing them. In doing so, I hope to give both seasoned and novice exhibitors a reason to rethink this issue.
A few years ago, a friend and I took a multi-week class at The Craft Alliance in St. Louis whose title I can no longer remember, but essentially it had a “10 steps to becoming a textile artist” format. The topics covered were those you’d expect, starting with finding what motivates you as an artist. One of the later classes was about submitting one’s works to shows and writing artist statements.
Like most of us, at that point I’d been to many art shows and read many artist statements. And invariably, after reading a statement, my response was “huh?” It seemed to me that the goal of an artist statement was to employ as much inflated, pretentious verbage as possible to obscure any real information about the artist or the artwork.
When the artist statement session of the class rolled around, I’d composed text that I thought was suitably obscure with just enough grandiosity in it to make my work seem knowledgeable, unapproachable, and mysterious. Certainly it spoke of a certain artistic panache, I thought.
We were to provide copies of our statements to other students, and after reading them, each statement was subjected to dissection by the group. The session was brutal! My peers attacked the bloated language and inconsistencies in word choices. The process could have scarred me permanently except for the realization that every one of my peers was undergoing the same sort of undressing as their statements came up for review. In the end, it was a valuable exercise, as I was forced to think clearly about what I wanted to communicate and I learned how not to use an artist statement as a way to build a wall between the viewer and me.
In the years after the class, I increased the number of shows I entered and took what I’d learned to heart. My experience made it easier for me to write artist statements even though I didn’t have a “formula” in my head for what such a document should contain.
Eventually, I decided to pay for a critique at a national show. The piece in question was one I’d entered in other national shows but it hadn’t ranked highly and I wanted to know why. In my statement, I described the materials used, and how I’d altered the stitch and thread selection from that suggested by the designer.
When the critique came back, it was as if I’d been smacked by a 2” x 4” wall stud. The judge marked me down for “smudges in the background”. The piece was from a class in which we’d embellished a photo transferred onto canvas. There were small elements in the photo that I opted not to interpret, and the transfer itself was not dark—so to an uninformed eye, they could indeed look like “smudges” and not design elements. Duh! I hadn’t told the judge that it was a photo transfer! I’d unfairly assumed anyone would recognize a photo transfer and didn’t include that information in my artist statement.
The money spent on the critique was a good investment—and another stage in the evolution of my thinking about writing artist statements: I discovered I needed to step back from my work, look at it as if I’d never seen it before, and think carefully about how to explain it to someone who wasn’t at my side when I designed and/or stitched it.
I continued to enter exhibits, and in the process submitted better (by my estimation) artist statements—but after a couple of years, my scientific side began to wonder if there wasn’t some way to be more systematic about it. In other words, would it be possible to create a tickler list that would help me remember the basic elements I wanted to cover?
At that very time, Dolores Andrew came to my aid. She wrote an article for NANthology (Summer 2014) that offered detailed guidance in writing artist statements. I immediately recognized that a distillation of her piece could function as a template—and that’s what’s now posted on the Assembly page of the NAN website each year when registration opens. No doubt, Do was appalled at what I did. Writing an artist statement is, after all, a creative endeavor and thus at odds with the idea of a formula—but that template has served me well as a starting point for every artist statement since. It’s not intended to be a form; it’s just a catalyst—essentially a bootstrap into an activity that for some people has a high activation barrier.
So what’s the take home lesson here? First, as in any activity, writing an artist statement is a skill that evolves with practice and experience. Second, there are tools that can help you get started or improve what you’re already writing [besides the NAN template, there is no shortage of articles about it on the web!]. Third, artist statements serve an important function that has nothing to do with entering a show: they help you think about your needlework and your relationship to it. Fourth, with more experience in writing artist statements, your perspective on viewing artwork changes—you’ll come to know what you need to find in others’ statements that will connect you to their art.
I hold no illusion that my writing has evolved to a state of perfection, and each year I look learn by reading what others write about their works in The Exemplary—both seasoned and novice exhibitors. I’m looking forward to this April…I hope that all of you are in the process of deciding what you’ll exhibit, and thinking about what you want to write!