How to Write An Artist Statement
An artist statement is an ever-evolving text. Many artists struggle with it; some hope to avoid it altogether. They may make grandiose claims that art speaks for itself.
Whether that is or is not true, an artist statement is an integral part of a public presence. It cannot reasonably be avoided. With that in mind, here are some basic considerations for developing this vital document.
Limit the Bio
An artist statement is not a life story. Mention only those biographical elements relevant to understanding your art. Including place-of-birth is standard because the global art market wants a context for the visual references that might appear in a body of work, although some artists find that focusing on cultural background is more relevant. Similarly, significant personal experiences that inform the subject matter or method of your work might be necessary.
Choose Your Approach
An artist statement has no definitive format. Some statements seem to be manifestos; others are personal musings; yet others delve into art history and theory with endless references. Every artist finds the style that suits his or her work, but this takes time and regular writing.
Cover the Basics
Whatever your particular format, voice or style of writing, your statement needs to include certain basics: It must introduce you, describe the medium and form of your works and present the major theme, social issue or process that informs your work — all this in fewer than 200 words.
Let It Go!
When you first sit down to write, don’t try to craft your final artist statement. When you started making art, you didn’t immediately tackle a large block of Carrara marble but sketched and dabbled, exercising your hand. Here, too, you want to practice different ideas. You should plan to write a lot more than 200 words in order to discover what you want to say. Here are some exercises to get you thinking:
1. Write a personal narrative of yourself as an artist. Write about your elementary-school art teacher, the trip to Peru in high school and anything else that has had a part in your becoming an artist. Later, you’ll extract the major moments relevant to your current body of work.
2. Look at your works and describe them. Identify the medium in which you work and the consistent elements across all your pieces. What are you making? Include details to help create a vision for your reader.
3. Whether you produce landscapes, abstract color fields or wood sculptures, consider how you gravitated toward your subject our medium. Have you used other methods for other types of work? What do you like about your current method and practice?
4. Identify themes and issues in your life. Are they in your works? Describe how they appear as visual metaphors in your color palette, through your medium and so on. Let yourself sound grandiose now because you can always tone it down later. If those issues are not present in your work, discuss why art is a space apart for you. How does your art distance you from the things that worry you, and what does that distance offer? How might your art do the same for others?
Reflect and Clarify
Some artists fear that writing an artist statement will destroy the natural creative impulse of their work. For various reasons, words and ideas may feel like nails pinning down the art, taking all life out of it.
Trying to describe the process while you’re in it is challenging, but often an artist statement only becomes necessary toward the end of building a body of work for a show, a grant or residency application, an article or a website. Think of the artist statement as an opportunity to reflect on what matters to you and to clarify the impulse behind the art in order to guide your viewers into the fullest experience possible.
Pro tip: Collect your thoughts. Set an hour aside at the beginning or end of each month to write about your studio practice. Reference these notes later when you need to produce a formal artist statement.
Consider Your Audience
The reason there’s no strict format for statements is because different artists seek to reach different audiences. The form of the statement helps bridge that connection.
For a show, you want to focus on the specific body of work represented in the show. For a grant or residency application, you may wish to reveal relationships between your work and the institute’s objectives. On your website, you could identify the major themes and materials in your practice over the last few years.
Generally, include personal and practical developments that will help viewers appreciate the choices you made in your body of work. Esoteric ideas and jargon confound everyone. Obtuse language is often indicative of artistic confusion or, worse, manipulation. Aim to be direct and honest, as to a colleague.
Give Yourself Time
An artist statement takes time to develop. Don’t wait until the night before and hope to dash off something brilliant. What is brilliant to you may be a morass of confused declarations that make no sense to others.
Many find that writing an artist statement reveals ideas in the work that need additional clarification and development. Give yourself time to think about how you want to express the importance of family, environment, politics, time, space, material, color and anything else pertinent to your work.
Once you’ve written your statement, run it by someone you trust to provide critical feedback. If necessary, hire an editor. This document is the public face of your work, so you want it to ring true. Your finely crafted artist statement will encourage readers to become appreciative viewers of your art.
This article first appeared in Artists Magazine and is written by C.J. Kent, freelance writer and editor, and founder of Script and Type, which helps people express themselves effectively in writing and in person. Subscribe here to never miss out on the latest issue.