By J. Matthew Thomas
Originally printed in Taos News, Thursday, March 12, 2021
Perhaps some of the artists out there can relate to my experience during the past 12 months. Some days I felt I had all the time in the world; other days, the thought of making art seemed frivolous. As the dim light at the end of the pandemic tunnel begins to flicker on, I’ve felt the urge to reflect on the work I’ve accomplished by encapsulating it into a written statement.
Writing about your own artwork is one of the most difficult tasks an artist can face. Putting your creative process into words is daunting. For me, it’s walking a fine line between writing a simple description of the work to expounding some conceptual bullsh*t that neither I nor a potential reader wants to read. Nevertheless, we are required as visual artists to write a statement about our work. For many, this seems as foreign an effort as asking a writer to draw a picture of their work—I must thank Taos artist Sarah Hart for that wonderful analogy.
Don’t be intimidated. There’s more than one way to spill your guts and sound like a pro. For this series I’m reaching out to friends, colleagues, and fellow creatives to get their take on issues impacting Taos artists. First up, writing about your work.
We’ve all heard this suggestion: “Hey, just start writing…” For those of us who communicate visually, that is not much help. But, at some point in our waking day, we are willing to talk about our work. Artist Larry Bell reminded me that, “You are the one person that knows what you are doing. Sometimes it’s not easy to talk about it but…sometimes it is.” Several people I spoke to, including Bell, recommended reaching out to a handful of artists you admire to talk about your work. Better yet, ask them to tell you what THEY think your work is about. If you’re willing to hear it, it’s a great exercise, and you may even see something you hadn’t noticed before. Local photographer Kathleen Brennan offered to interview me about my work—another great way to give voice to your practice in the company (and safety) of another artist. I’ll tell you honestly, in the privacy of my own home, I’ve also interviewed myself, conducting a series of questions, and answering them as if I were being interview by THE Terry Gross.
I’ve found my smartphone to be my best imaginary friend, and voice memos can be a great way to capture that thought or conversation going through your head while you’re hiking the Rim trail. Pull out the phone, push record, and walk around the mesa spouting your genius. And try this trick: Several programs allow you to speak directly into your device, and a voice-to-text option dictates your every word. You’ll get no help in dictating ‘acequia’ though; my computer thinks I’m talking about “a US IKEA.”
After spilling your guts and having pages of thoughts, ideas and statements, you’re far from done. Time to wring it in. Art writer and Vasari21 founder Ann Landi advises to “keep it brief and not more than about 300 words.” She sent along a great post on her website that offers more tips. Check it out here: vasari21.com/fix-that-website/.
Nicole Dial-Kay, curator of exhibitions and collections at the Harwood Museum of Art agrees, keep it to 300 words. “Everything in your statement should be intentional, it is not the place to ramble. Have a clear, articulated vision. Be specific.” Dial-Kay reminded me that this is not your biography, it should be what you make and why, not a list of accomplishments.
And the words you should avoid? Dial-Kay states, “avoid the word passionate. And cut out the word interesting. You aren’t saying anything when you use that word.” Local photographer Meredith Garcia and I have an ongoing conversation about artist statements. It’s the right words that one can get stuck on. Garcia laments, “I write well, and have often received compliments, so it’s not a problem with the fluency of my writing. It’s a problem with wrapping my head around what specific words and concepts are important in the 21st century artworld.” I totally agree: art-speak. For me, reading lots of other artist statements helps. Follow art newsletters and blogs to get a feel for how to describe and talk about your work. Oh, and use that thesaurus.
And, when all else fails, I may stick with Ann Landi’s advice: “…if writing is not your forte, hire a writer or editor to help.”
Let’s keep the conversation going. Join us on Facebook Live next Tuesday, March 16th at 6pm as several guests discuss artist statements and answer your questions.
Matthew Thomas is a Taos artist, architect, and curator. He is a founder and executive director of The Paseo Project. Matt is currently working on a twelve-page artist statement and may need to self-quarantine for another twelve months to whittle it down to 300 words.