The Artist's Statement and other writings


If you work in projects, or series, as I do, there comes a time when an exhibition is near and a gallery wants It, or a friend asks what the pictures are About, or a teacher demands One - and you suddenly need an Artist’s Statement. This is not the end of the world, but rather a time to gather those stray thoughts and enlightened flashes that have been gathering quietly since before the work began.

If you’re smart, or have been through it before, those thoughts are already written down in very rough form in your journal/notebook. Assuming you write to yourself, by which I do not mean a diary, but an idea book where your thoughts, and others’ from your readings and conversations, simply reside awaiting your beck and call.

Here I am telling you to do as I say, not as I do, or did. 25,000 words and twelve months into these essays. I am sorry that even a first draft, written for myself, was not a life-long habit. Not even occasional notes. Nothing. Not that it would have made this easier, but it would certainly be deeper, more interesting, and more accurate to my attitudes and thoughts over time, to my Process. And it’s not like I didn’t intend to, even resolve to — I’ve bought many notebooks, beautiful and plain, with and without lines, hardcover and soft, stapled,  sewn, or spiral bound, from a few pages to intimidating; and implements - fountain, ball point, and gel pens; mechanical and wooden pencils.

And then whatever I had to say wasn’t important enough for the better notebooks, but too good for the flimsy ones. They could lay around the drawers with a few words on a few pages forever.

Before I could start this properly — the first essay was written on my iPad, but that proved an unsatisfactory sensory experience. Details in another essay, but in the end I looked for a notebook nice enough for my strong sense of self-importance, and large enough that I wouldn’t be turning pages every three minutes. The first drafts are being written in a Leuchtturm 1917 Master Slim A4+ notebook (225 x 315 mm) with pages neither lined nor unlined but lightly dotted; grey, hard paper cover; two silk ribbon page markers; 121 numbered pages plus unnumbered table of contents pages; elastic closure; thread bound to open flat. There’s a model with twice the pages, but I didn’t buy that one in case I didn’t have enough to say. Instead I bought two of the slim ones, in case I did. I’m writing with a Cross Easy Writer ball point pen, larger diameter than their others, with a soft grip, blue medium refill. Like cameras and bags, there seems to be one set of tools that works for my sensibility at the time. The second notebook has been made a gift to a friend, former student, now off to art school. 

It doesn’t matter to you, but I have always, always, preferred my everyday items - pocket knives, pens, paper, watches, cameras, to be beautiful and to feel good to use and to be designed to do their one job really well. We live near the ocean (we can smell the tang of salt and hear the fog horn at the head of the harbor). There's a bumper sticker in the area that reads “Life is Too Short to Own an Ugly Boat”. I understand completely.

Anyway, writing is good for you. As animals we are not unique in our ability to use complex languages to communicate within our species. But I think we are unique in both having invented alphabets and writing for thought preservation and conversing with ourselves. Our brains seem especially wired to use language to parse the universe. We don’t all understand the same way - at this stage of cultural evolution the syntax of the language seems to mold our system of perception rather than the other way around.

At any rate, try finding a pen and notebook that lets you enjoy writing. You can fill the notebook with miscellaneous thoughts about art or your pictures or your readings, what ever pushes you to make notes short or long. Please don’t write like you text, spell the word out, write in actual sentences, treat it seriously. And forget your romantic issues - this is not a diary. And, again, don’t assume writing on a computer is easier or faster; too much temptation to edit every sentence as you go, changing fonts and point sizes, messing with the borders, you’ll never get off screen 1.


Oh, yes, back to the Artist’s Statement:

The Artist’s Statement is a particular type of short essay. It is written to accompany, not to explain or sell, your work. Perhaps there’s some history on the subject matter. Or some anthropology, or a bit of poetry. The point is to illuminate, to open a way for the audience to engage with the photos, but not to push a single interpretation upon them. Art is a conversation you have with someone else where the work is the language. Not a diatribe, a conversation. Each side brings, is allowed and encouraged to bring, their history and point of view, with which to engage. You can point things out, but make it a map with side roads and left turns and choices, not a list of directions; not “Turn left in ¼ mile, but “Notice the side roads? Wonder where they go?”

If your artist’s statement is longer than ¾ page, 14 point type (readable from a couple of feet away) it won’t be read. No one thinks they have time to read, but really they just have attenuated spans. A second page will prompt second thoughts: Are they supposed to remember this? Is there a test? Some will just glance around and head for the pretty flower pictures instead. No need there for instructions.

I’ve noticed over the years, with much admiration, that the artists, any medium, that I respect and actually travel to see, uniformly write well and interestingly about art in general and their own work in particular. Again, not that they tell me what to see, but that they understand what they are doing, and can start the conversation about it. As with good painting and good photography, good writing is a mix of talent and practice. Ideas exist independently, but the ability to express them takes practice. The metaphorical 10,000 times.


John McPhee, from "Omissions", New Yorker, 9/14/2015

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word?  Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter?  Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion. If something interests you, it goes in - if not, it stays out. That's a crude way to assess things, but it's all you've got. Forget market research. Never market research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see it through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material - that much and no more.


Sample Artist Statement that tries to bend the viewer

The statement below was written in a hurry to accompany a group of images (see Wishing Wells gallery, next essay). I had been observing wishing wells for a couple of years - they are common in rural Maine - but hadn't figured out how to photograph them. I finally did in fall of 2013, when I started shooting in monochrome. As the show was coming together, Dora mentioned casually that the wishing wells seemed emblematic of my cancer - the wish to get better. Crisis. The last thing on my mind was that. To me, the wells were dumb garden decoration, like gazing balls and gnomes. I got the same opinion from another person, and panicked. I came very close to cancelling the exhibit, but instead, I determined that I could write an artist's statement that would lead people away from that interpretation. So I named the show to tie it in with earlier work ('The Americans, Part 3'). Result: no one got the Robert Frank allusion, and several people were curious about the other two parts. Also, you will note the thin Wikipedia research on wishing well history. All in all, not a statement to be proud of, but a great teaching tool.


The Americans, Part 3: Wishing Wells

Wishing Wells follows Pathetic Public Plants and Immobile Homes, two earlier bodies of work. How we decorate, mis-decorate or don't decorate what neighbors and passers-by see of our homes, has been fascinating me for a dozen or more years. 

I don't know if all animals mark their territories, but I think most mammals do. Certainly humans and their close companions, dogs and cats, do. We don't have sensitive enough noses to use scent, but our eyes are keen and our brains are extra good at visually picking up and sorting things out. As decoration, objects often add pleasure to the property owner. But from town line to garden gnome, it is also an individual or tribal marking of territory.

Wishing wells go way back in history. 16,000 coins dating from the 1st thru 5th centuries c.e. were found in a Northumberland, England, well used to make offerings to the Roman-British and Celtic goddess Coventina. Most coins found in that well (and in most others) are low value, made of bronze, reminding me of nothing so much as a penny. Apparently the market exchange value of coins is less than their value as an offering. Trevi Fountain, on the other hand, gets about €3,000 each day, earmarked instead for Rome's poor.

According to Wishing Wells: The Practice of Buying Good Fortune (Tabila, Green, Kwok, Thurn, & McLaughlin; UC-Irvine anthropologists) just about any pool of water accessible to the public qualifies as a wishing well. Passed down over generations by socialization, the idea of making a wish with a coin has evolved ". . . from a religious ritual into a fun, yet superstitious, cultural practice . . "

But the wishing wells that interest me not only do not have coins in the bottom (not that I ever look) but don't even have water, let alone wishes.