By Milisa Galazzi
"A picture is worth a thousand words,"
the old adage goes, except when it's not. Sometimes the words provide
more visual cues. This article is about the importance of creating that verbal
picture—articulating and writing about your own artwork.
The author at the podium discussing her work
Alone in my studio, slogging away for the last 25 years, I came to realize that I wanted more from my art career: more time to work on my craft and more money to support my practice. Easy-peasy, right? Residencies will give me time, and grants will give me money. All I have to do is apply and the review panels will understand my work and my need as an artist for their support. I'm a fairly good writer. This should be a piece of cake. Except it isn't. I have applied. And I have been rejected. I have re-applied to some, and picked different ones. And I have still been denied. Lather, rinse, repeat.
So this year I asked myself: What's not working? I'm smart. I'm more than capable of hard work. My art work is good. So where's the problem? The issue is, I've come to realize, that there is a disconnect between what I am saying about my work and what the review panels are understanding. I need to learn how to speak and write more fluently about my work. So where do I—a mid-career artist—go to learn about how to communicate about my work in a more professional manner?
Finding the Words to CritiqueIn late August, I joined five other artists to pool our funds and hire a professional art coach, Patricia Miranda, to lead our group in a monthly series of full-day discussions about our work. Patricia has created very strict critique guidelines for our conversations, and she holds the group accountable to this structure through her gentle prodding, beeping, and cajoling when we veer off course. With her guidance, we are learning to step back from our work and take a more objective look. As she states in her Critique Guidelines handout, "The goal of critique is to generate a deeper, more productive critical discourse around both art making and art viewing." We practice looking, talking, and thinking about our work and that of others in a deeper, richer, more informative way.
Each meeting begins with one artist at a time displaying her work of 10 to 20 new pieces. The clock starts and for the first two minutes we silently look at the work both up close and from far away. Next we individually write down seven words or phrases that describe the work from our view. Each participant reads her seven words to the artist who writes them down or audio tapes the discourse. A lively 30-minute discussion follows.
We strictly avoid using words such as like, appreciate, drawn to or any other expression that implies our personal opinion. We are working on our ability to see the work and to talk fluently about it. Instead of saying, "I like the texture on the surface of this painting," we say, for instance, "The texture that I see on the surface of this painting reminds me of the old cobblestone roads in Florence which brings me to a place far away and long ago." Now instead of just talking about how much I like the texture, I am talking about how the texture functions in the work, which enhances the artist's message and meaning. Learning to critique one's own work or the work of others takes rigorous practice.
The Importance of Writing and Speaking About One's Own WorkLearning to look and discuss the artwork of others leads to another crucial area: the importance of learning to write and speak cogently about our own work. Grant applications need to be particularly clear because the competition for those few awards is fierce.
Pat Spainhour has received the North Carolina Artist Grant and others. "My advice is to be explicit when explaining what you want to do, what you hope to accomplish, and how this will advance your artistic development. Consider that the person reading your proposal may not be familiar with your process, so make the description thorough, vivid, and an interesting read.“
Dietlind VanderSchaaf recently received her second Artist Project Grant from the Maine Arts Commission. She reports that the commission allows grant applicants to be in the audience as they publicly review applications during a multi-day review process. She was able to listen to discussions about 35 other grant applications. Her takeaway: “While the work itself was a strong component of the review process, it appears that each applicant’s ability to articulate the nature of their project and the meaning of their work played an enormous role in whether or not a project was selected for funding."
Upon receiving a fully funded residency, Lorraine Glessner believes that her written work "was a major part of why I was chosen." She had to do a phone interview in addition to her online application and she notes that "they kept mentioning how beautifully written my proposal was. They were especially intrigued with my personal story and why I needed a residency at that time."
Joanna Kidney, a professional artist living and working in Ireland, says that she has had "success and failures” with funding/exhibition/residency applications. Her advice: “Respond to the guidelines. Be clear, concise and straight talking about the work/project. Provide high-quality documentation of the work and a simple presentation with some individuality."
“Writing is essential not only for project grants and residency applications,” says Joanne Mattera, “but for any statement that may find its way into print. The artist statement in an exhibition catalog comes from you; that and an image of your work may be the only thing some people (including dealers, curators, and collectors) initially know of your oeuvre. A journalist may refer to your formal statement when preparing an article or review of your work. The statement can also inform your ‘elevator speech’ or any impromptu discussion of what-do-you-do?”
I am now somewhat painfully realizing just how critical these skills are if I
am to take my career to the next level. As in all fields of endeavor there is a
vocabulary that expresses ideas relevant to the field. For artists the vocabulary
articulates the nuances of two- and three-dimensional space. It is essential
that I understand it, and moreover, I must hone it to express what I want others
to understand about my practice. This skill set is a critical component of
growing as a professional artist.
Speaking on Behalf of My Own Work
The bottom line is this: If I am unable to articulate the intent of my work in a cogent, thoughtful, engaging manner, why should anyone take me seriously? Worse, if I speak or write inadequately, someone may speak for me—and they may get it all wrong.
For those attending the 12th International Encaustic Conference in Provincetown in June 2018, Patricia Miranda is offering a talk titled, The Pedagogy of Critique. She writes in the conference description, "Critique is fundamental to a mature artistic practice, essential to artistic development, reflection, and assessment. Critique pushes us to grow our artistic vision in the most powerful way possible. Critique advances our artistic voice, intellectual curiosity, and respect for the wide expression art can make, including aesthetic, form, process, and content. This lecture will provide a brief background, context, and structure for developing lifelong criticality in an art practice."
Milisa Galazzi is a longtime writer for ProWax Journal. Read her bio here.