We’re well into spring, which means there’s no better time to refresh your artist’s statement.
An artist’s statement is like a flower bulb: a good statement will attract the attention of important art world professionals, but you must follow a regimen in order for it to blossom. You already have all the information regarding your art and artistic practice implicitly stored in your mind, but in order to develop those thoughts into an effective statement that will get you the attention you deserve, you need to nurture your innate wisdom by using a combination of literary tools.
In this post, I’ll explain the basic parts of an artist’s statement and show you how to put them into place using a (real!) sample statement.
Sowing the Seeds: How to Write an Effective Artist’s Statement
In prior posts we’ve suggested ways to spring into action by organizing your thoughts so that you can formulate a concise and persuasive statement. The general rule of thumb is that your artist statement should hone in on the “what,” “how,” and “why” aspects of your art in that particular order.
- What: The introduction generally leads with the physical description of your work and how you’d describe yourself as an artist and the main idea behind your work. Always be sure to state what kind of art you make (i.e., photography, painting, drawing, sculpture). If you identify as a multidisciplinary artist, please elaborate by mentioning what media and materials are present in your work. You’d be surprised how often this information is absent in artist’s statements!
- How: In the second section, focus on your process. Let us know how the work is made in your studio or in a site-specific location. I generally advise artists to think of the first and second paragraphs like they’re writing a recipe. Recipes are easy to comprehend because they contain a list of ingredients (the “what”) and a linear account of how these ingredients come together to make the final product.
- Why: The final part of the artist’s statement weaves the “what” and “how” together to support the conceptual reasons why you do what you do.
See it in Bloom: An Analysis of a Great Artist’s Statement
I will now take you through an actual artist’s statement and explain what exactly within its content makes it great.
The following statement was written by Katherine Toukhy. After each paragraph, I’ve made annotated comments about the key language, details, and/or concepts that make this statement successful.
Allow me to introduce myself
I am a story being told. I create figurative cut-outs, installations, and paintings to imaginatively process issues of liberation, repression, and migration.
- Toukhy starts off with a metaphor, which she promptly begins to clarify with a succinct description of the type of work she makes and the themes that are expressed through these works of art. We know that Toukhy makes figurative imagery and works with media that includes cut-outs, installation, and painting. This introduction gives us a blatant overview of the physical qualities within her work and sets the stage for her to elaborate upon the conceptual issues of “liberation, repression, and migration” in her work later on. Toukhy’s lead-in statement is effective because she identifies herself by mentioning the “what,” “how,” and “why” aspects of her work.
Trust the process
Since the beginning of my art-making career, the female form has been my starting point. She embodies the history, chaos, and transformative potential that drives me. Using my own movements or poses that resonate with me, I re-work figurative drawings until I find shapes that are dynamic. These figurative shapes are severed, then layered with dense patterns and emotive color. I make patterns out of map lines, writings, camouflage, and plant forms. A leg might become a mass of collaged-together bits of drawing. A face might become a sharp flower; a torso could be an ocean made of molded canvas. Disparate parts fit, sometimes held together delicately by threads, because all these pieces articulate the cycles of violence and renewal we go through.
- Toukhy supports her claim from the prior paragraph that she makes figurative work by telling us that she’s always been inspired by the female form. By mentioning that the human figure is the foundation for her work, she supports the work’s aesthetic properties, while letting us know that its physical qualities also inform her process.
- This section is Toukhy’s recipe for how the work gets made. She guides us through her creative process step by step. The language she uses gives us a tangible vision of how the work looks. Even if we haven’t actually seen her art, we can begin to paint a mental picture of it thanks to the accessible sentence structure.
In my installations, the figurative cut-outs come alive in space. I paint and write on the walls around them and hang translucent fabric from the ceiling to build sensual-psychological environments. The figures are not connected to a geographical or physical setting, but exist in a liminal emotional space that speaks to loss and regeneration.
- Toukhy begins the prior paragraph by providing a general rundown of her process. In the paragraph above, she hones in on a specific element of her practice, which is her installation work. This is a good strategy, especially if your artistic practice utilizes a variety of media and display requirements. She illustrates how each element in her overarching routine fits into place and informs her site-specific work.
- Similarly to the introduction, Toukhy uses poetic language. She states that her “figurative cut-outs come alive in space.” This alone would be very vague and abstract, but she supports this claim by explaining how she animates the environments where her work is installed. This is an important detail to remember when writing your statement: you can use anecdotes and figurative language, but it will only be effective if you can back it up with concrete examples.
I realize that a story is not created alone. I also create social sculptures, where a piece grows out of people’s guided participation. The Khayamiyya Monument (2016) was my most in-depth exploration of this process. I designed activities to elicit intimate writings from women of the Afro and Arab diaspora, around the themes of migration, violent upheaval, and resilience. Female US veterans who had fought in Iraq responded to those writings with their own. As I traced the women’s writings in both Arabic and English onto canvas, I came closer to embodying these stories that shape our current moment in post-9/11 America. The monument also activated a community open mic, where im/migrant women spoke their own stories and poems in public.
- This paragraph is another example of how the artist introduces the “what,” “how,” and “why” facets of their art to highlight another area of their practice.
- In this section, Toukhy also begins to delve into the motivation (the “why”) behind her work. Her prior writing has prepared us for this stage by allowing us to envision her process and the aesthetic properties of her artwork. She’ll really drive it home in the forthcoming paragraph.
Weave it all together
Through developing a personal symbolic language, I discover the multilayered beauty of women who have lived transcontinental migrations and exile. My works become a place for me to challenge the silencing of stories that do not fit today’s dominant narrative of national identity.
- This is Toukhy’s final paragraph and, as such, she concludes with a synthesis of her work. She makes a strong personal statement, telling us what her art means to her and how it enables her to communicate with contemporary cultural narratives. Unlike the descriptions of the aesthetic and procedural aspects, her “why” is short and sweet. And that’s exactly the point, it is not a manifesto or a theoretical essay about the entirety of your oeuvre. Rather, Toukhy gives us an intimate glance into the work she makes in a manner that adds to our experience when we actually read this statement in conjunction with viewing her art.
Readability is the single most important thing to consider when you write your artist’s statement. What you’ve probably deduced from Toukhy’s writing is that she’s able to discuss her multifaceted work in simple terms. Her literary style is accessible to audiences with or without backgrounds in art. There’s no grandiose prose (aka artspeak) that would render her writing obscure and esoteric.
Remember that, while your statement absolutely needs to convey what you make, how you make it, and what drives its creation, you should relay this information in a manner that feels authentic to you. Your goal should be to have the reader develop a good sense of the form, function, content, and context of your work prior to actually seeing examples of it.
There is no greater expert or authority on your work than yourself. Oftentimes, expressing this innate awareness and knowledge through writing is tough. However, with time, effort, and reflection, your writing might one day be used as an example of what makes a great artist’s statement.
In the meantime, editors like myself are here for you. We take great pride in working closely with artists to help them find their voice and clearly communicate their work to the audiences they need to reach. If you are looking to refresh your artist’s statement, whether it’s for your website, an upcoming exhibition, residency application, or grant proposal, consider Flatpage. We can assist you with a comprehensive evaluation and one-on-one conversation that will provide you with personalized feedback for writing a truly awesome artist’s statement.
About the author
Adam is an educator and curator. His interests include ways of integrating contemporary art throughout the education curricula. At Flatpage, he helps artists write impactful and effective artist's statements and proposals.