A Free Your Portfolio & You Article: “The Artist Statement vs the Art Story”

The artist’s statement and the story about your artwork are two different animals. One is a general “story” about your art, why you do what you do, why you love what you do. The other talks about this artwork. This ONE piece.

The Artist’s Statement

This is where you talk about your body of work — a very separate issue from the “story” one tells about an individual artwork.

When writing your artist’s statement, gallery owners, artist’s representatives, and curators begged that artists not write a novel. One sentence or two extremely short paragraphs (two sentences per paragraph maximum) written in the first person was considered the ideal artist's statement.

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The Art Story

If you must, refer to it as an art work statement. It is about the individual piece of work. It's a story. The why behind this art piece's creation.

The “statement”, your “story”, that a show, contest, book publisher, etc., wants is about just the one piece. It may incorporate some of your general philosophy (the artist’s statement) but it is specifically the story as to why you felt compelled to make this one art piece.

Maybe your artist's statement says that you feel a oneness with nature and you want to convey your impressions of the damage we are doing to the environment. Your “story” about “Exxon Valdez” (your newest creation) is the horror you felt for the sea life and shoreline where the oil tanker went aground.

Maybe your general philosophy is to make something pretty. Your artist’s statement will state that, but your art story about your latest creation, Flowers in the Meadow, will talk about that walk you took with Rover through a meadow after a spring rain and how beautiful the flowers were as their petals unfurled.

I’m with William Morris — “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” When we were having our mountain house designed, I created Mi Casita to help our architect understand the feeling I wanted for the walkout level of the new house. That will be my art story about this art piece.

Each of us has a basic philosophy regarding our individual work and there are multiple inspirations, which cause us to create each work of art. And each one has its very own story. Your mother died, the cat(s) won't die, the view of the mountains outside your living room just has to be shared or you're a frustrated interior designer. You know what inspires you; what thought or feeling spurred this particular design. Tell us.

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The Nitty-Gritty of Writing That Artist’s Statement

Which Do I Use…First Person or Third Person Pronouns?

Always use the first person—I. This is your statement. Who else could possibly say what it is that you feel?

How Long is an Artist's Statement?

Penny McMorris (nationally-known art quilt consultant and curator) hates long-winded, multi-page efforts. She says she never reads more than the first couple of lines and, in general, feels that a long artist's statement is pretentious. Susan Viders (another nationally-known artist's consultant and lecturer regarding portfolios, résum é pursue.

Looking for Inspiration

Find a statement in a book of quotations which reflects your feelings about your work; ask friends to help in describing your work; discuss other artists who have influenced you—and why. It's okay to be excited about your work and to convey that in your writing—you want people to feel enthusiastic about your work. Why did you start doing this particular style? In this technique? Find some aspect of your work, which makes you different from other artists in your genre. Is there something in your choice of materials that exhilarates you? Talk to us. Write as though you are talking. Just write down individual words that speak to you. If you fill several sheets of paper, that's okay. You can always cut it down to a few sentences later.

Grant-Oriented Artist's Statement

When writing a statement to use in procuring grants, Daniel Salazar, Council on the Arts, has stated that the artist's statement should talk about the work itself—the body of work. Salazar says that new artists make a mistake when writing about what motivates their art when they should be writing about the work itself. Use your friends' words about your work, their perspectives, to build a grant-oriented artist's statement.

Some grantors, especially for fellowships, only consider slides or CDs so they may examine the quality of the work and the artist's statement. Résumés are less important or are not considered at all.

My Own Artist's Statements

I have several statements. The first refers to my art-to-wear, and the rest covers my quilt work. I've included the text of each as examples. None of the statements were easy to prepare. I sweated for several days faxing each effort to Sue Viders for comments and I got a lot of comments.

“Kathy's art-to-wear is a form of meditation…”
“And through her sewing, she ensures a uniqueness and a wearability in art-to-wear—the clothing is functional and easy to care for; the quality is assured; the fit actually fits the individual body; pockets are realistic rather than merely decorative; and, the details are as interesting and appropriate as the garment demands!”

Figure 3. Sample artist statement: my art-to-wear statement.

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”– William Morris' The Beauty of Life sums up Kathy's credo.
The scenes Kathy creates are prompted by many different visions—some real, some not while still others are the result of her need to try a new technique or fabric.
“Life is too short not to be surrounded by Art…”

Figure 4. Sample artist statement: my original statement on my representational art.

Once my text passed muster, I arranged each on its own page with my name, address and contact numbers (each on a separate line), the title “Artist's Statement” followed by which statement it was—wearables or quilts. I stretched everything out by triple- and quadruple-spacing between each teeny section until it looked like there was a decent amount of page filled. It's saved on the computer and anytime I need one, I print it out on blank letterhead paper.

I have since expanded on my artist's statements. I now have use the above sample as my general statement followed by a longer one on my collage work, one for my Detour Series, another for my Sculptural work and I'll have to get 'round to creating two more—People Portraiture and House Portraits.

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Dropping the “Bomb”

Now that you have struggled through writing all this, to best appeal to the person/gallery/granting agency you are writing to at this moment, you will have to tailor your artist's statements and résumés to suit each one.

I must confess, I have never done this, but it is recommended.

For additional inspiration, search out artists' statements by other artists. Sometimes it is easier to write your own when you examine a wide range of styles from a wide range of media and get a better feel for what you might want to do.

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Photo of Kathy Davie

Kathy Davie is an editor, author, and artist with degrees in Technical Writing & Editing, Digital Media, and History from Metropolitan State College in Denver, Colorado.

A huge believer in knowledge being power, Kathy has an ongoing and free set of Author Tools for authors interested in self-editing with an ongoing series of posts on Word Confusions, what’s Properly Punctuated, those tricky Formatting Tips, and the sleep-inducing Grammar Explanations. There is also an online tutorial on Using Microsoft Word’s Markup Tool.

And if you get too sleepy, explore KD Did It for various writing and editing services.

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