LivingArts: Artists Talking

What does it mean?

What is it all about?

When presented with works of art, people always have questions.  They want to know what the artist was thinking while they were creating their work.  They want to hear about the inspiration, the challenges and the process involved.  They want to understand the work, and they want to make sure they get it right.  Often people will ask really interesting questions that can lead even the artist to think about the work in a new way. 

As an artist who works with found objects I know this first hand.  And, as an artist who tends to work fairly intuitively, I also understand the challenges of answering these very earnest questions.  Some artists work with an idea and build a work around it, others create work and deconstruct its meaning later.  Many artists work somewhere in the middle.  As an art educator who works with artists in staff training and public presentations, I am always interested in what people want to know about the art they are looking at, and I remember the successes and interesting presentations I see artists make to their audience.  What I’ve learned wearing both hats is that as an artist it is important to have considered your work well enough that you can answer these questions honestly and without relying on too much art-speak or spectacle.  I’ve seen the full range of the spectrum, and fumbled through it myself. 

Speaking about your work is not always the easiest thing to do.  As artists we are makers, and we want to look to others to be the public speakers, but in practice we are making objects for the public sphere.  There is meaning in the work; there are specific and interesting decisions made throughout the creative process.  I cannot say strongly enough – artists: don’t do yourself or your work a disservice by not considering these things.  Prepare to be in the spotlight, and embrace the idea of public reception.  As I’ve said in previous posts, people are generally very nice and want to say lovely things to you. 

Here are a few things that I have learned from watching a lot of artists speak:

  • Write an exhibition-specific artist statement that responds to your work in very precise ways.  Ask yourself some questions and create answers for them.  It will help you when others want to talk.
  • Figure out what you think is most interesting – is it the materials, the process, the visual image, the concept, and figure out ways to explain it briefly and in a straightforward manner.
  • Think about the strangest and hardest questions you might be asked, and prepare an answer so you are not surprised.
  • Ask questions of your viewers to draw them in.  A good leading question will get people looking and thinking, and this takes some of the pressure away.
  • Don’t try to be too smart, too cool or too remote. Believe in your work, and in your ideas.  People love listening to people who are genuine, passionate and comfortable.

It get easier with practice, and the rewards are great.