Talking about your work with confidence
Originally from Canada, Andrea Graham is a multimedia artist based in San Diego, California, who exhibits, teaches and lectures globally. Her innovative use of both traditional nomadic and modern feltmaking techniques has been widely celebrated. Andrea uses ancient techniques in contemporary work by combining handmade felt and unusual materials to produce organic three-dimensional felt artwork and installations.
In this article, which is part of the Business of Art series, Andrea discusses the different scenarios in which talking about your artwork may occur and offers great practical advice on how to equip yourself in such situations.
Andrea Graham: Talking about our work as artists can be intimidating. We all agonize, procrastinate and turn down opportunities out of fear. Even for experienced artists, it can feel like smoke and mirrors. Sharing our experiences can provide practical strategies for communicating eloquently while informing and promoting our work with confidence. You are an artist so walk the walk, and talk the talk even if you feel like an imposter. No one will believe your art is of value unless you do. Putting your words to the visuals supports the work and generates further interest and curiosity. This invites further communication.
Who, What and Where?
As an artist working in textiles for 20 years, I have spoken and written about my art for a wide range of audiences: at lectures, art shows and openings, in statements, in print and online. The first considerations are defining your audience and identifying your goal. Who are you talking to and what do you want them to know?
It may not be immediately evident if you are at a public exhibition, art fair or cocktail party. If you are writing a statement about your work for a juried exhibition or magazine article, obviously your approach will be different. In all cases, it is important to express yourself with confidence, brevity and without art-speak. You want your conversation and materials to feel accessible to your audience, whoever it may be.
One on One
When speaking one on one, I think the most important thing is letting the questions guide you, providing information as it is asked. It is easy to get too enthused and before you know it their eyes have glazed over. If you listen and respond they will remember your thoughtful conversation and have a positive association with you and your work. Material and technique often intrigue viewers and these are good starting points if initially you are uncomfortable.
Questions then may lead to your inspiration or motivation. Maintain patience and even if you get, “How long did it take you to make?” remember that you are an ambassador to your medium and this may be a potential purchaser, student or gallery owner. Always avoid apologies, drawing attention to perceived flaws and using any self-deprecating speech.
Additionally, always have your business card handy. Nothing speaks louder about your work than having a card at the ready that invites them to a beautiful website or blog and it is a great way to punctuate your conversation. Do not apologise that it’s not up to date. Just update it!
Speaking to Groups
When giving a lecture, my presentation is very image heavy. I find it more natural to talk about each work and the technique with a visual cue to guide me. Know how much time you have and find a subtle way to keep track so you will not be distracted with concern. Gear your talk to the audience. For example, delving into the history of your medium may be redundant for an educated audience, but an audience full of newbies will appreciate a little background. You can include where each work has been shown and what it represents to you. Sometimes it is as simple as saying, “I was inspired by a seed”. I might share what other viewers have said about a piece or a place and time that it was created to provide context.
In a lecture scenario, you might not have your work displayed so your images will speak volumes as to how professional you are.Choose your best images. I find talking about what I know eases the jitters. A talk can also be in the form of demos or just introducing materials. Find what feels most comfortable and start there. Speaking to small art groups and friendly colleagues is a great place to hone your speaking skills and gain confidence. Listen to feedback and make edits.
In the Media-Videos, Blogs and Social Media
It is so great in this day and age that we can talk about our work though so many different means. Some are very forgiving allowing us to edit and tweak, like blog entries and social media posts. Producing a video or participating in live chats and interviews is a great way to reach a large audience and exposing them to your art but offer less control.
Producing a blog and consistently committing a small amount of time can be a great informal way for you to get your feet wet and gain confidence in writing about your work. As you gain steam you can share your link on social media and ask friends to share. I find that people are always interested in process, but talk about what you are most excited about in your work and it will translate. Avoid combining personal content unless it relates to your work and includes lots of visuals.
A live chat is a bit scary but I spent the day leading up talking to myself in preparation! You can see what that looks like in the link below:
Here I did a fair bit of preparation knowing this would be living on YouTube for all to see as well as having the “live” component. It felt like one might feel in a one-on-one. She asked questions I am answered considering what info my audience might find useful or interesting. Of course, I view it now and I see lots of things I would do differently, but that is a good lesson in professional growth.
A self- produced video is a little safer with editing ability and veto power. You can see an example of that by clicking here.
I knew this art piece would have a small audience due to its cumbersome scale. I wanted to capture the work with my statement in a new way for me. A friend filmed the video statement. It was informal and not so serious. Humour is a great tool to engage an audience as long as it does not undermine the work. I actually did not know he would edit this in the way he did and it was fun to laugh at myself.
Artist statements are important tools that explain and support your work. Statements may speak to a specific piece of work, body of work, or your work in general. Consider describing your work as you would like others to see it, not necessarily how you see it. Try writing it in 3rd person as a practice to step outside of yourself. I sometimes even consider how I might describe a piece as I am creating it as I know the time will come that I will need to put words to the work. We are our own worst critics so highlight elements that make you feel good and write in a conversational tone to convey confidence. Just putting words on paper or bullet points will get the process started. That is often the hardest part.
It certainly would be nice to have one statement that could be used in all circumstance where a statement is needed, however, I often need to modify it with each submission to tailor it to my specific audience. For example, if I am submitting a statement for a themed group exhibition, just by altering the statement, art that might not initially seem to fit in can be described in a way that it does. If I am entering a juried show, I might research the jurors and adjust my statement to subtlety connect something they may find relatable. If I am posting a statement to my website about my work in general, I assume it will be seen by potential galleries, colleagues or potential students so it might be a bit more general.
All these things considered, if you are not sure if you are on the right track, read what you have written out loud. If you have not already discovered, teenaged family members are often not the biggest confidence boosters, so have a trusted colleague or suitable sample audience give you gentle honest feedback.
Talking about your work is an evolving process and while each time there are new challenges, with practice you will learn what you might add or omit in each form. Your work will evolve also, which will provide fresh content and motivation. Preparation and reminding ourselves of the positive before we talk about our work will set the foundation for confidence.
Remember, there is a reason an onlooker is asking about your work or you are asked you to speak to others. They want to know more about your practice, the artist, and your work. Writing statements are an extension of our work and can really bring things together and fill in the gaps for an audience that truly wants to understand what you do and who you are. You know that better than anyone.