Content: talking about the work we make

I was at 9 x 22 this week, and witnessed a common occurrence: an artist having trouble talking about the work they make.

And, I get it.  It’s really, really hard to communicate something that is so deeply personal- something you live with everyday.  It’s hard to step away from your work, and to gain some perspective on what you do, who it’s for, and what you’re aiming to accomplish next.

truth: still hard to talk about.

But, it’s essential.  SO ESSENTIAL.

If you are a working artist, you make work to share.  And, to make shareable work, you have to be able to talk about it– to prevent audiences from feeling completely alienated from it.  If you are a working artist, you are probably at least partially dependent on funding.  To get funding, you have to be able to talk about the work.

I was having lunch with a friend of mine who works for a large arts funding organization.  She confirmed my suspicions: a lot of very talented artists have a hard time getting grants, because they can’t write articulately about what they do and why they do it.  And, to award grants, the granting organization needs this information.

I looked at a lot of artists and organizations I admire, scouring their websites and bios.

The bottom line?

Be specific.  Be simple. Make it feel like YOU.  My favorite descriptions help me visualize someone’s work: they give a picture.  The challenging ones leave me tuned out– the words are vague, or too complicated to understand.

And, whether you are writing a grant application or talking about your work with a new acquaintance, I hope these ideas are helpful.

Try answering these questions:

1. Where have you been?

  • Sit down with a friend, and go through your work samples.  Have them write any impressions/striking images/connotations/immediate responses.
  • Take note of reviews and language that people use when talking about your work.

2.  What sets YOU apart?

  • What life experiences have you had?
  • What do you like?
  • Who are you influenced by?

2.  What sets your work apart?

  • What drives you to make the work in the first place?
  • What common themes do you notice emerging in your work?
  • Have you approached the creative process the same each time?
  • What is changing?

3.  Who is the work for?

  • Who has your audience been?
  • Do you always make work for the same kind of audience?
  • What audience are you targeting in the future?

4.  Where do you want to go?

  • What are three goals you have for your future work?
  • How specific can you be about this (i.e. not just saying ‘I want to make a living as a performing artist’ or ‘I want to make a full season of work’)?
  • What are three intermediate steps you can take between where you are now and where you want to go?

The key is figuring out how to take your big ideas (and, heck, emotions) and craft them into digestible nuggets of information that reflect YOU.  Ideally, your mission statement can be distilled into a sentence.  And, the work you are making can be directly traced back to this statement.

I really liked reading these mission statements and artist bios: Open Eye Theatre, Springboard For The Arts, Emma Freeman Photography, SunsetGun Productions, Theatre Forever, Sarah Montour, Karen Sherman Performance (specifically, the first paragraph), Red Eye Theater.

So- what tips do you have for talking about art?  What are your favorite mission statements?  How do you capture authenticity, while still keeping your words grant-appropriate? 

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4 thoughts on “Content: talking about the work we make

  1. Thanks for the shout out, Laura! This is such a interesting read and it’s kind of been milling around in my brain since I first read it. I think it took me a solid 8 years before I ran through the different possibilities of what I could do with my photography and finally zoned in on why exactly I do what I do and what it is about photography that speaks so strongly to me.

    It’s hard sometimes as an artist to pinpoint why, exactly, you’re drawn to a specific medium, or style, or why your art comes out of you the way it does. Sometimes it’s specific and there’s a distinct purpose and other times you create just because that’s “what you do” and you have to. You can’t imagine not. Even with a stronger vision and understanding I still have plenty of moments where I find myself stumped when people ask about my work. I’m always changing, so my photography is always changing, and I’m sure I’ll have completely different answers in 10 years, or 2 years, than I do now.

    Just fascinating, really. 🙂

    • Yes! I think part of the magic is that it all keeps changing, and part of the magic is that it’s hard to talk about. But, I also appreciate the moments that I’m forced to. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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