Monday, May 30, 2011

Ethiopian Magic Scrolls as Memorials

In New York, a group of scrolls from the 18th and 19th centuries are being exhibited at Elizabeth Street Fine Arts until June 30. Maybe you read about them in the article in the New York Times. They are called magic scrolls, but as Jacques Mercier writes in his highly informative book Ethiopian Magic Scrolls, "In the West many people speak rather too quickly of 'magic' in connection with these scrolls.…Ethiopian concepts are rather different…" (12). Bunnies, scarves, and wands do not figure into these pictures.

The scrolls contain a combination of words and images derived from many religious traditions: "Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Iranian, and Jewish…," although Christianity eventually became the official religion and showed a prominent and dominant hand. Even so, the scrolls hold figurative images and/or talismanic ones. The figurative style "according to one dabtara" (24) was mostly derived from Christian painting traditions and was meant to evoke "what has been seen" and it would tell about the person on earth, while the talismanic ("talisman" comes from the Tigrean word tälsäm) style showed "what is hidden" or perhaps "an ordinary world that is threatening and inhabited by invisible powers" (24-27). What is revealed, what is concealed. What is physical, what is spiritual. But always personal.

Art That Heals: The Image As Medicine in Ethiopia (African art)
The scrolls are personal because the text, the images, and the material are all intertwined with the sick person's life. Mercier goes into excellent explanatory detail about the use of these scrolls including protection against evil spirits, as healing medicine, and as a shield against danger (such as for a pregnant woman). His book is thorough, written in clear language, and has good color plates. The author occasionally imparts the information as a story, which makes the book interesting to read. 

My first response was how can these scrolls be adapted or incorporated into my and other people's bookmaking practices. The scrolls have images, they have words, they are personal. I liked that they were made to be the height of the owner. But the more I read, the more I wondered how one could adapt them but at the same time respect them and their people for what they are as religious medicine. The owners, of course, are deceased. A memory scroll came to mind. I had found it healing to make books after I had suffered a loss (see Expressive Handmade Books), and I wondered if this approach might be more proper, more reverential. As I read Mercier's book further, I realized that these scrolls connect death with life in a way that Westerners may not be aware.

The article in the New York Times and the gallery itself neglect to mention why the scrolls are or were so personal, aside from the height, quite possibly because of the complex and rather bloody ritual behind the making of them.

Here is a summary of Mercier's description of the process. The dabtara, the maker, was the "unordained cleric who has studied singing, poetry, and literature; a cantor, a scribe, a teacher, he practices traditional medicine in its most varied aspects…" (14).The dabtara determines the kind of animal needed. The animal is brought to the sick person and carried three times around her, then the animal's throat is slit and the blood collected in a gourd. The dabtara washes the sick person in the blood and chants prayers. The dabtara soaks the hide of the animal, then stretches it, scrapes it, and prepares the parchment by cutting it into three strips of equal width. The strips are placed end to end and cut to the height of the sick person. "This will mean that the client is protected against demons from head to foot" (16). In the Amhara culture, once the scroll was finished, the sick person was never parted from her scroll.

The dabtara writes on the parchment with a reed pen or one made "from asparagus" (!) using primarily black ink, but using red ink for "introductory [usually Christian] formulae" or "important words" (17). It is written most often in Geez, the Ethiopian liturgical language. The contents could include, "magic squares, the ciphers, the names of angels and of God, the seals, become a knotwork of lines and letters in which eyes and faces appear" (10). The scrolls could also contain eight-pointed stars, angels with swords, all with a focus on eyes. I wonder if in addition to thoughts about the evil eye or a protective eye, the focus on sight might also reinforce the portrayal of what is hidden and what is seen, or maybe it is more about who sees.

Making a replica of this kind of scroll here and now is probably not possible, feasible, or desirable. Additionally, the scroll is considered "in connection with medicine" and "not with the making of a 'work of art'" (33). We can appreciate the process and the story behind it, research more, and learn. Perhaps by creating a memory scroll of our own, we can also make a scroll in homage to this culture. The scroll can contain what was seen about a person as well as what was hidden, a way to help us preserve the loved one's spirit. Our bookmaking and artmaking can embody a different kind of healing practice.

(If you want to see more scrolls, the Manuscripts Division of the Library at Princeton and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington have collections that are open to researchers. Mercier also wrote a book called Art That Heals: The Image As Medicine in Ethiopia.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Slot & Tab Tunnel Book Project

Time to make something. Here's another new incarnation of the Slot & Tab (I used it for the Cloth Book last month. Standard instructions for the original are on pages 55-56 of MHB). With a knife and some strong colored paper you can make a tunnel book without glue. I used Canson Mi-Teintes paper for this. You could also use Strathmore Artagain, Pure Paper Tints, or any medium weight, high-quality acid free paper. The example shown here is small. For a larger book, a ratio of 2:1 (width to height) or 1.5:1 works well. Adjust your template accordingly. As usual, I recommend reading through the instructions once or twice before you begin.

Tools: knife and cutting mat, pencil, metal ruler, extra knife blades
Materials: 4 pieces of paper, grained short, 5" x 2 1/4" (13 cm x 6 cm) for the scene pages; 2 pieces, grained short, 6" x 2 1/4" (16 cm x 6 cm) for the accordion sides; one cardboard template, 4" x 2 1/4" (10 cm x 6 cm) into which you will cut a window that is 1/2" (1 cm) from the top and bottom, 1/4" (5 mm) from the sides.

1. Mark 1/2" (1 cm) from L&R.
2. Fold two 8-panel accordions. On the 4 peak folds of each accordion, cut slits starting 1/2" (1 cm) down from head and stopping 1/2" from tail.

3. Cut 1/2" (1 cm) head & tail on lines.
4. Use template to draw window on pages.

5. Draw scenes and cut them out.
6. Stack them to check orientation.

7. Slip page tab through accordion slot.
8. Bend down tab to insert head.

9. Pull up and flatten at back.
10. Continue to insert pages on both accordions.

11. top view, complete
12. front view, complete

Monday, May 23, 2011

Marshall McLuhan's Medium Is Still Relevant

The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan called new media the "electric" media in the 1960s. We now call it "electronic" or, strangely, "digital." I like his use of "electric," particularly because of the other images it conjures: hair standing on end, excitement, a brightly lit room. The new media is exciting, it does have enormous potential, it has already made our hair stand on end and altered us. While the hardware and software have evolved since he first wrote about it, the impact the new media has upon us hasn't changed much at all. McLuhan felt that the medium is the massage: all parts of us are kneaded and pushed, psychologically and physically. The media encompass us and stimulate us from all angles. Additionally, "All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical" (40).

The Medium is the MassageThe Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects by Marshall McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore, although first published in 1967, is an uncannily relevant book today. I borrowed a copy and was astonished by the bold graphics, the placement of words and images on the pages, the pacing—everything I am concerned about when I teach and make book art. Then I read it. And I was surprised by how the content grabbed me.

The title of The Medium Is the Massage was supposed to be The Medium Is the Message, which was something McLuhan said constantly, but it came back from the typesetter wrong, much to McLuhan's delight since he liked puns and wordplay. He was known for his work in media analysis, and many of his observations are still useful. I want to focus on just one of the numerous concepts he worked with, namely, the experience of art, environment, and life.  

The Medium Is The Massage: An Inventory of EffectsThe process of making and viewing art affects how we see the world and vice versa. McLuhan wrote that once "easel paintings"  took on the concept of a fixed perspective, the "detached observer" became "placed outside the frame of experience," but "The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible" (50-53). Viewing paintings that use the traditional European perspective, we still feel outside the frame, voyeurs looking from a distance. The new media, on the other hand, engulfs us completely, swallows us up, and our bodies become part of the experience, seemingly without boundaries.
The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects
"Pre-alphabet people integrate time and space as one…they put in everything they know, rather than only what they see….The primitive artist twists and tilts the various possible visual aspects until they fully explain what he wishes to represent…Electric circuitry is recreating in us the multidimensional space orientation of the 'primitive'" (56-57). 
It is quite strange to think that by reaching forward and embracing certain technologies we are actually recapturing an experience humans had centuries ago of putting everything in the picture. Our new media environment presents many views and engages more of our senses at once. In addition to space, it captures a sense of narrative time.

The narrative time is continuous. Information is constant; we are completely immersed in it. McLuhan wrote, "As soon as information is acquired it is replaced by still newer information" (63). Nabokov's quote that "the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen" (Speak, Memory 310) could be seen as a layered version of McLuhan. While the new information pushes out the old, it is not forgotten: once you know, you can't un-know. We know about perspective and how we can take something flat and make it seem three-dimensional. Instead of discarding that knowledge, we can add that fourth dimension of narrative time to the picture (coincidentally or not, the McLuhan/Fiore book also uses sequence, rhythm and time nicely). With art, we hope that viewers will want to come back over and over, adding layers to their knowledge rather than swapping new for old. We cannot be detached observers anymore.
I learned that there is a new version of Medium out, a centennial edition. Read it for the content, view it for its relationship to book art and book design of today. I think you will find that in this light, the old medium still works, although in celebration, perhaps it should take on the form of an electric book…


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Kenneth Patchen: Painted Poems

I picked up a copy of What shall we do without us?: The Voice and Vision of Kenneth Patchen in the late 1980s, knowing nothing about Patchen or about his art. This book turned out to be a posthumous collection of his work with a long, intriguing afterword by James Laughlin, Patchen's publisher at New Directions (and, coincidentally, Nabokov's publisher). As I thumbed through the oversize posterlike pictures I realized that writing and painting were connected for him. He used one brush for handwriting and for imagery. I don't think he felt the division between word and picture: they were the same.

What Shall We Do Without Us; The Voice and Vision of Kenneth PatchenThe cover of What shall we do without us? is a cropped painted poem (no words), showing us two creative characters, but the full painting inside says (in white) "All      at once     is what eternity is" with additional characters intermingling with the words. The background peeks out, once colorful, now overpainted with gray. The imaginary characters are bright yellows, oranges, and greens. It seems simple, but the images and words take us into a surreal world, suspended: eternity.

But Even So - Picture PoemsIt is always a challenge to work with both words and images. How to balance them so that one doesn't dominate? Patchen used mostly cursive writing, which makes the viewer work a little harder, helping to balance the tendency to read first, then look. The writing is also in color, not the standard black ink we are used to (except in the old publications!). The imagery is imaginative, curious, sometimes containing animals of his own devising. The colors are bold and lively, a world that draws us in. Text and image are interwoven and integrated. Nothing feels stuck on or added randomly. Short poems work well on one page. In the 1940s due to the prohibitive cost of having a fine-print edition of his work printed Patchen painted his own book covers, which inspired him to continue doing so for eight more books. Over his lifetime he painted, screenprinted, and used collage methods for his painted poems. He seemed to like pushing boundaries, and if he had been a book artist today he might have tried out longer poems in sequence, using repetition and visual cues to remind us what was painted previously or maybe experimented with book structures as well.

Patchen Hallelujah AnywayWho was he? Briefly, Patchen was born in 1911 in Niles, Ohio (today, about an hour drive from Cleveland). He grew up poor, played football and worked in a factory. He went to various colleges, including the University of Wisconsin, and took jobs as a migrant worker. In 1933 he met Miriam Oikemus; they were married in 1934 and they lived in New York, San Francisco, and Concord Massachusetts, among other places. He suffered a back injury when he was 26 and was in pain, later unable to leave his bed for long periods, but he continued to write and make art until he died in 1972. In the Special Collections Department, University Library, at the University of California at Santa Cruz you can find the Kenneth Patchen Archive. Many of his books of poetry are still available; a new compilation called We Meet was published in 2008.

Rebel Poets of AmericaI don't hear much about Kenneth Patchen these days. It may be hard to take him out of the context of the 1930s through the 70s of his life: his interest in jazz, his collaboration with John Cage (a radioplay in 1942 called "The City Wears a Slouch Hat"), his friendship with Henry Miller and others. Today he might have enjoyed the politics and aesthetics of graffiti, but his style of freeflowing painting and merging of art and writing in painted poems feels rooted to those earlier times. I was pleased to find, however, at the recent launching of the San Francisco State University Poetry Center Digital Archive, that Patchen was among the first batch of time capsules released, reading from his book When We Were Here Together. You can also hear him read (a very short poem) with jazz music here. Granted, the first recording is from 1957 and has the reading sound from the time period, but I was moved hearing his voice come alive.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Invited to Adapt

The vision of a little painting inside a vacuum cleaner is a strange one. Art in the dark can't influence anyone. And it's hard to create art in the dark, either literally or metaphorically. The phrase "you can't create art in a vacuum" has always been a nudge towards going to exhibits, reading, being aware of culture and the world around you, not just living in the world inside your head. When we go out and look at other art, read, watch, observe, we can't help but bring back little pieces of it—(here's an overused phrase, but it seems apt) the grains of sand we can turn into oyster pearls. Oy. There, I said it.

Some artists use those materials intentionally, borrowing and adapting from known or little-known sources. We are constantly influenced by others, consciously or not. Adaptations are not copies, not rearrangements of puzzle pieces, they are new creations based on the ideas or concepts of older ones. They are new works, not mirror images or shadows of others. Good ones create new sparks and new forms that didn't previously exist.

A few artists are interested in this intermingling of forms and are willing to let you adapt their work for minimal, if any, cost.

  • E.E. posts vignettes on her blog and invites you to adapt them or play off of them for free and however you like. She will re-post these "collaborations." I was inspired to make one of her pieces into a flexagon (sample of one printed side shown here).
  • Jonathan Lethem has short stories and song lyrics that you can adapt or "mutate" for $1 (and signing a simple form) as part of his Promiscuous project. The material is non-exclusive, and he encourages playwrights and filmmakers to sign on.
  • David Byrne and Brian Eno have a couple songs that are available for sampling or rearranging, songs that were initially made from sampled materials themselves.

These projects bring forward many questions. What does it mean for an artist to let go of a creation and offer it up for manipulation? How do we feel about ownership? How is an artist valued in society if s/he gives away work for free? Is making art like making food and therefore all should partake? What should the limits be? I've got a drawer full of question marks if you think you can use them…

adaptation of Hedi Kyle's Pivoting Panels Structure

In the book art world we've always shared our discoveries. After Hedi Kyle invents a structure she teaches it. Keith Smith writes about new developments, and Paul Johnson teaches and writes, but also has stated that he feels anyone could have created the structures and calls them "universals." Those are only three of the many people that have contributed, knowingly or not, to my art, and I'm happy to credit them. For us, I think this open exchange is a good path, and I hope we continue on it. Obviously, I like sharing new structures as the paths light up around them. To continue the work, I invite each person to adapt them to his or her own vision.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Product Testing: Watercolor Ground and Walnut Ink

I'm a material(s) girl. I've always liked art supplies. When I was little I imagined I would work at Aaron Bros. Art Mart surrounded by thick pads of paper, 48-color marker sets, and colored pencils. After I finished art school I got my first job at Amsterdam Art near those same materials and alongside other recent art school grads. With our 40% off employee discounts, we spent part of our paychecks on art supplies. We could afford to try new things (we said). Even though I now have a developed art practice and need specific materials, I still long for new products to try. As a teacher, I justify purchasing these new tools and materials so I can advise others of their properties.

I live within driving distance of a Utrecht, two Blicks, and an Artist and Craftsman Supply, but I'm happy to be out on the porch looking for the arrival of a box. We've had nice weather, too, so I recently ordered three new products from Daniel Smith, Inc.: watercolor ground, newly formulated walnut ink, and a set of Letraset Aqua ProMarkers.

acrylic inks on gesso
The friendly and helpful customer service person (there are many and all are nice, which is one reason I like calling) said that the markers were his "pens of choice." He also added, "I hope you won't be offended, but I take these to bars with me, and they are great with technical pens, too." I told him I thought drawing in bars sounded wonderful and was pleased to hear about the technical pen compatibility (that being my pen of choice). He also said that after painting on the watercolor ground, I would need to seal the watercolors with a spray adhesive like Krylon Crystal Clear. Since I wanted to try out my inks of choice (the acrylic ones) on the ground and knew those never need to be sealed, I did not order the (strong smelling) Crystal Clear. 

acrylic inks on watercolor ground
I got the first box the other day (the markers are backordered) and did a comparison test between regular acrylic gesso and the watercolor ground painted on muslin. The brown wash (actually walnut ink) did not adhere to the gesso and left streaks, the pencil marks pulled up and blended with the acrylic inks, and the tonal range of the colors was small. With the watercolor ground, the luminous white shines through (one of their main claims), the pencil stayed put, I got a wider tonal range, and the walnut ink blended properly in the background. The informational paper that came with it also said you could paint the ground on metal, glass, just about anything. While it says to let the ground dry 24-72 hours before painting on it, I put my piece in the sun and was able to proceed in about 30 minutes. Another interesting note is that if you have a watercolor painting you have done and dislike one area, you can paint the ground over it, let dry, then "fix" the painting, something watercolors never let you do.

The walnut ink inspired me to do a comparison with the bottle of "original" walnut ink that I still have. Here's my chart, starting upper left and going clockwise: Daniel Smith (acid free) walnut ink; Derwent Inktense ink pencil (bark); Derwent Inktense ink pencil (baked earth); FW acrylic ink (burnt umber); FW acrylic ink (sepia); Matisse acrylic ink (sepia); FW acrylic ink (antelope brown); original Tom Norton Walnut Drawing Ink. Colors are odd on the screen, I know. But antelope brown is closest to both walnut inks. The sepias are bluer, the burnt umber is a bit redder. The ink pencils don't come close in color. I think the Tom Norton walnut ink would be more fluid in a pen. The acrylic inks need to be shaken, as usual, and would require frequent dipping. The new Daniel Smith walnut ink seems a bit more fluid than the acrylic inks, but handles similarly.

Next up (whenever they get here): watercolor markers. I'll be out on the porch…

Monday, May 9, 2011

James Castle: Self-Taught Artist/Bookmaker

When an artist has an intriguing life story we often confuse the artist with the art. Our intimate knowledge of the artist's colorful history may shade our view of the work; we may be charmed by the the creative process rather than what we actually see in front of us. With James Castle fortunately, that is not the case. In addition to having an unusual life history, James Castle created work that compels us to keep looking.

Look at his art first. Castle drew on the backs of matchboxes and food cartons, made figure constructions from feed bags, corrugated cardboard, string, and printed papers, and made hundreds of little books from all of these materials that contained his drawings. He collaged, drew letters and numbers and symbols from different alphabets, and came back to several favorite topics including invented calendars and drawn "photo" albums set up like yearbooks. For one example, he made a little box in a matchbox style from a Cheer detergent box and placed twenty-four drawings and other ephemera inside. Because he was not formally trained in an art school he is often filed in the category of "outsider" artist, but he was so devoted to his art that he effectively taught himself formal concepts like perspective through observation and rigorous practice.He invented his own bindings, his own pictographs, and made representations of various household products like Morton salt and Royal baking powder. He mainly drew scenes of Garden Valley, where he lived, and also of the Idaho State School for the Deaf and Blind in Gooding that he attended for five years. He drew and constructed people, too, possibly himself, his friends and family, or maybe fictive friends. The textures intrigue and delight us. The black and white drawings haunt us. Their mystery makes us curious about the place and about the boy, then man, who made them.

Read his story. James Castle was deaf, born in 1899 in rural Idaho, and either could not or did not choose to learn to read and write, but he drew. Living with a family who ran a General Store/Post Office, he had access to all kinds of paper ephemera as well as stamps and postcards, which were sources of inspiration. He was considered an unruly child (some find evidence that he was also autistic), and "Dummy" or "C.J." or "Crazy Jimmy," as he was called, frequently stayed away from school. His sister Nellie was also hearing impaired and the two of them were sent to a school for the deaf and blind in 1911 so they could learn to read lips and communicate orally. Although he learned to write his name there, Castle did not show that he learned to read or write otherwise. In order to make him focus on oral learning the school took away his art supplies, but James constructed implements from sharpened sticks and made ink  from stove soot and spit. Later in life, when formal art supplies were returned to him, he rejected them. One assumes that since he had spent so much time familiarizing himself with his own tools he had no use for any others. To make "watercolor" paintings, he crumpled up colored crepe and tissue papers and dipped them in water to release the dye, then painted with the little wads. As an adult he spent most of his waking hours making art, and he entertained his nieces and nephews, some of whom wanted to draw like "Uncle Jim." He collected paper ephemera, something he started doing as a child, and sorted it for future use. No one is quite sure what his method for sorting was, and periodically he untied the bundles and resorted and retied them. Hundreds of these bundles, some in burlap sacks and tied with string or strips of denim fabric, were still around after his death in 1977.

I first happened upon work by James Castle by accident in August 2003. A fan of the Berkeley Art Museum, I was wandering around, perhaps visiting another show, when I noticed a small case filled with books. Excitement! What were these? Who was this person? Why hadn't I heard of him before? The books, acquired in 2001, are in the museum's permanent collection. When I went back they were gone. So I started hunting around for more information.

A retrospective of Castle's work appeared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2008-09, accompanied by a catalogue edited by Ann Percy, which also contains a documentary made by Jeffrey Wolf. The show traveled to the Berkeley Art Museum in 2010. At the Berkeley exhibit I brought my CCA class to hear the talk by the chief curator, but was dismayed and bemused when she said she thought that Castle's constructions were a kind of "slippage" between two media. I did not say anything, but I  felt that Castle was thinking like a book artist: the constructions each had a front and they opened to reveal many layers of content. It is already clear that he loved books and magazines so the shaped constructions seemed to me a natural exploration of the book form.

James Castle facsimiles
purchased from ICB
The late Tom Trusky, an Idahoan, English professor, book arts teacher, and member of the book arts community for many years (among other things!), was fascinated with Castle and wrote his own book which was published in 2004. While I like the catalogue for the color pictures, I prefer Trusky's text to the catalogue's art-crit speak. (You can hear Trusky's voice in an unrelated interview from January 12, 2008, or you can go to iTunes and search for "Book Artists and Poets.") Tom Trusky left his collection of a dozen James Castle books to the Albertsons Library Special Collections at Boise State University, stating they should not be sold. For a treat, you may still be able to order the James Castle facsimile books from the Idaho Center for the Book.

I've heard more about James Castle lately, most likely due to the exhibitions. You can find work selling for $2500-$18,000 for a picture or a slice out of one of the books. Ouch. That's the part that disturbs me, changing the art to suit public taste, selling pages rather than books just because you can't hang a book on the wall. But a book was designed as a book by its maker. James Castle, the man, and James Castle, the maker should both be respected so he and we can rest in peace.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

This is Not a Cliché

The derivation of the word cliché is based on a printer's term, and as a printer this fills me with glee (the mirthful emotion, not the t.v. show). Not only does this fact tickle me, but I feel a responsibility to examine it today in relation to words. (At some point in the future I'll tackle overused imagery.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. notes for cliché: French, past participle of clicher, to stereotype (imitative of the sound made when the matrix is dropped into molten metal to make a stereotype plate.) "an expression or idea that has lost its originality or force through overuse."

And if you are not familiar with a stereotype plate: Stereotype: 3. a metal printing plate cast from a matrix molded from a raised printing surface, such as type. 4. To give a fixed, unvarying form.

A rigid idea about something. I think we are familiar with stereotypes about people.

Interesting that cliché is a sound. Cliché as an onomatopoetic word is lovely. (Did you ever notice that if you replaced "on" with "t" you could have "tomatopoetic? Would that would mean poetry so bad you wanted to throw things at it, or a sublime pasta sauce?) The sounds of words can bring to mind some powerful imagery as well.

Several years ago, as I was reading either The Magician's Assistant or Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, I noticed familiar phrases in the midst of fresh and vibrant imagery. By surrounding the old with the new she was able to restore power to the older phrase. Here's a sample from page 3 of Bel Canto:
But this visit, with its glorious birthday replete with opera star, with several meetings planned and trips to possible factory sites tomorrow, was a full world closer than they had ever come before and the air in the room was sugared with promise.
In this particular sentence, "A full world closer" could be considered familiar, but the people in the story do hope to change their world, so it makes sense in context. Overused phrases connected to "world" might be "a world away," "a world apart," and "a world of difference." Additionally, Patchett doesn't use "sugar-coated," or "sugary sweet" which are overused."Sugared with promise" feels new because of the (I would say surprising) combination of "sugar" with "promise."

Vladimir Nabokov took a different approach in Transparent Things; he pointed out the cliché and made fun of it:
"To make a story quite short," replied Mr. R (who had an exasperating way of not only trotting out hackneyed formulas in his would-be colloquial thickly accented English, but also of getting them wrong)… (31).
Nabokov let the reader know that he knew it was a cliché and that he had used it intentionally. Of course, the cliché is "to make a long story short."

At the end of the day, if you can set a cliché into a sentence in a surprising way, more power to you. But seriously, after you place words on a page and serve up the sentences, see what happens when you go back and make substitutions; you might end up making a tastier story.

Challenge, 2007
photo by Sibila Savage

Monday, May 2, 2011

Writing An Artist Statement

When working with words, it seems natural that you have to know what you are saying before you can write. Most visual artists know instinctively what they are saying when they are creating, but they are not always able to put that knowledge into words. The creative process sits at a subconscious level, I think—felt, but not always verbally identifiable.

The quandary is that artists are always asked to write statements about their art. While it is possible that somewhere in a book or online there is a guide and master template on how to write these statements, but from what I have seen there is no evidence that people are reading that chapter. I see lengthy statements filled with art jargon. Or I see sentences circling earnestly, but not really communicating any information. I also see what I would call generic statements that say the artist is interested in people, or nature, or the way different colors look together. I see lists of qualifications. Or I see—I'll stop now. You get the picture.

Here are some suggestions how you might write a coherent, lively artist statement.
  • Start with (choose one!) a topic, theme, aesthetic style, type of medium or material that is important to you, that you enjoy working with. An intriguing first sentence from a fresh angle is good.
  • Demonstrate how your work addresses the above. Cite a couple pieces specifically and describe them in one sentence each.
  • Talk about your creative process: what sparks your attention, and how you work your idea through to the end. You might talk about specific inspirations (artists, writers, musicians, etc.) or one particular inspiration and the kinds of issues that interest you about it.
Specificity is the most important, most interesting part of an artist statement. For example, rather than say you make paintings about water or the ocean, write that you create waterscapes of the Oregon coast. Make the statement personal: include a bit of your own history that illuminates your work. Show why you do what you do and what makes you different. Think about your audience. If you were the audience, what would you want to know?

She Said I Like Almost Anything
From A Distance,
The following are a few examples of clear, interesting, or concise artist statements you can see online. While many people post their biographies, not as many post their statements. A couple of these merge the two forms. See what catches your eye.

Above all, know what you want to say, then write clearly so that anyone can understand. If you are having trouble figuring out the right words, describe your ideas to a friend, then ask your friend to repeat back to you what s/he thought you meant. It might be easier to brainstorm out loud. And you might discover something new about yourself in the process.