Writing Your Work Statement: Why do you do what you do?

NYFA’s 2013 Artist Fellowship applications are due January 14-6, depending on discipline.

Most grant and fellowship applications, in fact, almost every gateway to professional opportunity for artists, require a concise, but clear and compelling statement to help introduce the decision-makers on the panel to your work. Unfortunately, this is often the weakest part of the application for many of the artists that I have consulted. Everyone’s work is different, but every artist must learn how to step back from his or her own work, to make their own perspective more like whoever is reading the application, in order to place the work in its most compelling context. Of course the work must be great, but it won’t seem as great with a weak artist statement.

Your artist statement is an opportunity, so take advantage. If, for example, you write music for orchestra that uses mathematical formulas to decide all melodic, harmonic and other parameters, or if you make sculpture using rusted, salvaged metals exclusively, this will be immediately evident to any panel that has more than a passing familiarity with your field. What’s not obvious is why you made these decisions. It is fairly easy to say what we do, but for most of us it is much more difficult to say why we do it, but that is precisely what makes the work interesting.

The panel can probably hear or see what you are doing. Try instead to tell them why.

 You’ve chosen a profession where you will work longer and harder than most people with regular jobs, but will make far less money, and you will probably continue to do it until you are physically unable. Any sane person would ask “good god, why?” This innate irrationality, a choice that an artist makes against all odds, is the origin of creativity, and this is what makes your work interesting. But, most of us forget this when it comes time to write about our work.

Here is my advice: turn on an audio recorder and answer, for an audience of one, this question: “why do you do what you do?” Maybe the first words you say will be the same tired ones you’ve used on artist statements before. If this is the case, just keep talking, and do it for as long as it takes. Eventually you will say something so obviously compelling that you won’t understand why you didn’t think of it before. Listen back to the recording and find that compelling thought. Turn it into a complete sentence and go from there. You could do this exercise with a friend, then he or she can ask follow up questions, like an interview. Hopefully you’ll reciprocate for your friend’s work as well.

Or better yet, your friend won’t be an artist. Then he or she will really want to know why you like painting portraits because most people these days just take a picture with their phone. Right? It can be very helpful to think of our work in a broader cultural context. As you think about your work, perhaps it is more helpful to compare yourself to an insurance salesman than to another playwright, because another playwright already feels the same way about writing plays as you do. An insurance salesman will be really curious to know why you still spend so much time writing plays when the stack of paper in your “rejection letters” shoebox is bigger than that in your “manuscripts” shoebox. (Or hard drive. You know what I mean.)

So, try to step back from your work and understand why you do what you do, and then try to describe it so anyone can understand. This is infinitely more powerful than a detailed description of your technique. There is a fantastic interview with Ran Ortner, a Brooklyn-based painter interviewed in the June 2012 issue of the Sun Magazine by Arian Conrad, where Ortner cuts to the core of the issue:

Art is not a skill contest, nor an innovation contest. Art is an honesty contest.”

I love how he says this, because it acknowledges the hard truth of art’s competitive nature, but the statement is still hopeful. Even though it can be difficult, all of us can be honest. All it takes is lots of practice. In your next artist statement try to be honest, try to be yourself, and tell why you do what you do despite all the obstacles to success. That is what most people really want to know.

Douglas Detrick is offering a special on consultations for 2013 NYFA Fellowship applications. See this post for details.

6 thoughts on “Writing Your Work Statement: Why do you do what you do?

  1. Peter G says:

    Good to read your blog! This is really interesting and fresh in my mind because this afternoon I helped a collaborator of mine, an innovative pop songwriter, with his promotional stuff to send to venues/labels/festivals etc. which I suppose is the pop equivalent of grant applications (turnabout for when he helped me articulate my strengths for a recent grant application on bridging historical research and improvisational practice). He asked me to help him answer, “what’s unique about my songs?”

    Answering the “why” question is really vulnerable, like you say about honesty, because the reason can feel too personal or too trite. But the people who love to work with you can be great sounding boards to help translate that: they can see what drives you sometimes more than you can see it yourself (which really underscores the value of consultants like you).

    He and I were talking a bit ago about how answering “why “is initially frightening, and you’re afraid if you ever *really* figure it out, you’ll lose the naive, childlike “special sauce” that makes your art your art. Then, however, you discover that annoying busywork like fellowship applications can actually be artistically catalyzing if you approach them in the right way. When you’re done, they can help you reengage with creative work with a newfound clarity and sense of direction and even uncover some new mysteries or abandon directions that you’re on that don’t really fulfill you.

  2. Douglas says:

    Beautiful Peter, and I completely agree with this part: “fellowship applications can actually be artistically catalyzing if you approach them in the right way.” I try to look at them as an opportunity in and of themselves. And, even if you don’t win, which most of us don’t, you have made some progress in thinking and articulating your work, and that is always valuable in both a philosophical sense, and also in a practical sense where copy that you worked hard on for the application can be reused on your website, promotional materials, etc. Thanks for reading!

  3. Eric Carbrey says:

    The dreaded artist statement. There is truly nothing worse. I am needing to write one for an upcoming show.

    1. Douglas Detrick says:

      Eric, thanks for reading! Let me know if you need some help. : ) Good luck!

  4. Keith says:

    Thank you very much for this. I attempted an artist statement shortly after reading. I know this post is over a year old now, but still very relevant to me. If you read this, may I send my result to you? Thank you.

    1. Douglas Detrick says:

      Keith, Glad to hear you’re working on your artist statement, and thanks for reading! I’ll send you an email directly and we can talk about your statement.


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