Professional art practices: Why you should write more
Day 17 of the New Year and I am determined to keep it real with myself. I am not a writer or columnist or any other literary title you might be tempted to bestow upon me. This has always been my disclaimer after initial introductions and before the usual chitchat about “work.” If someone is particularly insistent about understanding the scope of work that I produce, my response is usually a variant of Stanley Greaves’ famous words, “I am a maker of things.” I make art objects that flow between two and three dimensionality, with a foundation grounded in critical issues regarding the (mis/non) representation of the female body. And now, at the end of a usually productive week in the studio, I spend a day (or three) agonizing over an art-related article that I hope would engage my readers.
The truth is you would be hard-pressed to find an artist who enjoys laboring over finding the right words as opposed to the right images. It’s challenging enough trying to wrestle with the physical manifestation of ideas without the additional pressure of having to extrapolate the “how’s” and “why’s” of the furthest areas of ourselves. For the average artist there is no fun to be had in chipping away the blocks that inhibit text meant to enlighten John Public about the theories behind our work. We exhaust ourselves trying to pluck from our mind ideas that we can nurture to fruition with the hope that something magical will set our soul on fire and inspire a larger body of work. And unfortunately, at the end of such a rigorous exercise, writing does not rank very high on our list of priorities. Instead we reward ourselves with Triskits Vanilla Cookies, a glass of milk, our daily Bco supplement and a few hours sleep. The next morning most of us are obligated to sign in at a job that we’d be lucky is even remotely related to art. But it is that very obligation that allows us the opportunity to continue practicing our craft.
Contrary to popular belief, our work does not end after we sign our name at the bottom of a painting or carve it underneath a sculpture. Some would even contend that the “real” work begins long after the production of the artwork has ended. This is the part where we close our eyes, imagine a perfect world and wish our responsibilities away. We have all spent far too much time staring at the blank Word document, hoping the artist statement would write itself and save us the despair. But as our deadlines loom ever closer, we are forced to finally accept the folly of that fantasy. So begins the torturous process of trying to articulate the sincerity of our intention as compared to the reality of the outcome.
Our own lack of enthusiasm is precisely why this process of writing about our work never seems to get any easier. If we resolve to cultivate the habit of scribbling something daily then we will eventually eliminate most of the stress we’ve come to associate with writing. A college lecturer of mine once asked my year to think of writing as a muscle. The more you use it the easier (and less embarrassing) it becomes to flex. Now I’m not saying that this would be a breeze but it will certainly be less hellish if we are consistent in our effort. In my situation, I’m positive that I’ve broken a dozen rules that would enrage literary fundamentalists across the nation. But I’m not here to argue about sentence construction or the right way to write about art. Instead, I think it is necessary that we, as creative individuals, remind ourselves of the value in writing even the shortest or most trivial paragraph on a daily basis.
There is a reason why galleries across the world have dedicated entire rooms to displaying the journals of famous artists. These books are displayed just as prominently as the paintings on walls and the sculptures on plinths. They chart the trajectory of an artist’s career, documenting every twist and turn along the way. These are the details that otherwise would not be apparent in the reading of the work alone. Fast-forward to the twenty first century and some artists have physical journals that they commit to writing in every day, while others have online blogs and even the “Note” feature in their smartphone. Life in 2016 has made it so much easier to document our thoughts and ideas so why not take advantage of it? There are too many talented artists in Guyana who have restricted their progress simply because they have not embraced writing as legitimately supplemental to the actual production of their artwork.
Consider the fact that as a creative person you will eventually be required to write a statement about your work. And if your work is divided into a number of different series then you will need to write a statement for each new series. In addition to penning these basic requirements, almost every opportunity available to visual artists has a compulsory written component that separates the successful applicants from everyone else. Most serious artists also spend days and weeks writing to apply for funding to support the furtherance of their work (e.g. proposals for grants, scholarships, residencies and workshops). This can all be quite overwhelming for the individual who has chosen to neglect the literary aspect of visual art. Keep in mind that it will take a lot longer to climb the ladder out of obscurity if you don’t have the necessary text to support your work. And the last thing you want is for your work to be dismissed from any serious discourse simply because you don’t like writing. Learn to love it (or at least like it) and watch your practice flourish.
Dominique Hunter is an independent visual artist who recently graduated from the Barbados Community College with a Bachelor of Fine Art (First Class Honours).
This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on January 17, 2016.