Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Critiques are Good

I received my first critique on the artist's statement chapter last Monday. In my defense, I am used to writing technical manuals. Step-by-step instructions for measuring oil in a storage tank do not require encouraging words, humor, or metaphors, only precision and clarity.

So I learned that my best effort is indeed a first draft. I am very grateful for my little writers' community. They read carefully, gave a lot of time and thought to every sentence, and kindly but firmly identified habits of mind that my writing revealed. I could not have described those habits, but I recognized them right away; for example, many negative assumptions about artists and at the same time a fear of offending them. I recognize the finger-wagging nature of some of my wording, disguised (so I thought) in a humorous story. It turns out these stories come across as sarcasm, not humor. Duh.

After a short time in shock at how very much the chapter did not read as I wanted it to, I felt a great relief at knowing people who are perceptive enough to analyze how it went wrong and brave enough to tell me. I am a happy woman.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quoting Scripture

I'm finishing up the first draft of the section about writing an artist's statement. A quick look online reveals plenty of information about the subject. So I asked myself, what do I have to say that is new? The answer, I remembered, is to focus on the question of how being a Christian involved with the arts is different.

One way the statements I have received over the years at Hope Chapel are different is that many artists quote Scripture. Maybe they would choose to do that no matter where they were exhibiting, or maybe they felt freer to because the venue was a church building. Either way, the quotes often seemed tacked on or forced. Sometimes the artists were using Scripture as a kind of shorthand for a thought. These statements were often very short. Other times the artists seemed to feel that their art and their words alone didn't push the point they wanted to make far enough. These statements were often long and preachy, even without the quote.

I think there are other misguided reasons for quoting Scripture, as well as good reasons. But the bottom line is that people generally like to read stories, not lectures and not undeveloped snippets. The artist's statement needs to be personal, like the art, and not merely borrow someone else's words to satisfy a gallery requirement. Even if the borrowed words are really great ones.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Interview with Denis Brown

I am working on art more than writing this week, so forgive my digression to point you an interview with one of the most original and passionate calligraphers I've ever met, Denis Brown. Denis had his struggles with the church, which resulted in some very powerful art. In the past few years, however, his work, while losing none of its power, has become less confrontational. His latest series, 1000 wishes, continues a technique I haven't seen anyone else use — etching text on glass sheets, then stacking the sheets in a frame on top of a color image. The photos of the works don't show the way the light interacts with the etched glass and how moving around the piece reveals new juxtapositions, but they're still worth seeing.

Friday, March 6, 2009

In Praise of Stubbornness

Talking with my writer friend Jane this morning and realizing that for the past year, three of us in our writing group were agonizing, whining, grunting out bits of our self-assigned projects, and suddenly in the new year we are all focused and steadily producing chapters. What happened? Happily, we have discovered our process included a long incubation.

So the word of the day is "persevere" — carry on stubbornly. To those who are in the fallow phase, don’t give up!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Behaving Ethically

I've been working on the chapter about how to write an artist's statement. I like writing about writing, I suppose because I like to teach. I lay out some rules, and then I start looking through the eight years of statements from past arts festivals for examples of the rules. I decide to find at least one poor example and one good example to illustrate each one. Neither is hard.

Now, however, I have a problem – what artist would give me permission to use their statement as an example of what not to do? I consider whether using the statements without telling the artist is illegal and unethical. Maybe not illegal, since copyright law allows for use of quotes for educational purposes. But definitely unethical. So how do I ask? I need to anticipate their feelings and see whether I can find ways to alleviate them.

What if I don’t use their names? That way, no one is embarrassed publicly. But then the artists whose statements are used as good examples also don’t get credit. Is that a problem? It might be for me. Can I use the names on the good examples and not the poor ones? Now it’s starting to feel sleazy.

What if I rewrite the statements so I don’t need permission? Use them as a basis for the point I want to make but change them enough that they are no longer the artist’s. I’m not sure I’m that good a writer. It’s like doing impressions – you have to be able to become invisible and take on someone else’s manner and appearance. If I miss the mark, the examples would be just more of me me me, and me alone is not helpful enough.

No, it seems I’m going to have to face up to people with my opinion about their writing if I use examples. Which reminds me that I feel responsible for not helping them improve their statements back then. I did provide a short how-to sheet along with the entry forms, but I did not mentor people well. I tried to give everyone what they needed without the discomfort of giving individuals what they needed. In truth, I could not have done all I did and added on mentoring every entrant, but we could have set things up differently. Food for thought.
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Looking for the Lizard by Kate Van Dyke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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