How To Explain Your Art

So: imagine you’re at a family reunion, trapped in conversation with your great aunt who consistently asks the cringiest of questions. “Are you dating anyone?” “When are you going to finally have kids?” “Do you remember that embarrassing childhood memory that you probably tried to forget?” Your heartbeat quickens. Your palms are getting a little more than clammy. As you’re scanning the room for an escape route you can’t help but wonder how long you will be able to avoid answering such personal and uncomfortable questions before someone inevitably asks them all over again, like a bombardment of anxiety and spotlight effect. I’m not sure if you can say the same, but that is how I used to feel every time someone asked me to explain my art.

I’m not saying that my art has no meaning and that there’s nothing to be explained. However, sometimes asking what art means isn’t quite the right question to ask. I tend to tie emotions to my works rather than explicit messages. As you’ve probably noticed, a majority of my current work is abstract or nonobjective in nature. I’m not looking to convey opinions to you subliminally or make grand political statements; I’m just showing you how I feel. And yes, I want you to feel what I’m feeling, too, even if I can’t quite put it into words.

If you can totally relate then here are some things to consider next time you try to explain you art to someone:

Is there a specific reason you created the piece?

This one’s a no-brainer. If you already had an objective in mind then your problem may not be finding what to say, but finding how to say it. Start with where the idea originated from, and how it has changed in the process of becoming the finished pieces. Talk about the message that it is conveying, or the emotions you are hoping to provoke. Do you have a specific message that you would like the viewer to recognize, or is the subject matter up for interpretation? Consider asking them for their interpretation of the work before explaining it yourself.

Be as personal or guarded as you would like.

© Genesee Jay 2014. All Rights Reserved.

When I was about 16 I was invited to meet a local group of older artists in my community. I showed them some of my art, one of the works  being two pieces of paper hand-stitched together with a hand reaching out from between the seams (shown here). I just liked the imagery, I didn’t really have a specific goal in mind when I created it and I didn’t even think about the implications that it could evoke. One gentleman with a very calm tone and straight face asked me if this was a symbol for cutting myself. I was completely taken aback, especially since I had never cut myself intentionally. I later had experiences with self harm and since then, I look back and wonder if I would have told that man the truth if he had guessed correctly. I still don’t know if I would have been honest with him or not, but either way: it was my choice to showcase my art and it was ok to share as much or as little about it’s meaning as I wanted to.

As a disclaimer I would like to say that if an art piece has a particularly personal meaning to you that you do not feel comfortable sharing, be prepared to give another answer. “These paints were on sale, so that’s why I went with this color scheme”. “I saw a story in the news and I wanted to tell a tale about the inspiration it sparked in me”. “This is an abstract painting of my dog’s innermost thoughts”. You probably get it by now. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but be prepared, because people will ask.

Whatever your answer is, learn to describe your work well.

Creating vivid descriptions of your work is probably the most important component of all. Look for certain words that can describe your art and give it more personality. Is it looming and haunting? Is it sharp and vivid? Perhaps dream-like and ethereal? Talk about your work like you are describing it to someone who has never seen it over the phone. What does it appear to feel like? How does it reflect the light? What kind of energy does it carry with it? Sometimes there’s no story to tell at all, but you can surely mimic one by describing your work like a novelist would.

Now go forth and talk about your art! It’s a great way to network, while building a personal connection with your audience. May your palms never get sweaty and may your words never stutter. Good luck!

Photo Credits: Igor Miske via Unsplash

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