by Vanessa Lemen

“You are the hero of your own story” -Joseph Campbell / painting by Vanessa Lemen

There is a quip that I heard recently and it’s one that I’ve heard said a handful of times over the years by other artists. It’s usually uttered by artists who are younger or less experienced. In discussing art with these folks, when the subject comes up in which the artist is in conversation with someone and that someone asks them about their work, the artist returns with “I don’t like to explain my work. I think the art should speak for itself.” This answer reminds me of that funny etiquette tip we learned when we were younger – that when someone offers you a mint, you should accept it without question. It might be that person’s polite way of telling you you should seize the moment. Take the mint. Answer the question. Because maybe, just maybe, your art isn’t speaking for itself like you think it should.  (which could actually say a lot about the artwork itself, but that’s a whole other can o’ worms that I might tackle another time in a different post)..

When an artist answers a question about meaning with “I don’t like to explain my work,” I’m not sure if they’re aware of this, but it comes across as either arrogant, disinterested in the person asking, or that they don’t really know what it’s about themselves. I’m guessing that they’re actually unaware of how to speak about their work.

This kind of quip also puts the others in the conversation in an awkward position. In many cases, the person who asked the question was probably asking because it is unclear, in which case, the artist replying with “I think the work should speak for itself” is basically grinding the conversation to an abrupt halt, leaving the person who thought to ask the question refraining from speaking, when in their head, they’re saying “yeah, that’s why I was asking. Because it doesn’t speak for itself.”

words by Tarkovsky / painting by Vanessa Lemen

Here’s the thing: You should know how to talk about your work. Period. And you should know how to talk to other artists about their work. Heck, you should be thrilled to talk about art – yours, others’ work, art history, all of it! You should know how to ask questions, and engage in conversation about meaning, breadth, process, what moves you – in your own work and in others’ work, and in life in general. This is what you live. This is what defines you. This should be just a regular conversation topic for you. And just like any conversation about anything else, there’s an ebb and flow. Things might go in random but not-so-random directions, and you should be able to go with the flow as you would any other conversation about anything else. And especially if you are at an art event, where your art is being shown, you should be ready to have a conversation about it, and not be at the ready with quips to shut the conversation down.

words by Rilke / mixed media by Vanessa Lemen (also part of my contribution to ArtOrder’s The Journal)

And you should be able to listen as well. To really be present and hear what’s being said and asked and presumed. You should be able to own that energy that you exude instead of putting up a wall at someone when they show a curiosity and interest in your work. Because that could very likely be what they’re doing when they’re asking you questions about your work. If you have insecurities about talking about your work, don’t project that onto the person asking the question. Instead, use those opportunities to start practicing and learning. Do it in real time – in those circumstances, with real people asking real questions. They want to know. Why (and how) do you make art?

words by Gandhi / painting by Vanessa Lemen

And if it’s your own work that you have a tough time speaking about, then you owe it to yourself to own up to it, and then try making a point to ask other artists questions in order to gain an understanding about how they might approach this type of conversation. And then listen, take it all in, let them speak, and hear what they have to say. Use those opportunities to learn, glean from them, and make use of what you get from it in your next conversation with others. Don’t act like you know everything to cover up your lack of knowing. You’re human. We’re all human. We all can always learn more than what we already know.

words by Rilke / painting by Vanessa Lemen

If you are someone who’s reading this and thinking “hey, I think saying ‘I don’t like to explain my work’ is perfectly fine, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” then here’s my advice: First, think back to those conversations, and how they continued after you said that. They probably didn’t. If the big reason you don’t think there’s anything wrong with it is because you secretly wanted to shut down the conversation, then by all means, you’ve achieved your goal. And I suppose that’s somehow satisfying if that was your intent. (Although, I suggest restructuring your goals, if this is one of them). But then don’t sit around wondering why someone’s art is doing well, when you just don’t get it. And you can’t wonder why people have stopped talking to you about your art in any other way than one-liner comments on social media – if that.

Or, try answering the questions the next time that type of conversation comes up, and probably no one will ever know but you that you took the advice from someone whom you’ve outright wondered why their art moves and inspires people ..and how or why it also *gasp* sells. Being an artist is not a slick package deal that gets handed to you by rubbing elbows. It’s about real genuine connections with people and with your art, and it’s working hard at what you do and understanding that working hard doesn’t necessarily mean throwing everything and the kitchen sink into every painting or just churning more and more work out at the expense of learning, but rather it means truly immersing yourself into your work, and being present in all its stages. Oh, and that’s not necessarily easy. Albeit, some people might make it look easy because they’ve been doing the work a long time, they’ve been through the highs and lows of it because they truly love it and they want to learn more and do more of it every day. They wouldn’t have it any other way. They live and breathe their art. To talk about it comes with the territory. It’s their life.

words by Oliver Stone / painting marks by Vanessa Lemen

So, here is a list of questions to answer that might help you on your quest to conversing more naturally about your work.. if you so choose:

**note** This doesn’t have to be painful. You don’t even have to think of it as if you’re writing an Artist’s Statement, but this is essentially what an Artist’s Statement should include as well. Just answering these questions below – just for yourself – and really giving them some thought will help you in conversing about your work the next time it comes up. And practice saying them aloud. If it’s difficult to conjure up a scenario in which you’d be answering these questions, then think of it as if you’re explaining your work to someone who’s new to going to an art event or even better yet, try thinking of it as if you’re describing your work or yourself to someone who actually can’t see. (No, really, it’s a very helpful way to think about it).

• Why do you make art? You can choose to start by answering more specifically Why do you make this type of art, or why do you choose to paint this subjectmatter (or how does it come about)? And then go from there..

• What inspires you and how does that influence your work?

• What medium do you like best? Or why do you choose to work in the medium you work in?

• What does your artwork mean? What does it represent? Try answering this as briefly as possible – enough to keep someone else engaged (if you were explaining it to someone else), while not necessarily directing them how to view it.

• What does your art mean to you? This is about your own understanding of your surroundings and how you interpret and filter that, but again this is not to be used to direct others on what your art should mean to them.

I hope you find this useful. I look forward to bumping into you sometime in the future and having a genuine dialog about art or anything else that might come up.

words on left by Simon Schama, words on right by Emerson / mixed media sketch by Vanessa Lemen (also can be seen in ArtOrder’s The Journal)