Talking to Artists

I’ve met many collectors who get tongue-tied when it comes to talking to artists. Most collectors do not want to hurt anyone’s feeling, especially an artist they admire. The question is then, what can they say that won’t get them in trouble?

On the flip-side, because art comes from a personal place of introspection, it can be difficult for some artists to express their work’s deeper meaning verbally. This may be why, when asked to talk about their work, many artists fall into “art speak,” when they tell you all about their medium, creative process, or how they search for beauty or great designs. In other words, they stay on the surface — literally.

If you are a collector who wants to make a genuine connection with the artist whose work has caught your eye, here are some of the politest ways to get past “art speak” and into the heart of an artist’s story.

If you’re an artist, please chime in with your thoughts on how collectors can connect with you.

Genuine Connections

Think of art as an extension of the person who made it, like tangled necklaces, the two cannot be easily separated. Everything from the daily news to books, movies, and random conversations can filter into a person’s art. And then there are the memories from childhood and past relationships, where you live, travel — the sky’s the limit. In other words, a person’s entire life is fodder for art. And how that comes out is part of the language each individual has developed in their chosen medium.

    As a collector, you want to know the origin stories of artwork in your collection for several reasons. First, this is the heart and soul of the work. Second, as a human, you’re hardwired for stories, so this is your strongest connection to the work. Third, stories add to the provenance of the work — think Picasso’s Blue Period or Jackson Pollock’s “drip paintings.” When collecting living artist’s work, you want pinnacle pieces. Learning the origin of thought behind each work is the key to getting to this peak.

My Kid Could Have Done That

So, how do you draw out these stories? Let’s start with what not to do. Do not say out loudly in a room filled with artists or any sort: “You call that art?! My kid could have done that.”

    If you’ve said this, please never do it again. Your kid didn’t make the art hanging in a gallery, museum, or your friends’ home. When you say this, it reflects poorly on you; you are immediately pegged as someone who has no true interest in art, so engaging in a conversation will be a waste of time. And really, isn’t there enough negative talk in the world these days?

Step one: Keep an Open Mind

Art requires your participation. The level to which you participate — from a passive glance to making a purchase — that’s up to you. The artist can’t make you feel anything. Add to it that the more you understand about art, the more you will respond. Even if you never enjoy a particular art style or form, your knowledge will allow you to bring an educated eye and a curious mind to the experience.

    Collectors who are curious and enjoy learning also tend to bring the spirit of open-mindedness to most situations. They slow down and ask themselves why they like or are bothered by something. Knowing that they bring their own baggage to every situation, not just an art experience, allows them to step back and think through what’s stirring up strong emotions — and helps them not buy on impulse or dismiss something important.

    Open-mindedness is a skill worth developing. Visit museums and gallery exhibitions and listen to those immediate reactions. Then, ask questions and read up on the work you are seeing. This isn’t about learning to like art you simply don’t like; it’s about <ITL>not letting subjective feelings rule your thought process.

Origin Stories

One of the most common questions people ask artists is: “How long did it take you to make that?” And a common (snarky) artist response is: “My whole life.” Because it did, essentially, take an entire lifetime of experiences to make the art you’re looking at. And the next piece will require all that experience plus this new experience learned from creating the last object. So, it’s not a total brush-off, but it is a way to deflect the question. Why, you may wonder, would an artist want to avoid answering something so straightforward?

    Frankly, artists have learned that it’s much easier to give a snappy response to this one because the amount of time is irrelevant. Besides, this is just a conversation starter, much like “What do you do for a living?” But there’s also the part that can bite an artist. If they say, “Oh, this one just flowed out of me in a couple of hours!” Then the client does some quick math and translates that into an hourly rate — because non-artists often charge by the hour — and now the inquisitor is in the position of deciding whether the artist is worth that hourly rate or not.

What Artists Would Rather Talk About

Instead, here are a few examples artists wish collectors would ask instead of “How long did it take you?”

    Artist David Michael Slonim would love to answer this question: “What visual input from when you were young do you suspect might be showing up in your work now?”

    In fact, he often writes about his response to this question on social media:

Marketing Your Art
"Flying Machine," David Michael Slonim, 40 x 30 inches, oil on canvas

Dad’s gone now, but I can still picture him as a young man sprinting back and forth across a field trying to get a colorful box kite airborne. Eventually, the kite lifts, he lets out the string carefully, then comes over and hands the spool to his 8 year old son — so I can fly my kite. That’s fatherhood in a nutshell: Busting your tail to give something of value to your kids.

His painting Flying Machine, he realized after it was finished, came from this memory. 

    Victoria Eubanks loves this question: “Where were you when you painted that?”

She always remembers where she was when paintings came to her, and she feels like that question leads to bigger conversations. “I might have been sitting with my father while he was in the hospital and drew his shoes because I needed a break from the stress of being there,” Eubanks says.

Artist Marketing
"Reminisce," Victoria Eubanks, encaustic over recycled paper, 24 x 24 inches
artist marketing
"Baby It's Cold Outside," Kim Lordier, pastel, 24 x 36 inches

 

Kim Lordier finds this an intriguing inquiry: “What’s the biggest challenge you had to overcome to be an artist?”

And Sophy Brown finds the question, “Is what you do cathartic?” to be interesting and complicated. “It’s true that subject and content are determined by an emotional connection. But the word ‘cathartic’ suggests that there is some kind of psychological relief, a cleansing through the expression…”

artist marketing
"Street" Sophy Brown, mixed media on paper, 41 x 48 inches

To know the rest of Sophy’s answer as well as how your favorite artists might respond, you’ll just have to ask.

Do consider your surroundings, however. If you’re at a crowded opening, the artist might be too distracted to get into a deep philosophical discussion, but if they do want to go down that path, you might be surprised by how many others gather around.

    Ultimately, this is the stuff you want to know; it’s the information you will repeat when someone asks about the art you own. And the bonus is that you will be forging a deeper connection with the artist while uncovering commonalities that you had no idea existed.

More Great Conversation Starters

Are you stumped when it comes to talking to artists? Perhaps a bit starstruck by your favorites or afraid to sound uninformed when asking questions? We’ve got you covered. Here are some questions to consider before your next artistic encounter…

Did you have a mentor when you started as an artist?

Who inspired you to become an artist?

What surprised you as you worked on that piece?

Where do you see your work going next?

What art books do you recommend?

What question do you wish people would ask you about your work?

Where do your ideas come from?

What’s the key to your growth as an artist?

What advice would you give your younger artist self?

What do you collect?

Please leave your favorite questions below! Thanks for reading.

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Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

8 thoughts on “Talking to Artists

  1. Hi Rose, Thanks for sharing that. Just yesterday I was struggling to answer the question, “where did you paint that?” with more than the standard “I was at ‘xyz’ location.” I’ll think differently about that and other questions.
    Hope you’re doing well.

    Best,
    Neil

    • Hey, Neil, that’s another “what’s your sign” kind of questions. It would be good to turn that one around and give your collectors the deeper story. I still remember you talking about paddling and carrying your canoe over rough country to get to a certain waterfall you wanted to paint. I repeated that often when people stood in front of your work; it really brought those paintings to life.

  2. I think a honesty, kindness, and if possible, a bit of vulnerability go so far towards opening the door for genuine connection. Many people are afraid to ask about art lest they appear uneducated, but similarly, many artists are afraid to speak about their work because they feel they don’t have the perfect answer (or their work isn’t “deep” enough or they don’t know how they arrived at it). Everyone loves the opportunity to be truly seen, or to speak with another as an equal, and an approach that avoids some of the typical hierarchies (buyer vs seller, expert vs layman, etc) really supports this goal.

    As a collector, I think questions like, “I’m not very educated about abstract art, but I really respond to this painting and I’d love to know more about where it came from,” or “about why you painted it,” or “about how you made it” are absolutely valid and they really take the performance pressure off the artist. As an artist, answers like “I honestly don’t really know what this painting is about, but I felt so compelled by the process of discovery that I just kept going,” or “This painting is really emotional for me, but I don’t quite know how to put it into words. What does it bring up for you?” are absolutely valid! Of course there’s plenty of room for “Your formal choices are reminiscent of Diebenkorn; tell me about your shape design process,” and “This painting is a combination of direct and indirect methods and has symbolic considerations similar to 17th century memento mori still life compositions,” are also fine, haha. But perhaps (at least for me) actually less interesting!

    Offering a small tidbit from your own observations, then following it with a simple, honest question is a good formula. It helps avoid the feeling of interrogation and instead steers the conversation towards what it probably truly is: an expression of genuine curiosity. As an artist, I love the opportunity to connect on a deep human level with people. Our gift (and our curse) as artists is to see and feel everything in life so deeply, like “a raw nerve,” as my friend Adrienne Stein recently and eloquently phrased it. It’s different for each artist of course, but I find joy in bringing others into this world of feeling, or to receiving an invitation to step into theirs.

    • Robin, thank you! I love this answer and your wonderful explanation of what it’s like for artists to try to connect with collectors and answer questions. Genuine curiosity is vital in everything! Thank you!!

  3. Thank you Rose and Robin, good stuff here.

    I may be one of those “many artists [who]are afraid to speak about their work because they feel they don’t have the perfect answer (or their work isn’t “deep” enough or they don’t know how they arrived at it).”

    Having quit the “plein air circuit” , (or “circus” ) after 15 or more years, and in doing some reflection here about this blog offering, this gives me some insight to some of the questions we get asked over and over while working in the field, especially at plein air events…..”Is this your hobby?”(my aunt/grandmother paints too), “what are you painting?”( obvious to me but apparently not to anyone else), “how long did it take you or how long have you been working on this painting”, followed by “do you sell your work and how much is it?”(mental calculations in process as addressed by Rose). And while I usually do take the opportunity to promote the show, the organization or venue putting on the show and why, I still find the questions a distraction and annoyance while I’m tying to work, and find myself thinking in a negative direction….you know, about where, how, or if they were educated or which political party they must belong to(just kidding but you get the idea). But in fact, these are not unreasonable questions

    After reading your blog, I’m wondering why we artists are probably spending as much time thinking up those snarky responses as we are making our art. It is true that working to make your show of paintings happen in less than a week requires a lot of patience, perseverance, focus and lack of sleep, and that the constant interruptions of tourists and onlookers deter that focus…and quite frankly, make one a little cranky under pressure.(leave me alone, I’m working).

    By now I am asking myself how many opportunities I have missed to really connect with someone on a personal level who may have been casually curious, or genuinely interested in learning about what I was doing, or even making a possible future purchase. It is up to me to also ask myself why certain of these questions might trigger me to a snarky response in the first place. Hmmm…invalidation, insecurity, being dismissed, unheard, ignored, a lack of control, abuse and whatever else unconscious issues happen to be percolating under the surface?

    It occurs to me that the answer to that question is most likely tied to the reasons I might create art in the first place…. and that those very same issues, while seemingly personal, private, and hopefully under wraps, find common ground (either in the conversation or the work, ) with the person doing the asking. And might just be the vehicle by which the viewer/collector and artist connect. That connection supports both of us, sometimes in ways we don’t understand or get to know.

    I’m learning to turn questions around to the questioner…Lots to think about here, thanks for this opportunity for further reflection

    • I love how you’re thinking about this. It such a weird thing, I think, to be out painting and have people walk up and make comments as if you’re the entertainment. Turning it into a positive is not easy but may result in a lifelong collector. Thanks for reading and leaving this insightful comment.

  4. Oooh, this is a fun one for me because I’m on both sides of the equation. I recently enjoyed chatting with Wes and Todd from Tenet podcast, and their question of what I listen to in the studio really opened up an avenue to discuss the different phases of a painting. Heavy metal for starting a painting that’s big and loose and physical; intellectual podcasts or mellow instrumental music for details like face, hands, and text…

    As an interviewer, I ask artists to take me into their studio (so to speak), to describe their space, their working methods, their tools, their media. It gives them an opportunity to connect their physical artmaking with their conceptual practice (if they want to) and always ensures the interview is grounded in *what* they make before we get into esoteric art speak.

    • I so often ask artists what they listen to, as well. It’s so fascinating to me because music does affect mood and, would think, the outcome of a day’s work. I’ll have to find your interview with Todd and Wes—-I love their podcast.

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