The artist talk
If you have never had to give a talk about your work you are a very lucky person. When I left theatre for visual arts I honestly thought, phewf I never have to get up in front of people again. I can have bouts of debilitating stage fright, so much so that I quit performing completely. About fifteen years ago I embarked on a quiet life of painting and writing. I was shocked when I found out that there was something called an artist talk.
“You mean I have to stand in front of my paintings and talk about why I painted them?” Yes, I actually asked this question. It was a truly depressing moment when I realized I would never get away from making a spectacle of myself. But that was some time ago, and now I am immersed in constantly talking about myself and my work all over the place. Admittedly my theatre background makes me adept at it but it still chills me to the bone when I know I have to talk to a group of kind people who took the trouble to see my work. And that’s the rub really; anyone who goes to an artist talk is someone who is truly interested in art, so I need to suck it up and make them feel appreciated.
I have over the years seen different people discuss their work and many times I am in admiration of their agility at describing how they do what they do. There are lots of artists who just love talking about themselves and you can see that when they do. I like this breed of artist because they show confidence and they make art seem like a valid thing to spend your life doing. Rampant ego notwithstanding, artists who are comfortable at the talk format are doing a service. The artist talk can really help build a gallery’s audience. Visitors are likely to come back to the gallery if they find the artist talk informative and provocative. I like them too and I have found new appreciations for certain art works due to the artist talk.
I am not one of these artists. I can do a talk because in theatre I learned a set of skills that helps me speak in front of people. But, I find the experience really weird and often want to burst out crying or throw up or do both right in the middle of my talk. Especially if people are actually listening. I used to joke when I was in theatre that I was most comfortable in a room full of indifference. Dinner theatre might have suited me. But an audience that is engaged, yikes! Run for the hills! Because if people are listening to you then you are making a connection; and if you are making a connection then you are having impact. It’s all very real and raw and it freaks me out. Sarcasm aside, I’m introverted – although you might have guessed that already.
A good artist talk can be an inspiring thing. It isn’t theatre; there are no preconceived notions of verisimilitude. It isn’t a lecture; no one is taking notes, except for the local arts reporter. It’s an interactive bio with artsy overtones. I think this is why the TED talks have taken off; they are like artist talks. The artist talk is, well, it’s a kind of art itself. I once saw an artist talk with three different artists. They each gave their talk one after the other and then the audience asked them questions en masse. Their talks were so interesting because their personalities punctuated the differences between them and their work along with a kind of penny dropping feeling. Suddenly, as they each spoke, the work seemed to come down off the walls and into the space in a spectral way. That elusive mystery that surrounds art, why something becomes art and how it seems to appear miraculously became part of the oxygen in the room. It was electrifying.
You just don’t look at work the same way once the flesh embodiment of its maker is standing right in front of you being awesome. I need to live up to these words and work on my own artist talks. I need to be brave and smart. After all it is my work dangling around the room and the people in front of me want to make that connection; between me and my work and between me and them. Gulp.
If you would like to see how I fare at an artist talk come to my opening on Saturday in Cobourg:
Photo of Eric Fischl from http://www.ericfischl.com/