Application Sunday, Part XVIII: Crafting the triad of essential texts, part I: The artist’s bio

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Every other Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from over a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: This week I applied for a residency at Prám Studio in Prague. Here is where I found out about the residency.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part XVIII: Crafting the triad of essential texts, part I: The artist’s bio

We all pretty much know and understand what a CV or Curriculum Vitae is. Along with the artist statement and artist’s bio, it is part of the triad of essential texts an artist should have available at all times and be sure to keep up to date throughout his/her career. This is especially true and of paramount importance if one is interested in taking the necessary steps that will allow his/her work to reach a broader public.

Out of the 4-5 standard elements that are almost always requested when submitting work for an artist opportunity, the CV, the artist statement and the bio are the ones that, if crafted well, have a long shelf life: They can be of use to the artist for a long time without major revisions being necessary. That is why it is important to craft these texts well, “scientifically” so to speak. You don’t want to be going back every month and rewriting your CV and bio, or your artist statement for that matter, from scratch. You need to have 3 solid texts, conceptually as well as in terms of language, which represent you and your practice. Of course there is the possibility of you being reborn at some point as a new man/woman and artist; this is not unlikely, but chances are this will happen 2-3 times in an artist’s lifetime at most. If this happens, yes, you will probably have to write these texts again from scratch, but even then you will most likely want to keep the basic elements of your CV and bio in place.

So if you were thinking that it is about time you sat down and wrote your triad of texts, a chore you have been postponing at the expense of your work for too long, read on: While all three texts have their own special difficulties when being crafted, the bio seems to present the greatest challenges. And this is what we are going to start with. This article aspires to render the process of crafting an artist‘s bio a little easier.

What is an artist’s bio?

An artist‘s bio, sometimes also referred to as a biography, is a running text, as opposed to the bullet form text of the CV, meant to offer a short presentation of the artist and his/her work, a sort of rough sketch’ of what the artist is all about. It should include elements from the artist’s formal education, or mention whether he/she is self-taught, major accomplishments that have marked his/her career (a grant, distinction or award), solo or important group exhibitions his/her work has been presented in, major collections that include his/her work and other possible pivotal elements that provide the outline of one’s career. In short, it should feature the highlights of the artist CV. But an artist’s bio is more than that.

A bio is meant to be something more than a summary presentation of an artist’s formal credentials: It should offer an insight into the artist’s practice, into what can be seen as the essence of his/her work as opposed to the formal qualifications gathered along the way. In a way, the artist‘s bio lies closer to the purely creative concerns an artist may have. It can be rich and engaging even when the formal qualifications are few, something that is not the case for the CV: Meant to focus on the formal qualifications and accomplishments, the “strength” of a CV is significantly compromised when these are hard to come by.

Hence many artists’ concern, if not anxiety, to be constantly participating in exhibitions, or other kind of events related to their practice (lectures, workshops, residencies, etc.), or else suffer what they fear to be an irreparable “hole” in their CV, a year with no exhibitions for instance; Something that, in an increasingly competitive landscape and in the framework of a technocratic mindset from which artists are not immune, seems at times purely terrifying.

The artist’s bio on the other hand, a text that marries elements from the artist statement and the CV, is much more forgiving: It is ok if it is very short – as a matter of fact this is often preferred – and a significant part of it can refer to purely artistic concerns and aspirations. That is why it is all the more important not to undermine the value a good bio can provide us with. Craft it with gusto and craft it well!

The correct approach: Step into the reader’s shoes

All great endeavors rely on this: Start with the correct methodological approach. What is the purpose of a bio? To whom is it addressed? Consider the answers to these questions before beginning to compose your bio.

The whole purpose of a bio is to convey a certain body of information regarding the artist and his/her work to the reader. More than that, we want this information to have the desired impact on the reader. We want the reader to be intrigued and become motivated to know more about the artist and his/her work. To do that, we have to meet the reader halfway.

In a way, the reader is at the same time the text’s end, literally and metaphorically. Catering to the reader’s needs and expectations is catering to the effectiveness of our bio: Step into your reader’s shoes.

Stepping into the reader’s shoes means crafting a text that meets the expectations and tastes of your average audience. Usually, especially when referring to bios that are sent along with artist submissions to organizers of artist opportunities (gallerists, curators, etc.), that means people that generally know what is to be expected from an artist‘s bio and have extensive experience reading this kind of text.

But also, stepping into the reader’s shoes means trying to meet any given individual’s usual expectations and tastes, not only the specialist’s: And this is quite simple to trace; Just ask yourself what you are usually annoyed by when reading an artist‘s bio or what it is that you love most, in language, content, as well as style. Nobody likes someone who is full of him/herself and almost everyone likes simple easy-to-understand language.

What to avoid and suggested practices

Once you are convinced that you should strive to meet your readers halfway, maybe I can convince you to look closer into what it is that you should avoid and what practices you would be best advised (according to my personal view and experience) to follow when crafting your bio.

The following list cautions on errors that I myself have made along the way as well as some that I have seen other artists commit. The best practices presented I have chiefly been inspired to suggest after seeing them demonstrated by established or elegantly emerging artists:

  1. Don’t oversell yourself. Because of the importance of this text as a first contact to an artist’s work, artists tend to oversell themselves. As a result, instead of attracting, they manage to repel the reader because, as mentioned above, nobody likes someone who is full of themselves. And even if you as a person are modest, that won’t make much of a difference in the end if you have written a text that conveys a different message (I have seen it done). Given that most people reading the text won’t know you personally, what is important here is what image of you the text betrays. Read your bio from the viewpoint of a stranger and see if you like its tone. If you find this difficult, give it to a close friend to read who you know will tell you the truth no matter what.
  2. Emphasis on good use of language. Ok, so you have some excuses. Your native tongue is other than English and on top of this, you are an artist, meaning you and words don’t get along that much. Well, guess what: These excuses do not make a difference when the words are read and they shouldn’t either when you are preparing your final draft. If you feel unsure about your English, commission a translator to proofread your text. In the age of the Internet, it is easier than ever to find help on that. The fee is not as high as you might think and this is a one-time expense that will go a long way. Good language will allow the meaning you wish to convey to shine through. Also the opposite: bad language will not only stand in the way of your message, but it will most certainly be seen as sloppy and a lack of professionalism. And many people tend to believe that when one demonstrates this in a given field, they are likely to demonstrate it in other fields as well (and that includes your artistic practice).
  3. Be concise, short is beautiful. Sometimes a bio, especially when it is referred to as a biography, can be relatively long, usually though not longer than one page. When it comes to artist submissions, always be attentive to whether a word limit is provided. Usually, especially when there is no word limit provided, a bio is expected to be short, no longer than 3 paragraphs or half a page. For this reason, you should try to be concise. You do not want to tire the reader, you want to offer basic information and generate interest. Brevity is a good recipe for that. Don’t forget that the bio is meant to offer a first glimpse into your practice. The reader can go to your CV and to the artist statement afterwards for a more in-depth view of your practice (let’s not forget about your portfolio).
  4. Stick to the facts. Instead of using adjectives such as “renowned” to describe yourself, allow the adjective to emerge in the reader’s mind by mentioning distinctions or awards, or other major accomplishments. Otherwise, again, you run the risk of being regarded as pretentious and falling into the boring cliché of the artist who is full of him/herself.
  5. Even in matters of conviction stick to the facts. This is not a manifesto. Yes, you can include elements that would look just as good in your artist statement, but again isn’t it better to allow these elements of artistic convictions to emerge from what you practice? Instead of stating what you “stand for” in art, why not mention something about the body of work you are presently working on, its subject matter and connotations? Talking about your convictions in your bio, or artist statement for that matter, without supporting these statements with references that apply to your practice, can easily be perceived as empty words aimed merely to create an impression.
  6. Watch your style. Do not sound like Augustus Caesar. Try to avoid repeatedly referring to yourself in the third person. Modesty is the best policy.
  7. Use plain English and craft sentences that, ideally, even a small child can grasp. Nobody (but some exceedingly zealous philosophy teachers or some members of the “art crowd” looking to mask their ignorance) likes overly technical language. Stick to terms everyone knows and understands. Using complicated terms and making elaborately long sentences that are hard to grasp don’t make you or your work more interesting. You don’t want the reader to lose interest and jump ship halfway.

These are a few insights I have come to obtain over time on the subject of the artist‘s bio. What has your experience taught you? Would you add any tip of your own that could be helpful when crafting a bio? Has your experience taught you something that opposes one or more of the above suggestions and cautions? Has your experience confirmed one or more of them? An artist’s bio is a complicated matter and a discussion that would stand to benefit from everyone’s experience.

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Composition IV, fabric on fabric, 12 x 6 cm, 2009

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