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I was in the local café, my favorite place to write. But the task at hand—constructing a cohesive presentation about my current artwork—was getting nowhere. I had all the visuals, but my attempts to put together the words to accompany them were failing. I suffer from the same problem that many of my fellow visual artists have: describing my artwork is an agonizing challenge.

So I e-mailed my friend Susan Hodara, a journalist who has interviewed countless artists for hundreds of articles she has written about the arts, including several for Communication Arts. I asked her for help, and we made a date. 

Susan arrived at my studio armed with an audio recorder, a notebook, a list of questions and her laptop, everything she needed to conduct our interview. We worked the entire afternoon, and by the time Susan left, we had developed language that clearly articulated the concepts for my presentation. Using her well-honed process, Susan was able to extract what I had not been able to verbalize myself.

As an artist, your primary language is a visual one. But there are many times when you need words to support your work, whether for an exhibition catalog, a lecture, a grant proposal or an artist statement. You’ve probably found all sorts of how-to guides, but in my experience, these do-it-yourself approaches are not careful investigations. They may provide the aid of a standard blueprint, but they cannot unearth a truly insightful result.

As I think back to my interview with Susan, I see that the steps she used were vital for achieving clear, honest language about my art.

As an artist, your primary language is a visual one.”

1. RECORD
Susan turned on her recorder and began asking me questions about my intentions, my inspirations and the evolution of this particular body of work. As I responded, she pushed me further: “What do you mean?” “Tell me more.” “Why?” I had to think hard; I found myself rephrasing my descriptions, adding details I’d overlooked and taking back platitudes I had flippantly spewed. The more we talked, the more excited I became, seeing my work in new ways. Susan knew from experience that her questions would help me illuminate the heart of my work.

2. TRANSCRIBE AND DISTILL
We completed the interview after an hour, and I went for a long walk while Susan transcribed our conversation on her computer. This was no mundane activity; it was her practiced method of absorbing the information I’d shared. “Listening to the interview and typing the words is when I really hear what was being said,” she told me. “As I listen, I distill. I notice repeated subjects and key words, and I start to recognize the essence of what’s being communicated. I hear statements that are vague or not fully thought through and statements that feel true and significant. It’s not possible to grasp this material during the interview stage. It’s only while transcribing that these important aspects arise.”

3. ORGANIZE
The resulting document was more than a written transcription. Yes, these were my words, but Susan had organized them into a unified structure. The sentences were cohesive, free of my occasional meandering. There were subheadings identifying themes and content, from Seeds and Sticky Fingers to Armor and Drawing to Materials and Research. There was clarity that I had been unable to uncover by myself; the pages made my thoughts seem orderly, less daunting than when they’d been spinning around in my brain. I was confident that this would provide a substantial framework for the writing I needed to prepare. Susan e-mailed me the document and went home.

But there were two more steps, and they came from me. The first actually happened before we started: I acknowledged that I needed the skills of a professional and made a request. We agreed upon compensation (happily, a barter) and a dedicated, distraction-free period of time, which helped me commit to the process.

The Interview Tool is not a conversation with a book club buddy or neighbor or life partner: You need to work with someone who is trained and has specific expertise.”

The other step took place after she left. I reviewed her transcript and pulled out the pieces that I felt would best serve the visuals for my presentation. I had to make changes and clarifications, but instead of being annoyed, I was delighted that I knew what I wanted to modify. Since then, I’ve mined the transcript repeatedly, for proposals, press releases and the many occasions when I’ve had to describe my work, from short e-mails to extensive studio visits. 

The Interview Tool is not a conversation with a book club buddy or neighbor or life partner: You need to work with someone who is trained and has specific expertise. Nor is it about hiring someone to deliver a polished, finished document. Instead, it is an opportunity to engage in a thoughtful, instructive process that will serve you far beyond the immediate task. ca

© 2017 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.
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