Explaining Your Work


By MVA artist Lynn Ferrillo

I’m a weaver who loves to listen to the Boston Symphony Orchestra out at Tanglewood. I remember at one concert two of the works were by living composers. Stylistically, they related. What was different was the way they described their new works to their audience beforehand. At our craft shows we try explain our art to our visitors, and so I understood very well where both were coming from.

The younger of the two composers wrote extensive program notes and delivered a 20 minute talk before the dress rehearsal. During his talk he described what had been a lot of back and forth going on in his mind over the course of the work’s development. The commission requirement from the orchestra was minimal — 10 minutes in length max, and allegro in character. He cast around and around for ideas.

Ultimately, he resorted to a small science breakthrough his librettist had recently read in the news. The news article gave him the rhythmic underpinnings for the piece, several motifs, and prompted the title, but to me did not seem to relate to him personally. He had a tool chest full of musical forms, and he used this mastery to finish.  Comparing his project to the visual arts, I could tell he was accurately and fully explaining how the pieces of the creative puzzle fell into place.

The older, more established composer did not deliver a talk, and he wrote minimal program notes. “I am frequently asked to comment about my work,” he wrote, “but I really don’t like to do so because I feel it will impede the listener’s own interpretation and enjoyment of the piece.  This recent work of mine explores… (some stylistic feature, I forget).”  About two sentences.

Is this an object lesson for seeking a middle ground?  Seems to me both approaches have their pluses. What do you think?

3 Comments on “Explaining Your Work

  1. This reminds me of writing movies, stories or songs, and how people will always ask the author “what does it mean? What did YOU intend it to mean?” And often the meaning is really in what the reader reads into it (specifically I’m thinking of the question “What REALLY happened at the end of the movie Shutter Island?”

    I think it really depends on the artwork and on the questioner. For some people, their appreciation and enjoyment of the work will deepen the more they know the process. For my work (collage/assemblage), the stories behind the components often have additional meaning that isn’t obvious in the piece but is kind of fun to know about. But I’m certainly not going to tell someone something like (and I’m making this up) “I made this piece to express my sorrow at my beloved team of chihuahuas drowning in the ocean” when they like it because the colors make them happy.

    • When I was in art school (graduate of ’78) we were expected to make an artist statement about the work we were going to display. Personally, it was mostly painful to try and verbalize and theorize about a visual idea and experience. Only later on I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to publish an art theory or a thesis about my work but more just a comment about source of inspiration, thoughts about color or working methods, whatever feels comfortable and personal. In general, it has become so expected for artists to verbalize about their work. What and how much one says I suppose depends on one’s temperament. Some time ago I attended a seminar with several ceramists making slide presentations and talking about their work. One artist simply said:” This is art!” That was kind of refreshing.

  2. One of the nice things about view art alone, without any ones opinion is that you appreciate the work your way. When viewing with a friend, you have your friends input, which can very well change your view.
    Recall looking at the clouds with friends. One person sees the cloud as a cat, the other sees a dog, then you see both. Same with art.

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