How to gain greater insight by asking an artist very smart questions

4 Questions to ask an Artist

that are not the typical questions.

I have written this to help art lovers connect with artists and their artworks in a more meaningful way.  I have noticed that when I present my artworks at an exhibition or open studio event, the most frequent question I get is: “How did you make that artwork?”  While asking how something is made is a valid interest and helps the questioner understand the artist's production process, it does not lead to deeper insight.  In this essay I share 4 smart questions that you can ask an artist next time you attend an art event.

Planting Parcel in May

Question # 1

Next time you are chatting with an artist about their artwork, I suggest that you try changing the “How did you make that art?” question to a "Why” type of question such as: "Why did you create this artwork with this particular art media?”  Many artists are capable of creating work with several media.  Artists make choices about which media to use to best express their concepts.   This kind of question will help you uncover the motivations and ideas behind the artworks. For example, if you were to ask me this question about “Planting Parcel in May”, I would respond:

I decided to use the historic cyanotype blue process for “Planting Parcel in May” because the serenity of the blue color palette. The experience connecting with the earth through planting my garden is so calming, meditative and provides me a deep sense of satisfaction.

Succulent Taste of Summer

Question #2:

To gain a deeper understanding it helps to ask questions about the influences upon the artist.  Usually life experiences are formative in an artist's choice of subject matter and/or aesthetic style. So try asking: How have your life experiences influenced your aesthetic style?

If you were to ask me this question about my artwork, “Succulent Taste of Summer”, I would reply:

In working with photography, my aesthetic is one of crafting an image rather than taking a photograph. This approach to working with the photographic medium comes from my background in theater and performance art. As a child and teenager I was trained in singing, dancing and acting. I was consistently involved in community theater. In college, I minored in technical theater, studied performance art and then in graduate school created temporal performance artworks. My experience in performance, theatrical lighting, costume design, and set design comes into play in crafting my photographs. In the artwork “The Succulent Taste of Summer” I use lighting, color, and the performative gesture to express the delicious vegetables that can be grown in a small urban garden.

She's a Pepper Pot

Question #3:

Many artists are influenced by the works of other artists or other cultural production such as poetry, film, theater and literature. Asking the artist about these influences can lead to greater insight. I suggest you ask “How have other artists or art genres have influenced your sense of aesthetics?”  For example, I would respond to this kind of question by explaining how the art of ancient Rome, Italian Baroque and Dada influence my aesthetic.

I have always been fascinated by the relationship between the sensual and the sublime. The art of ancient Roman religion, now considered mythology, celebrated the relationship between sensuality and spirituality. This has always been a fascination for me. I find a deep spiritual connection in the rhythms of the earth and its cycles and a sensuality in enjoying the fruits and vegetables produced in these cycles. The Italian Baroque artists returned to the subject matter of ancient Rome but they used a dramatic realism incorporating light, gesture and emotion to draw in the viewer. This style of painting has been highly influential in my visual aesthetic. My aesthetic is also influenced by the Dada movement, especially its primary female contributor, artist Hannah Hoch. Many Dada artworks are characterized by unusual juxtapositions, double entendre, and humor to disrupt the viewer’s expectations about how art should function in society. In my artwork “She’s a Pepper pot” The image is sensual and humorous. The title is double entendre; I reclaim the derogatory slang term Pepper pot to make a comment on being a strong woman, being self-reliant, and confident.

The Joy of Sugar Baby Melons in August

Question #4

Artists do not usually create single masterpieces overnight.  Exceptional artwork is the result of a dedicated studio practice including experimentation, failures and successes. By asking about the learning process that lead up to the masterpiece, you will gain deeper appreciation for the perseverance, creativity, and acumen needed to create the masterpiece.  So try asking, “What did you have to develop, try or learn to create this artwork?” If you asked me this question I would reply:

In order to create the Sustain series, I had to first learn how to effectively combine and manipulate available light with studio strobe lights on location. This is where my experience as a teacher has enabled me to produce more successful artworks. I teach a course titled Lighting for Photography and in developing this course, I first taught myself and then my students how to combine available light with studio strobe lights to create a variety of lighting styles. Also part of this course incorporates photographing difficult subjects such as metal and glass. I needed to teach myself and then my students how to position lights relative to the subject to produce the desired results and avoid unwanted glare. I learned how to do this over several years. I have completed many photoshoots in class with my students which facilitated discoveries about skillful lighting. In my artwork “The Joy of Sugar Baby Melons in August” I used the skills developed as a teacher to light this image to best effect. I especially enjoy the way the fruits and vegetables are mirrored in the glass table and the sunset silhouettes my body.

I hope you enjoyed this post and I invite you to add to it by suggesting other great questions to ask to more deeply engage with art and artists. 

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