a frog, a balloon, and the dilemma of writing artist statements


Now That You Feel by Michele Maule

I have been procrastinating on writing my artist statement for last month’s residency and resulting body of work.  I think I have finally figured out why I tend to procrastinate on writing definitive words about my visual art.  First let me warn you, this post will be somewhat of a rant, as my brain has been downloading thoughts from all over the place (this week was my first week in grad school and my nose has been in several books, including theology, history, philosophy, art and Greek texts). So forgive me for the out-of-the-ordinary brain- diarrhea post.

I like to write.  I like words.  Mostly.  And I don’t mind writing about art, using words, but I start to sweat and sigh when I have to write about my own art.  Let me explain.

We live in a world that is saturated with words.  We can’t escape language.  Even if I were to move to a remote island and take nothing with me, and just be left alone to my own thoughts, I still think in words.   I don’t JUST think in words of course, but – and here’s the point – there are many other things rolling around in my head that have remained floating and wordless: concepts, feelings, memories, images… They do not yet have words attached to them.  They do not yet have names.  These things aren’t beyond words.  [Certainly I could cut out some of those "wordless" things in my head and paste a word to it.]  But does it do it justice?  Do words (which are in and of themselves confined by 26 letters in the alphabet, grammatical rules, etc] really capture and convey the human imagination?  Can language (which is a map of how we categorize and understand the world) transfer over to the visual arts?  Or music?  Or dance?  Or at the moment we try to assign words to it, does it lose something of its power and subjectivity?

By way of example, I want to add a quote by my favorite author Annie Dillard and then give an example of my own.


But the artificial is hard to see.  My eyes only account for less than one percent of the weight of my head; I’m bony and dense; I see what I expect.  I once spent a full three minutes looking at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large I couldn’t see it even though a dozen enthusiastic campers were shouting directions.  Finally, I asked “What color am I looking for?” and a fellow said, “Green.”  When at last I picked out the frog, I saw what painters are up against: the thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.

- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, page 20



Often, words fall short of intended meaning.

For example, let’s look at ONE word: BALLOON.

For that one word, there are many things, concepts, memories, senses, etc attached to it.  The word balloon can be spoken, written, or imagined (as a word, not a thing) in your head.  The category of balloon is a real and universal category that has been accepted.  This category (of “balloons”) includes several definitions given by the dictionary.  Here’s one: “ A flexible bag designed to be inflated with hot air or with a gas, such as helium, that is lighter than the surrounding air, causing it to rise and float in the atmosphere. ”  Among the stated definitions, there are 3 other options to choose from.

So far, we’ve only thought about the word and category of balloon.  The question I would ask is how does a child know that a flexible bag inflated with hot air in the shape of a circus animal, has the same word / category for the thing that inflates and rises high in the sky and holds people in its basket?

Words / categories / definitions fail us is in that it cannot account for 2 other things that are happening in the human brain (and this is where I will run the risk of sounding too interested and nerdy):

1) associated sensory perceptions and

2) experiential recollections

Associated sensory perceptions

When you think about a balloon, you can imagine:

TOUCH: rubbery and round when blown up, wrinkly and squishy when deflated

SOUND: huffing when blowing it up, squeaky when rubbing it, loud POP when it bursts

SMELL: latex, plastic-y

SIGHT: color, shape, blowing in the wind

TASTE: very chewy and rubbery

Experiential recollections

When I think of the word balloon, I think of a few things: a friend who builds elaborate balloon structures, Michele Maule – a painter I admire – who occasionally paints a single red balloon in her work… I also think of hot air balloon festivals I’ve seen pictures of in New Mexico.  All three of these thoughts that come to my head are based on my own experiences with the word, and in this case – cover a lot of ground: a friend who I know (firsthand), a painter I admire from a distance (secondhand?) and images I’ve seen in magazines and online (thirdhand?).

So this one word BALLOON doesn’t really say much at all.  And if I really wanted to tell you about the image I have right now in my head of a balloon I might have to say “the red and yellow striped, oblong-shaped, helium-filled balloon is slightly deflated, tied to a thin white string attached to my neighbor’s mailbox and is swaying violently with the wind.”  - a bulky sentence that has said nothing about the sound the balloon makes as it hits the mailbox, or its purpose and intent in being placed there (among other things).

And although artist statements are not meant to be exhaustive (at the risk of saying too much), my inclination is to use words sparingly (at the risk of saying too little).  And the search for words and categories to associate with my work often leaves me throwing my hands up and running outside to sit in wordless contemplation (perhaps to escape and to procrastinate a bit longer),

or to quote Annie Dillard again, “I walked wordless and unseeing, dumb and sunk in my skull.”

In summary:

Words, you frustrate me.  But I love you and use you nonetheless.