Ask a Gallery Owner | Should I include negative or depressing details of my life in my biography?

If you’ve been following me for long, you know that I am a huge advocate of the artists’ biography. I feel a well-written, nicely laid-out biography is a powerful tool that will help you build relationships with collectors and to give you credibility. A biography allows a potential customer to become acquainted with your background and get to know you, even if the buyer can’t meet you in person.

ClarkBioOften, when I’m discussing biographies, I hear some variation of the question:

“Should I include negative or depressing details of my life in my biography?”

This is a thorny issue, and I would like to spend a few minutes today discussing it and, hopefully, provide some guidance that will help you decide how to handle unpleasant details in your biography.

First, let’s stipulate that many artists have lead extremely challenging lives. Many of you have overcome incredibly adverse circumstances or terrifying events to become the artists that you are today. Like it or not, those challenges have likely had a huge impact on your life and have helped shape who you are and your outlook on life. To a certain extent, your followers can’t truly understand you without understanding those events. However, sharing your difficult background should be done with care – you wouldn’t want to shock or depress a customer to the point that they no longer feel like buying your work.

The main purpose of your biography is to help people make a connection to you, to help them understand where your art comes from, and to help them move toward a purchase. With that in mind, if you are going to include references to difficult life experiences, you should strive to do so in a way that emphasizes not the problem, but rather the amazing way you overcame it and went on to become the amazing artist you are today.

Suggestions:

  1. Don’t go into too much detail. Talking about the specifics of your challenge might be too much for a reader to handle.
  2. Avoid shocking language. Words like “abuse”, “assault”, “murder” etc. are all very heavy, challenging words. While it may be good to provide some insight into your life, shocking words have the power to completely transform a person’s perspective and thought process about you and your work.
  3. Keep the general narrative positive. While talking about your past can be powerful, focusing on the process you used to overcome your challenges will inspire. Share how the pain of your life has made your work better.

And finally,

All of your life experiences belong to you, and no one can force you to share what you don’t wish to. If a life experience is just too raw, distressful or embarrassing, or if you just aren’t ready to face the pain, you should feel no obligation to do share. I know of many artists who have chosen to gloss over or forget about incredibly difficult experiences. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your life with the world – don’t. Focus instead on other aspects of your life that are positive.

Sample Biography

Read the biography we helped Carolee Clark create to get ideas of the types of details and formatting we suggest for your artist’s biography. Note that Carolee’s bio does not reference negative life experiences – this is just a sample to show you how useful a biography might be for you.

What do you Think?

Have you shared your difficult life experiences in your biography? Why or why not? How has your biography helped you build better relationships with clients and make more sales?

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

 

 

 

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

27 Comments

  1. This was so helpful and informative on several levels.
    I’m currently writing mine and keeping focused on the positive does help me see the garner times through a different lens.
    Her bio made her work and herself become a unity. Vibrancy and color.

  2. Nice article Jason…It is important that the artist present an honest overview of their life challenges and difficulties included. Touching on the negative aspects does help the public understand you more as Jason stated. If you are not comfortable talking about these aspects of your life, ask your gallerist, or a friend with writing skills to help you craft your biography. Also…If you can relate how art has played some integral role in relationship to helping you work through your problems, it is all the more impressive. Emphasize the positive over the negative

  3. There was a time when I was apologetic for not having more work and work that one could consider focused. I was rather fond of touting my art educator’s career as a reason for the lack of work or focus. Not having a lot of self confidence to begin with, this seemed like good cover.
    Until another artist called me on it publicly at a reception for a show we were both in. “Do not apologize for what you haven’t done, No one gives a damn.” I was “undressed”, fairly, succinctly, painfully. But the festering abscess had burst.
    this wasn’t a cataclysmic disaster I overcame but in many ways it would have eventually sapped all my will and energy.
    I wrote the quote down afterward. Also, that 3 decade career spent with young students in the classroom is reduced to a couple of lines in a resume. That’s quite a compression.

  4. Making our art is often the process of healing from setbacks and trauma. Framed properly in to (short) story anyone can identify with, our words can create a bridge with our audience for our work. We can share how pursuing our creative work gave us solace and courage, things almost every human yearns for. It can be a gift, and some people will want the evidence of that in their lives permanently. What Ray said, above, is good, too. We can ask for help to frame that story in a good, and powerful, way.

  5. This is a sticky one. I think it really depends on what art you are making. If your art is dark and edgy then maybe a brief bit about the darkness you have lived in could flesh out the work and it’s meaning. I am usually somewhat turned off by the too much sharing. We have all had lives that have had terrible things happen. Maybe I am just not understanding the need to identify the dark times as who the artist is. I prefer the “here is my art,” rather than “here is my pain”. It could be because I have enough pain that I don’t want to carry the idea of some else’s pain on my wall. I am not unsympathetic, i guess i have been overrun in my life with artists who literally introduce themselves as i am so and so and i suffer from … …..! I think people think that they may garner some sort of “Me too” response and for a social setting it could work..but for selling art..well I call on the,side of TMI.

    1. Hi Kay,
      I think you have said all that I think as well – all of us have had pain in our past, however as an art purchaser, when I am buying artworks, I don’t want the artist’s pain to always be sitting on the artwork I have purchased.

    1. I have trouble with bios and artist statements to begin with. I’m not sure how or if to include my disability. It doesn’t inform my work in my opinion. I’m not painting allegories for a non functional immune system. On the other hand it is a big part of my life and has effects on everything so I’m stuck in the middle on what to do.

  6. Like all of us I have had some reverses in life, and a couple of them were very humiliating and corrosive. However, compared to others who had real challenges, I now feel very fortunate. My customers want positivity, so if the subject of how I became an artist comes up, I tell the plain truth…”Art saved my life!”

  7. I have gone through an extremely distressing experience in the last year but have chosen not to put it in my biography. I do not want new people I meet and potential customers to be distracted by the terrible event. That is something for me to share with those I am very close to. Instead, I want people to feel comfortable in my presence and to be focusing on the quality of the work and whether it will bring beauty and joy to their home. I would like clients to enjoy the work and for it to bring them peace.
    Harrowing life stories make good material for museums doing a retrospective of a very famous artist’s work. But such details will not help your average artist to sell paintings to art lovers who are looking for something beautiful to enhance their sitting room

  8. This comment “Harrowing life stories make good material for museums doing a retrospective of a very famous artist’s work. But such details will not help your average artist to sell paintings to art lovers who are looking for something beautiful ” ( and I would add intriguing or mysterious) will not invite the viewer to take your work home and live with it. I too have tried sharing several difficult life experiences and have concluded that it simply shifted the focus away from the art and towards something ponderously upsetting and I was extremely sorry I’d done that. Of course people are most compassionate, but when showing one’s work in most situations–and there could be an exception—, I find that it deflects rather than attracts the attention.

  9. An example of the biography given in this blog feels too long and it is mixed with an artist’s statement. It is a good article that features the artist. I thought the biography should be shorter and separated from the artist’s statement. Can you please advise?

    1. I agree Julie. Everyone usually likes a happy ending. And I truly believe that overcoming the adversity is what grows us as humans. There are so many examples of things I went through the prepared me to handle things, probably better, in the future. I am still working on how to incorporate that into my work. That is really my biggest challenge as an artist.

  10. Excellent, excellent words!
    One question I might add is: How have those experiences directly affected the art you are now creating? Simple answer, of course, is “Yes”, since our art flows out of all of our experience, but some things have a real, present, direct, visible effect on how we create.
    Another things is, I have some pieces I have created which flowed directly out of something I was going through at the time. I will often include that experience in the description of the piece, rather than include it globally in my bio.

  11. Good article. I used to put a couple lines in my artist’s statement to help explain my 2 decade absence from exhibiting. Now, I simply mention it in the middle of my list of exhibitions. My son had 14 brain surgeries during those years and while I continued to make art, I had no time to pursue the business side of art.

  12. Early in my career I sometimes heard “you must have been depressed when you painted this”. It made me crazy. My work can be dark in colour and sometimes in theme and not for everyone for sure. I felt inadequate and thought I was less then because I wasn’t painting happy cheery scenery but that isn’t me. My themes back then were inspired by my sadness at the loss of culture here where I live. Now my chronic pain is disabling and my production is low. Four pages of bio is a lot though as some have stated. I managed to read through three. I have only ever used a paragraph as required from the gallery. This is interesting and I may have to rethink a longer one. I want to start blogging on my faso site as well and am not sure whether to include my physical issues at times.

  13. Thanks, Jason for making a statement on this. Having worked in social services for years I felt I was “thrown up on ” many times when people just wanted to spew about their problems. I learned that it was important to help them understand that their story was theirs alone to hold on to, honor, or let go of. If they chose to share it with another, they were giving a gift of themselves to others. Seeing my own journey sharing as a gift has helped me set boundaries in my art as well as my life.

  14. What if your life is boring? Most of the time my bio is very general. My challenges are ordinary whining-markers achieved by anyone who has lived long enough to become obsolete. My work is a selective observation through the tightly focused and cruel lens of middle-aged disappointment. I only say this in conjunction with my darker work.

  15. Thank you for your insightful article Jason. My biography needs a complete overhaul and you’ve provided me and all your readers with many ideas that should prove helpful. What to omit is as important as what to include. Reflecting on adversity and including how it can alter your perspective is very interesting to me.
    I switched from watercolor to oil on a dime when I had a serious head injury. I simply looked at the world differently and that change has never left me. In many ways it became an asset in my life. I’ve never thought of including something that personnel in a biography. Also helpful to me was your insight about length and detail in a biography, I didn’t realize that a more detailed biography was so important, mine have always been brief.

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