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.

 

 

 

Starving to Successful

StSBookSHave you always wondered what it takes to show your work in galleries? Is your work being seen by qualified collectors?

In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.

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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

31 Comments

  1. God, please no sob initiators or overcoming darkness in presenting oneself and our art. This is not the forum for such revelations. Let the art speak.

      1. Here’s an example – to live by, I guess . . . If you’re standing in line at the grocery check-out, and begin conversing with the guy in front/back of you, do you begin by unloading just how rough life has been on you? If not, you’re on the right track . . . now is not the time to start, nor is your biography the time to start; or it may be the END . . .

  2. Good article. I always feel conflicted when doing a bio. How long should they be? Most feedback I’ve received is they should be limited to a short paragraph. With such little space, what do I put in it, so it’s not boring! I love the example of Carolee’s bio, but even as I was reading (and enjoying) it, I wondered if it was too long. The second conflict I have is talking about myself. I’ve never been comfortable doing that. It feels too much like I’m boasting or “showing off.” Even though I think it’s good to mention art shows I’ve been in and awards I’ve received, I have a hard time with it. My husband always tells me, “it’s not bragging if you can do it.” Love him to pieces but he is a little biased. I feel like it would be easier if someone else wrote it for me. Your thoughts? And what is a good length? Thanks again for a great article. This one is always a conundrum for me.

  3. Leave out the negative stuff. It’s not anyone’s business unless it’s a close personal friend. Keep the bio short, pertinent info only.

  4. Jason, your insights are always a good read and nearly always correct. Like most artists, I have had my challenges, but found salvation in my art. I often tell people, “art saved my life!” as it gave me direction and purpose as a previous profession I loved collapsed. That is the narrative I like telling about myself. I put all that as part of “my iron journey”. However , we all know stories of artists of all kinds that had gossip and sometimes very negative tales swirl around their lives, and were even disagreeable in person-to the point that they repelled customers. However, they were excellent in their craft. The quality of their art is a stand-alone proposition……and that, alone is what they should be judged for.

  5. I agree whith everything you said: We all have our life-issues/stuff, some have more than others. If we treat it as a Hero Story–a narrative that shows how it shaped us, and how we overcame it (or incorporated it into our lives, and our art, if it’s not something that can be cured or healed), then our customers actually benefit. They may see the courage and perseverance that got us through, or the flash of insight that made us whole again. Art isn’t simply beautiful or “pretty”. It is a powerful force for good in the universe. It heals us first, and then we put it out into the world to heal others, too.

  6. I thought about this a lot during the wordsmithing of my bio. In the longer version, I briefly mention my husband’s death, but talk about how art was crucial to dealing with my loss and moving forward with hope and joy in my life. My short version mentions it only as a “major life change.” A bio is always a work in progress–we look at it after a time and find something that can be improved. I don’t know if this aspect of mine will change in a year or so, or if it will still feel right, but that’s the way it stands for now.

  7. Perhaps, if the art itself because of theme or narrative can become more fully understood through a better understanding of the artists experience and if done in an Appropriate Manner, it might be beneficial. Sometimes the connection between viewer and artist might be more deeply experienced with a little more information. With that being said: I personally lean toward a positive approach, less is more, and letting the art speak for itself.

  8. I’d like to issue a caveat: anything you put out there is a potential topic for discussion. Be sure you’re willing to answer questions if someone asks them of you. Agreed all around to letting the art speak for itself, but it’s a known thing that people like to purchase and own a narrative, not just a picture. The psychology of this has kept me from furthering my own career many times, but ultimately I don’t mind if people can learn from me, so if they want to make a purchase for what I would call the wrong reasons, maybe sitting around with my work will help them digest themselves a little better, yeah?

    Thank you for attending my pep talk. Let’s go make some art.

  9. What is a biography if it is sanitized to please the masses? Trauma and strife are so common in our lives that to leave it out is little less than lying. An astute audience is going to recognize the artist’s trauma. Leaving it out of a bio will only lead them to believe that the artist is not in touch with this and therefore their art is not authentic and by buying it they are supporting the denial. It will make them uncomfortable to approach the artist and talk with them. And the only reason it is shocking is because any negative life events have been so inappropriately stigmatized, we are shocked by their inclusion – by the truth. How freaking sad. If you are an artist you have an obligation to be honest with your audience and your buyers.

  10. My mom had mental health issues from the time I turned 18 until she died 35 years later. I did a series of abstract paintings with an accompanying narrative for each plus intro and summary. I showed them at the NAMI national conference one year then made Blurb books of the work. Finally I put a PDF on a dedicated blog. While it is a joy to share this experience with those interested the work isn’t for everyone. My understanding of our famlies’ experience broadened greatly while creating that body of work, it was a cathartic experience. That said, it would never occur to me to include that information in my biography.

  11. Jason, your post was timely for me since I’m working on my biography for a show.

    I have a different issue that presents similar difficulties. I have a 15 year break in my work (family, demanding day job…) and though I’m happily back doing work and having some success, I don’t know how to explain the break in my biography.

    Do I ignore it or bring it in somehow?

    The “ground truth,” though perhaps interesting to some, is too complicated to recount in any detail and is not particularly relevant to my current work.

    1. I have a similar situation, Alec. About the same length of break, day job, sick husband who needs my help… and all of that completely irrelevant to my work. I decided I will not explain anything, will mention a few exhibitions I did prior to the break, some sales record and then let my work defend itself.

    2. Just got to reading the blog and your remark. My situation is similar. My professional career tangent to and involving my art spanned my active time. Now, it is my art that is front and center (almost).
      First- “nothing is for nothing.” a momism that she lived by. “Well, something new to learn and use” was her model.
      Second- “Do not apologize for what you did not do. No-one gives a damn.” This said to me publically at an art reception when I was in apologetic mode.
      Third- “If you are an artist, be an artist.” And this from an artist I met once and only for 20 minutes. What she meant was, the artist is that person inside you that drives what you do, whether it’s producing artwork or not. Whether anyone knows or appreciates what you do. It’s the commitment you make to yourself and that is what people want to see.

  12. I agree with it being too long for some people. I Iove to read so it was enjoyable for me. Sometimes I prefer to read than paint as it is more relaxing. Ununfortunately, many people do not like to read, especially a long bio.

    That said, I agree with Jason’s take on the best way to include a negative into your bio is to show how it turned into a positive experience and led you on the road to being an artist.

  13. I struggled a lot on this subject while writing my bio. The death of a child is an incredibly emotional, painful subject but it so completely transformed every aspect of my life and work that to “gloss over it” seemed unthinkable, even though collectors might instinctively turn away from it. That love and loss will always be such a huge part of whom I am, not just as an artist but as a person, that to hide it feels like hiding everything about myself. Also, though more trivially, I did feel the need to explain the huge gaps in my work. I talked it over with the director of the gallery that I was writing the bio for, and she encouraged me to leave it in. She felt that the difference in how she viewed my work before and after I told her about it was important, that she felt a deeper connection and understanding to me and to what I do. Though it’s not easy to talk about, I’ve always been more comfortable as an open book.

    My final reason for including my personal tragedy in my bio had nothing to do the business of art, but with the hope that someone else who feels a similar loss might find a small bit of comfort in it. It’s an isolating loss to experience, and if just one person stumbles across it and feels a little less lonely…well, if our positions were reversed I know that I would be grateful that someone shared.

  14. Everybody’s life story and art are personal, so what matters to one person will not for another. Some artists might find their art is a way to expressing something, using it in a cathartic way. Well, this is not my case. I had a complicated life, moved through various countries, am dealing with serious illnesses in the family, am supporting my family financially, and yet it has nothing to do with what I produce artistically. Someone might say my dark themes come from what I lived. Well, I would reply ‘absolutely not’, I do what I like, the only way I can do it while remaining true to myself and my style. If I had an easy life filled with parties and vacations, I would probably have liked the same themes/color schemes/compositions as I do today. I don’t make art because I need to scream my angst out to the world, but because I can – I know how and I like that, this is what I meant to do.
    The idea today is somehow that artist and their art are the same or nearly the same thing. I could not disagree more in my case. My friends find connections between how I am and how I mix light and darkness but this is their opinion and I would not use it while writing about my work. I find there is too much sophistication going on often around works that don’t call for so much pretense. I find it highly annoying when artists boast about their personal lives. Work process- yes, life stories – big no from me. As a spectator, I want to see good quality production, not the full biography including 2 pages on how they picked up brushes for the first time. That’s just me and I am a very criticism-prone, so I hope no one takes this personally.
    There are also cases where artist’s persona primes over their art. I am cringing at that too. Artists posing in from of their work – ok once in a while, at an exhibition. But I see people posing with their works all the time, while doing the work, etc, I don’t even want to go into details. I quit a lot of FB art groups because I was tired of having that in my feeds. When did the artist become more important that the art? Rhetorical question tbh, some time in the 20th century, around Warhol….am just annoyed that it happened and now some of us have to explain ourselves to much greater extent that we would like to, for the sake of justifying our work.

  15. There are nearly 8 billion people on the planet. Not all of them are interested in/can only tolerate pablum as this article suggests. History is full of artists whose painful backstories have only increased the value of their art. Um, Frida Kahlo, anyone?! Here’s a modern example: Teal Swan. She’s a spiritual teacher who creates channeled frequency paintings. She makes a fine living not only from her spiritual teaching work but also from her original paintings and prints that appear on everything from clothes to mugs. She’s massively controversial; people have dedicated entire websites to tearing her down. But she also has a mighty following of hundreds of thousands on FB, and millions of views on her YouTube videos. She talks about sexual, physical, emotional abuse, and every other controversial topic you can think of. The lesson? BE YOURSELF, UNAPOLOGETICALLY. There are people out there who not only want to hear your story, but will learn and grow from it. Your audience is waiting. Don’t compromise yourself. If people are offended or shy away from you, GOOD–they didn’t need your message anyway! But there are people out there who do! I personally LOVE the art of people who who have overcome painful pasts and are willing to talk about it–and I support them all the time. Thank God for authenticity!

    1. Love this response! It’s all about establishing a relationship with your viewers. Just like any flesh and blood relationships with your acquaintances, you will not resonate with every one you meet. Neither will your art. But for those who like your work and want to know more about you, it can be a game changer to know they hey, you’re just like they are, with ups and downs in your life, but you carry on! That’s HOPE!

  16. I generally like to keep to the positive in artist bios. I may mention being made redundant in 2009 from my graphic art job, and how that was a catalyst for returning to study and my original intent of having a fine art career. However, I never mention the state of my mental health at the time, or how after thrity years in the industry I was burnt out and nearing a breakdown. I think that many artists who have compromised by working in the print/graphic arts field for a regular income have gone down a similar track, later returning to their first love when it became possible, or like me, when circumstances led to it. How it happened for me, is something I keep between me, and closer friends and associates.

  17. Wow, alot of various opinions and I am torn, but honest and have shared a little of my difficult past only to
    bring out how important art is to me and what it has helped me through in my life. Without it I would not be here, it’s as simple as that. I shared that I survived brain surgery and also that through DNA, I found long lost family that has changed my life for the better after 50 years! Please let me know if this is too much info for people to know? I just shared it recently and will not bring it up again, but just want people to know a little about what I have had to go through and I still continue my art, as I cannot live without it. I have come a long way and just getting the momentum going and don’t want to quelch it, just share your thoughts please if this might as I always am very grateful for the all the circumstances as it has made me who I am. Thank you all for sharing as I see all the different aspects, but feel I have to stay true to myself and open up a little, as life is not always fair and most people get it?? Thank you for letting me open up here and perhaps hear how it sounds to people in the field who have made mistakes and know how to evolve and take different detours to make it to where they are going.

    1. I agree with you, Kathy, that sharing a bit of our lives is good. Aside from my reasons for sharing my own tragedy, I personally want to know as much as I can about the artists that I admire. When I read an artist bio, I’m actually disappointed if there are no personal details. Who wants to read a dry list of accomplishments? Also, call me bitter if you will, lol, but people who are relentlessly positive and upbeat rub me the wrong way anyway, striking me as disingenuous or insincere (or maybe I’m just jealous of their sunny disposition, hahaha).

  18. I have a page on Facebook and a website, and yes I mark paintings as SOLD. I do this for two reasons. The first is to save interested parties time, so they will go on to other pieces. I keep paintings that are sold up for a while, so people can see what I can do, and this generates similar commissions. Second reason is to imply a little pressure on a potential customer to buy a work before someone else does. I don’t boast, but have no problem answering any question on how business is going. As we all know being an artist is a financial roller-coaster.

  19. Thank you for the insight on this area. I really enjoyed reading the comments of the artists. I leave much of my personal life off the biography unless it is needed to enter certain competitions.
    I never mention illnesses, losses, insults, law suits or politics!!
    As a Black artist I definitely have had my share of disappointments, but I really believe mentioning these problems puts me in a category of a person seeking an alliance. I let my art tell the story!

  20. This doesn’t seem like a bio to me. Most bios I have seen are short and more precise. This is a full well written article on her. It would be at home in any magazine.

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