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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30 Comments

  1. The sample here is interesting to me for two reasons – first, I’m an artist who is considering writing my bio (as opposed to an artist’s statement) and second, because as a writer, I was often asked to write something like the Clark bio for artists. These were sometimes articles in various publications which the artist could and did use just as Clark is using hers.
    I think asking artists to do the writing is too much of a challenge for most artists. Just getting down a one-page artist’s statement can be difficult.
    The third-person bio written by someone else, like Clark’s, works better because the writer will screen what goes into it and keep it more lively and, let’s face it, better written.
    Perhaps another way to describe the artist’s bio is to think of it as a magazine or newspaper article and suggest that artists consider asking a writer to help with it. I’m no longer doing the writing for artists, but it was a pleasure at the time and the artists often rewarded me with a piece of their work instead of pay. A happy thing all around.

    1. Where does an artist use a bio like that.? It sounds more like something that would be published in a magaize article.

  2. Writing about oneself in third person has got to be one of the most awkward types of writing there is. You have to keep switching focus to read it as another person would. It feels like bragging, and it takes much careful editing to stick to the facts without getting weird.

    I get tired of reading that an artist tried to reclaim her life of abuse/anxiety/depression by making art, so others probably do too. Molly Larson Cook is wise to suggest finding a writer to help.

  3. One note on this subject I learned in grad school was only share this kind of personal information if it directly is connected to your body of work. For instance, if you are doing work about homelessness and you have been homeless, it may give the work more meaning for the audience. And then it might fit better into an artist statement about the work.
    Thanks for the posts.

    Kevin

  4. I’ve tried different ways of dancing around the issues that made me an artist, partly because of not wanting to shock and depress viewers. I feel this always left me with an empty story, as that struggle with abuse IS my story. Also it wasn’t something I ever felt like talking about. Then an interesting thing happened. I met an artist with a similar story to mine who was totally open about it.

    I was fascinated by her openness, and it inspired me. She was starting a project dealing with trauma survivors, focusing on abuse and mental illness which includes texts written by each subject, along with portraits or figures by the artist. I had been strongly against sharing my story, but here was a perfect opportunity to reverse that conviction. Realizing that it was probably the only method of therapy I hadn’t tried (since counseling had failed repeatedly in my youth), I decided to go for it.

    Writing my story for her project forced me to look at everything differently. In combination with other simultaneous transformations, my life was totally changed by this. The concept of happiness, as opposed to pleasure or satisfaction, had been almost alien to me, but I started to be a happy person again. I urge anybody who has been holding it in to at least write your story — for yourself. There’s no obligation to share, but you may be surprised by the effect that writing your disturbing, depressing story has on your state of mind.

  5. I have shared some of my traumatic life experiences on a Bio I use for one of my agents that handle some of my sales. I don’t give too much detail because it isn’t needed, the raw outline is gory enough… I will say that without any shadow of a doubt it helps with my sales. It is a big part of my life & I am extremely proud that I have overcome my past & found a way to transform the energy from it into creativity, long may it continue… I have some major Exhibitions coming up & overcoming my past has enabled me to gain the strength & confidence to take it all in my stride…

  6. As usual you are r”right on the money” Jason! I am struggling with this concept because I have been diagnosed with ALS. I have not told too many people, just a few friends and of course family. It is something hard to put mildly, I have gone through a lifetime of health related difficulties, (nothing life threatening) that have some influence over the way I approach some my art.. But my nature is cheerful and positive. What would be your advice? or any one else? I would appreciate sone other opinions was well.
    Thanks

    1. I hope and pray the research stays ahead of where you are with this indescribable disease. My close friend’s (second) wife was diagnosed early in the marriage. They fought for every inch they could get. Her son grew up as a care giver. Etc.
      You will of course make art until you won’t be able to and you will fight for every inch too. I think you are ahead of the curve because you are confronting your journey in ways few others can do. To say that art is a matter of life and death is glib except when it is.
      I don’t know how much I would share biographically only because there are so many varied responses. I just know you will work through that part. One thought for what it’s worth- however your personality is, how you disclose and how much you disclose would need to be within that parameter.

  7. Thank you for sharing Carolee Clark’s bio, which is indeed a well-written piece and convinces me to do as Molly recommends and hire a writer for mine, which is due for an overhaul anyway. I looked up Carolee Clark’s website and blog and love her work!
    I would stay away from sharing negative experiences, unless they have a direct impact on the art. I’m thinking for example of Gwenn Seemel’s book and series of work entitled “Crime Against Nature”: http://www.gwennseemel.com/index.php/paintings/from/category/crime/
    A bit off topic perhaps, but the only thing I find a little off-putting in third person bios is when they consistently refer to the artist by their last name. I understand that this makes you come across as a serious artist, but it makes me uncomfortable. Any thoughts? Perhaps a topic for another blogpost?

    1. Mineke,
      Regarding your question about a bio. I too do not like the last name repeated over and over again so here is what I did. First off, I have several bios. to fit different situations. Some are very short and one is long which I call my complete bio.
      In the complete bio. I list things in bullet form. Each year, or group of years, has anywhere from one item to several items. There is a double space between each year (going down the page) and a single space between each item (or event) in that year. This format makes it easy to add to, or delete older or less important events.

  8. Unless the most difficult challenges of ones life have become the explicit subject of ones artwork, it’s always best to reserve those hard details for people who know and love you and are prepared to provide emotional support. It’s important to keep the public focus on your practice, and on the resulting art. I would not like to think that people might buy out of pity, or that the story might overshadow the work. It’s a great idea to have someone else objectively edit your bio, or write it for you.

  9. My mother had mental health issues. Six years ago I did a series of paintings accompanied by a short narriative to accompany each along with an intro and closing page. In addition to creating a dedicated blog for The Insanity Series I also had books printed which I have for sale in my studio.

    I think my approach demonstrated the impact a negative experience had on me while showing the amazing and miraculous way using my talent gave me a way to interpret and resolve it.

    I would be concerned about promoting myself as the “tortured artist”.

  10. It’s easy to say, “keep things upbeat and positive” but that is not always possible when trying also to remain authentic (whatever that might mean). I’ve learned to take a long view of things which allows for understanding the mess from the results rather than from within the mess. This is not always easy either.
    I have had deep scars from high school that have taken a lifetime to get beyond. A friend once said, “Live well and fully on your own terms. It’s the best revenge when you let the ____(insert an appropriate word) know.” I don’t feel the need for anything beyond “Live well and fully on your own terms.”

  11. I don’t know a soul who came from a perfect childhood. No one. Some worse than others; some heartrending, if it is possible to gauge trauma. What is debilitating to one is manageable to another. The human spirit is capable of overcoming seemingly impossible trauma.
    I don’t know what separates those who live under a shadow their whole lives from those who are a shining beacon of triumph … that is the beautiful thing about what we do. Art can be self therapy. Escape. A soothing balm for the mind … those are for the artist.
    I rarely get into detail about the “why” of my work … these days life is so unsettling people immediately identify. A simple statement that I want them to come home to their sanctuary and surround themselves with calm and beauty … they nod their heads in understanding. There is no need to share anything specific.
    At my last show I had a woman gaze at a river landscape for some time. The ribbon of river faded into the hills beyond. She said, “When I look at this I can breathe.” Yes! She felt it, she got it.
    No, she didn’t buy the painting but her appreciation was gratifying. She took my business card and even if I never hear from her again we made a connection.

    1. Deeply moved when I read your words…. I felt you expressing the “why” I create….as well as the “why” ART is medicinal for me

  12. I am aware that my art reflects the issues I have dealt with and the present day issues. I feel I am expressing my feelings every time I pick up a paintbrush and I do include a brief mention of my trauma and recovery in my bio (which I need to rewrite) because my art is and will be an expression of the inner me.

  13. As usual there are a number of insightful comments here. I’d just like to add to my earlier comment a note about my own biography and work. I will be really old on my birthday next week – officially elderly. Several people have suggested that this could be a “selling” point – the next Grandma Moses. I smile at the idea, but I won’t be including my age in any bio. It’s not relevant at all as far as I’m concerned.

    Also, I’ve had many struggles in my life – like most people have – and some of mine as bad as many others have had. BUT, that’s not why I paint and it doesn’t enter into my work. Like my age, I find the hard times of my life really irrelevant.

    As a writer, I found a few years ago that we were inundated in memoirs of abuse and unhappy lives to the point that I could not read one more. It almost became a competition – “You think your life was bad, let me tell you about mine.”

    My work comes from my love of jazz and my love of color. And I’m grateful to be able to paint pretty much full time after a long life of doing many other things. THAT’s the story I want to tell.

    And finally, I suggest we think about the artwork we love, artwork through the ages. Does the artist’s misery make any difference – if we know about it – in our love for the work?

    Cheers to all, and I hope whatever you choose to do about a bio, you’ll spend even more time enjoying your work and the pleasure it brings you.

  14. I once wrote about Ta that it would be easier for her to walk on the moon then be an artist, as I write this, Ta is looking down from the moon.

    Ta was born in 1974 in Nakhon Sawan, a very rural part of Northern Thailand about 200k north of Bangkok. Living in a very rural village, with little or no electric or running water, life was very difficult, It was farming area, mainly rice with most people working in the rice fields, that was their life, there was little ambition or opportunity to do anything else.

    Ta was very tall for her age so when she was very young and still at school she had to work in the rice fields, as for most kids, they would have to work at planting and harvesting either before or after school and in the holidays, some kids were taken out of school completely, Ta was lucky and managed to stay at school until she was twelve.

    Working as a rice farmer is hard back breaking work, bending over all day in the hot sun in water infested with snakes and God knows what, to plant the seedlings, or working in scorching hot fields with no shade to harvest the rice, your hands cut to ribbons.

    Ta was always different from the rest of the people in her village she just wanted to escape knowing there was a different world out there just didn’t know where.

    At 13, she worked in a (illegal) sweat shop in Bangkok making shirts, at 14, was driving a pick up truck 7 days a week 14 hours a day selling vegetables, at 20, selling pick up trucks very successfully.

    In her late 30s Ta was alone, divorced and working in a hotel in Koh Samui doing the only job she could get, a toilet cleaner.

    In 2010 as a result of a sketch her life completely changed she was given an opportunity, that opportunity was art, Ta grabbed it with both hands.

    In January 2018, Ta was picked by ArtFinder as one to watch and invest in, she now lives and works in a beautiful house and studio overlooking the stunning gulf of Thailand, she has sent her work to over 23 countries, to 5th Ave New York, Berkley Square London, Hong Kong, Monaco and Singapore to name a few.

    Not bad for a girl from the rice fields of Thailand.

  15. I have a slightly different question about the same subject. I went through traumatic events in high school that seriously effected my ability to even create art. If it hadn’t been for those events, I would have just gone to college for art and pursued it as a career. But instead, I took years off before going to college and then finally ended up with a fashion degree. I was unable to do any serious painting for about 20 years, (even though I really wanted to) because I spent all that time struggling with PTSD.
    Now I am finally able to paint again and I really want to get gallery representation. I’ve been reading Jason’s book about how to get into galleries, and I’ve been wondering what I should say to a gallery owner when they ask me about my career. I haven’t really done anything with my art or with my fashion career, even though I have a lot of talent. So I can’t really account for the last 20 years of my life, except for a few things that I have done here are there.
    What should I say to gallery owners? Should I just be honest without giving too much detail? I want to be taken seriously and I don’t want a gallery owner to think that I am not capable of doing the work. Does anyone have any suggestions?

    1. Have a body of work ready to show and show it. Your work will speak for itself. There is no need to go into all the details on why you’re just now getting all the pieces to them. Be confident in your abilities and gifting. As he mentioned, everyone has been through something. Artist are very aware and sensitive to their surroundings and this is only one reason why we are so vulnerable to trauma. It’s just like playing a piano: Keep going. Use your art as therapy but don’t let anyone know about that yet. Once you’re well known, collected and admired, then you can let your past be known. Paint what you know. Your soul will come out in it then and it will grab people’s emotions. Since most people buy based on emotion, this will work well for you.

  16. Jennifer, I would generalize the traumatic experience, without getting into details.
    An above response was on target with including depressing, unhappy incidents in one’s life ONLY if it is incorporated in the art.
    Think of a bio as a “job application”….to a gallery. In the real world, people do not include negative experiences in a job application. Why on earth include them when approaching a gallery for representation? When it is not relative to your work as an artist, why “bear your soul to the world”?

  17. My bio only has positive information in it. My life has seen some struggles though and that is reflected in my signature which includes an arrow pointing to the left and an arrow pointing to the right. It is a conversation starter on many occasions and I tell people it represents where I have been and where I am going.
    I have never been asked to share where I have been but people seem to enjoy that little piece of “me” in my signature.

  18. Truly a lot of wonderful opinions on the subject, but my question is
    When and where does a biography fit in? Is it in place of an artist statement?
    Should it be included with a resume’ and artist statement when applying to a gallery or a juried show? Thanks so much. Always insightful & informative responses.

  19. I’m thinking most people now a days have a short attention span. Some bios can get too long and wordy. Something brief but clearly representative seems the best way to go.
    My own bio may be a bit too short but I have always been a more private person, probably to a fault…..something to ponder for myself.

  20. I’m thinking most people now a days have short attention spans. Some bios get too long and wordy. Something brief but clearly representative seems best.
    My own bio is probably too short but I tend to be a more private person, I’m sure to a fault. Something to ponder….
    And, yes, I agree to not putting sad and depressing details in your personal bios.

  21. This was a very good topic and discussion. Thank you for the help it gave me and things to consider. Ironically, the timing of this was synchronistic for me. My childhood trauma and life experiences ARE what led me to become an artist and I’ve been trying to sit down to do my bio for weeks! For my new website that a friend is creating. I can relate to both Stephen and Jeremy a lot, except in my case I’ve been in therapy most of my life. It saved my life and I believe it made me a much better artist. So I couldn’t get myself to commit to FASO because of what you are all talking about which to me is something like “who am I as a person in relation to the art work I do?” Much of my work is considered “dark” and I don’t see that kind of work on here. I do attempt to do “beauty” but I am often “driven” the other way and I hope that changes someday. I tend to “spill my guts” all over the place when I write, so I am also going to take Molly’s advice and ask another friend, who writes, to help me.

  22. People might be interested at first but after twenty five words or less they will start to fade. I feel it is my job as a professional artist that I need to make people feel good about themselves and inspire them. No, they don’t need to know all the gory details what made me an artist. They can read about it in my “best seller” that I will write someday. LOL. I know what made me an artist, and I hope it shows in my work. Art should speak for itself about who you are without saying anything. Art heals me. So keep the bio short and keep it sweet.

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