One answer to these questions is: story telling.
Initially, we appreciate works of art based on their visual aspect. We feel something about their style, their colours, their shapes etc. They stand in their own right and that counts. And of course there must also be some room for personal interpretation, making imagination works and that’s good. But it is not all, far from it. An artwork is much more than what it looks like. Often, a piece of work is part of a bigger picture.
When I first see one, I do ask myself what its story is. Stories are crucial to create emotional connections, going beyond the initial visual look of the art itself
Miles Allen, writing coach, editor and author explains: “Our brains are insatiable story processors, continuing even when we’re asleep. Stories are a natural and powerful way to induce and change people’s perceptions. By telling stories, artists can relate more deeply with their art through greater connection and engagement with their audience.”
As artists, the stories you tell will define how your audience connects with you and with your work. The more they like them, the more they will stay with you as they grow interested.
I personally feel stronger about a piece of work once I have heard or read something about it. It helps me make sense of it. Often – if not always – there is something more behind a work and I want to know about it. Then, I am drawn towards the work a bit more with each word I read or listen to. Gradually, my emotion develops and that is how I engage with the work and the artist.
I have bought artwork precisely because the story told by the artist resonated with me.
In 2015 I visited the exhibition “Out on the Edge” with photographs by artist Sue Carfrae at the Horsebridge Centre in Whitstable. I was visually attracted to a piece of work: “Collage 3”.
I was merely discussing the technical side of it with Sue, when she started telling me what this image was made of and what it meant to her. The collage was a juxtaposition of images and historical documents about her family.
Sue explains: “My image evolved from a combination of a particular story in a Japanese Concentration Camp in WWII and the present  in Holland. Very significant, is my Mum’s ID number and a picture of my teenage Mum in heavy winter coat on board a ship in the Suez canal returning to Holland after the war. She remembered that after years of wearing very little clothing, the heavy wool coat was very harsh. A US sailor took the picture in 1946.”
“My eldest daughter, Rebecca, discovered through research a compelling story about how my grandmother’s family was eradicated in Sobibor concentration camp. We didn’t know that we were Jewish. My grandmothers name had been deliberately altered by her mother some years previously to protect her. Being in the Far East saved them.”
“This particular exhibition enabled me to process, through imagery, what I was trying to understand and what reverberated through my family. I had a sense that such feelings were always within me.”
As Sue was talking, I felt an emotion, I was drawn to the picture and its different levels of depth. I simply had to go home with it…
I know I am not alone to feel that way.
Adding a story to a piece of work draws viewers’ attention into it. When the story is inspiring and memorable it helps induce an emotional response, as it expands the meaning and inspiration behind each piece. This takes the viewer closer to the work and often triggers the desire to own it.
Often, stories that have a personal meaning resonate strongly with viewers and create a meaningful and emotional connection. A personal experience illustrates this perfectly.
My mother influenced me, not only as a mother, but as a woman and as an artist. She studied at the Ecole du Louvre, became a museum curator, she taught philosophy, literature and modern art history, she wrote poetry, she created an innovative art education method for teachers, she wrote several books and magazine articles, she was a self taught painter…. amongst other things. In parallel to her rich and busy cultural and intellectual life, events in her personal life had an impact on her painting work. A big impact. They are the reason why her painting work is what it is.
After my dad’s passing in 2016, my mother – now suffering from Alzheimer – had to move to a nursing home. Whilst clearing up my parents’ house, I went on a journey. I found notes, documents, letters, photographs as well as more paintings.
The best way to pay homage to her life and career was to put a show together. So, I did in November 2018, in Faversham where I live. I called it The Journey of a Painter .
At the time I wrote: “A deeper and more complex person started to emerge. I learnt about her relationships, her career, her depression, her poetry, her novel (an autobiography?), her early drawings and paintings… I started putting all this together and, gradually, I was making connections between her life and her work as an artist… I understood better what she was trying to communicate. I understood what that fake writing was about… What the small windows with landscapes meant… I understood many of the frequent themes that appear in her work such as characters that are cut off, disappearing, escaping, walking away, falling…. dark shadows, roses, skies, trees… Her concerns about the wars in the Middle East… When all this was revealed to me, it started to make much more sense.”
There was a private view on a Friday evening and the show was open for the week-end. It included a biography with her major life events, a slideshow of her life , photographs, artworks from her grand-father, an artist that encouraged her to draw and paint, portfolios with sketches, her own notes, her blouse and some brushes, information about her influences… alongside the paintings. This way, I was creating a connection between her life and her work whilst showing her development over the years.
Visitors got to know her as if she had been in the room. And they were moved. So much so that they bought 30 paintings during the private view. I am convinced it would not have been the case if I hadn’t told her story the way I did.
Even when the artwork is a story in itself, there is more to discover behind the work.
Hugh Ribbans, printmaker, lives in Faversham. He has recently created narrative linocut prints illustrating the changes in his life over the years. “A Good Age” was commissioned by Devon Guild of Craftsmen and Libraries Unlimited. Each print contains images depicting anecdotes and stories.
The first one is about his childhood and his youth in Faversham from 1943 to 1959.
Hugh says: “People like stories. They like trivia and everyday happenings that imitate their own lives. People have been very interested and when I am in front of the prints ask me questions about the detail. Why a sailor’s band? What is the reason for the Guardsmen in the London print? Why is there a spider in a jar?
The most common question is ‘Why is there an elephant in the street?’ A story about an elephant being led down my road when I was 7 and my complete excitement and terror, having never seen a live elephant in my life!”
Other prints cover the periods from 1959 to 1963 in Canterbury, from 1963 to 2001 in London and then the current days, back in Faversham.
“I found making the Good Age work a very cathartic experience, making me dredge up memories of my life which I had almost forgotten. The image of me and another boy playing amid the bomb sites of Faversham I find quite moving as it reaches back to a time when Faversham was very different. A town smashed by the war and relying on the backbone of the working people to rebuild it through the many local industries, in my case, my family’s three generations in the shipyard.”
“I don’t normally look back in life too much, preferring to enjoy the present and look ahead to things to come but ‘A Good Age’ was an indulgence which I thoroughly enjoyed. I hope more people will be interested in the stories.”
We often find that individual stories are part of a larger narrative that artists create within a body of work.
Steve Bloom is a photographer. His photographs during the Apartheid capture a critical moment in the history of South Africa. His work can be seen at the Beaney in Canterbury until 19th January 2020 in Beneath the Surface: South Africa in the seventies.
He says: “Pictures must be powerful enough to stand on their own, but with documentary photography the context is important. For example, in the picture of the young man with his baby daughter, you see a man who is uncomfortable holding his baby, looking away and somewhat vulnerable. When you add text to the story that states the fact that he worked for a racist company that deliberately withheld his right to do skilled work, you gain a wider understanding of the life he leads. Captions and pictures can complement each other.”
Steve adds: “Visual storytelling works well when images are sequenced so that they flow with a smooth and cohesive narrative. So one image needs to lead into the next. This is essential with book design and exhibition layout, because when the viewer goes from one image to the next, they embark on a journey.”
Some other times, artists can use a story face to face with the audience to engage with them.
Tim Price is a wood sculptor. A exhibitions, he uses an object alongside a story to get visitors interested.
Tim says: “For market stalls I have produced a simple item that I can make in various designs, aimed to attract attention and entertain anyone hovering over my work. It’s a conjuring trick which I can easily build a story around. A magical force that lives in a box and will answer questions for those who can master the language of the spirit! It’s fun watching kids working out the trick and then ribbing their parents who can’t solve it. And it draws a crowd.
Tim’s life story also generate fascination and get people wanting to know more, so conversations start.
“I describe myself as a contemplative. I consider the nature of things. The nature of form and desire. Having spent several years in professional model making, which enabled me to develop craft skills in many disciplines, and working for some prestigious architects, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. Then I quit, dropped everything and stepped out of the business world altogether. There followed 16 years as a mendicant monk living in the forests of California, Australia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Soaking up the culture and atmosphere of some of the wildest places there are.
Now I am settled in Kent with a very small workshop. For the past 9 years I take all the time I need to collect, prepare and season pieces of wood found or purchased from numerous sources and, as a compliment to my meditation, I create objects partly inspired by my years living in Asia, in praise of nature, and in gratitude to those wise beings who have helped me. ”
We can all tell stories. We can all learn how to create, structure and deliver real and imagined stories that induce viewers into an emotional experience with artists and their artworks. Sit down and make notes about your life, your thoughts, your process… Talk to people who know you. Ask them what they think your story is. Start writing something. Practice. It will come.