Should you share your personal tragedy?

When I received an email asking how much personal tragedy one should share in his or her bio, I was stumped. The PR person in me wants to say “leave it out of your bio, but pitch the story to the media.” A story of tragedy and triumph is almost irresistible, especially if it’s tied to something similar that’s going on with a celebrity or national event.

But, as I say in today’s Art Marketing Action newsletter, it’s not always to your advantage to bare your soul. In fact, it may cause great discomfort, which isn’t worth it at any price.


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18 thoughts on “Should you share your personal tragedy?”

  1. Tricky, tricky. It may help to remember that your bio is a marketing piece. Does sharing your story make people more inclined to buy or not? I imagine a person’s story of overcoming cancer, and that she donates proceeds from her sales to cancer research, would be a compelling part of the story. I’m curious about the desire to tell this part of the story. When you tell your story, is it uplifting or depressing? Do you feel good or bad when you tell it? How does the listener feel? No one wants to buy when they are bummed out. They do when they are uplifted. I would find a way to tell your story so that it is one of overcoming adversity. Like it or not, we warm to those stories more than those that relate a victim’s journey.

  2. Firstly, I share in greiving with the author of this question regarding his personal nightmare. I pray that his art and his life can be a part of mending his wounds. Alyson is right about the bio being a conversation starter, or introduction. I think the tragic details of famous artists’ lives(Picasso’s weird life experiences come to mind, and Van Gogh was no stranger to tragedy) are the stuff of their monographs, or critical books written about them. I think it’s more likely to be a deal stopper at first, though. Keep in mind, that as patrons get to know you, actual relationships do develop and they may become freinds. It’s a very rewarding thing. Keep in mind that the public may put an artist on a pedestal, and you need to put that into your mix of how you want to relate to them. I personally want to be received as just a regular guy with a talent, because I know that there will be enough “lionizing” without any effort on my part.

  3. I stuggled with this very issue as I constructed my “ABOUT” page on my website. My book art literally began from the fabric of three crises within a 2-week period in my life…but I chose to just hint at the seriousness of what led me to my book art…I did not care to divulge that which was so important to me, but could not possibly be fathomed by my ‘audience’. I’m intrigued by what makes artists ‘tick’, but have no desire to fall into their personal tragedies. The art will speak to me and tell me what I need to see (and own.) I teach locally and regionally, and choose to guard my personal life online and in the classroom. Yet to know me is to know my art…but ‘easy does it’ is my philosophy, when it comes to sharing the everyday nitty gritty of my life.

  4. In my “Write Your Life Story in Eight Weeks Workbook,” I answered this often-asked question the following way: How do I strike a balance between revealing too much and too little? Imagine yourself at lunch with a friend. This person is not a lifelong friend, but someone who is more than a casual acquaintance. Maybe your children went through school together so the two of you have shared the laughter and tears as your children grew up, went off to college, married and had your grandchildren. Maybe one of you has been through divorce or loss of a spouse or parents. Now suppose your friend asks: “How did you become the person you are today?” What would you say? What events would you say shaped and transformed your life? What people would you list as being influential in your life and why and how were they influential? As you think about the events and people in your life, you might first write a general answer to the questions – think of it as an overview of your life. How did you become the person you are today?

  5. I agree with you that it should be kept short, but it also needs to be constructed very carefully. The last thing you really want is for it to read like a plea for charity. Tell me how it affects your art, but only hint at the full story. Make me want to go and do some research to discover the gory details if I so choose. That will have a greater impact.

  6. What a great question and one that I’m also struggling with! I, too, had a traumatic childhood and a tragedy as a young adult. Both have had profound effects on my whole life and relationships. Art and a love for horses have been a big part of healing for me so it seems appropriate to mention my background in talking about my art. However, I don’t want to come across as one who is living in a pity party but rather as someone who has grown and triumphed over adversity. My inclination would be to either leave out any mention of my background in a bio or artist’s statement or to mention it only briefly and in a very general way. However, I’m still struggling with whether or not to write about my background for a magazine article that I plan to submit for publication. Everyone’s comments have helped in making that decision as I’m sure they have helped others to make their own decisions. When it comes down to it, you have to ask yourself how much of an influence has your own personal history had on your art and your ability to function and succeed as an artist.

  7. A year ago, I suffered a terrible personal tragedy, but I do not to mention this in my artist’s biography. I would rather collectors bought my work because they liked my art, not because they felt sorry for me. That’s just my personal preference. Other artists may need to tell their story, possibly to have their artwork appreciated in the proper context. It might also be the way they heal themselves. However, you can reach a point of “too much information”.

  8. After my eyesight was saved by surgery to correct a massive detached retina, which had almost blinded me, I decided to take up available light macro photography. (Only color shots, naturally!) Had it not been for the surgery, photography might have been left on the back burner for the rest of my life. Instead, I became self taught, exhibited in art festivals, and managed to do well enough to form a little business. The surgery also prompted me to later form a separate non-profit organization. I mention this in my printed bio and in various promotional materials. I even give talks on photography as a medium of creative endeavor and self-empowerment in overcoming personal limitations (and sell some of my smaller prints in browse bins, following my talks). However, I present the content in such as way as to inspire and motivate my audience. The bottom line is to inspire and sell my work and not bog people down with detail which may be unpalatable to them (and reduce or even prevent sales). Everyone has a threshold for unpleasant events. What one listener / reader may find acceptable, another may abhor. Use prudence! If necessary, find a focus group who you can run your info by and let them offer an opinion.

  9. This is a question that I’ve thought about for many years now. I am deaf, having lost my hearing over a period of about 20 years. While it doesn’t necessarily have anything directly to do with my art — I don’t paint about the deaf experience — I do feel that my loss of hearing has had an effect on my work. Therefore I’ve recently added a couple of lines about that in my artist statement. I view my deafness as a huge factor and identifier in my life and so think that it’s important for people to know. But as I said, it’s a couple of lines in the bio/artist statement, and is spoken of matter-of-factly. I think if a personal issue is a major factor in your life, and can be presented in a way that provides incite to your work, then it may be worthwhile to include it. But that’s a personal choice.

  10. Alison, I think you are right about “too much info” in a bio. When I saw your email this morning and the subject line I immediately thought of an artist who has chosen to write of her childhood abuse in her website bio. While I understand the post could be cathartic for her, it leaves me sad, and with a tainted viewpoint of her. Additionally, whenever I think of her, this is what first comes to mind rather than her art. Moreover, I don’t believe most people want this kind of information, esp. when they first meet someone! It’s too personal and simply not appropriate for a public post. It could come off as a bit “tabloid-ish” too.

  11. I think this relates to all of our online dealings, not just bio’s. I’ve been excited when I find my favourite artists have started blogging and I’ve subscribed to their feeds hoping to see more of their work and thought process that brought the work about and instead sometimes find them baring personal lives of themselves and family to the degree of “then she said…and he said..” maybe I’m wrong and this IS the thought process, maybe it helps them to get it off their minds but as Diana said in the last post – it’s the first thing I think about now when I see their work….too much information!

  12. Here’s an interesting thought–maybe most artists, writers, etc. have had traumatic experiences, tragedies, etc. and that’s why they are driven to make art…to express the otherwise inexpressible. I’ve been reading a lot of artist statements on blogs, websites, etc. and have found that many artists tell all sorts of sad, mad, horrific and startling stories as part of their bios. And I wonder, is this really how they want to be known? As their tragedies, traumas and horrific moments? Because it is what gets remembered most, perhaps. Many students remember Van Gogh cut his ear off right away but have to think about what his paintings look like…It gets people’s attention, as mentioned in other comments here, but is that the kind of attention you want as an artist? Wouldn’t we like our work to be remembered, not our traumas? Each artist must decide this for themselves, but hopefully they weigh the impact of the story against the impact of their art work.

  13. This is a doozy of a question. The previous president of the local 50 year old art guild took the reins of the group six years ago. However, she had immense family problems with her four teen to adult sons, one suffering Downs Syndrome, bi-polar, etc. And the guild was suffering from lack of young members. The city, which provided the space for classes and where the guild’s easels, tables, etc were located, decided to take the space away after 45 years. SUddenly, the guild had only a meeting space 2 times a month but where no art could be produced. Classes elsewhere were limited to one Monday afternoon a week. The mix was deadly. The president wrote reams of specifics in the newsletter about her problems. The involvement of the longtime members dropped significantly. Members, many with their own un-touted issues, just did not want to know any more. It was depressing. The addition of new, younger members came to a halt. This group which once had nearly 300 members is down to about 50, and gasping. It’s become a struggle to keep going. The newsletter has now become very positive and informative. We’re lucky that we can publish it in color, with the help of the local newspaper. Paint-ins, paint-outs, road trips, creativity exercises to start our meetings,web-site and book recs,quotes and tips are included,and an in-depth demo at each meeting makes a huge difference. BUt the acceptance and involvement of old and potential members is slow to catch on. The damage done by one person’s personal tragedies is daunting.

  14. This is such a great topic and one I’ve struggled with in regards to writing my bio. But I have come to realize that my life experiences, although not tragic in any way, have helped me define the market for my artwork as well as who I’d like to mentor and guide. After working in the corporate world for years, I can relate to business people and understand how it feels to need a moment to escape the monotony. Because my paintings are based on nature and landscapes, they provide the viewer with a way to escape – something to look into instead of their computer screen.

  15. This is an interesting topic. Personally, I think it’s best avoided (especially on a website) unless it relates to the art – either the art is inspired by it, or the art is made in spite of it, in which case it’s relevant. I’ve seen some artists mention their illness like a badge, seemingly proud of it, I’m not sure that that comes across very well either. I think it would be best, if possible, to write about the illness/tragedy/whatever in the last sentence when the reader has already formed a good impression (hopefully!)

  16. My story of struggle and overcoming adversity is directly related to my art career however, I don’t think this information belongs in my bio. I try to keep my bio more upbeat and current. I do feel that my “Art Story” is a very important part of who I am and where I came from. So, rather than putting that information in my bio, I have written about it in my blog. I have had people tell me I should write a book about my life! I don’t know that I will ever do that, but I think it’s important for people to have access to parts of my personal life. When someone buys a piece of art, they don’t just buy the art, they buy the story of the artist as well. In this age of reality TV, people want to know more about the person behind the paintings. Personally, I want people to know where I’m coming from. Most importantly, writing out my story has helped me to heal and get past all the bad things that happened to me. Now I don’t think about it anymore, because I’ve moved beyond it.

  17. Who hasn’t experienced personal tradgedies or traumatic experiences! But to list it in your art bio is a bit too much, IMHO. Let it be one of those things that people “discover” about you, as they get to know you and your art. Life time experiences are just part of the many facets that reflect who one is.

  18. I agree that giving a bit of your ‘tragic past’ is ok, just sorta generalizing or skimming the surface, however, getting into the morbid details of one’s life is really pushing it. An Artist’s bio is definetly NOT the place for us to air our dirty laundry. If you are looking for support, or a shoulder to cry on, then a shrink’s couch would be the place, or a dear friend that doesn’t mind lending an ear. By placing it out there for all the world to see would only damage not help a career. Let the world discover your skeleton’s long after you are gone when they write a book about your life.

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Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

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