Featured image for “Your Origin Story”

Your Origin Story

October 22, 2013

Your art should be more than pretty pictures to hang on a wall. Your art should be more than an accessory that matches the couch, compliments the drapes, or fits perfectly in the bathroom. Your art and everything about it should create a brand. Perhaps the biggest part of that brand is its creator: YOU. I’ve often said that people buy art for the story it tells and the artist is usually a central part of that story. Make no mistake, the art should stand on its own, but what really gets people interested (perhaps interested enough to loosen their purse strings) is the story behind the artist.

Imagine a very crude painting on a sheet of paper – no frame or matte board, just a painting on paper. There are stray lines and a blob of paint here and there. If you say that the painting was made by a 42 year old accountant that creates art in his free time on the weekends, the likelihood of any interest in the work has been diminished, BUT if you say the same painting was a product of an overly creative artistic chimpanzee – people take notice and their opinions of the piece change considerably. The painting hasn’t changed, but the perception of the work has changed context and has suddenly become intriguing.

Your origin story needs to have the same kind of impact. By origin story, I mean the story that sums up your background and explains who you are and how you got to where you are today. Comic book superheroes are the best way to illustrate the concept. For example, the geeky Peter Parker was often bullied in school until he was bitten by a radioactive spider at a public science exhibit. The bite gave him spider-like strength and agility, the ability to climb walls, and an incredible sense of awareness – “Spider Sense.” Peter Parker became Spider-Man. We could go on and on with stories of Superman coming from planet Krypton, the loss of Bruce Wayne’s parents, etc – but hopefully you get the idea.


Great artists also have great origin stories such as Joseph Beuys’s near-fatal World War II plane crash that found him being rescued and nursed back to health by nomadic Tartar tribesmen. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mother was institutionalized in a mental hospital before he ran away from home to become a graffiti artist living on the streets. Vincent Van Gogh tried to become a minister, battled mental illness, and created wonderful vibrant works, although sadly most people only remember that he cut off his ear.

To truly captivate your viewers, you must develop your legend carefully. Your legend should not be untrue, but carefully chosen to make your story stand out from your competition. Your origin story can change context depending on the audience. For example, if I were to show my art in New York City, audiences there would find my son-of-a-sharecropper heritage, barn found materials, and slight southern drawl unusual and rather appealing, while the same origin story wouldn’t raise any eyebrows or interest in Danville, Kentucky.

To create your origin story, imagine your life in the form of a graphic novel, comic book, or biopic. What struggles can you pinpoint that led you to your current position as an artist? What great epiphanies have you experienced that revealed your true artistic calling? Imagine how you might illustrate these experiences in a comic book or how they might be filmed in a movie. As you imagine the storyboard, would it be interesting to an outsider? Would it be a film you would want to watch? By imagining your origin story from the viewpoint of an outsider, you can begin to see how you might shape certain elements of the story, focus on particular details, and hone your legend into an the tale of a triumphant artist that no one is likely to forget.

So, you know how to create art and tell its story – can you do the same to your artist bio?

This article originally appeared in our October Artists ONLY! enewsletter. Are you an artist interested in exhibit opportunities, upcoming events and inspiration? Subscribe today!