The Lament of the 500-word Essay

My how time flies – three weeks ago, I drove up to Seattle to meet with artist John Feodorov at his home studio to speak with him about his work. I had the task of writing a 500 word essay about his work for a project through IAIA’s museum. Five hundred words just isn’t enough though. It’s one of those problems that those of us who are passionate about Native American and First Nations art run into over and over. Most published work about these contemporary artists is short and you pretty much read the same things in each essay. Once you explain the artist’s cultural background, the media they work in, and identify a major theme or two in their work, your 500 words are all used up. We never seem to be able to get past the introduction. Where are the books and the journals for the 15-20 page pieces that really examine three or four of the artist’s works in depth? A paragraph in a textbook, a paragraph in an exhibition catalogue, a two column exhibition review in the regional newspaper – it’s not enough, really, to satistfy genuine interest in these artists’ work.

            I really shouldn’t complain, I suppose. I have spent the past two years working on two longer pieces. I wrote a chapter for a book that is being published by the Denver Art Museum this summer. That book (which I don’t yet know the title of) is about Native and First Nations performance art. I wrote my chapter about a performance by Erica Lord that re-worked James Luna’s Artifact Piece. I also had the privilege of working with a wonderful team on a book project through the School for Advanced Research. For that project, I pulled from a series of conversations between Native and First Nations women artists about the place of art in our lives. The subject of home came up so often, in so many different contexts, that I ended up writing my chapter about how we think of home and how leaving home and returning have played an important role in who we are as artists. Not every writing project is a 500 word essay, but for every book chapter I get to write, I am asked to write two or three 500 words essays.

            Back to John Feodorov… I wrote my 500 word essay and sent it in to the editors. I kept my prose tight, focused on giving an overview of the artist’s work, and aimed at longterm relevance. But I keep finding myself thinking about the other 5000 words I could have written. Maybe over the next few weeks I will be able to make the time to write the real essay – the one I wanted to write in the first place.

            Thank you, John Feodorov, for making artworks that are too good, too interesting, and too complicated to be able cover in 500 words. And thank you to everyone at every organization that has ever given me the opportunity to write about Native art, whether it was 500 words or 50,000 words.

Here is a link to John Feodorov’s website:

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