A place for materials, work surfaces, and inspirational objects—a place with walls to display, chairs to sit upon, books and images to read (just finished Austin Kleon’s SHOW YOUR WORK: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered) and look at. A place with windows helps. Although my first studio was a dark tiny sewing corner in the basement of my childhood home, I had a spacious basement studio decades later that always felt too dark and unappealing.
Social commentator, Fran Lebowitz, sums up the history of art as “sitting in bars smoking cigarettes.” I’m adapting that to say…for anyone still engaged in the tradition of paint, paper, and canvas, spending a lot of time inside the studio is the only way to get anything done. It helps to like being in the room.
After creating new work for three shows during the first part of this year, I was left with the need to clean and rearrange my studio—throw away stuff to make room for something new—clear space to store the returning work. The dark side of the artistic process is the accumulation of physical stuff–storage.
What is the environment where art comes from? Seeing an artist’s studio is like peeking behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain. Sometimes the art reflects the place where it is made–other times, there is incongruity. I saw my first artist studio during an art department field trip to New York in 1974. We visited the spare, clean room where Agnes Martin created her minimalist paintings. This was not work I understood or aspired to, but I had an important glimpse into the relationship between workplace and art that had to soak in for a long time.
The next year in San Francisco, I created my own studio in the bedroom of my Mission District flat using wood fruit crates. I began to see all kinds of enviable art studios, places of mystery and possibility. In 1980 I walked through Cindy Sherman’s downtown Manhattan loft with a mutual acquaintance who was staying there for awhile. I was struck by all the cool vintage items laying about, including the black and white photos of a doctor and nurse in a pair of hinged dime store gold frames that were her art at the time–a soulful mess of a place that was miles apart from the recent Architectural Digest spread.
My fifth floor walk-up in the East Village was a fine art studio until my boyfriend moved in…so for $1 a square foot I rented 300 in a newly renovated building of studios on lower Broadway. I eventually discovered that I need to live and work in the same place. For a year in Denver I lived in a very nice loft with art studio space and windows overlooking the city, but paying the rent required working 60 hours a week so there was little art made there.
I have moved a lot and always manage to carve out a work area, but it has never been quite right until landing here a few year after moving back to Buffalo nine years ago. It’s not perfect, but it is quite good. Patti Smith has been telling artists to forget New York. Find other cities like Detroit or Buffalo where space is more affordable. She is right.
Some artists need little space to do their work. More and more contemporary artists use what they have, create on the computer, or on the streets. The idea of the lone artist toiling away in a special room is kind of old fashion, but the romantic image of that remains appealing. I saw the play “Red” when it appeared in Buffalo a couple months ago. The production furthers the archetype of the tortured painter in his studio before a beckoning canvas. In this case, we find abstract expressionist painter, Mark Rothko, in constant dialogue with his earnest assistant. Rothko told him that art is about thinking. The artist ponders and prepares–the action is not the whole story.
Anthropologist Joseph Campbell wrote: “To have a sacred place is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room or a certain hour of the day or so, where you do not know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody or what they owe you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.” Essentially, this is the function of the art studio.