A Studio of One's Own
I arrived last evening in Hope Town, Bahamas for a month's visit--three weeks of painting, and a week of teaching a landscape workshop.
The first thing I did today, after drinking my morning cup of coffee, sitting in a turquoise Adirondack chair facing aquamarine waves and a pink beach, was to set up a studio.
Though just the small screened porch of my cottage rental, this space has all the elements that define a studio: supply shelves, adequate light, a table, and a place to view paintings in progress. Most importantly, it is private, a "room of one's one" (as Virginia Woolf once said), used solely for the work and pleasure of painting.
One of my favorite things about traveling is this setting up of a temporary studio: choosing the room, organizing palette and brushes, lining up blank canvasses and white paper, anticipating the work of filling them up with color and shapes.
Getting organized today got me thinking about all of the various studios I've had over the years, and how each space fit where I was in my life--and also had an influence on my life, and on my painting.
My first dedicated studio was the front five feet of my brother's small garage, which faced onto a quiet alley in Ocean Beach, California.
I was fifteen, and had gone out west for the summer from my home in Maryland to be nanny to my brother's new baby. Preoccupied, impatient, and with no experience in babysitting, I was completely unsuited for the job. When I wasn't silently pushing the poor kid in his stroller for miles along the coast, I was in my garage studio working on a moody self portrait.
The garage held my few supplies, and provided privacy as I attempted more than I was capable of. I could be miserable, joyful, absorbed in work that I didn't understand but needed to do, with no one watching or judging.
When I asked my brother if I could use part of his garage as a work space, it wasn't a casual request. There was an element of desperation there. I needed a place to work, even though I didn't know what that work was.
A few years later I left for art school in Baltimore, where I lived alone in a small apartment for four years. My studio was a tiny alcove filled with an antique drafting table and shelves of art books.
When I came home for vacation, I asked a neighbor who was renovating her rambling Victorian house if I could use her front parlor as a summer studio.
There were two large windows facing a quiet street, and the light was filtered by big oaks in the yard. I traded a painting of this view for my rental. It was good to have a place to walk to with some purpose every day, away from my childhood bedroom in my parents' home.
After school I moved to Iowa City, where I found a studio space in an old farm house.
I remember sitting in that dark room working on a still life, alone but not lonely, while I listened to the family in their kitchen.
Back in Washington a few years later, I rented a small "railroad" apartment, and chose the front room with windows on the street as my studio.
I had a child now, and needed to work at home. When my grandmother died a year later, we moved to her house, and I commandeered the large front bedroom, and moved in my old drafting table.
That was my station for calligraphy and illustration jobs, and the rest of the room was for the real work of painting.
Of course we artists were kicked out of that old building as money spread into the neighborhood, and I moved up the block to a more sanitized space on F Street.
I spent a year there trying to change my work--somehow that clean and cold office-like room called for experimentation.
When I left there, that new series was already over. Maybe a false start, maybe an idea that would be taken up again years later, in yet another studio.
When painting students want advice on how they can move forward, I ask them about where they work.
Do they have a room dedicated only to their art? Can they keep their supplies and work in progress set up? Is it private?
So often I find the answer is "no". They work on the kitchen table, or maybe in the basement. Taking over a guest room or the living room, investing in building or renting a space--that's often off their radar.
In graduate school we were each given a studio, and mine was in a dilapidated row house, with plaster flaking off the walls and rain dripping through the roof.
But it had big windows and good light, and I can't blame the room for how lost with my work I felt there, not sure what to paint, or how to paint it.
That studio was the site of two years of false starts. My best memories from that time are of copying in museums, or with my french easel outdoors.
But it was good to have my decrepit old studio on Dolphin Street to return to, a private place to sit alone, look and think, even when my thoughts were confused.
And good to have a destination each morning, my own workspace to walk to, through the busy streets of Baltimore.
My next stop was two tiny rooms in an artist-occupied warren above a porno shop near the National Portrait Gallery.
It was the most rundown space I ever worked in, and I had two of my most productive years there. My paintings became bigger, more complex, more colorful, even as the walls around me were tighter and danker.
Hearing other artists in the halls, meeting them for coffee and a chat, and planning shows together was stimulating and helpful. Painters may paint alone, but we can also help each other get our work out of the studio and into the world.
My studios in Vermont have all been at home--first, a big porch on a rented place, and now a large addition I designed.
It has plenty of room to display paintings, walls to work on, multiple easels, a floor-to-ceiling corner full of art books, ample storage and supply shelves, a big drafting table, more tables for gessoing and varnishing, and an attached bathroom so I don't have to wander out for water or breaks (though of course I do anyway.)
It's a bright, generous space with everything where I want it--but sometimes I do miss my old studios, especially the funky downtown rooms with their Victorian windows and cool grey light.
Maybe I'm nostalgic for the anonymity and companionship those city buildings offered. Maybe a change sometimes from the comfort of home is a good thing--and that's where the travel studio serves its purpose...
For me, it's the opposite. I'd be far happier living with a makeshift kitchen in the corner of the studio, than a makeshift studio in the corner of the kitchen.
That first workroom in my brother's garage, and every studio since, whether urban or rural, rented or built, used for a week or for two decades, has been a refuge, a temple, a necessary space.
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