When I recently vacated my summer studio shack at Habitat For Artists, Simon Draper, creator/curator of the unusual HFA residency project in Beacon, NY, asked me to write a brief essay on my experience. It’s longer than my usual posts, and some of it may sound familiar from earlier Studio Updates, but I thought readers might be interested in how the experience ultimately shaped my work. Many thanks to Simon, Marnie, all the other artists, and, of course, the crew at Homespun Foods for making the best coffee in town. And special thanks to Dia for providing such glorious air-conditioning during that unbearable June heatwave, even if they still don’t allow photography in the galleries.
Top: My shack is the yellow one on the left, Simon’s is the blue one, and Sara Mussen was assigned the one on the right. In the foreground you can see one of Simon’s wooden constructions. Below: “Siding,” an oil study on wood. At bottom: “Framing.” The limited palette of this study corresponds with earlier paintings, whereas the palette in”Siding” reflects the expanded use of color in my new work. Each piece is 9.75″ x 12,” oil on wood, and the images are inspired by the shed architecture. I’ll be posting images of new work on my website throughout the fall.
Having lost my studio in 2005, I initially adapted by working on projects that required only a computer and a desk: fiction writing, artist’s books, and digital installations. When I began painting again, I went small and, rather than composing multiple paintings at once, I worked sequentially, which requires much less space. By May of this year, I felt constrained by the small attic room where I’d been working, and kept imagining different studio scenarios. I know from experience that outfitting a new studio is a grueling, expensive process and heartbreaking when you have to move out. After talking to other artists facing the same dilemma, I concluded that setting up a new studio would interrupt my workflow, and that the studio would eventually become financially burdensome and geographically limiting.
The alternative was to keep the size of my work manageable, and find temporary space as required, on an ad hoc basis. Simon Draper’s Habitat For Artists project thus presented a fortuitous opportunity. My own quandary had seeded a broader interest in contemporary artists’ evolving studio needs and expectations (I wrote about the issue in “Lost in Space: Art Post-Studio” in the June issue of The Brooklyn Rail), and Simon was on the same wavelength. My more particular notion was that two small studios in different communities could take the place of one big one.
Originally, HFA was conceived as a two-week intensive working residency period in May, followed by a big reception during which the artists involved would present the work they had made during their stay. As with most new projects, the founding concepts evolved, and soon HFA became a summer-long residency that kicked off, rather than ended, on that weekend in May.
In the days leading up to the reception, when not thwarted by thunderstorms, Simon and his team were busy getting the shacks sided and roofed. Since I was a latecomer to the roster, my shack was still in the framing stage when I made my inaugural visit on May 16. The opening reception was at noon the next day, and when I arrived in the morning, the chipboard siding had been secured and the roof attached. I fly-papered the exterior with reading material and digital images of past projects, and painted the siding to protect it from the weather.
I’d never met most of my new neighbors – Dar Williams, Richard Bruce, Alexis Elton, Kathy Feighery, Marnie Hillsley, Matthew Kinney, Sara Mussen, and Lori Nozick – but they were all there. I’d met Chris Albert at the blogger panel at Red Dot, and it was good to see him again. At the end of that first day, which included a wine-tasting and a stage performance by Flying Swine, I left a blank canvas, a new pad of drawing paper, and a set of pencils in the shed to use when I returned the next week.
Over the course of the summer, I spent most Mondays (sometimes Tuesdays, depending on the weather) in Beacon, working quietly in the shed. Although Simon had originally conceptualized the sheds as art objects unto themselves, he was flexible – wisely, I think – about how they were to be used. In the end, only one artist treated his shed like an art project per se, turning it into a large sculptural installation. Most of us simply adorned the outside with samples of our work, and then used them as studios. Every Friday and Saturday evening, Simon invited the community to see what was happening in the little studio shantytown he had created.
Looking over my notes from my time spent there, a few observations stand out. Most importantly, this was the first time in the past five or six years that I had worked without a computer by my side. Since spring 2007 I’ve been an inveterate art blogger (if you’re reading this, you already know this!), and even while I’m painting, the laptop taunts me from across the room, pinging when new notes or articles land in my inbox, offering unlimited distraction in the form of Google alerts and blog-stat monitoring. In the shed I had a cell phone, but was otherwise free of modern technology. Working without interruption was like defragging a hard drive: all the different blocks of brainpower, usually spread over multiple tasks on any given day, were focused on the singular activity of painting. It worked. I completed numerous oil-on-paper color studies for a new series of paintings, which I started when I returned home. Until I unplugged at the shack, I’d nearly forgotten what an engrossing meditative state the painting process triggers.
Traveling to the shack was more time-consuming than working in one stationary location, but even though I painted less on days spent in Beacon, as my world expanded to HFA, my work grew richer. Exploring HFA’s larger artistic community in Beacon had unanticipated benefits. At the beginning of the year, I was entering an anxious transitional phase, unsure where I was going and armed only with faith that the discipline of daily practice would lead somewhere. Visiting Dia:Beacon for the first time and seeing installations by colorists Blinky Palermo and Imi Knoebel, I became fascinated by color relationships, value, and saturation. Dia, known more for their unadorned sculptures and installations by Minimalist masters like Richard Serra and Donald Judd, is certainly an odd place to discover color, but as the summer progressed I overcame my theretofore unexplored chromophobia and, starting in my shed, extended the limited, austere palette I’d been using for years to include the entire color wheel.
Working at the little 4’ x 5’ shack made me realize that the attic room I dismissed as too small and cramped is, in fact, more than enough space. Über-painter Brice Marden may have four gigantic studios (a 5,000 square-foot duplex in Manhattan, one in upstate New York, one in Greece, and one in Pennsylvania) that reflect his need to produce big quantities of large-scale work for many international exhibitions. Of course most working artists can’t afford this kind of extravagantly hermetic setup, but it may also be that fewer and fewer would actually welcome it. Getting out in the world, working among other people, and changing the physical circumstances of making art may seem counterproductive from moment to moment. But artists liberated from onerous commitments to space may end up freer, and more inspired, to just make art. I think that is one of the key insights that underlies Simon’s Habitat for Artists, and made it work so well for me.
NY Times reports on the surge of backyard sheds.