I have been in my studio for nearly 20 years now. Hard to believe that so much time has passed, that I have gotten that much older, been married twice in that time, divorced too, now with a 9 year old I wish I could see more of, I’ve lost friends, lovers and made new but the studio has remained, even more so than any apartment. This studio has been the longest constant in my entire life.
My studio is in an old factory in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, one of the few still zoned for manufacturing and is home to many wood working companies. Hence there is a constant need to dust. The floors are hardwood and stained with oil and history, a fabric mill once was in this space and I used to dig up needles for the knitting machines between the floorboards.
My studio is my space. I swear that one day I’ll clean the place up but then the studio is a reflection of my mind; hither, thither and yon.
The studio is a functional place and is broken into two parts. One is the main space and is about 750 square feet the other is about 300 square feet and is where I store old paintings and assorted tools and personal history in various boxes that I often ask myself – why do I linger over such that is past?
The studio. when I first took it, was nearly barren, and it was my second proper studio in the city. It only had what few tools and few works I had made up to that time. Almost like it was a new love with a bright future and little history to clutter it. Over time more tools had to be acquired to make stretchers, and with more tools, more shelves or tables with storage. What was once almost a tabula rasa now has the personal history of my clutter. Two benches were made for people to sit on, but more importantly, to lay paintings flat and off the floor enough to work on at arms length. More clutter. More paintings were made, some good, some great and some embarrassingly bad. No buyers, roll them, trash them ,or lean them on the walls. In the beginning it was just the main space, then I rented the entrance space for storage. I resent the clutter, but I can’t seem to muster the courage to throw it out. Firstly, there is the cost. Over the last 20 years I’ve rented two dumpsters to purge. Maybe I need a third.
The main space has only one window put in by the previous landlord. It casts a dull light on one wall but the sun does come through it in late summer afternoons and is welcome, because I can open it to air the place out and get a breeze. The window affords a small glimpse of the East River and midtown, but it’s otherwise not a pleasant view, so no time is ever spent daydreaming while looking out the window.
There is one main wall dedicated to making most of my work, and it is in the darker part of the studio, lit by four clamp lights to illuminate the wall. Next to it on the right is the homemade palette table with drawers and storage. On top of this large table is a large piece of glass measuring about 40 by 80 inches. On top of the glass palette are various coffee cans full of brushes of various sizes and also the mediums I use in various jars. Also Liquin, Linseed oil, paint thinner, waxes, and other mediums, a coffee can full of palette knives, and sometime below in a plastic box, but more often than not, sit the various tubes of oil paint. Below on a shelf are the various mediums I use to gesso and prep my canvases. Behind the palette table on the wall lean a stack of very large canvases measuring roughly 7 by 11 feet.
Another large table now exists in the studio. It is also homemade and has drawers that open on either side. It takes up too much space but is essential as a drafting table and worktable for various other projects. My most ‘prized’ possession is an old red leather chair that needs reupholstering. I have spent more time in that chair looking at my work than any other over the last 20 years.
I have made cabinets, furniture, paintings, sculptures and videos in the studio. I almost never drink in the studio unless I have a studio visit. In fact I never drink when I work.
I go through periods where the main studio space is cleaned up, usually before I begin on a new group of paintings. I build my own stretchers and then clean up the resultant sawdust, etc. I try to prepare three to four canvases or surfaces before I start. Plastic down on the floor to keep the canvas clean as I stretch it, then the dull task of preparing the surface. Stretching and preparing the canvas are the most dreaded aspects of art making to me. It can take up to a week to prepare the canvas to the surface that I am now going for. Gessoing, sanding, re-gesso and repeat, repeat, make some special mixes to give the surface sheen and density that I like. It is all very tedious and not unlike house painting, another activity I absolutely hate. I’d rather sweep the floor. Once the canvas is stretched I sit and look at it for days at a time, pour over some old sketchbooks or new ones searching for some idea. I put away all of the paintings I have and keep the other walls save for the work wall bare. The work wall by the palette table has four clamp lights suspended near the ceiling flooding it. I’ll break and go down to the local Mexican cantina for some lunch, looking for some excuse to not start work.
The studio is like a laboratory or at least that is how I have described it in the past. It is a space in which I can conduct my artistic experiments and investigations. I am a firm believer that one has to make art as a practice, the actual physical engagement with materials, ideas and throw in freedom into the mix, the freedom to make without concern for results, to be without concern for art, to even escape from the notions and concepts of art because then one has an organic relationship to their own ideas and materials.
While I prepare the canvas I often listen to WNYC FM but once I start to paint, the radio goes off. I find I can’t listen to any music or talking. Friends have asked over the years if they could photograph me working but I always decline. For two reasons, the first being that I like my solitude while I work, and don’t care to have gawkers. The ‘act’ of creation is a silent and personal one, perhaps even embarrassing. The second being, I don’t care to romanticize this personal moment in the way that it is too often done, “the lone artist struggling ….”
I sometimes prep a canvas saying this will be my De Kooning Woman and it will take three years to make, but it never comes to that. I’m just not that way. The easy way I manage to make it look is not so easy. It has taken many years to make it appear thus, but then there are countless sketchbooks with watercolor sketches littering the house and the studio. The studio is more an extension of the sketchbooks. A year or so after I took this studio I started sketching again in earnest. As a child I drew every day until an injury broke me of that habit. With the restarting of an active drawing life I made the determination that every foul, foolish, profane idea could be put into the sketchbooks. There would be no editing, they would be the visual equivalent of a private journal. Sometimes I have gone back over them and have been horrified by some of the banality of my thoughts. The studio is an extension of that. I have the occasional preconceived idea that usually turns out to be very bad, but more often than not I approach the studio as a laboratory without any predetermined idea as to what entails an experimental result.
The work evolves out of this experimentation. One proposition leads to another and I will explore it, this painting points this way and that ,and I will try to take the two or three canvases prepared and explore the opposite directions. Once a painting is ‘done’ I will hang it on one of the two main walls and start work on a new one. When the resultant ones are finished I will have a small ensemble and I sit in the red chair and look at them. Then I look some more. This process of actually making the paintings takes usually one to four days. The first one will be pretty good, the second and third, maybe good and sometimes the last one will be really good. That’s on a good stretch. I’ve actually gotten accustomed to knowing when it is a good day to approach painting given the way I make work. If the ‘feeling’ isn’t there, then it is a terrible waste of materials. I rarely rework a canvas when this happens. Usually I will push it into a direction unlike the others. After the day is done I will clean the palette by making small paintings on various scraps of wood or small canvases.
The large paintings will hang there on the walls for sometimes months, as I need to make money to feed my habit. When it is time to repeat the cycle, then the paintings go into the painting racks in the adjacent room I have to my main space. When the racks get too full, then I have to make a determination as to which current paintings are worthy of remaining stretched and the unfortunate ones that I roll onto a large roll. That pains me more than can be imagined as I have some canvases that in hindsight I wish were still stretched, especially when the new ones don’t live up to what I have just painted.
Often after I complete a work I sit in my red chair and stare at it. The work process for me involves a lot of intuition and afterwards I try to make sense, if possible of what I’ve done. This after process of trying to get a handle on what I’ve done is filled with what I would have to call an excited angst. I often feel the need to have someone come and see what I’ve done immediately, in that regard I’m something like a little kid wanting to show mommy my latest new discovery.
I don’t always go to the studio to work, sometimes it is a haven from the outside world where I will go to read or just hang out. Occasionally, I put down a moving blanket and take a nap. The studio is not only a private place to create work but is also a private place to withdraw from the world in a mental way. It houses not only my history of art making over the last 20 years but also holds a promise of things to come. It also holds the pain of things not accomplished. For me the studio is like an old friend or lover, in the beginning there seems to be so much promise, but then history with its attendant triumphs (few) and failures (far too frequent) leads somewhat to disillusionment and frustration, sometimes creative paralysis. In the beginning everything was ordered and in its place, much like my life seemed to be, but now, some twenty years later, the studio represents or is an extension of my mind, my thinking and my history, cluttered, sometimes dusty, sometimes cleaned, although never quite enough to be back to the tabula rasa.