Henri has just returned from a few days in London and Paris. A quick visit with family and friends and a lot of art on tap. Against my better judgment I went to the Frieze Fair. I thought, “Hell, I’m here. Maybe it will be a bit different in a foreign land.” But I can assure you, Ladies and Gentlemen, that is most assuredly, not the case. The correct Brit phrase would be – what a load of bollocks! I really don’t know what’s going on with the art world. We keep hearing how certain things are selling for enormous amounts of money, how the collectors are still out there etc etc. But what is decidedly missing is any imagination or aplomb in the art work that is being made and shown at these huge art market potlatches. In fact that seems to be the case for the entire art world itself. Here we are at the end of October still waiting for an exciting season of art to begin. I haven’t encountered this much apathy about art or art making in years – at least not since the so-called PC days of the early 90s. Wowser!

Gauguin was on tap at the Tate Modern. That show, once again, showed that certain types of artists must grow into their work – just like Cezanne, Van Gogh or Pollock. I’m not a big lover of Gauguin’s work. It’s a bit too spooky for my taste, but I do like some of his drawing and some of the color when it’s not muddied. The show itself was exhaustive, but the layout of the exhibition was ridiculous. Gauguin’s best works – or rather – the works that I enjoy the most – were in the last 2 rooms of the exhibit. These rooms also happen to be among the smallest rooms of the exhibition. Other folks must have thought this was his best period as well because the viewing walls were at least 5 thick with people. Try to get a handle on what you’re supposed to be looking at through a crowd of cheap wool coats and the tinny sound of audio guide headphones in a room overheating with human presence. I mean seriously, couldn’t they have used the much larger room, just before these rooms, to show the work? Aren’t those paintings far more important and worth seeing in comfort than the wooden carving that used to hang over Paul’s hut (which was generously installed in the larger room?) I really don’t deal well with that kind of crowding, never have, never will. I stayed as long as I could (which wasn’t very long at all) and quickly escaped out the last door. So much for peaceful aesthetic contemplation. I absolutely abhor these blockbusters.

The National had some of my favorite Venetians and nary a wool coat in sight. To sit in that long gracious space with Veroneses on each end is wonderful. I especially love the composition of this Allegory of Unfaithfulness. Veronese is playing with the spaces of the figures and our own relation to them. We are looking up from below, in a ditch, probably. The guy in the pink coat is getting a note from the Lady in Question, and we know it’s about a later assignation because the Love Cherubs seem to be hanging about with him. The cuckold on the right hasn’t got a clue as he looks lovingly at the woman who is paying him absolutely no mind. I still haven’t quite figured out why the LIQ is naked (I mean, her gown seems to have miraculously fallen about her buttocks,) but I’m absolutely sure it had something to do with the fact that they’re all Venetian. (Ah Venezia!) What is formally interesting is the linking of the arms, the circular composition that creates tension between the 3 figures, and the weird play of the 3 tree branches above which creates a kind of natural geometry, an abstraction in the picture. You move from the top right entanglement to the bottom left where the composition empties out, but not before the painting gives you the blessing of the Cherubs. Here’s a little love on your way out….

In Paris I saw very little art, I have to say. I was more interested in gathering a feeling. I have been re-reading a great deal on the Romantic painters, mainly because of our recent Studio series. The way the artists wrote of their lives made me think a great deal about not just the making of art but the living of it as well. Paris seemed the perfect place to begin to think about these things a bit differently and relate an older time, an older feeling to our contemporary stagnation. Don’t get me wrong, I went to the Louvre, the D’Orsay and a couple of others, but I have to say, I kept a low profile in the art world. Instead I walked, I sat, I ate, I looked at the buildings, I told stories with friends. I thought about Delacroix a lot, went to see his paintings, and Manet’s and Courbet’s as well. In the coming weeks I will be writing about some work of my friends and colleagues that I carry with me. We’ll also be discussing this Romantic spirit, not in the cliched sense that we’ve all come to understand through sappy movies or farcical love stories, no. We’re going to be going back to the harder issues that faced those artists, philosophers and poets at a time when visual and intellectual change had stagnated and Mannerism had taken hold of a culture – a time not very unlike our own.

Studio – Dennis Bellone

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.

(click on picture to stop/double click to start/click here if video doesn’t load)

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.

For more on Dennis and his work: Non-Objectif Sud Exhibition here; Video/Performance work is here.

Studio – Carla Knopp

My entire house is a live-in studio, of about 900 square feet. The front room doubles as a viewing and drying area, the kitchen is also my winter wood shop and storage, one bedroom is filled with storage shelves, a design work table, and computer station, the other bedroom is my painting studio, 10′ x 13′. Sleeping area is a lofted futon in an alcove, with painting storage underneath.

It can be very charming. I share this space with three cats, and my house is surrounded by a garden and the “pocket” forest I planted about twelve years ago. The treetop canopy filled in a couple years ago, and I truly have a small forest area, about 80′ x 80′.  It’s all located on the east side of Indianapolis, where the surrounding neighborhood is sometimes peaceful, and sometimes very raucous. I control incoming neighbor noise by playing very loud music. Other times, I’m serenaded by birds, cicadas, or crickets. It’s a sonic (and psychic) crap-shoot.

I work within a fairly wide artistic range, and am set up to paint on the wall, on an easel, or on a wedge-augmented table top. I may stand or sit, use large gestural strokes, or use a maul stick for control. It all depends on the work. Lighting is an issue. I constantly adjust lights on and off when working and viewing. I pace around to view from various angles and often stand on a chair and view upside down. I do this a lot. This pacing also sets up rhythmic mental state, as does the music I play. It hadn’t really occurred to me before…….that I anchor myself in this agitation. It acts as a repetitive, controlled distraction, and helps me maintain a broad perspective as I work. Ideally, I’d like to mentally be aware of the (changing) big picture while losing myself in the minutiae of the painting moment. I want to stay alert and aware, while muddling blindly.

My best visual ideas come very quickly and unexpectedly. I like to work in short sessions of focus, usually 20-40 minutes, interspersed with episodic piddling. Focus, piddle, focus, piddle, all day long. Again, it’s rhythmic. I also take in short viewing sessions when not painting. My favorite pop-in time is when I exercise. I break for water, and run into the studio panting. The work looks very different when I’m winded, and I may look around and instantly know where to go next, on several paintings. It’s very beneficial to have my studio in my living space, where I can engage and back off so readily.

I use this space in two very different art-making capacities, which adds a layer of structural chaos to the process. I make my personal art paintings here, and I also run a mural and decorative painting business. The environment is continually fluctuating, both physically and contextually. I must frequently break down and set up for two different activities involving different supplies, working methods, projects, and ways of thinking. They also fulfill a different purposes. I’m very amused by the visual juxtapositions which often occur in my studio space, and have documented these ludicrous pairings, on my blog ( under “studio turf wars” label).

The studio itself is inviting, but is arranged solely for practicality. Even though I spend so much time fulfilling others’ decorative needs, I sport a “default” scheme in my own place, and especially in the studio. Several years ago, when I had a separate studio in the Murphy Arts Center, my current studio was a bedroom. I sewed monkey print curtains for a window in this room. Those curtains still hang, functioning, but well past their ornamentally relevant prime.

Other default studio arrangements are more oppressive, or they would be if I noticed. I have boarded shut the exit door, after a failed break-in attempt made the door unusable. This door previously opened onto my garden, but that was distracting anyway, right? I also have roughly boarded over a smashed window, the outcome of a later successful break-in. I have placed 2” x 4”s over the one remaining studio window (along with most of the other windows in the house). It seemed severe and depressing at first, but I barely notice now. I enjoy gazing through the bars at my forest. Most of the time, it’s weirdly idyllic here, and very conducive to working. However, as I am constantly made aware, anything can happen at any time. This is not antithetical to the process of painting, per se, but I sometimes wonder if I’m harboring an unconscious self-narrative. Am I being practical, or am I embracing the suffering artist cliché, or am I being a Pollyanna?

d) All of the above.

I am happy with how I’ve been able to work from here. My home/studio is brilliant in its functionality.  It’s also a thief-targeted shack. Some days I feel so lucky, and other times I feel really stuck. I will be making some sort of change soon, and just today, I finally had a mental glimpse of my next studio incarnation. It’s still in the imaginary stages, but I’ll keep you posted.

Carla’s webpage is here, business is here, and blog is here!

Studio – Paul Corio

My studio is in Sunset Park – it’s the 2nd stop if you catch an express train into Brooklyn from Manhattan (N or D). The entire space is 28′ square, but I had a half-wall built in the center and rent out one side. It has windows which face north, plus it’s the tallest building in the neighborhood, so when it’s sunny the light is nice and even all day. I recently had a 4′ x 6′ x 8′ storage rack built in the corner. I’ve been there for just over two years.

There’s a table I made from a single sheet of 4′ x 8′ plywood which is on casters. When I’m working on the wall (the one on the left as you face the windows) the table is usually kept on the window side, perpendicular to the wall. When I’m working on the easel, which I keep close to the windows on the right side, the table stays in the center of the room. There are shelves, two folding tables, a chop saw, and various pictures, notes, and clippings on the right-hand wall as well. I try and keep things neat – clutter clouds my thinking. If I have more than one painting in progress, it’s sometimes hard to keep things organized, but I’ll pause and clean up if it starts to get too messy.

I returned to painting in a serious way in 2005, after a long period of playing jazz as my main creative project. When I finished grad school in May of 2000, I was obsessed with the idea of making a painting that was perfectly abstract, with no referents external to the painting. This is, of course, an impossibility – everything in a picture, no matter how stripped down, evokes something you’ve seen in the physical world. I had always played music, but at that point decided to make it my main focus (it had always been secondary to picture-making) because the natural condition of music is pure abstraction. I dropped painting for five years.

Toward the end of my stint as a jazz musician, I had several realizations:

1. I was a very good jazz drummer, but my real strength was picture-making. It’s important to link up your hard work to your greatest aptitudes.

2. Jazz makes for a miserable life – far worse than the fine arts. You need to get so much from the music that it makes the life bearable. I was not getting sufficient satisfaction from the music.

3. Being the drummer means that you are contributing one component part to group expression. I really prefer working on my own.

4. Making a picture that is perfectly and utterly abstract is not that important.

This last realization made returning to painting much easier (although it’s never easy). I felt free to explore a more traditional figure and ground relationship, and to depict the so-called “illusionistic space” even though I was using abstract figuration. I really prefer the fictive space of painting-as-window to the two-dimensionality of painting-as-object.

That said, figure and ground have to interact in a different way in abstract painting than they do in representational painting; it doesn’t work to hang squiggles or geometry in front of a flattened background, the two have to have a more intrinsic relationship. The circle and stripe paintings (my first series after getting back to work, and what I consider to be the beginning of my mature work) solved this problem by making the figure out of the same stuff as the ground.

I worked on these paintings for just under two years. When that was beginning to wind down, I started to try and develop a new series that I could sustain for an extended period. Because of this, 2007 was a frustrating year – I only kept one canvas even though I was painting quite a lot. Trying to find a single approach or motif that would encompass all I wanted to show was too much of a daunting, high-stakes game.

When I got the space in Sunset Park in June of 2008, I made a firm decision to do something I had been thinking about for several months – reject the notion of series and of signature style. I wanted to approach studio practice much like Richter; arrive at the space each day and decide what to paint, not worrying about creating a cohesive body of work, but making compelling single works. It turned out to be a much better modus operandi for me, and I must say that I was actually a little disappointed at the cohesion of the work taken as a whole – I was hoping it would be even more far-flung. Apparently, something like signature style doesn’t materialize until you stop looking for it.

My best ideas emerge from the process of working. Pictures always turn out to be something different than you thought they would be – sometimes they’re better, often worse (into the trash they go), and more often still, they present a new idea to be elaborated. Some of these things turn out to be blind alleys, and some fruitful. I rarely dream things up at home and go out to Brooklyn and paint them – the work itself begets more work. Because of this, it’s critical that I go to the studio as much as I can, whether I feel like it or not. I’m a very disciplined person.

Finding something new is a thrill, and finishing a painting that I know is good is a thrill. The rest of the time spent in the studio is work – mixing paint (which takes me a great deal of time), applying tape, stretching canvas, etc., is not romantic or glamorous. I listen to jazz while I’m working, and it’s particularly important during these more workman-like days (which are many). Thelonius Monk is my favorite.

For me, Monk is the prime example of humor playing an important role in art – Monk’s performances and compositions are playful, but not a gag; even the most casual listener can identify this. Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman are both a close second in this regard. I flatter myself as someone with a good sense of humor; in fact I think it’s a key component to my personality, and I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the extent to which I should exercise humor in my work. I hate art that presents itself as a cynical joke, which is common coin and has been for a long time. But to leave the playfulness out, as I tried to do when I was in grad school, seems dishonest.

The flip side of humor as it relates to my studio practice is death. When I’m in the studio, I often think about death and meaninglessness. I grew up Roman Catholic, and have a homey nostalgia for the incense, the architecture, the solemnity, the summer feasts, and so on. But deep down, I’ve always had a cold, creeping suspicion that there’s nothing – no meaning, no point, no redemption, just biological process. I’ve been dogged by this from the time I was a child. I’m not the kind of intellectual who can simply shrug and learn to live with it; l feel the need to find a point, to search for and create meaning.

I don’t think this is unusual, although I think in the current climate it might be considered old-fashioned. Art presents the possibility of assigning significance to one’s existence, has the capacity to stave off the fear of inevitable mortality, and to passionately express one’s essential humanity and individuality to others. I should hasten to add that I don’t consider myself a tortured artist, like Van Gogh or the Abstract Expressionists. I just think that it comes with the territory; most artists, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, have some version of this as an animating factor.

The work itself is a lot more about life than death – not in terms of subject matter, but in terms of its direct appeal to perception, specifically vision. I feel as though just about anyone with normally functioning vision will not only find something in the work, but that something will be not dissimilar from what I want them to see. The idea in some quarters that art is a kind of text makes me bristle. The visual precedes, and I believe supercedes, language.

My paintings are mainly about color. More specifically, the articulation of space using diminishing and increasing color contrast, and the illusion of spreading light. During my frustrating period in 2007 and the beginning of 2008, I came to understand that my work didn’t really rely on any specific figuration, or geometry, or purity, or anything like that – I was much more concerned with light, and the depiction of that hazy, atmospheric space so common to Venetian Renaissance painting. As such, all I needed from my figuration was sufficient blandness to make color the star of the show – color will almost always assume a secondary role when paired with highly active figures. The other necessity for making color the primary aspect of a picture is the conscious suppression of the hand, which, like biomorphic figuration, can diminish the importance of color.

The other benefit of the concealment of the artists’ hand is that it allows the viewer to have a relationship with the picture, not the maker. Gestural abstractions often feel like psychological self-portraits or autographs. I love Ab Ex and I’m not criticizing this phenomenon, but it’s not for me; I want to be relatively invisible when a viewer apprehends one of my pictures. My method for hiding the artist’s hand (and hence the artist) is the use of miles and miles of very expensive masking tape. When I dreamt of being an abstract painter, my fantasy did not entail the painstaking application of masking tape for hours and hours. But I think one must, to a large extent, allow the work to lead and to follow it to its logical conclusion. You can’t lie about who you are when you’re in the studio – there’s no one to lie to but yourself.

My students routinely ask me how long it takes to finish some of my more intricate paintings. After I tell them, they usually make a face and ask if this is my idea of fun. Of course not, but assigning meaning to one’s existence is rarely a laughing party, right?

For More Information: Paul Corio’s Blog No Hassle At the Castle is here. His website is here. Facebook page is here.

Studio – June O. Underwood

Material Reality: the Studio Life

Feeling out of place on my stool at my wheeled studio table, I wrote this post — first draft — on my laptop. Ordinarily, (except for the radio/CD and the microwave) the studio contains no electronics. No cell phone, no computer, no e-book. My laptop lives in the house, as does my digital camera. I finished this post on my office PC, much more at ease. There’s not much virtual reality in the studio.

I’m not against virtual reality. I check in on Facebook as if it were a cigarette break. I have a personal blog, a website, and I moderate an art blog and sometimes contribute to another. I read blogs and Google for fun and research, and I borrow my friends’ cell phones. My Kindle accompanies me everywhere out of town. But virtual reality remains outside the studio.

I also don’t pursue serious mental activities in the studio. Books are scarce there. Occasionally a book will appear and lie about for a few weeks (currently it’s Rackstraw Downes), but ordinarily I neither read nor write in the studio.  I have a strong mental life – I like thinking. Writing out thoughts forces me to conclusions, seriously thought-out questions, tidying a chaotic world. I like words and stories. I study the geology and the human histories of the structures of the places I paint. I like recounting plein air adventures, telling tales and imagining new projects. I believe that my art comes out of specific contexts as important as the work itself. But in the studio my mental existence is erratic, unimportant, and usually forgotten when I walk out the door.

Physically, I’m into beauty and comfort. My studio appears elegantly designed from the outside; the clerestory windows are 16 feet up in the air; the elevated and cedar-sided building, re-fashioned from a rickety old garage, is a source of house pride. (The elegant look caused the tax assessor to be incredulous when we told him it wasn’t a “granny” apartment; “waste of a perfectly good garage,” he muttered, as he walked away.)

And ordinarily, I’m a person who revels in the physical beauty of life, the smell of the harlequin bush up the street and the sound of chickadees in late August. I like both spare modern spaces and the overwhelming jumble of foliage and trees and flowers of Portland, Oregon. I paint plein air and delight in the tensions and excitement that that outdoor “studio” produces. Noting the stories I’m told, I smell the transients who hit me up for a buck, listen to the city sirens, and try to learn about the inhabitants, human and otherwise, of the places I paint on-site.

June O. Underwood, 20th and Hawthorne, 12 x 16”, oil on masonite, 2008

But despite a wonderfully spare view of the three trunks of a vine maple from the back door and the play of light through many windows, my studio is not a place of sensual elements.

My studio is a big box filled with working materials, materials to paint with, materials to make the paintings presentable, two large rolling easels that play footsie with the light fixtures, and a big wall to paint on: paintings that are wrapped and stored, paintings that have nostalgic if not public value, paintings that are in process, supports for paintings that I will do someday, an air brush and compressor, colored pencils, brushes, plastic containers, two rolling carts containing oils in one and acrylics in the other, a folding table, also on  wheels, on which I can cut and tape and lay out paint and clean brushes and make notes. There’s a ladder, the perfect height for my needs, two hammers dropped into their proper holes in the ladder shelf, a host of push pins and rubber bands and erasers and paper clips, as well as paper towels, clean rags, plastic bags for dirty rags. I also have a corner for amenities, like the radio whose dial must be turned to tune it and the microwave which heats tea water. A cushioned chair is available for visitors, and a kitchen stool for my own use. A folding chair can be brought down from its wall space if necessary.

So the point of all this description?  While I live with virtual, mental, and physical realities, and revel in them all, they drop away when I go into the studio. There, I am in the zone of the material – the paints, the brushes, the supports, the buttery sploosh of medium-laden oil, the rasp of dry oil across canvas.

The studio interior is ordinary, unphotogenic, dear to me, but opaque to others. I keep as many of my paintings hung in view as there is available space. These remind me that I can make paintings, even out of unprepossessing circumstances. For example, the first canvas I did at a Goldwell residency in Nevada, on a frigid February day, was from an isolated space, an unheated barn in the Amargosa desert. Staring out the window, I painted, wondering what the hell I was doing there, shivering under three sweaters and a coat, with ankles barely warmed by a space heater under the table. The presence of this painting in my home studio tells me I can do it – whatever the current “it” is.

June O. Underwood, From the Red Barn, 24 x 27”, oil on canvas, 2009

I love the material and tangible working parts of my studio life partly because I come from a working class family, in the literal sense, where making things work was primary. My rural family fixed cars, spliced electrical wires, kept their own sewage systems mostly intact, played guitars and accordions, hunted and fished and cleaned their own game. My mother scorned the home dec and craft culture of the fifties –craft was what ladies do “who think their shit don’t stink.” She smoked cigarettes and cooked quantities of food. She raised her six kids and about 6 others who wandered in. She was a small quiet reader of poetry who managed to make-do. I also read poetry, sang Johnny Cash with my brother, played the piano, and saw no fine art – great, dummied down, tasteful, or anything else — until I reached college. My family worked hard and much of that work was hand work – wallpapering the living room, roofing the garage, tearing down the outbuilding. I was a girl, so I got to can peaches and wash dishes and change diapers, but I loved the world of guy work, which involved tools and equipment and a sense of can-do.

In some ways I was lucky not to have been brought up with “taste.” Even Art 101 didn’t have an impact on me as a college student – I was into (sophomoric) philosophies, heady with ideas and that totally new culture of city folk and academics. Not until the mid-1990’s did I find myself in the world of visual art, reading Arthur Danto and Robert Hughes, peering at the works of Cezanne and Emily Carr, and learning about the abstract expressionists and the Fauves. My studio closes a loop, bringing me back to the material world. I even have Johnny Cash to sing along with while thinking about alizarin crimson.

I like the realities of my current existence – mental realities of books and thoughts and emotional and abstract reasoning; physical realities of cars and rattlesnakes and smoke and heat; virtual realities of Facebook and blogs and email and Google; and material reality, tools and things made. Studio-wise, though, it’s the materials that make it what it is, wholly, fully, and my own.

June O. Underwood, The Journey, 18 x 24, oil on birch, 2009


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