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.
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.
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.
Residency blogs: www.juneunderwoodpaintings.wordpress.com
Personal blog: www.southeastmain.wordpress.com