Studio

Filth and Chaos

Oh, god. That's the floor of my studio at present. Liberally strewn with sawdust, plaster dust, gypsum dust, mice droppings, and most of the power tools we own. The electricians finished running the conduit out to the studio and installing a sub-panel, an in-wall heater, and in the ceiling, 13 recessed lights and an air-exchanger/ventilator. That was A LOT of holes in the walls and ceiling, which I am, 2 days in, finally getting close to finished repairing. Then will come massive clean-up, followed by the construction of a bookshelf running along the length of the building under the windows, for books and storage. Followed by more clean-up. I just need to power through and finish it all up so I can get back to work. Sigh. While it is satisfying to grow my general contracting skills, it's also really TIRING. I'm girding my loins to re-enter the fray . . . it's just that it's a sunny Saturday and what I really want to do is work in the garden . . .

Paint By Numbers

So I've been working away on the paint-by-numbers Christmas paintings. It turned out that they were a great way to get me in the studio after such a long break. I managed to finish the one for my mom, Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance.

Sorry about the glare. I've been trying out a new walnut oil medium, and it makes the paint really shiny. Shiny dark paint is just impossible to photograph. I rather particularly enjoy God as an apocalyptic spider in the painting above the woman's head. Doesn't it/He look just like a wrathful bug in the original?

Next furthest along is James's painting, Fra Angelico's The Beheading of Cosmas and Damian:

Gory choice, James! I approve.

Katharine wanted Diebenkorn's Coffee:

This one is proving to be really hard to paint-by-numbers-ify, because it's so brushy and loose that it's hard to separate out the colors into discrete little shapes. But I will persevere!

Claire requested Bonnard's The Table, which is also hard, due to it's shimmering brushwork, and the way the colors get all up into other colors' business and just general Bonnard-ishness.

I spend a day and a half starting it, and got so frustrated I painted the whole thing white and have to start over again. Grrrrrrrrrrrr.

And finally, Annie requested Water Mill, by Fritz Thaulow, a painting in the Philadelphia Museum of art that I was not familiar with:

I like this painting a lot . . . but instead, as a kind of sisterly joke, I decided to give her one of my own long-standing favorites, Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters, attributed to the School of Fontainebleau, and one of the weirdest paintings I know:

This one is well under way, but I don't seem to have a photo of it currently uploaded, and I'm just too dern lazy to go and get one. Sorry Annie! Soon, soon.

All of these little numbers would be progressing even more apace if my studio weren't currently torn apart and uninhabitable. We are having a proper electrical conduit run out to it and a sub-panel installed (Before, there was just a wire buried in our backyard. Mmmmmmm. Sketchy.). Plus an in-wall heater, a ventilation unit, and 12 can lights in the ceiling. When it's done, it should be really nice, but at the moment it's dark, freezing, and covered in plaster dust. I've been painting in the dining room, which is never totally conducive to awesomeness, plus there's the added hazard of Izzy the three-legged yet indomitably troublesome kitten, who yesterday managed to launch herself into my momentarily unattended palette, necessitating a highly stressful for all parties paw cleaning session with vegetable oil and soapy water. Even that couldn't remove the pthalocyanine green tinge from her white fur. Of course, diligent licking on her part eventually took care of it. Sigh. I hope she's not too poisoned.

New Space

Well, that was a depressing post that I’ve left up for way too long now. In real time, shortly after writing it, something turned around inside me and I didn’t feel so hopeless anymore. In fact, I feel re-energized. I love my new backyard studio. In fact, I don’t know how I ever painted without it. And it’s not because the space is sooooooooo amazing — it’s not. Its square footage is only adequate (17’ X 13’) and the ceiling is downright low — a mere 7 1/2 feet. However, it really is like going to a different place when I walk the 15 or so feet across the yard to it. Totally unlike the miserable 6 month period when I tried to paint in what had been the master bedroom of our old apartment in Watertown, MA. Yuck. Painting in the living quarters is not for me. But it is so awesome to be able to just duck into the house for a cup of tea, to cook something for myself for lunch, to not have to set off for the studio like an arctic explorer, armed with sufficient edibles to keep me sustained for a long haul, and feeling like if I’m making the schlep, it’d better be worthwhile. No fucking around allowed.

But now! I can fuck around! I can just dip in, do a thing or two, or look around and leave. I can work for a couple of hours in the evening after dinner, something I NEVER did when my studio was in a separate building miles away. I feel nicely apart, in my own art space, and also close to home, in a comfy, non-stifling way. I can’t wait for spring, for our garden to get going. Then it’ll be even better.

Anyway, I’ve been long on whining, short on pictures for some times now. Boring! You may remember a painting that I started this summer, inspired by one of Jesse’s poems (well, probably not — why would you?).  I picked it up again and have been trying to finish it. Here’s the three latest versions, most recent at the bottom:

It’s at the point where when I look back on the earlier iterations they look much better to me:  more open, airier. Of course back then, they looked empty, like not enough was going on. So I’ve been stuffing more and more bits into it, and now it looks overstuffed. Time to edit, obliterate, hack away. Prune. Give it some space.

Spring Fever

spring-orchard-2 The weather for the past three days has been glorious, fast-forwarded to spring, and then on to summer:  sunny and hot, under clear, limpid skies. All the trees are ecstaticly flowering, and people have emerged onto their front porches, walking their dogs and babies, exposing white shins and elbows, everyone giddy with the sudden, almost blatantly sexual excitement of spring. After all, what are all those flowers up to, really, looking so innocently picturesque?

D and I drove out to Sauvie Island on Sunday in the hope of going to a farmer’s market we like, but were foiled — it doesn’t open till June. Instead we found a funny little park that was essentially the backyard of a now uninhabited house, perhaps historic. Being always afraid of getting into trouble (doesn’t this tendency seem downright unartistic? I worry about it, my desire to stay within bounds, and not piss people off. Ha! How’s that for an absurd negative feedback loop?) I was trepidatious at first, because it kind of seemed like we were trespassing. But there were a couple of those metal grills for barbecuing that you find in public parks, and a large party of Indians picnicking, the women arrayed in piquantly colored saris, like human-sized flowers. We ended up spreading a blanket in a very old orchard, the trees gnarled and covered in lichens, absolutely exploding into blossom and giving a perfect auditory illustration of Yeat’s “bee-loud glade". As we read and drowsed, a plane moved languidly overhead, not seeming at all in a hurry or even moving with enough urgency to keep itself aloft. The sound of its engines followed it, almost visibly a beat or two behind, like a waterskier in the wake of a boat.

spring-orchard1 Unfortunately, the weather that makes for lovely lounging Sundays has turned my studio into an inferno. I don’t know what to do. The window faces southwest, and is heated relentlessly by the sun all afternoon. There is a temperature differential of about 20 degrees between my studio and the hallway, which always remains, maddeningly, quite cool.

I suppose I could put an air conditioner in, but because of the laterally sliding widow would have to block up the open space above the unit with plywood, thereby rendering the window unable to be opened at all. Which maybe isn’t such a bad thing, I suppose, because the other problem I’ve discovered about my new studio is the poor air quality outside. The building is in a seriously industrial area swarming with trucks, large & small, that pour continually up and down an access ramp which is exactly level with my window, about 100 feet or so away. Thus, when I open my window for some “fresh air” to ventilate my studio, I am often suffused with the smell of diesel fuel, which nauseates me in short order.

I talked to my dad this morning about various options — air conditioners, air-to-air heat exchangers — but when I told him about the diesel fumes, he was pretty adamant that I find another studio. Especially as a woman in my — ahem — childbearing years. I know he's right, but I can’t bear the thought of having to pick up and find another studio again so soon after moving into this one.

Sigh.

I'm girding my loins.

The View from the New Studio

new-studio-view I've been a bad blogger lately; I've really fallen behind on the two posts-a-week goal I set myself when I started out. Can we chalk it up to general February malaise? I've been working away in the studio, but usually when I get home I succumb to the allure of the cocktail (and being such a lightweight these days, one beer is enough to loop me), and then I just cannot face the whole downloading jpgs from the camera and cleaning them up in Photoshop thing. Let alone the whole writing a coherent post thing.

But. It's almost March. Yesterday I saw the tender new spears of crocuses (croci?) shooting up from the dirt, and I felt new energy. And I have a new studio! My old landlord (who turned out to be a bit of a sleaze) was upping the rent to unsustainable levels (it was already pretty high), so I started hunting for a new studio back in January. It was pretty anxiety-producing - there being a much smaller stock of good artist studios in Portland than I had imagined before we moved here - and I was worried I wasn't going to be able to find anything a) suitable let alone b) more affordable.

After a couple weeks, and with great good luck, I managed to find one that is both. It's in a building quite close to my current studio, and the landlord owns several other artist buildings in Portland. His name is Ken Unkeles, and he seems like both a responsive landlord, and someone who actually cares about the arts:  apparently he never raises the rent on his tenants, so if I'm still there in five years, I'll still be paying the same amount. It's 300 sq. ft., so less than the 500 sq. feet I have now, but perfectly spacious, and with a window looking out on my favorite bridge in Portland, lots of entertaining industrial action, and the West Hills across the Willamette River. I find it captivating.

Self-Discipline

I’ve been thinking recently about discipline, about the number of hours I spend in the studio, and how much work I get done there - or don’t. I had always the notion that I was a pretty hard worker, but I’ve come to think that I’ve slacked off a fair bit since I got married. Married life is just too pleasant - I’d much rather come home in the evening, have a cocktail, cook dinner, hang out with Dave, play with the cats, and relax in front of the flickering images on TV than slog through another 4 hours in the studio by myself. And I find myself asking, Is domestic felicity the enemy of really getting shit done? I’m always interested in the working habits of other artists and writers, and recently Dave sent me a pertinent passage about Don DeLillo from this article in the New Yorker about The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the literary archive of the University of Texas at Austin.

DeLillo’s letters are often about business—negotiations over contracts, responses to translators—but a few of them provide insight into his austere approach to the literary life. One, in particular, is the kind of note that biographers long to stumble across. In October, 1995, David Foster Wallace [Rest in Peace, DFW - I was heartbroken when I heard the news about your suicide, even though I’m still mad at you for the number of truly revolting images that are permanently seared into my visual cortex after reading Infinite Jest. The word ‘nubbin’ has never been the same for me since. (Never read IJ? Well, it’s what’s left of a golden retriever after he is dragged to his death behind the family Volvo. Lovely stuff.)] wrote to him, “Because I tend both to think I’m uniquely afflicted and to idealize people I admire, I tend to imagine you never having had to struggle with any of this narcissism or indulgence stuff . . . Maybe I want a pep-talk, because I have to tell you I don’t enjoy this war one bit.” DeLillo responded in November. “I was a semiconscious writer in the beginning,” he writes. “Just sat and wrote something, or read the newspaper, or went to the movies. Over time I began to understand, one, that I was lucky to be doing this work, and, two, that the only way I’d get better at it was to be more serious, to understand the rigors of novel-writing and to make it central to my life, not a variation on some related career choice, like sportswriting or playwriting. The novel is different. . . . We die indoors, and alone, and I don’t mean to sound overdramatic but you know what I’m talking about. Anyway, all of this happened over time, until eventually discipline no longer seemed something outside me that urged the reluctant body into the room. At this point discipline is inseparable from what I do. It’s not even definable as discipline. It has no name. I never think about it. But there’s no trick of meditation or self-mastery that brought it about. I got older, that’s all. I was not a born novelist (if anyone is). I had to grow into novelhood.

I also found the following passage, though unrelated to the discipline stuff, completely fascinating. It had never particularly occurred to me that writers - other than poets - would care about how the text looked on the page. Narrow-minded of me, I guess.

. . . in a 1997 letter to David Foster Wallace, he wrote that his prose is characterized by “a sensitivity to the actual appearance of words on a page, to letter-shapes and letter-combinations.”  . . .  “At some point (in my writing life) I realized that precision can be a kind of poetry, and the more precise you try to be, or I try to be, the more simply and correctly responsive to what the world looks like—then the better my chances of creating a deeper and more beautiful language."

And then there’s the magical, magisterial Anne Truitt in a similar vein. I would so have liked to have known her.

A mystery confounds the problem of industry in art. In the last analysis, to work is simply not enough. But we have to act as if it were, leaving reward aside. People who set their sails into art tend to work very hard. They train themselves in school; they practice and they read and they think and they talk. But for most of them there seems to be a more or less conscious cutoff point. It can be a point in time:  “I will work until I am twenty-one [twenty-five, thirty, or forty].” Or a point in effort:  “I will work three hours a day [or eight, or ten].” Or a point in pleasure:  “I will work unless . . .” and here the “enemies of promise” harry the result. These are personal decisions, more or less of individual will. They depend on the scale of values according to which artists organize their lives. Artists have a modicum of control. Their development is open-ended. As the pressure of their work demands more and more of them, they can stretch to meet it. They can be open to themselves, and as brave as they can be to see who they are, what their work is teaching them. This is never easy. Every step forward is a new clearing through a thicket of reluctance and habit and natural indolence. And all the while they are at the mercy of events . . .

One element is clear, however, and that is that the capacity to work feeds on itself and has its own course of development. This is what artists have going for them. From 1948 to 1961, I worked out of obsession, but obsession served by guilt:  I felt uncomfortable if I failed to work every possible working day. In 1961, to my total astonishment, the guilt dropped away, replaced by an effortless, unstrained, well motivated competence that I very soon was able simply to take for granted.

"Arctic Freeze"

arctic-freeze-11 So, apparently it never snows here in Portland, or rarely enough so that the arrival of a mere inch or so is enough to paralyze the city and send everyone into a frenzy, complete with full-on news coverage of the so-called "Arctic Freeze" and public health advisories telling us all to be sure and "dress warmly." Like the snide & superior New-Englander I am, I sniffed at it as a tempest in a teapot, and watched the news incredulously, like, are you people serious? Public hysteria over what looked to my eyes like nothing so much as a dusting of confectioners sugar over a holiday cookie? Well, it turns out, when a city doesn't have the budget to maintain a proper fleet of plows and salt/sand trucks for the occasional snowstorm, an inch or so of icy snow really does paralyze things. Everything was shut down yesterday, the roads were a fucking mess (apparently they haven't heard of SALT out here - come to Boston sometime and we'll show you how it's done) with accidents all over the place, and I think they even called off school today. Whatever. Here's my problem. It's also gotten really, unusually cold here - in the 20's, and apparently it's supposed to continue all week. And. My studio. Is. Unheated.

Yes. As a New Englander, I found it a dubious proposition when I rented the place, but it never seemed to go below 40 degrees, and with various space heaters & layered clothing, I was basically okay last year. But. Now! It's not okay!! My studio has a 15 foot ceiling and an entire wall of utterly uninsulated windows, and it is absolutely frigid in there. I tried to work yesterday and despite the space heaters and all kinds of sweaters, it was impossible. My hands were like ice, and the gelid paint was reluctant to leave the tube. I don't know what I'm going to do today. I'm bringing yet another space heater, but honestly, they almost don't stand a chance in that cavernous space. It is so incredibly frustrating to want, need, try to work, and be thwarted by environmental conditions. And this in a space I'm paying $545 a month for!  (That crunching sound you hear is my frozen teeth gnashing together.)

arctic-freeze-2

Psychology Experiment

So the building where I have my current studio had Open Studios last weekend, an event in which I participated, but with no small reluctance. I believe I've mentioned before that despite the fact that I post all this stuff on the interwebs, I generally dislike having people in my studio casually. Other than friends. It's just . . . private. And open studios are usually kind of uncomfortable. First of all, as the artist you sit around, waiting to see if anyone fancies your wares, feeling simultaneously whorish and rejected. And then there are the various weird ways people behave in your studio. Some people stay bodily in the hallway, as though something dangerous was lurking inside, cautiously poking their heads through the door to assess the dangers within. Some people walk right in, stop, do a rapid scan of the walls, and then turn on their heels and march straight back out again. One couple walked in fighting vociferously, made a 30 second tour, and left, still bickering. Some people mutter between themselves as they stroll around and you can’t hear what they’re saying about your work, and you sort of want to but you’re also sort of glad you can’t. Some people say things that are meant to be nice, but make you feel awful (“So what exactly do you hope to do with your art someday?” Oh, I'm so glad you've managed to put your finger on the most anxiety-provoking issue in my life! Well, since you asked, I'd like to be represented by a good gallery, and have them sell my work for me. And for a decent amount of money so that I can actually support my studio practice and not feel like an over-educated hobbyist.  Oh, and how about earning the respect of my artistic peers? That would be nice). (Oh dear, I'm ranting again. I’m leaving out that there are always a few people who seem genuinely engaged, and say thoughtful things that are very much appreciated.)

The thing that's sort of wild is how little people actually look at anything. I would say that the average time spent looking at each painting is less than 10 seconds. Easily less. I guess it still kind of shocks me. I spend hours and hours, potentially weeks looking at every painting as I try to figure it out in order to finish it. It is like a puzzle to be solved, a tightrope to be walked, a disaster to be averted. Maybe I should be heartened by how little people apparently see, and stop trying so hard. Who's going to notice, except me? Really, the only appropriate response to Open Studios is self-medication, and happily, I had a handle of Jim Beam with me.

Anyway, I had up in the studio an older painting of mine, of a hermaphroditic torso, that I made while I was in grad school, which was kind of a break-through at the time and remains important to me (although strangely, Dave won’t let me hang it in our bedroom, I don’t know why). Dave observed that it’s a bit of a psychology experiment, watching how people react to it. Because it’s a somewhat graphic painting of genitalia, a lot of people don’t want to be seen really checking it out. So they kind of slide their eyes over it and keep on going, smiling, unphased. A few people make that small gesture, of the head moving backwards on its stem that so beautifully physically illustrates the phrase “being taken aback.” Some people make a joke about Oedipal complexes, or Lorena Bobbit, or some other reference to my presumably deranged psyche. All in all, if you have to sit around and try not to watch people glance casually over the stuff you care most about in the world, it’s not a bad way too amuse oneself, observing people's reactions as they unwittingly participate in the Hermaphrodite Psychology Test.

"Me Plus You," oil on linen, 2005

I can’t exactly recall how the idea originally came to me, although I remember being interested in hermaphrodites, in a metaphysical/mythological/symbolic way. So there was an interest in the idea of a kind of mystical union between the sexes; and there was a desire to paint this smooth, feminine torso and then deface it by scribbling a messy penis graffito on it (and thus also ridicule my wish to paint that idealized torso in the first place); and then finally there was an identification both as the figure and as the artist, and a kind of frustrated attempt to collapse that dichotomy by taking ye olde phallic paintbrush and just paint myself a nice big dick. But it wasn’t painted as a puerile attempt to shock people, or make them uncomfortable. And in fact, I feel uncomfortable when it does.

"Open" Studio: A Rant

Okay, so I may be slightly deranged about my privacy. And you may find this hard to believe, coming from someone posting pictures of her work-in-progress on the interwebs. But it's true: my privacy in the studio is really, really important to me. Not only do I keep many valuable possessions in that room (hundreds of dollars worth of paint and brushes, iPod, stereo, laptop, etc.) but also all of my paintings. It's a space for doing what is often difficult, personal work, work that leaves you vulnerable while you are doing it. You need time, space and safety to get honest with yourself, and be willing to fail. These are not group activities. I have never understood artist collectives. I am a despot, and my studio is the fiefdom over which I rule with an iron hand. Except.

My current studio, which on first glance appears to be a lovely, large space with a whole wall of windows, has a serious flaw. Now, I almost didn't rent this studio in the first place because in addition to the front door, which locks, it has 2 other doors which connect it to the adjoining studios. Apparently, they are fire doors, and in the event of a fire we would walk through a long line of studios to the fire escape. These doors do not lock, and are not even real doors, but cheapskate landlord pieces of plywood that don't even latch properly. But I was so desperate for a space to start working again back in February that I decided I could live with it, and nailed a bunch of sound-muffling blankets over the doors to help keep down the noise (the walls are paper-thin) and send the message to my neighbors that I did not regard those doors as actual portals into be walked through.

fire-door

But occasionally I would find evidence that one door had been opened in my absence. Perhaps I had leaned a painting against it, and would find in the morning that it had been moved against a wall. I started leaving a can against the bottom of the door, so I would be able to tell if it had been opened. And periodically, it would indeed be shoved to one side.

The Tell-tale Can

Well, after much paranoid fantasizing, last week I finally knocked on the studio next door, and learned that, in fact, people are in and out of my studio when I'm not there. To get to the goddamned fuse box.

I did notice the fuse box when I took the studio, but stupidly didn't consider the implications of what would happen when fuses blew, and other denizens of the building needed to flip the breaker. Well, now I know. If I'm there, they knock on my door. And when I'm not, they traipse through the side door and help themselves. And let me tell you, in my building, fuses blow all the time. The building isn't wired very well apparently, and the landlord doesn't provide heat or lighting. So everyone has jerry-rigged their own lighting set-ups, plus electric heaters now that it's cold again here in Portland. And the damn fuses are snapping away like little alligators. (Really, the whole electricity situation has me paranoid about a studio fire.)

My Nemesis

Strangely, the very night before I discovered that it was open season in my studio, I had a really terrible dream that I was working away there, and all of a sudden people started pouring through the fire door and then began dismantling the wall, and moving my stuff around, and setting up ranks of folding chairs for some kind of public event. I protested, flabbergasted, and vainly, in the way of all bad dreams. "No, no," they said, "didn't they tell you? You're studio isn't private, don't be ridiculous. We hold all our board meetings in here." And the very next day I learned about the fuse box situation. Am I psychic? Or just deeply, darkly paranoid?

There's kind of nothing I can do about it. My lease is through the end of February and I don't really think that this constitutes grounds for breaking it. I can live with it, because the people in my building seem like pretty nice people, in the way of most Portlanders, and I don't think they would steal anything, or leer inappropriately at my defenseless paintings. But mostly because I can't not have a place to work. But don't think I'm happy about it.