I have always been fascinated by artists’ studios, to the extent that I even wrote my BA dissertation on them. One of the things I find so compelling about them is their very distinct aura: well-loved and much-used studios have a powerful sense of place. I’m sure it’s one reason why art trails and open studio events are so popular; being allowed into the spaces where other people create has a seductive allure and the strong suggestion of intimate secrets revealed. Personally, I can never resist having a peek at other artists’ storage systems. Is there an order that I can discern and do I understand it? Would I have arranged things differently and what does their system tell me about them? How have they organised their tools – are they a neat or a messy worker? And do they clean their brushes!
You can often get a strong sense of the artist’s personality from their studio. When I visited Barbara Hepworth’s studio in St Ives, I was struck by how very present she was: even though she was dead, it truly felt as though she’d just popped out to do a bit of drawing on the beach and she’d be back to finish off that stone carving any second now.
Artists are usually well aware that their studio is almost a person in its own right – at the very least, it has a definite genius loci or ‘spirit of place’. But in order to keep this spirit happy, a studio needs to be inhabited, it needs to be worked in. I’ve often heard artists describe their studios as ‘dead’ or ‘stale’ when they haven’t been working in them enough and I’m sure most artists are familiar with the need to tidy the studio after an absence or when they’re getting ready for a new series of work.
I’ve been having that discontented ‘I need to start something new’ art itch lately and have even been questioning the direction that my work has taken in past years – in short, I feel on the cusp of change. So it’s no coincidence that my studio has been undergoing a redesign in the last couple of months. In the summer I acquired some much-needed shelving and moved the desk to a better position and it instantly became a much more inviting creative space.
A studio is a working space and consequently it needs to work – things have to be accessible and easy to find, you need to know where your materials are and to have power, heat and light where you want them. Your studio also needs to be right for you and your working pattern, which is why artists’ studios are so very individual and revealing. While I’m absolutely enthralled by Francis Bacon’s re-created studio, I know I couldn’t create a single thing in it – I need more order and much more visual simplicity than that. Your studio should fit you like a pair of comfortable shoes – if it doesn’t, then you simply won’t want to spend time there. I hadn’t consciously realised how draining and unappealing I’d been finding my own studio until I started the overhaul.
It’s also important not to get hung up on romantic images of what you think an artists’ studio should look like or where it should be – spend some time exploring what your studio needs to look and feel like. When I first graduated, I paid for three months of studio time in a cold, noisy building on the other side of town because I thought that ‘a real artist needs a proper studio’ and I thought that meant a building with other artists in it. Then a conversation with a friend made me realise that I did all my best work at home and always had done – when I was in college, I used to work in the evenings on the dining room table and then take my work into college and install it in my space. My days at college weren’t usually spent making – instead they were spent researching in the library, updating my sketchbook, pottering around seeing what everyone else was up to, drinking endless cups of tea and gossiping!
Recognising this fact made it apparent why dragging myself over to the cold, expensive studio had been so very hard – there were no friends, no communal cups of tea and no nice library books!
We’re fortunate enough to have a large house, so I promptly cancelled the studio, happily put the rent money towards materials and got on with working from home. For a while I worked downstairs in our basement before discovering that it was wrong for the kind of work I make – everything got damp or dirty and I didn’t like going down there because it was too dark and gloomy. Eventually I moved up to a spare room in the top floor of the house where I have cream walls, lots of natural light, plenty of warmth and carpeting – apparently I am an artist who needs a lot of home comforts in order to create! Yet even when I was finally installed in the right space, it took me until this year to get my studio working properly and it’s still not quite how I want it.
So this afternoon – bone tired after a bad night of insomnia and with all my creative wells dry – I once again found myself tending to The Spirit Of My Studio. My son helped me carry up boxes of materials from the appropriately named Cupboard Of Doom. I then spent an hour sorting through them, getting rid of some things, rehoming misplaced items and then labelling the boxes with my beloved Dymo labeller before stacking them neatly on the shelves.
It’s still not quite right in there but each time I organise my studio, it gets a little bit clearer. And I feel that space inside, the space where the new work is beginning to grow, getting just that little bit bigger and I breathe a little more easily.