Melusine has given me the following interview questions used by Joe Fig as the basis for his research for Inside the Painter’s Studio. (Fig, 2009.) She has asked me to answer the questions in advance of a conversation we will have. Her intention is to write an essay on my life in the studio with R. and Franzi.
The Painter’s Studio: An Artist’s Questionnaire by Joe Fig.
When did you consider yourself a professional artist, and when were you able to dedicate yourself full-time to that pursuit?
How does one define what a professional artist is? I have always considered myself an artist and I have only ever dedicated myself fully to making art. I imagine that since my inception R. has also understood I am an artist. Once I was able to find myself in the studio space the paintings - watercolors- emerged.
How long have you been in this studio?
I arrived here about ten months ago. However, I really did not establish myself and begin working of my own accord until sometime in January. Before then I just hung around the space, finding myself within it. I guess you could say that the first months were a period of ‘settling in’ - getting to know the space- and, more importantly, getting to know my studio mates. Before I started working here on my own I began collaborating with R. on the work Good Witches of the Between. This is an ongoing collaboration with R. doing most of the physical making, I offer suggestions along the way and will throw in my own hand now and then when I feel it is necessary. Even Franzi has staged his own intervention with the work. As the work becomes increasingly fragmented we each seem to seek out our own pathways into and thru it. For instance, R. recently did a larger oil painting on paper using collaged fragments of the original starting point of the collaboration, the photo we worked on in the fall. From that I asked her to print a detail photo she took of that work for me onto ten 4 inch x 6 inch sheets of Stonehenge rag paper with the inkjet printer. Those prints are sitting on my work table, waiting for me and the watercolor paint to take them to the next stage.
Did you have a plan for the layout of your studio or did it develop organically?
R. had been in this studio ten years when I arrived, so I really did not have much input on the organization or layout of the space. It is my understanding that it has gone through various configurations in the time she has occupied it. When it was clear that Franzi and I would be here and would need areas to call our own within the greater studio space R. accommodated us by clearing out a number of items that no longer fit. She made space on the center shelf that divides the basement half of the studio from the family's basement storage/work space. Franz and I hang out on our shelf when we are not working or when our presence is not required.
The studio is divided into two very different halves. One part of the space is half of the basement of a 100 year old house. It is relatively dry, the foundation walls are painted white and a bit of surface coating applied by a previous owner decades ago is crumbly. It is basement-like without being dark and claustrophobia inducing. In fact, it is relatively light for a basement because it is not very deep, less than six feet below grade, and the studio portion has two south facing windows which allow light to shine in most of the day. In the winter when the light is low the sun streams onto the work tables and floor. The floor is concrete; it is not the original but a new, 2 inch thick concrete slab floor that was poured on top of the thin, skim-coated dirt floor about 25 years ago. The ceiling has exposed iron steam heating pipes. They are quite low at points. Franzi and R. have no difficulties navigating the space as they are both on the shorter side. However, I am a bit taller and the shoes I wear add a few more centimeters so that I am always running into a pipe here and there. Fortunately most have been wrapped in insulation.
The other half of the studio consists of a greenhouse built against the southern facade of the bungalow in the mid-1970s. It is a couple of steps up from the basement, but still souterrain. On the eastern wall there is a door with a single glass light, above is a crank-out window kept open in the summer for ventilation. The door is at the top of a platform of bamboo covered stairs. It leads to a small crushed patio. R. had the door and steps put in when she moved in ten years ago because she did not like feeling trapped in a pit. In general, I do not work in that space; instead I work sitting at a table in the basement. The smaller scale of the watercolors on paper is more conducive to working on tables, the greenhouse with its high ceiling and glass wall is better for larger work, acrylics and oils, worked on the wall or easel in a vertical position is more suitable. Franzi prefers working in the greenhouse, as long as it isn’t too hot or too cold. R. moves back and forth between the two spaces. There is a small futon sofa in the space between the easel and the wall where we all like to sit, think, read, stare at the sky or into space. The cat also spends the greater part of sunny days either on the stairs or sofa, too; he should be considered as an important occupant/user/part of the space too. The wall opposite the glass wall is the exterior facade of the house and is clad in red-stained cedar shingles with linen-white painted trim. High above the space a row of five double-hung windows peer down into the space from the open plan living/dining space above. Another single, double hung window is on the western wall, high so it is at street level when the building is viewed from the sidewalk, but still almost 20 feet above the work space.
As I said, I work in the basement half of the studio which is a very different environment from the greenhouse. Along the wall between basement and greenhouse R. has set up a thirty-six foot table/workbench constructed from hollow doors and black plastic jugs filled with water. The jugs were part of a passive temperature control system that lined the wall of the greenhouse and was employed by the former owners to help prevent a rapid sinking in temperature when the sun set, the quick drop would have been detrimental to the seedlings and plants. The jugs were no longer needed for that purpose so they became the legs of the table/workbench. At the table is where R. tends to spend her basement-half time. There is an area for the computer. I only work on the computer to send the occasional email. Sometimes I check the Facebook account you (Melusine) set up for me. Or, like now, when there is something I need to write I’ll have a seat in the desk chair and type away.
When R. cleaned up the space to make room for Franzi and I last fall she opened up the center of the basement half and positioned a couple of old kitchen tables to work at. This created a ten foot long table. I worked there for a while, until I needed to install A Little Madness in the Spring. Currently the sixteen existing panels are suspended by four wooden dowels threaded thru eye screws from the rafters. To make space around that work II separated the two tables. So, for the time being, one table is my work table. I positioned it opposite the greenhouse door, facing the flat file and storage racks. The other table R. has laid out with the books she is currently spending the most time with. I have placed some of my own there too; now and again I browse through the entire selection and then make my way to the sofa or shelf for some quiet reading. I prefer working at the smaller table facing the wall. It provides me with greater focus, and I keep my paints, brushes and papers set up just the way I like. I also brought in a couple of standing lights, I do not like the fluorescent tubes installed in the ceiling, preferring the softer light of the standard, energy efficient bulbs.
Has the studio location influenced your work?
I’m sure it has. First, there is the fact that it is a shared space. By this I mean not just with R. and Franzi, but R.’s family does travel through the space and use the other half of the basement. Sometimes when I am working they come in. It is taking time for them to learn that I don’t want to be bothered when I am at my table painting. I guess that is why I now have my back turned from the direction they approach. When they see me sitting there they know to leave me alone.
There is also the matter of the greenhouse. Although I rarely paint in it, I like the idea of a greenhouse as a space where things -paintings and ideas- sprout up. In the winter there are a few plants kept on the steps and behind the easel -mainly cacti, geraniums and a couple of huge oleander. The oleander bloom all winter, so do the geraniums. It is nice to see the continued blossoming, even when it is cold, grey, bare, or even when eight feet of snow is just on the other side of the glass wall. I also find inspiration in the sky; enjoying the opportunities to lay on the sofa and look up into. I’ve never seen Franzi or Melusine do this, but I know it is something R. and I have in common. And then there are the siberian iris that grow along the glass wall -I enjoyed seeing how quickly they emerge in the spring, blossom, and fade; now that it is summer the remaining leaves provide a spikey covering of the last two feet of above ground space. It is a shock when the leaves are cut back in the fall and the space is suddenly bare again. That’s when the cats and squirrels start looking in. I didn’t mention the sunshade, but it is on the windows from late March until October, and the pattern casts a striped-mesh like shadow into the space and blocks the summer sky. The contrast and change to the winter light without the shade makes the space more interesting; I know when we began Good Witches of the Between the sunshade was on, then it was off for many months and now it is back on. Its presence definitely impacts how the work that is being created in the space is seen.
All of this is to say, the greenhouse has fed my love for the metaphors nature provides and that has become more visible this spring in my work.
Please describe a typical day, being as specific as possible. For example: What time do you get up? When do you come to the studio? Do you have specific clothing you change into?
On the days it is my turn in the studio I usually appear dressed and ready to go by nine AM; but that is only on the days that R. is in the studio by 8:30. On other days, when she can’t arrive until mid-day I don’t appear until around 1 PM. Once I am outfitted R. disappears. I tend to work in 2-3 hour stretches, and mainly on weekdays. When I am working the days I work tend to be consecutive. I might work a week in the studio, and then take a break for a week or two while R. or Franzi work. It is rare that the three of us are working simultaneously, although Franzi and I might switch off during a day, or R. and I might split days here and there.
When I am in the studio I always wear the same clothing. I have a pair of khaki green cargo pants that can be rolled up into capri pants. On top I wear a black, sleeveless t-shirt -on the label it says ‘the woman within’, I like that tag. On top of that t-shirt I wear a long sleeve, billowy, floral print blouse of some smei-transparent synthetic material. I tie a salmon colored cotton scarf around my hair to keep it clean and prevent it falling in my face and eyes while I work. I also wear numerous metal bracelets on both my wrists. I have a pair of dangling earrings that are a pseudo-coppery, chased metal in the shape of leaves. On my left middle finger I wear a snakey, copper ring. The most comfortable part of my studio attire -and comfortable studio attire is of the utmost importance- are my shoes. I wear a pair of Ecco clogs with a woven leather upper. These shoes are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn and I love the sound they make when I walk across the concrete floor to refill my water containers at the utility sink. Clack, clack, clack.
Do you listen to music, the radio, or TV when you work? If so what, and does it affect your work?
R. has a Spotify subscription so I have a wide range of music available to me. The studio is well outfitted with a couple of different sound systems. In the greenhouse is a small JVC stereo with a CD player that is hooked into additional speakers in the basement. In the basement is a Rotel amp with B&W speakers R. won in a holiday raffle when she lived in Germany. The computer hooks into the amp so the sound quality from the computer is fairly good.
Despite having freedom to choose from a wide range of music I most often find myself listening to Joni Mitchell. I like her musical range, the expression, and poetic lyrics. As an artist, a painter, and a poet, she is someone I can really relate to. When I listen to her music as I work I think about the music more than I think about what it is I am painting, I find this allows me to get lost in the music and at the same time draws my focus deeper into the art. Instead of thinking of how I might control the paint I hum along to the music, letting everything flow.
What kind of paints do you use?
I use tube watercolors and gouaches of various brands. I’ve started playing with adding additional gum arabic to the paint, using Winsor & Newton brand, I also use Golden acrylic gesso and Utrecht acrylic matte medium. When I am working on the inkjet prints the water becomes the most important part of the paint.
How long have you had your painting table, and how did you decide how to set it up?
The painting table I am currently using is an old formica top, metal edge kitchen table circa 1950-something. R. acquired it about thirty years ago off a street in a small town in northeastern Ohio. It once had a leaf to it, but that is missing. Where the two sections meet the table sags slightly. The top of table’s surface is covered in layers of oil and acrylic paints and glitter. Sometimes I cover it with brown kraft paper just to have a more neutral and cleaner surface to work on. [I covered how I have the table currently positioned in the studio a bit earlier in this questionnaire.] I keep my painting materials set up before me. I use a plastic, multi-well palette on which I squeeze out a bit of each color. In a smaller yogurt container I pour a little bit of gum arabic. Acrylic gesso and mediums are also mixed into smaller containers. I keep my brushes in a larger yogurt container, and usually have two yogurt containers of water closeby. Because I am a lefty what I use the least is to my right, the water, my spray bottle, and brushes are in the center, and to my left is the palette with the paint. In a far corner I keep some paper, and in a closer corner are some towels and rags. When I film myself I have a small tripod I sit directly on the table, positioned to capture my hands and the surface I am painting on. When I am filming myself work I want very little of myself visible. My hands and a bit of my arms are enough.
Do you have any special devices or tools that are unique to your creative process?
I pretty much use the standard brushes and watercolor paints; I do like using my spray bottle. I like the challenge of making something different using the standards; pushing the boundaries of what the viewer understands and expects from the medium. For instance, using the inkjet prints as a base -on watercolor paper and on photopaper- creates a less than traditional approach to the medium and some has led to a new understanding of how the materials might react and respond under different circumstances. In turn, this has lead to ambiguity of the materials’ identity and the viewer questioning what the material might actually be. An example of this is found in the painting fragments of A little madness in the Spring. The base of each painting is a scan of an earlier iteration printed onto standard 4 inch x 6 inch glossy photo paper. The drying process of the thinned down matte medium which consisted of the acrylic medium separating from the water, the water drying faster at the edge and the medium pooling in the center of the mark while causing the ink on the paper below to flow and separate into rings of different colors came together to produce a given reaction that the viewer might not readily consider when thinking ‘this is a watercolor’.
Are there specific items here that have significant meaning to you?
The volume of Emily Dickinson poems R. gave me this spring. I’m a greater admirer of her work, and R. discovered this about me through my reading of her poems on the computer. R. bought me the book in early April when viewed the exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City. There is where A little madness in the Spring begun.
Do you work on one project at a time or several?
I work on multiple things simultaneously, but when I am in the studio working tend to focus on a single project at a time. By this I mean I may begin something, work on it a while, then put it aside while I work on something else. Eventually I return to everything I’ve started, sometimes just to decide it is no longer worth actively pursuing at this time. At that point one of three things can happen: 1. The work is completely abandoned and destroyed, 2. The work is re-worked as something new by myself, or 3. Franzi or R. take over the work and does whatever he or she wants to do with it.
When you are contemplating your work, where and how do you sit or stand?
I sit a while at the table, hold it in my hand, and stare at it. I also get up and pace throughout the space, stealing glances at the work from close up and far away. I also sit on the futon sofa in the greenhouse and stare up into the sky. Because the space is shared with others I might even retreat to my shelf with my books and while immersed in reading my thoughts begin to wander back to the work on the table which I am unable to work at in that moment, instead all the work must be done in my head.
How often do you clean your studio, and does it affect your work?
I keep my table neat and orderly, always putting the items back in their proper place when I’m finished working for the day. But I don’t clean the studio. That is Franzi’s job.
How do you come up with titles?
I tend to refer back to the origin of the work, its impetus. For A little madness in the Spring, it was quite simple. The photo of the fragment of the poem contained the draft of Emily Dickinson’s poem by that name. Good Witches of the Between, a collaborative work, but I will lay claim to giving it its title; the title refers to the small figure in the original photo collage -Glinda the Good Witch from a Wizard of Oz photo shoot Annie Leibovitz did for Vogue a number of years ago. Glinda was modeled by the artist Kara Walker, the background photo which R. had created a painting over was also a photo from Vogue accompanying a profile on the artist Elizabeth Peyton. I liked playing on the idea of the female artist as a good witch operating and existing in an in-between space. Finally, in my sketchbook I have been working on gestural studies of the performance artist Cilla Vee performing under various guises. This work hasn’t developed into a full series yet, and thus might not have a solid title, but for the moment I like to refer to it simply as ‘Gestures of Cilla Vee’, playing with the word gesture and its multiple meanings found in the work.
Do you have assistants?
Franzi helps both R. and I out, and at times R. helps me out. I don’t mind painting, but don’t like to handle machines or electric tools. When I need to build something, like in the work A little madness in the Spring, I can count on R. and Franzi to lend a hand.
Did you ever work for another artist, and if so, did that have any effect on the way you work?
No. But I think the collaboration with R., sharing the space with R. and Franzi, has provided insight into the practices of these other two and that has begun impacting my work.
Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?
Tune out the voices surrounding you and focus on what is coming from within you.
What advice would you give a young artist that is just starting out?
Tune out the voices surrounding you and focus on what is coming from within you.