Looking at artist studios can teach us about our own workspace

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Each day as I sit at my desk, my space becomes more and more a reflection of who I am, how I work, and what keeps me moving. When folks walk into my office, they immediately  see a visual montage of artists who inspire me and the endless stacks of legal pads that help me navigate my daily meetings. Photos of Philip Glass, Frida Kahlo, Diane Arbus, and a large photo poster of Twyla Tharp remind me that my work takes creativity. Lists of upcoming events and important phone numbers remind me that things have to happen.  An artist studio is no different, says Sarah Trigg in “Studio Life: Rituals, Collections, Tools and Observations on the Artistic Process.” The objects in an artist’s studio serve as both inspiration and resource for the work at hand.

Trigg, an artist , writer and photographer, has published “Studio Life” as the culmination of three years of research and studio visits of 200 artists throughout the US. Her purpose? To give observers the opportunity to experience an artist’s workspace. In doing so, she dissolves the boundary between an artist’s ‘office’ and ours, giving us the opportunity to consider if artist work processes can be helpful to non-artists.

Highlighting that an artist’s space is where hard work not mystical inspiration occurs, “Studio Life” does much to help connect artists with a broader audience. Like us, artists solve problems, research new materials, and try to efficiently utilize resources. By peering into the studios of some of the leading voices in contemporary art, there are lessons that those of us in the cubicle set can learn.

Get on your Indiana Jones: Research!

david brooks
Objects in David Brooks’ studio

There was not a single artist interviewed that did not talk about where she collected (or stole) ideas. Some ideas came from childhood or family histories but many ideas came from research performed outside of an artistic niche. From architecture and sustainability to geology and embroidery, Trigg’s artists regularly look to diverse sources in order to develop their best ideas. What does this mean? The WSJ and Harvard Business Journal shouldn’t be your only reading sources. Venture out! David Brooks, an artist in Brooklyn, not only collects taxidermy animals and bones but he is a member of the Explorer’s Club in New York City.

Hold onto the ‘blob:’ Keep your ideas for later

Ezra Johnson
Ezra Johnson in studio

Some great ideas just come at the wrong time but that does not mean they shouldn’t be held on to. Ezra Johnson, Brooklyn, has been holding onto his “blob,” a piece of sculpture, because he just hasn’t found a good use for it, and Cristina Lei Rodriguez, Miami, keeps used materials in a stock piles and sifts through them constantly, trying to recycle the materials. Lesson here – keep track of your ideas and be patient! That idea will have a home somewhere.

 Inspirational quotes? Inspirational

There is a reason that people put up inspirational quotes: because they are inspirational and can help us move through difficult tasks. Even artists can use some grounding. Here are some inspirational quotes found in the studios:

“FUN” an artwork by Rodney McMillian in Michelle Grabner’s studio (Oak Park, Illinois)

“Quien mequita lo bailando” (trs. Who takes the dance out of me?) – George Sanchez-Calderon studio (Miami, Florida)

“Stick to what you do best” – Eric Yahnker’s studio (Los Angeles, California)

 A zillion bottles of aspirin?  The benefit of iteration

Fred Tomsselli
Fred Tomaselli’s collection of aspirin bottles

Sometimes even when an idea is successful, we are quick to move on to the next stroke of brilliance instead of capitalizing on a proven formula. We think that by doing something the same way, we are not being ‘creative,’ but nothing is further than the truth. One idea can yield zillions of different iterations, each of which can be independently unique and successful.  Many artists in “Studio Life” collect hundreds (even thousands!) of examples of the same idea or object. From records and toys to photographs and rocks, they know that reworking the same idea in multiple ways can prove successful. My favorite example is Fred Tomaselli’s collection of aspirin bottles.

 The big, blank page: Collecting thoughts

tm sisters
TM Sisters: “I’ve Got The Power to Magnetize”

Brainstorming sessions seem like a good idea until your meeting turns silent like a big, black hole. Being creative on the spot on your own, much less in a group, is difficult and can create more anxiety than ingenuity. Passive forms of thought collecting can be used just as effectively. Putting up sheets of paper on a studio or office wall in order to capture thoughts as you move about your day is a simple solution to a daunting problem. This works especially well with teams. TM Sisters (Monica and Natasha Lopez de Victoria) who, as a collective, have to brainstorm and collaborate for upcoming exhibitions use this simple tool  in their studio.

 If I just had the money..: Money does not equal a more creative solution

Jim Campbell
work by: Jim Campbell

It is so easy to get excited by new technologies but sometimes perceived innovation keeps us from the task at hand. Most artists must find ways to create the tools they need in a simple, inexpensive manner but even some artists with larger budgets trend more towards the low-tech because they keep a practice grounded.  Joe Sola, a video artist in Los Angeles, tells Trigg that although he has access to technology he “enjoys discovering low tech methods that have dramatic results.”  Jim Campbell, an electrical engineer and light artist in San Francisco whose work ranges from low resolution to installation works says, “I tend not to fetishize the technology. It’s just kind of there. I don’t care about it – I just use it for the results.”

But of all the advice found in “Studio Life,”  Christy Gast, an artist in Miami, shared the most beneficial. She says,  “every day when I come in, I work on something I’ve already started, and I start something new… So I try to be uncritical and to begin something new without knowing where it’s going to end.” In short, by being courageous in the development of new ideas each day and being disciplined enough to work through the existing, I agree that we can truly become an artist at whatever profession we choose.

The Studio Life: Rituals, Collections, Tools, and Observations of the Artistic Process by Sarah Trigg. Princeton Architectural Press, 2013.

More information about the artists Sarag Trigg interviewed can be found on her website: The Goldminer Project

Jeanette Joy Harris is an artist and writer who lives in Houston, Texas. She has had solo and collaborative photography, installation, and video works shown in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Portland, and San Francisco. She has published work with TribTalk, Glasstire, and Illusion. With a background in philosophy and politics, Joy has also presented academic work on the concepts of public space and action, particularly in the work of Hannah Arendt and Diane Arbus.

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