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Studio SpaceWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
Editor's Note: Wombat Droppings is currently on hiatus. This month we are reprinting the column from May 2006.
Long ago and far away, when I was a young artist (okay, a younger artist) I had a great idea for a painting. It would be of a winged frog, and it would be the biggest painting I'd ever done, a whopping 18 x 36.
This doesn't sound all that impressive, but at the time, I was living in a 430 sq. ft. apartment in St Paul, Minnesota, and I shared that apartment with my husband, two cats, and two computers. In fact, we shared that miniature space for nearly four years, during several of which we both worked at home, a feat that still astounds me. I hated that apartment - it was rundown and the radiators were always on the verge of exploding, and at one point I could see into the basement through the holes in the floor by my desk, but on the other hand, you coulda flushed a German shepherd down the toilet, something I still think of fondly when the wimpier pipes of my current dwelling back up, as they do at least twice a day.
But it was in this space that I had to do my frog painting. And as some in the audience may be familiar with, I had no choice about doing the painting. I had to do it Right This Minute, Goddamnit. People get far too unnecessarily soppy about having a muse, with the swooning and the homilies and the sense that it makes one better than unarty mortals, but I have generally found a muse to be more or less like an overactive bladder. It's an inconvenient, insistent, occasionally humiliating condition. When you gotta art, you gotta art NOW. Or there will be accidents and tears and someone may have to change their pants.
Left with the choice of arting all over the floor or painting this frog, I got out the paint and the piece of Masonite that I had stuffed behind the couch, and set to work. In order to handle this, however, in the labyrinth of furniture and computer stations making up the room, I had to sit in my computer chair, brace one end of the board against my thigh, brace the other end against the coffee table at a slant, set the paints up on my keyboard and my rinse water kissing the monitor. This was a disaster waiting to happen, and it is a truly astonishing feat that I did not irrigate the keyboard in the process, particularly since I was well and truly over the edge on the painting, the kind where you say "Okay, I'm done for now," put the paint away, and thirty seconds later pull it all out again.
And I had one paintbrush. Made of a dead rat. And I had to walk to the art supply store, and it was uphill both ways, in hip deep snow . . . (Okay, the snow bit was true. This was Minnesota, after all.)
Anyway, the painting came out. And the even bigger one I had to prop on the back of the couch and kneel in front of, on a hardwood floor, came out, and the ones that engulfed the coffee table came out, and the one where I had to put the coffee table on the bed to get enough floor space to work on came out. Because at the end of the day, a good studio space is a glorious, wonderful, profoundly spectacular thing - but you can make art in a shoebox if you must.
Far too often, people blame their lack of available studio space for the reason they're not making art. And this is a perfectly good excuse, and I would never dream of claiming it isn't to anybody's face, because I'm polite when I'm not writing a column. A well-run studio (by which I mean a cluttered disaster area full of stacks of board and boxes and completely random objects and stray art) is a thing of beauty, and it makes a lot of things possible. For one thing, where would I put my duck decoy, or those interesting rocks, or that rusted out miner's lantern? Where would I hang the art that my husband doesn't like? Where else can I randomly tack a postcard to the wall for no reason? It's a wonderful thing!
But the fact is, it's not a necessary thing. I could do without it - I'd whine and complain and grumble, but if you have to make the art, you'll find a way. (Hell, half the time I wind up working out on the couch anyway.) Too often we put a kind of wall in our heads that says, "This cannot be done without the proper space," and this gives us permission to be lazy until we manage to get the space with the sky lights and the Zen garden and the carefully bonsaied rubber chickens laid out perfectly. But the wall is mostly in your head.
It's easy (terribly, terribly easy) to say, "I can't work under these conditions," and no one will blame you, because of course it's absurd to have to prop your painting between keyboard and coffee table. But the fact that you have a good excuse doesn't matter, because you're still not making art, and I have never seen anybody listed in an art history book for the quality of their excuses.
Great art does not require a great space.* I have watched my mother put together her MFA show tucked into the corner of a double-wide mobile home, occupied also by two grandparents, a small child, and a dog. She had probably four square feet total. The dog would occasionally eat tubes of her paint, with spectacular results on the other end - viridian, for example, will pass through a dog's intestines and come out just as vivid as it went in. But she managed and produced painting after spectacular painting.
Space is good. A studio of one's own is wonderful, and we long for it, and we covet it, and it may well stretch the boundaries of what we can pull off.
But at the end of the day, the only space you absolutely, positively need, is the one inside your head.
*With appropriate practical limits. If you are, for example, a metalworker or a ceramicist and need to put in kilns and foundries and so forth.
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