Malwina Chabocka – Art & Design
Malwina Chabocka – Art & Design

A Studio of One’s Own

Date : Saturday 10 March, 2018

Virginia Woolf at her studio

I happen to be one of those people who enjoy working from home. I have no problem with discipline, motivation, or solitude — in fact, I probably focus best when I’m alone. But working from home, as I’ve discovered over a number of years (and apartments), only works when you have a studio: a special place dedicated just to art. Which, in the case of artists living in major cities where rents tend to skyrocket even for cupboard-sized flats, is rarely the case.

There is another problem with working from home and this problem is gender-related.

Even if there’s sufficient room for the woman artist not to end up working on the kitchen table, she will always address household needs (laundry, cooking, cleaning, taking the rubbish out etc.) prior to working on her own art. In other words: the art will happen if there’s space and time for it; after everything else is finished and everyone is in bed.

And yes, with enough determination and perseverance, it can happen, for women have adapted to this state of affairs for a very long time. In a very interesting article, Austin Kleon quotes a conversation between writer Muriel Murch and Eleanor Coppola, the wife of director Francis Ford Coppola and mother of three, on Murch’s podcast, Living With Literature, where Coppola talks about men vs women in their attitude to work.

The men artists I knew had a studio, and they went out to their studio, and they spent the day, and worked, and then they came back. I once read a book by Judy Chicago, who interviewed all these women artists, and they made their art on the back porch, they made it on top of the washing machine, they made it next to the kitchen sink, and they made it anywhere they could, for the hour and a half while their kid was taking a nap, and for the two hours while they were at the play group. They made it in between.

Coppola herself was exactly that kind of “in between” artist. Her husband, whom she married in 1963 in a shotgun wedding, came from “generations of Italian men who believed a woman’s life work was caring for home and children and supporting her husband’s career”, as she wrote in her 2008 memoir, Notes on a Life. It was only in her 60s that she finally got herself a little studio of her own, outside the house, for uninterrupted work. Perhaps thanks to the opportunity to cater for her own artistic needs rather than children who were no longer at home, she managed to direct a successful feature film at the age of 81 — which makes her the oldest American director ever to make a dramatic feature debut.

Eleanor Coppola | Image via Cinephilia & Beyond (fair use)

I admit that I also struggled with dedicating sufficient space and energy to my art (the “in between” in my case being not just about having an easel squeezed between my bed and dining table but also working on my paintings between various non-artistic projects for other people) and it was relatively recently that I began to fully appreciate having an exterior working space. A space I can go to not just during the “office hours” but anytime I want, leaving my personal life and chores on hold a few stops away on the train line. And it was relatively recently that I began to be much more vocal about the importance of art in my life.

A recent conversation with Mónica, one of the artists I’m sharing a studio with, got me thinking a lot about the readiness to admit just how important art is to one’s life. Mónica was telling me about an interview she read as a teenager with the Brazilian composer, Egberto Gismonti (whose music we were listening to that day at the studio), who willfully admitted that at his home everyone knew that music was the most important thing. It was sacred. And however selfish or arrogant this may sound, it is actually the opposite – Egberto acknowledged that without dedicating sufficient amount of time to his music, he would be unfulfilled and unhappy, and thus unable to be a good husband, father, friend etc. It reminded me of a similar confession I heard as the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts student from my life drawing teacher, a graphic artist and mother of two (and besides all, a gorgeous woman — one you’d think “has it all”). I remember witnessing a conversation she was having with her daughter (also a student), as the girl was excitedly arranging to see her boyfriend later that day. Her mother waited for her to finish the phone conversation before speaking in a rather serious voice: “Remember that he mustn’t get in the way of your art. Art comes first.”

Admittedly, this sort of statement coming from a woman is undoubtedly rare, for men in general have a tendency to be much more assertive about their work and to shut the doors to their studio or office when they write or paint, as Coppola pointed out. Even Kleon admits that he is “extremely fortunate that my wife stays home with our boys and I have a space of my own out in the garage behind the house where I can escape to work”. Coincidentally, “escape to work” is an excellent expression to describe the life of an artist and freelancer — with no “office”, boss, reception and colleagues awaiting us at a specific time, it is often hard to remind ourselves, let alone others, that just because we’re not rushing out to catch the tube at 7:30am, it doesn’t mean we’re free and available for whatever comes our way.

Why studio space is so important

Studio space, besides providing a physical, comfortable space for actually making stuff, plays another important role. Since it is an overhead cost (and sometimes a large one, especially in the capital city), an extra roof over our head we pay for on top of all the “essentials”, it asserts the right we give ourselves to make art. Painting in a bedroom, since it doesn’t bring a cost of any kind (unless one factors in the inevitable stains on the carpet or clothes) means you can always withdraw from your artistic practice when faced with accusations of extravagance or frivolity.

Traditionally, women who are assertive in their insistence to follow their passions, are at least questioned and in the worst case condemned. The history is full of examples of female artists who were bashed for having a different set of priorities, like Alice Neel, who, as Kenneth Baker describes in relation to a documentary, “threw herself into passionate, destructive affairs and marriages and put art before motherhood, almost before survival, even after she had children”. It is interesting that in Neel’s case pursuing art with such a passion is considered a flaw of an otherwise skilled painter, but somehow Picasso’s numerous relationships and affairs have been perceived as an integral and colourful part of his extraordinary artistic personality.

Alice Neel in her Harlem studio in 1944 by Sam Brody
Alice Neel in her Harlem studio in 1944 by Sam Brody | Image via The New York Times (fair use)

Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely not advocating a messy lifestyle or negligence of family, far from it. I believe that a relationship and family can provide an extremely valuable foundation for any artist. As novelist Ursula K Le Guin, also quoted by Austin Kleon, said, “An artist can go off into the private world they create, and maybe not be so good at finding the way out again. This could be one reason I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you cannot let go.”

But art merits space, both physical and mental, and cannot be crammed between dusting shelves and polishing silverware — if art is one’s raison d’etre, a passion that brings fulfillment and happiness, as opposed to a weekend hobby. It is not something one has to apologise for and diminish the importance of. “A woman must have money and a room of her own,” wrote Virginia Woolf 88 years ago in her famous extended essay A Room of One’s Own. As someone who on two occasions got dismissed from university premises, she was well aware how lucky she was to have that space. She acknowledged the fact that without her room, books, stationery, solitude and silence, perhaps she wouldn’t have built such a vast body of work.

Virginia Woolf’s Writing Room, Monk’s House, Rodmell | Image via The History Girls blog (fair use)

In her biographical book, Hermione Lee quotes a letter Woolf write to Madge Vaughan, her cousin’s wife, describing the joy of having her office space set up in the new home in Gordon Square in Bloomsbury where she moved to in 1904:

I wish you could see my room at this moment, on a dark winter’s evening –all my beloved leather backed books standing up so handsome in their shelves, and a nice fire, and the electric light burning, and a huge mass of manuscripts and letters and proof-sheets and pens and inks over the floor and everywhere.

I can empathise with this joy. Having my crayons sharpened, paint tubes arranged in colour groups, paper laid out, extra paper for colour tests, and a sketchbook at hand for noting down ideas, makes me want to get down to work as soon as I enter the Espaço. I always think of a quote from Twyla Tharp’s magnificent book The Creative Habit (if I had to pick one book that has been most useful and inspiring to me as an artist, this would be the one): “To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming. All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they compel you to get started.” A separate studio space, free from anything that is not needed for the work (I don’t even bring a laptop to mine), where one can pick up immediately where they left off, makes it much easier to get the work done. If a space needs to be rearranged and recreated daily, it’s an extra effort not just in terms of the time it takes to clean the kitchen table but for the mind to get into a different mode.

Regardless if one has an external studio or works at home (having a baby is one such occasion when trips to an external space, however well located, become almost impossible), the importance of having the space of one’s own cannot be overestimated.

A Room Of One's Own // Virginia Woolf character design by İrem Nur Terzi
A Room Of One’s Own // Virginia Woolf character design by İrem Nur Terzi

* The beautiful character design sculptures are by Istanbul-based artist İrem Nur Terzi, please check out her website.

Further reading:
– Barbara Yoshida’s photography project capturing 100 female artists in their studios
– The role of the art studio in contemporary artistic production
Should you get a separate art studio?

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