For many artists, the studio itself as seen as the catalyst for things to magically occur. I don’t generally look at it in that way, mainly because it is rare that I’m fully and completely relaxed in my workshop. The fact that it’s so small and has multiple safety hazards and potentially dangerous tools in such a tight space is not conducive to being relaxed and at ease. As a result, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with my workspace and I think there are probably many artists who have similar feelings. But I can also see how the studio can sometimes be a sanctuary as well. I sometimes think of it like having a secret hideout in a sewer or an abandoned subway tunnel: No matter how imperfect, or undesirable; you find a way to make it work.
My shop/studio is a potential death-trap. Aside from the vast collection of metal, junk, found objects and miscellaneous nick-knacks that I use for my assemblage art; I have far too much metal working equipment crammed into a very small space. This eight by eight-foot room is occupied by three different welders, a plasma cutter and an oxy-acetylene torch set; and there is only one entrance and exit. There is work space for one person. Though two or even three individuals can squeeze in, it isn’t recommended. It is standing room only in this little hole. But, despite the constraints that this tiny room has to offer, I can make magic happen there.
Instead of a large, open area with plenty of breathing room where creativity and inspiration flows and where everything is beautiful and welcoming; this cramped, isolated closet of a room is more conducive to mad frenzies that have a tendency to explode rather than flow.
The pressure placed on a person forced to work in a small space, is liken to squeezing a piece of coal so as to transform it into a diamond or squeezing blood from a turnip.
It is often a creativity based on angst and not necessarily a pretty thing to watch; and sometimes it can backfire.
One way to describe my studio would be to think of it as a mad scientist’s laboratory or base of operations for some clandestine undertaking. When you make art from discarded items and find inspiration in rusty, corroded metal and things that people have thrown away, then weld it together in a mad frenzy; your shop is not necessarily going to be Feng-Shui compliant. Many artists like to use terms like “dynamic” or “synergistic” to describe their studios, but I prefer terms like “organized chaos” or “Vincent Price-esq” in order describe mine. The only other suitable purposes for this room would either be as a meth lab or den of horrors where some sadistic serial killer might have dead bodies hanging from hooks. Yes, it’s that small and the scary in the E.C. Brown Anomalies workshop.
A remote area of rural Okanogan county in North-Central Washington state is where I make my home and have my shop set up. Being five miles from the nearest paved road and thirty miles from the nearest town, I can work with few distractions or interruptions. “The bastards can’t bother me up here.”, is what I sometimes say to myself. Though the isolation is often great for creativity, it has its disadvantages: It’s an hour drive if I need to obtain more welding rods or grinding discs. But although my shop is small and in the middle of nowhere, it’s mine.
There are no serious walls on my shop, only a thin layer of Tyvek house wrap stapled to the frame separates me from the outside. Once in awhile, a rodent might chew through and infiltrate. Doll heads, bicycle chains, air compressor hoses hang and all manner of strange items hang from the ceiling. Milk crates with everything from hacked up steel and broken circuit boards to pieces of steel grilles and galvanized pipe occupy much of the floor space. My primary shelf consists of a variety of items that defy logic or categorization: porcelain figurines, non-functional clocks, tool parts, old license plates, brass clock gears, burned-out electrical equipment, Buddha statues, fuse boxes, picture frames and even a couple of mummified mice (yes, I’ve used dead mice in my art).
Just about everything in the shop is covered with a layer of metal dust from all the grinding I have to do. When I sweep, a pile of grinding dust weighing several pounds suddenly appears on my floor. -My wooden floor: A wooden floor with rubber mats that sometimes catch fire when molten slag lands on it. Since I have no ventilation system other than the door, I cannot say how many times smoke has filled this room to a point where I had to flee outside for a breath of fresh air. Smoke from burning rubber is the worst, welding fumes are equally toxic but a little more bearable. Sometimes hot metal has a smell that borderlines on erotic.
Aside from the interior of the shop, I have a small outdoor area where I keep my anvil, blacksmithing tools and a propane forge. Here, with the aid of my anvil and hammers, I get to unleash the fury and pound on things. It can be very therapeutic. This is also where I keep some of the larger and bulkier pieces of my scrap metal collection. Part of my creative process, at least in terms of materials and found objects, involves hanging a variety of things on the walls or putting them on shelves and let them sit there until they call on me. Many artists like to keep their materials tucked conveniently away in drawers or boxes; which I do as well to a certain degree. But I prefer to have them visible, somewhat disorganized and somewhat disheveled. Though I do in many respects feel that having a clean and well-organized shop is conducive to a greater degree of productivity; a greater degree of productivity isn’t always conducive to fun and creativity. -Sometimes the big mess of scrap on the floor that I’m too lazy or preoccupied to clean up can yield interesting fruit in the form of tiny bits of metal that might make their way into other pieces later on.
In many instances; the final stages of a piece occurs at my kitchen table. Things get a little more lighthearted and comfortable when the work goes from where all the welding and metal working equipment is kept to the kitchen table where the paints, the epoxies and the glue-gun take over. This is where things become a little more laid back, but in some ways a bit more interesting. The colors and textures come to life and a greater sense of calm takes over from the chaos, earnestness and noise that happen in the workshop. When I emerge from the shop, I’m usually wearing tattered and filthy clothes and my face and hands are covered with soot and grinding dust. Being able to clean myself up, put on my PJ’s, turn on some Nick Cave, pour myself a glass of wine and sit at the table with my paints and do the finishing work is not only very psychologically soothing; but it in terms of the creative process, it often represents the smooth sailing that comes after the storm that occurred earlier on.
At that point, I’m winding down. I’m done with the hard and brutal part, but I’m still happily working.
I sometimes ponder the idea of how space and art might complement and influence each other. I’ve wondered, specifically in terms of my shop: “Is the space a by-product of the art being made there? Or is the art a by-product of the space?” I see these as perfectly legitimate questions but sometimes I feel it is folly to over-analyze the creative process. At the end of the day, if your space allows you do what you are called to do; it is the right space.