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Art Thoughts

Downsizing

Circlegarden Studio
Circlegarden Studio has a new home!

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the former homestead and studio buildings of one of my seminal undergraduate teachers. Once there I experienced the déjà vu memory of a field trip during a semester with him. Having become familiar with his work in the 70s, seeing it again in the 2000s cast me back to this other time. I recalled having been a young tabula rasa, feeling that I knew nothing about anything, as I came upon canvas after canvas of works already created by my professor. I was at the beginning of my art life, while he had already produced so much that he needed to keep adding out-buildings in which to store his works around his ultra modern home in the woods.

As an adult, a professor myself, it was somewhat horrifying to me to see this archive frozen in time after his death. Now his artwork and library were a burden for others to care and try to find homes for. I bought a drawing, matted, framed and hung it in our home near works by other important teachers of mine from that era. This image, however, makes me sad. Instead of bringing back fond memories of a person I care/d about or eliciting an aesthetic joy on its own merits, as most of my art collection does, the drawing reminds me of his piles of work, stacked upon themselves almost as carelessly as he had left them in place while alive, in non climate controlled sheds. I know the situation of having only room to move through such spaces one body width at a time. This also became the story of my own art life.

With each move to some other location I jettison entire aspects of myself. Early on I would simply leave a place/person, taking only what would fit in my car, letting someone else reduce my traces, parse the residue out in whatever way they chose. Others long ago ended up with my fancy figure skates, for example, my kiln, my flat files, the 200 yards of satiny fabric that once covered the walls of a gallery for a solo show, artworks, my own and others’ I had bought or for which I had traded. More Zen-like then, I readily let go of things, keeping my forward journey light. Once settled into academic employment, quickly there was more to archive, however, while imagining that one day others would value the production, its quality, quantity and range.

Some artists save the best piece of each series for themselves. Some sell their work readily and handily, not also needing other employment to pay their bills. Many have trust funds or live with someone who financially supports them, thus being able to focus solely on making work and potentially becoming recognized. Others of us give our work away, do ritual burnings, or periodically take a deep breath, then rip and stuff it in bags to toss like clothes we have deemed no longer wearable by anyone, including, finally, us. Someone who continually recycles and repurposes on principal and includes collage and assemblage as veins of her work, may have a particularly difficult time executing that ultimate “toss”. I find that invariably some intriguing bits move into new “save” piles, suggesting other potential projects. [Note: this is a practice of an entirely different sort than “hoarding”, though non- or traditional-media artists typically may not understand it.]

It is a privilege to be able to begin again by choice, retaining only the most essential components of a lifetime of multiplicity and attracting or inventing new challenges and techniques. What, when push comes to shove, are the essential components? Aren’t they, like starter for sourdough bread or yogurt, bits of remnants from past works to feed future ones? Isn’t it important to have touchstones to accompany one to the next stage? Or is that merely a crutch? Must there be nothing but blank walls and surfaces to allow for more purity in new moments? How strictly must one’s inner best case scenario philosophy align with one’s actual art practice?

How does one overly concerned with the end of the world as we know it due to climate change caused by generations of humans’ mistreatment of the environment “downsize” appropriately and still continue working? How does one who aspires to Buddhist principles carry forward only the essentials from another art studio that has evolved the way it has due to a lifetime of making and decades of teaching? Perhaps by imagining that by 2030 life as we know it will be no longer. What physical elements, in that case, should accompany one into a future of only ten years? Not to mention, who needs an archive?

Perhaps this time I will move in reverse. My first real studio—not a spot of my mother’s basement by the washing machine or in my tiny apartment—was a small room provided as an incoming graduate student. Initially I had brought across country with me unframed starts and some materials into a space with no furniture. The size of a small walk-in closet, this grew two more times as I moved onward and upward before completing my MA. degree, returning twelve years later to complete my M.F.A.  Since then, studio furniture, cast-offs, repurposed and repaired has accumulated. Framed works, art in all stages of progress, materials and many layers of history have also accumulated, along with books—my lifeline to all and everything.

In the throes of a pandemic the Universe has provided a new space in a new location. I am ever-grateful for the gift of being able to pass through a seeming portal into this other, better, reality and future. As wonderful as this all is, the studio is significantly smaller than what my current physical history can accommodate. For perhaps the last time in this life I have the privilege of choosing to let go and move on. This time I think I’ll start with the furniture. Creativity will transplant within the parameter of limitations provided by the flat surfaces and storage systems that fit in this space.

Among the great gifts of this pandemic is permission for artists to let go of rules we used to live by. What was ongoing in the great “before” no longer matters unless we decide it does. Time and purpose is entirely new. I must consider my existing works simply as those that were doable during the juggling acts of the previous decades that formed my Now. The words of my yoga teacher regarding personal energy ring ever more true: “Let it go, then make more.” At last perhaps my art and Buddhist practices will come to neatly inform each other. Less will become not only more, but enough.

Stay safe and well. 

©2020 Janet Maher, Circlegarden Studio

By Janet Maher

I am a visual artist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Art from Loyola University Maryland. My longstanding interest in the history and culture of the land of my ancestors accompanied my work in the studio for many years, and I have written two books about that.

3 replies on “Downsizing”

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