Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How I came to love my basement studio at home: a documentary

“Do you think you could use the basement as your studio?”

My husband asked me that innocent question 6 years ago, when we were looking at the house we are currently renting.

At the time, however, I was a studio snob. “No way,” I responded dismissively. How professional would that make me look? When people asked me where my studio was, and I told them “in my basement,” I’d sound like an idiot. Or worse, a hobbyist.

So I did what seemed like the smart thing to do: I rented a space at a mill building filled with artists, located near my house.

It didn’t take long for me to realize my mistake. My studio neighbor on one side was a weird guy who obviously lived in his space (illegal) and was constantly microwaving awful-smelling foods for his meals. My neighbors across the hall were doing heavy-duty renovations in their space, and there was always slamming and banging, day in and day out. They were also constantly yelling into their cell phones, and I couldn’t get their loud one-sided conversations out of my head, even though I blasted music through my headphones.

I tried to stick with it, telling myself how serious and professional I must be, to have my own studio in a building especially for artists. But in actuality, I wasn’t encountering any artists, just a lot of loud and unpleasant neighbors.

Then one early Sunday morning, there was a loud banging on my studio door. My heart jumped; I had been “in the zone” and hadn’t expected such an abrupt interruption. Before I could reach the door, it flew open and in burst a policeman, who demanded, “Where’s Jimmy?”

I answered as calmly as possible that I had no idea who Jimmy was.

“Well, tell him we’re looking for him,” the cop demanded as he slammed back out the door, apparently not taking note of the fact that I could hardly locate someone I didn’t know.

That was pretty much the last straw. After six months of this madness, I asked myself, how bad could it be to work in my basement? Besides, that would free up the money I was spending on studio rent to be better spent on art supplies. So, with a great sense of relief, I gave my notice and moved my art supplies and studio furnishings to my home.

I soon realized that I had misjudged the basement; in fact, it made a perfect studio. There were large windows along one wall, and a door that opened out onto a beautiful backyard. Our resourceful landlords had built wooden shelving units against the walls that happened to be the perfect size for storing paintings. There was also a work-bench built against one wall, with shelves underneath that were perfect for holding works on paper, and many light fixtures and electric sockets throughout the room. The landlords had even left two huge tables down there, which were great supplements to the three tables I already had. And there was a huge sink down there, so brushes could be easily washed.

This studio has allowed me to establish and sustain a most productive working schedule and process. It is quiet and peaceful (ironically, considering my experience at the mill building, those are my greatest needs as an artist!). In the 5 years I have been working down here, the space has been nothing but pleasant and supportive … truly IDEAL.

Best of all, whenever the urge to paint hits, I don’t have to drive anywhere. I can pad downstairs in my pajamas and get to it. (Although I have to keep reminding myself to change into my painting shoes, or whatever I have on my feet will soon be splattered with paint.)

So what if it sounds unprofessional to say that you paint in your basement. My work speaks for itself. I appreciate the fact that I have been able to work consistently and with devotion, concentration and a sense of freedom. I know I am safe there, to make mistakes, to let my guard down, to do what I need to do to work out what I want to say on canvas.

And after all, what more can an artist ask of a studio?

Here are some photos: My cat, Petey, leads the way down to the basement.

There are plenty of built-in shelving units, perfect for painting storage:

There's a built-in workbench, with shelves underneath to hold works on paper. The pegboard against the wall is great for hanging small works:

These two large windows let in plenty of natural light:

This door leads out to ...

A beautiful, secluded backyard:

Additional shelving units hold art supplies and some of my teaching materials:

So, as it turns out, my wise husband was right all along!


Karen Jacobs said...

I also tried the group artist studio for a few years but much prefer my basement arrangement. My mistake was not incorporating more art space when we divided up and finished the large space. We seldom use the carpeted, livable area and it's become a catchall for stray paintings, etc... not good for living and not really studio storage. Love all your shelves!

Martha Marshall said...

Catherine, I did the rented studio thing for several years. It turned out that I had a very difficult time driving the half hour to the rented warehouse studios, and began to find more and more excuses why I couldn't go right then. And the working conditions were less than ideal to say the least. Though the lighting was awful, I persisted, because I loved the fact that visitors to the building were my growing collector base.

Finally I had to rework my garage so that it could be a nice big studio. The bonus was, as you mentioned, that I could wake up and run paint in my pj's, or any other time that inspiration would hit. And now that we've moved to another state, we were able to look for a house that already had a ready-made space, which is lovely.

When people ask me where I paint, I say that I have a studio in my home. Period.

Ian MacLeod said...

It's a good looking well organized space Catherine. Your doing a lot of things right - both for yourself (peace of mind) and the environment (less driving) - and you can work anytime.

Catherine Carter said...

It definitely feels right for my peace of mind, Ian, and that's a good point about less driving being an energy-saver and good for the environment!

Stephanie Clayton said...

I also did the rented studio thing for a few months. It was behind a friend's shop, and I was able to sell some work from walk-in collectors. It got me out of the house; a change of scenery helped me to focus on the work only- not the laundry and such. I enjoyed being in a downtown setting. I enjoyed being able to stop work and chat with the shop's customers, and my dear friend in her shop.

The downside: I had to carefully plan my studio time instead of being able to paint late at night, or in my PJs. I missed that. Also the building's landlord did not provide running water (this was in the Caribbean, which might explain), so I was always carrying in jugs of water for washing brushes. Because it was behind my friend's business, I had to take care when walking through with larger materials and art, and I couldn't get paint on the floor. I couldn't listen to my own music during business hours.

When the landlord decided to kick us out to give the space to a local relative, it was actually a good thing. I missed the space, but it forced me to rethink what I needed in a studio.

I now have a converted garage at home, and it is perfect. When people ask where I paint, I offer the same answer as Martha.

Great post, Catherine. Many artists dream of such a studio as yours. Well done.

LynetteH said...

Catherine what a terrific studio! I covet your setup!! Though I currently rent in a very nice space, the downsides for me outweigh the positive ones. My basement is not very conducive to a studio but I'm going to look at it again... Your windows rock, as does your yard!

Adria Arch said...

I love my basement studio. It has worked wonderfully for me for over 20 years. I feel so fortunate not to have to pay rent. I do miss the potential for comraderie in the hallways and easy studio visits, but the benefits easily outweigh the disadvantages.

Catherine Carter said...

Stephanie, that studio sounds like extremes of good and bad, but it did cause you to focus. So glad you enjoyed the post.

The social aspect can be great, Lynette, but I figure you can always have a plan to go to openings and shows to make sure you're getting out and meeting with other artists once you're working from home.

Adria, I always found that the people I wanted to see at the studio weren't around, and the people I didn't want to see were always "dropping in" and I was too shy to tell them I had to get back to work. Your situation sounds ideal.

Amy Okaya said...

This is so helpful and inspiring to see your workspace! I'm trying to use our lower level as a painting space, and you've given me a lot of good ideas about how to make it more functional. You are clearly a superb organizer!

Catherine Carter said...

Thank you, Amy, although I was so lucky that the landlords had built those terrific shelves, and that they happened to be big enough for paintings. (Your average shelf wouldn't have been.) That was the key, because it enabled me to combine a workspace and a storage space.