The Privilege of Studio Visits
Amidst the busyness of the holidays, I confess that I neglected to visit a museum or gallery to feature this Thanksgiving week. But then that reminded me that museums and galleries aren’t necessarily the best places to see contemporary art. Like curators, collectors, critics and artists all over the world, I much prefer to see new art in artists’ studios, a luxury not always afforded the general public.
Whatever I know about art I picked up in conversation with artists, mostly sitting around in their studios. This educational process of going to the source began with the late Alfred “Chip” Chadbourn whose studio was a skylit loft above his garage heated by woodstove. It was purchasing a painting by Chip back in the 1970s that originally sparked my interest in art and, after moving to Yarmouth, Maine, in 1982 I got to spend a lot of time up there in the studio amidst the smell of tobacco and turpentine talking art and politics.
Last week I had a chance to visit painter John Walker, head of the Boston University graduate program, in his third floor studio in the former Fuller Cadillac building on Commonwealth Ave. One of the largest studio spaces I’ve ever seen, it was filled with Oceanic art, a library of art books, and huge abstract paintings begun on the coast of Maine. When I remarked that it would be a Herculean task to move the contents of such a large studio, Walker told me that most of his work had actually been moved to an industrial building in Maine.
Often when I visit artists in their studios, even those fortunate few with ready markets and eager collectors, I find myself eying racks and racks of past paintings and sculpture and wondering whether all this art is eventually going to find a home. When my good buddy Carlo Pittore died a few years ago, the thousands of paintings and drawings and piece of postal art he left behind in his studio, which was once a chicken barn, became a full-time job for the foundation he established to care for and dispose of it.
Charlie Hewitt seems to have studios all over Maine and New York. When I first met him in the 1980s, he was living and working in a raw warehouse space on the Bowery. His primary studio is now located in the former Calderwood Bakery building in Portland. Stepping into his studio as he prepared for a sculpture show was like stepping into a colorful 3D drawing.
Walking around the studio, looking at and picking up the abstract metal sculptures, was an education in itself. You can’t really understand sculpture unless you can touch it. Weight and texture are tactile dimensions.
The most unusual studio I ever visited was photorealist painter Richard Estes’ elegant ballroom workspace in his summer mansion in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Estes is such a fussy, fastidious artist that he paints in a vast hall with parquet floors and oriental rugs, simply rolling his easel out of the butler’s pantry to work, rolling it out of sight when done.
The studio where I spent the most time and probably learned the most was the late Neil Welliver’s barn in Lincolnville, Maine. The huge skylight was actually one of the faulty windows removed from the Hancock Tower in Boston. Barn swallows swooped and pooped as he painted. The contrast between seeing Neil’s symphonic Maine landscapes in his barn studio and in the posh Marlborough Gallery in midtown Manhattan was most instructive. It is the market that turns works of art into luxury goods, not artists.
In recent months I have visited painter Michael Waterman in his little Portland studio that doubles as his home, Aaron Stephan in his industrial space shared with a blacksmith on the outskirts of Portland, Eric Hopkins in his stylish new digs on the edge of Rockland, Dennis Pinette in the new studio he built onto the back of his home in Belfast after the roof of the old backyard studio became irreparable, and Barbara Sullivan in her fresco-filled barn studio in rural Solon.
It is a distinct privilege to visit the places where artists work and to see their work in progress. Of all the benefits of writing about art, permission to invite myself into artists’ studios is my favorite. You get to see their sources, their notes and sketches, the images they surround themselves with, the books they are reading, the space they inhabit. After the holidays I promise to get back to the museums and galleries, but for now a big thank you to the hundreds of artists over the years who have put with me kibitzing in their studios.