For the last year and a half, I have been obsessed with creating my upcoming show, American Steel, at CMCA. It is a true departure for me on many fronts: it’s realist, it’s text-driven, it’s political, and hopefully it’s funny. If it’s not a little bit funny something’s gone wrong, and if it doesn’t go past this charged political moment, something has also gone wrong.
I’m attempting to unpack my abstract and specific thoughts about this country of ours.
The work runs from the miniature–oyster shells–to the macro–enormous pillars and a serpent. I’m hoping the work will read like a dark allegorical fairytale with some optimistic twists. It has been an amazing work cycle. So many new discoveries of technique and form and specificity. When I’m not terrified I’m having the best time of my life.
The obvious reason for this strange new batch of work is the injection of toxins that this current administration has shot into our politics, and even more significantly, into our society. Trump has opened the door that I had hoped would remain locked at the bottom of the ocean. People just feel comfortable spitting hate without ever hearing or even wanting a cogent response. Because the dialogue seems so discordant, I felt compelled to enter it.
For 40 years now (1978-2018), I have been writing about art in Maine. Over that time I have been privileged to visit several hundred artists in their studios. Not only did I learn most of what I know about contemporary art from studio visits, but I have come to regard an artist’s studio as a special kind of space, a place of creation, reflection, learning, expression, contemplation and spiritual renewal.
Artists’ studios are among the most human of places I know. I find myself feeling safe and relaxed in these industrious spaces the same way I do in churches, cemeteries, libraries, bookstores and museums. In all these places, one is in touch with generations of living. In a studio, one is also in touch with the immediate, the moment, even the moment before creation.
In the following paragraphs, I propose to reflect on a few of the artist studios that have made an impression on me and to consider some of the things I have learned there.
Studio as time travel
The first studio I visited regularly was Alfred “Chip” Chadbourn’s sky-lit and woodstove-heated space above his garage in Yarmouth. Up the wooden stairs and under the eaves was a little world away from suburbia, a cheerfully cluttered atelier where Chip painted and taught, read, smoked, dreamed and thought. In his “blue de travail” French worker’s jacket, Chip cut a rakish figure as he stood working at his easel, brushing buckets of color and Mediterranean light onto otherwise Maine landscapes.
With his handlebar mustache and European mien, Chip was Central Castings’ vision of an artist. His absorption of the history of art was such that I understood that when he was in his studio he was as much in the company of Bonnard and Vuillard as he was of the occasional visitor from the present.
That was the 1970s. I got this same sense of time travel in 1985 when I visited portrait painters Claude Montgomery and Gardner Cox in their respective studios. Portraiture was a conservative genre even then, so the sense of stepping into the past seemed fitting.
Claude Montgomery’s Georgetown studio was a rustic, smoky space. “Ash and burnt logs spill from the great stone hearth,” I wrote in a Maine Times group portrait of portrait painters. “The walls are cluttered with portraits of friends and family. Books mount to the ceiling a dizzying height away. North light skylight, ocean view picture window. A grand piano and a grand array of artistic impediments – a bouquet of brushes here, Winslow Homer’s old easel there – command the floor.” I’m sure I must have meant “implements” rather than “impediments.”
Gardner Cox was “a portrait artist’s dream.”
“Wavy white hair beneath a blue wool slouch hat, wild, bushy eyebrows above gold-rimmed glasses. Jaunty green bowtie, fire-engine red suspenders, yellow and black checked sports jacket with a red bandanna stuffed casually in the breast pocket. Brooks Brothers bohemian, Boston Brahmin deshabille, an artist and gentleman.”
The colorful Mr. Cox, a North Haven summer resident, painted in a line of descent from John Singer Sargent. His studio was a dingy, cluttered space in Boston’s Fenway Studios, a brick block of 48 studios that is “the oldest continuous artist building in the nation.”
“Thin, gray light streams through the towering windows that overlook the expressway. At either end of the big room stand commissions in progress – a portrait of Tufts University president Jean Mayer and a portrait of Harvard Law School professor Louis Loss. The portraits seem less in the Sargent society tradition than in the more expressionistic vein of Graham Sutherland, one of the last of the great English portraitists.”
Studio as real estate
Fenway Studios was built in 1905 to house artists displaced when another studio building burned. The venerable Copley Society and St. Botolph Club contributed to the civic effort to aid Boston artists. It is rare to find purpose-built art studios these days.
Artists are ever in need of ample and affordable space in which to work. I have often said, only half facetiously, that art in Maine is all about real estate. The first artists came looking for landscapes to paint. Subsequent generations came to escape the city summers and to find cheap places to live and work. As such, all manner of warehouse, office, factory, farm and educational buildings have been repurposed as studio space.
One of the most industrious studio buildings in Portland began life as the Calderwood Bakery on Pleasant St. First, Maine College of Art converted it to a printmaking studio and then artists Alison Hildreth and Katarina Weslien purchased it in 1996. Today, the Bakery Studios house the studios not only of Wooly Hildreth and Katarina Weslien, but also those of the Peregrine Press, White Dog Arts and Wolfe Editions, as well an individual artists such as Richard Wilson and Charlie Hewitt.
At one time it seemed to me that Charlie Hewitt had studios up and down the Eastern Seabord from Vinalhaven to Maryland. These days his primary work spaces are in the Bakery Studios in Portland and in a converted garage in Jersey City, New Jersey. Charlie, the most productive artist I know, creates paintings, prints, ceramics and sculpture, all featuring his distinctive expressionist vocabulary inspired by French-Canadian Catholic roots.
One of the things that amazes me about Charlie’s productivity is that he manages to create a large body of work while also managing his real estate holdings in New Jersey. When I first met Charlie in the 1980s, he was living and working in a third-floor loft on the Bowery in New York, derelicts asleep in the doorway, addicts shooting up in the park out back. By the time he left the city some 20 years later, his building housed rock stars and movie directors, and hipster moms had commandeered the park.
That’s the power artists have to transform undesirable neighborhoods, make them desirable and, thus, price themselves out of the market. As Soho became too expensive for all but blue chip artists, working artists like Charlie moved on to Chelsea, Brooklyn and Jersey City. Charlie’s investment in Jersey real estate not only provides some income, it also plays a strategic role in his art career.
“The work gets made in different places and assembles itself here for the New York market,” Charlie said in a phone call from Jersey City. “If I had just the studio in Maine, it would be difficult.”
Studio as mirror of the soul
Over the years I have been impressed by how an artist’s studio often mirrors his/her own persona. Whether Carlo Pittore’s converted chicken barn in Bowdoinham, Richard Estes’ immaculate ballroom studio in Northeast Harbor, Robert Indiana’s Odd Fellows Hall museum of self on Vinalhaven or Neil Welliver’s great barn in Lincolnville, it’s not just the art but the studio that reflects who an artist is.
The wondrous home and studio of Wally Warren in rural Ripley, like Bernard “Blackie” Langlais’ art farm in Cushing back in the day, is a total expression of the artist. The yard of this roadside attraction is filled with whirligigs, totems, small boats, arches, and satellite dishes painted like ornamental shields, all in Warren’s palette of bright colors. Inside the home studio there is Warren’s “Cities of Dreams,” miniature urban landscape dioramas fashioned from recycled electronic parts.
Eccentric and exuberant, Wally Warren’s world is a Central Maine landmark.
“It’s kind of the folk art idea of surrounding yourself with color because of the starkness of the environment we live in,” says Wally Warren of his gaudy assemblages of debris. “It’s the joy of just doing it.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is painter Grace DeGennaro’s fastidious studio in the loft of a post-and-beam barn attached to her Yarmouth home. The divine geometry of DeGennaro’s art is all about order, as is her studio. When I stopped by recently, Grace was in the midst of a work-in-progress series inspired by Platonic solids. Her paints were all laid out in chromatic order, surf clam shells for paint containers. I told her I hoped she hadn’t bother to clean up the studio just because I was coming for a visit.
“Oh, no, it’s always like this,” Grace assured me. “I can’t work unless everything is in its place.”
Prior to moving into her barn studio five years ago, Grace worked in an even larger space in Brunswick’s Fort Andross Mill Complex on the banks of the Androscoggin River.
“I loved working there, but I don’t miss it,” she said. “Working at home, I can climb up here any time of the day or night. My work is closer to me.”
Grace said the only thing she misses about not being in the mill is the sense of community, the sharing of resources and ideas that can take place when artists are housed in the same space.
Studio as the best place to see art
Fort Andross, also known locally as the Cabot Mill, is a 495,000 square foot brick mill complex that at various times manufactured textiles, shoes and brushes. Today, it is lively warren of offices, shops, restaurants and long, sterile hallways that lead to colorful artists’ studios. Among the artists working there most recently are Nick Benfey, John Bisbee, Brad Borthwick, Jim Creighton, John Coleman, Andrew Estey, Tom Flanagan, Cassie Jones, Richard Keen, Josh Mannahan, Elijah Ober, Tessa G. O’Brien, Bronwyn Sale, Emilie Stark-Mennig, Andrea Sulzer and Ian Trask.
Cassie Jones’ studio is a long, narrow space with high windows overlooking the Androscoggin. One wall is hung with dozens of recent paintings and constructions in which color, pattern and form seem to work out their own equilibrium. As a young mother of two, Cassie finds she must husband her time in the studio more carefully these days.
“I’m so lucky to get here two and a half days a week,” said Cassie. “It’s a great balance for me. I’m amazed how efficient I can be. I now do in two and a half days what I used to do in four.”
When I tracked down sculptor John Bisbee, he and two studio assistants were busy in the riverside basement hot shop bending his signature nails into a myriad of forms and letters, working feverishly to meet the deadline for his American Steel exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland this summer. The most important thing I have learned from years of studio visits is that a studio is the best place to see art, right there where it’s created.
American Steel, Bisbee’s response to Trump’s America, was an exhibition-in-progress when I visited, some elements completed, others roughed out, the rest to come. As pieces were finished in the basement forge, they were carted in an industrial elevator to the cavernous space Bisbee maintains on an upper floor, a space he shares with several younger artists.
Bisbee’s studio is filled with the earlier work for which he is best known, elegant organic abstractions fashioned from welded nails. But American Steel is a different sort of beast, a kind of socio-political narrative of the decline of American manufacturing and the rise of a phony populism championed by a putative billionaire. The installation features realistic objects – a bathtub with oars, a pistol, a broom – combined with satirical text such as “This is such a witch hunt” and “This arrangement no longer works for us,” all made of nails.
American Steel will fill an entire gallery at CMCA. And when I asked John what having such an expansive studio space to work in meant to him, his terse answer was, “Everything.”
A few days later I got to see Kayla Mohammadi’s Caldbeck Gallery exhibition in its unedited form in the old Bristol schoolhouse where she maintains her Maine studio. Inspired by the title of the film “The Shape of Water,” the paintings take the artist’s distinctive pattern approach to bodies of water, abstracting the landscape through form and color.
Kayla Mohammadi’s Boston studio is in the famed Fenway Studios, as is that of her husband, painter John Walker. When Walker was chair of the graduate program in painting at Boston University, his studio was on the third floor of the former Fuller Cadillac building on Commonwealth Blvd. Since retiring from BU, Walker has spent more and more of his time in the couple’s South Bristol home and has acquired a collection of local buildings – a school, a store, a warehouse, and the former hall of the Improved Order of Red Men – as studio, storage and display space.
John, who was at work on paintings for exhibitions in England when I visited, is very attuned to the special power of an artist’s studio. In fact, photographs of studios figured in his decision to become an artist in the first place.
“The thing that did it for me was seeing pictures of artists’ studios, of people working, artists like Pollack and DeKooning working in their studios, all that activity,” said John. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”
John Walker agrees that the ideal place to see a painting is where it is created.
“I don’t like exhibitions,” he confided. “I feel sad for the pictures in those clean, neutral spaces. They look so lonely hanging there.”
John Walker’s advice to aspiring painters has always been simple and direct.
“You go away and paint some pictures no one has ever seen before,” he tells them, “and then the art world will find you.”
The studio is central to the art making experience because it is where art is born and where it is most at home. For the artist, it is simultaneously a retreat from the world and the place where he/she engages it most intensely. It is a private place, a work space, a place of research, discovery and, for some, even worship. And that is why it has always seemed to me to be such a privilege to visit one, to get a preview of art-in-progress and of the place and process of creation.
(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance art writer and political columnist who lives in Brunswick.)