Creative Spaces: A visit to some local artists’ enclaves
After featuring area artists in our Local Talent column for the past year, we decided to take a look at some of their studios and workshop spaces to get a feel for where the magic happens. To that end, we paid a visit to the creative spaces of five artists—three painters and two crafters—to check out the places where they create their art. And there we found proof positive that the creative drive will overcome many challenges.
Jimm Ross, painter
“An artist’s studio should be a small space because small rooms discipline the mind and large ones distract it.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Jimm’s studio space is carved out of two corners of his modest apartment, with views of the Cape May Harbor through the windows directly past his easel. Along one wall is a glass-topped table on which his pastels are lined up in a fairly orderly fashion. Several kitchen cabinets, as well as the small island in the center of the room, are occupied by sea glass, which Jimm fashions into jewelry and other objects, including mobiles. Clearly, the confines of the living space do not determine the output of this talented painter/crafter/singer-songwriter, whose works occupy nearly an entire wall on one side of the apartment and are dotted elsewhere throughout. “The way I look at it is: it’s only one piece at a time,” he said. “Whether it’s a piece of jewelry or a mobile or a painting, I can only do one thing at a time, so the space in which I do it doesn’t affect me much.” He does admit that storage can be an issue: “My cabinets are filled with more than dishes.” But beyond that, the space is a testament to a level of efficiency borne not only of living in a small place, but sharing it with one’s work.
We asked about the challenges of living and working in the same space. “What I think I’ve done here is to join them together,” Jimm said. “Most times when I’m working on something and I want to step away from it, it’s nice to be able to sit down on the couch and pick up my guitar for a few minutes. If I had a larger space, certainly, it would be similar to this; I’d simply have more stations—things like that. And more storage!”
One upside that he does attribute to working within the confines of his current space is likely one that would benefit most artists (this writer included): “It forces me to plan more than I probably otherwise would.” The small space also lends itself to what Jimm calls “enforced efficiency, ” and that staying organized and keeping things “relatively” neat keeps him on task. “I try to clean up after myself as I go along because I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to go looking for something; that messes up my flow.”
Jimm said that if he could have more space, “I’d do my own framing,” he said. “I currently have a good framer, but if I had the space for it, I would definitely do my own.” He said he’d venture into more media and styles. “Artists like Victor Grasso inspire me. I’d like to buy a big sheet of linen, for instance, and just go Jackson Pollack on it—throw paint all over the place. But I don’t know if my current landlord would appreciate it.”
He’s not complaining though, particularly with that water view. “This space is small enough to keep me focused,” Jimm said. “When I walk in, I’m immediately aware of the status of what I’m doing, and the view is just a bonus. I’ve yet to paint it, but that view totally motivates me. It’s inspiring. The thing about producing art is I’m not always happy with what I get, but I’m always happy while I’m doing it.”
Greg Bennett, painter
“Chaos is everywhere—and artists, to fashion art and live truthfully, have no choice but to invite this unwanted guest right into the studio.” – Eric Maisel
Greg Bennett has a studio space in his home in Strathmere, just north of Sea Isle City. It appears meticulous and well-kept, but when we remarked on its spic-and-span condition, his response was immediate: “It’s spotless because I’m not being productive right this minute. When I’m in working mode, it’s a disaster.” His house is a raised ranch, and the studio area is made up of three rooms on the lower level. One of the ways that this presents a challenge to Greg is that the ceilings are only eight feet high, and, in order to crank his antique easel up to eye level, he needs to paint from a seated position.
There is a huge, stunning mirror in the studio. “The mirror serves several purposes” Greg said. “I admired it as a kid—it belonged to the people who lived behind me. That mirror was in seawater during the hurricane of 1944. I wanted to buy it when I was 18 or 19, but I didn’t have the money. Eventually they gave it to me in exchange for a small painting. The funny thing is that once again—during Hurricane Sandy—it connected with the seawater. It has a high tide line on it.” He says it serves a practical purpose, too. “When I’m looking at a painting in it, in reverse, my mistakes jump out at me like they’re waving a red flag and whistling.”
We asked if being in the studio space prompts him into thinking about painting, or does thinking about painting prompt him into the studio. “I’m always thinking about my painting,” Greg replied. “No matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing. So when I go into the studio, there’s quite a bit of contemplation that goes into it, too. People say ‘oh—you had six hours to paint today!’ And I say ‘yes, but four of them were just sitting and staring.’”
Fortunately there are lovely objects to stare at—even the jars that contain his brushes. “The jar that looks like a white pitcher—I bought that at a flea market in probably 1979 as a prop for a still life. But at some point I needed something to stick my brushes in and there it was.” There are also art and architectural books, including books on John Singer Sargent, Greg’s favorite painter.
If he could have any studio he wanted, Greg said he’d want something with “enormous, Mount Vernon-scale windows.” He envisions something old that’s been reimagined, and it would be a place in which he lives. “I want to be connected to it. I want to be able to go from my house to the studio space without going out into the weather, because ideally, that studio would also be in New England.”
Ashley Warley, artisan
“The more you are in the room working, experimenting, banging away at your objective, the more luck has a chance of biting you on the nose.” – Twyla Tharp
Ashley’s workshop is a bay and a half garage, and she has her impressive work to thank for it. Her previous space was in her house, where she literally moved all of the clothes out of her walk-in closet and moved her power tools in. When she headed south to Cape May from Somers Point, finding a separate work space was a “huge consideration,” but her current landlords were reluctant to rent the garage that they were using for storage. Until, that is, they googled her, and all of the links to her Nedia Arts work popped up.
Given that Ashley is a crafter and a welder, creating jewelry from silverware, her work space requirements are fairly straightforward. “I need walls, a roof and electricity, basically,” she said. Her power tools are all lighted, which gives her the flexibility to work all hours of the day and night throughout the year. And she does. “I’m in there every day, at least once,” she said about her workshop. “I get cranky when I’m not making something.”
One thing Ashley cherishes is that this space is free-standing. “I didn’t realize until I got this space, just over a year ago, how critical it is to have it separate from my home,” she said. “I put my kids on the bus, take my dog and my coffee, walk across the yard, and I’m at work. It feels like work, because it’s separate. I’m able to keep track of my hours better and I value my time more now because I’m not trying to fit it in around my work at home.”
As well as the current studio is working for her, Ashley is also actively looking for a space to return to her roots in glass blowing; she is completely self-taught in metal working. This will require a furnace and a forge. “I have a couple of friends with backgrounds in glass, and we’re looking for a makers’ space,” she said. “We want other artists to be able to rent space, and to do studio tours, which I’m currently working on with the Cape May County Art League.” Her ideal space would be an airport-hangar type of environment, with soaring ceilings, lots of light and the ability to use open flame, have a full-blown furnace and blacksmith forge.
Ashley’s workspace appears organized, and when asked if that is a reflection of her personality, the answer is a resounding “Absolutely not—quite the opposite. But there’s one thing that [fellow artist] Betty Campbell told me that I find myself thinking all the time, and that’s ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ Focus on one task, finish it and move on to the next. But the nice thing about leaving my studio a mess is being able to leave your mess, exit the building, and come back to where you left off with a fresh perspective.”
Betty Campbell, wood turner
“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without the work.” – Emile Zola
If you’re looking for a story of starting over, look no further than Betty Campbell. She took a 10-week wood turning course at the Cape May County Technical High School, and now not only makes a living selling her wares, she also teaches that same course. Her studio is a tidy (albeit sawdust-strewn) shed in the backyard of her home in North Cape May, where she’s lived since 1998. She bought the shed initially for storage, but it now houses her lathe and the wood blocks from which she fashions beautiful pens, salt and pepper grinders, ice cream scoops, and the like.
She had a previous part-time business with wood-scrolling, but the wood turning was a revelation. “I loved it because it was fun and fast, and it’s instant gratification for me—I’m very tactile,” Betty said. Everything happens in that shed, from the initial drilling out of blocks of wood to the finishing turns on the lathe. Betty sells her wares at the West End Garage.
Betty’s workshop is small but very organized, with the various components she uses stored in large plastic tubs stowed in cabinets. “I have to keep organized because I work in batches,” she said. “I’ll come out here and I’ll do a bunch of drilling all at once. Then the next time I come out, I’ll do all the turning of that batch on the lathe.” She finds that the prep in advance makes the turning that much faster and more efficient. “It saves time, especially if you’re out here in this heat—or cold.” Betty utilizes fans in the summer and a space heater in the winter. And while the weather conditions in her busy little workshop may not always be ideal, it does always pleasantly smell like sawdust. “When I was doing the woodworking I used to do, I worked in a three-bedroom apartment with one room set aside, and it was always dusty.” The fact that her current workshop is outside her house is therefore a bonus.
“I think this workshop does reflect the way I live,” Betty said. “I’m a production turner—I sell a hundred pieces a month. It’s not a matter of wanting to be organized. I have to be organized. If I’m not organized, it’s pretty self-defeating.”
Victor Grasso, painter
“Artists come together with the clear knowledge that when all is said and done, they will return to their studio and practice art alone. Period. That simple truth may be the deepest bond we share.” – David Bayles
Victor paints in a garage on his property in North Cape May. And it’s a pretty enclosed space. “There’s no natural light,” he said. “From the time I started painting, a long, long time ago, I never had a studio with natural light. I was able to paint in a friend’s studio two years ago that had tremendous north windows with constant natural light, and yeah, it makes a huge difference. So the plan is to bust open the north wall here and put in a giant window, someday.”
The garage was a factor in buying the house. “A separate studio space was very integral to the purchasing of my home,” Victor said. “I’ve always had studios attached to the house, and would have made do if that’s all that was available. Having the studio on my property makes it very easy for me to work whenever I want, and having it detached from the house gives me just enough distance to feel like I’m away from home, but not really. If you are an artist and you are compelled to create, you create wherever you can. That’s just the way it goes.”
And the proximity helps when the creative urge kicks in—or not. “Sometimes I’m raring ready to go and can’t wait to get into the studio and get cooking,” Victor said. “It could take hours to get going, mixing a palate, looking at inspiration, or being held down by the clutches of the demon called social media. There is no rhyme or reason; I kind of leave it to the wind.”
When asked if the studio is an accurate reflection of the man, the answer was yes. “It’s all a reflection of me; everything in my studio is a part of my work,” he said. “There’s lots of art books, props from paintings I’ve made, sketchbooks, it’s all my life. I try to keep it pretty clean, but when the workload is on and I’m covered in oil paint the space can get neglected. Priority is always the work, not the studio.”
We wanted to know what the ideal studio space would consist of for this artist, and the answer, like most of his answers, was pretty straightforward. “I would have more than one studio, that would be number one,” Victor said. “But mainly the ideal space for me is large, empty, and clean. Just paintings and paint. And maybe a fireplace, ‘cause I like to burn stuff.”