The Soul of the Studio
A Crit Labber who was moving studios- from a space outside to one inside her home expressed surprise at the level of grief she experienced, to leave a studio of many years, even while knowing the new studio was the right move. I responded that it makes sense to grieve; the studio is a space of the soul.
I’ve always thought this, but the conversation made me consider it more closely. The studio is where the soul of our work resides, and, for those of us who feel compelled to make art, the soul of our lives. The studio is an intimate space, one of private ruminations and explorations, a space to roam, to dream, to play. The studio is a place where the imagination is fostered, nurtured, cultivated, and grown. It is a space where success and failure are sublimated behind the complex fact of creation, with its fits and starts, its tears and joys, its triumphs and defeats (including those we easily confuse, one for the other). This is where the imagination is made resilient, robust and hearty, able to resist the daily slings and arrows that might diminish it, that cast doubt and aspersions on its value from within and without. The protection of our imagination’s autonomy is an act of resistance.
The studio is also a space we share - a space where all of the art made and all of the conversations had- in the past, present and potentialities of the future, crowd in and participate in our individual acts of creation. The collective space of the imagination is an active force in our studios at every moment, a silent partner working alongside our every action. The shared unconscious of the studio is a collaborator we cannot control, we can only welcome into our peripheral awareness. When we acknowledge its presence we play harder, tougher, more rigorously, and more humbly and soulfully, with the concerns we bring to the table. Our work then joins these conversations, from past into future- a grand dinner party of art.
Crucially, the studio exists in the material world, on the land, in the deep particularities of place. The studio grounds our work and our bodies to its specific parameters and location, the way a family or a home does. Our work is rooted there, in that space, grown by its shape and context, like an indigenous seed adapted to its environment.
To leave a studio is to leave a home, to rend a part of our psyche away from itself. The move to a new place, even a better one, does not make that wrenching less visceral in our body, less felt in our soul. We leave ghostly tracings in that space, for a party that we’ll pick up in another place, with its strange coordinates and angles, its unfamiliar windows and doors, its fresh tears and laughters and clinking of new glasses. Raise a toast to the studio, my friends, and come rejoin the party.
This will be a tumultuous year on many fronts. As we begin this new session, let's dream together about objects to create, ideas to explore, artistic families to build, community to nurture, change to enact in the work and in the world.
Both our work and our practice can make a difference in these times- they can be peace in the storm, a call to action, a force of dialogue. Always, art making is an act of our autonomy over our imaginations and our inner lives. Protecting that autonomy, that place of possibility wholly and only ours, is the what art and artists do for ourselves, and for the culture. That space needs protection - not only for ourselves, but for the collective. To imagine something that doesn't exist is to hope, the imaginary is the place of that hope, and art is a manifestation of that hope.
A common feature of repressive politics is the invasion of our inner life. The protection of creativity through the making of art is an act of resistance. An act of hope.
All art matters, we need all kinds. As we move forward, we continue to situate our work in the larger context, and discover where the work wants to take us. Let’s listen carefully to the work and to one another – there’s enormous wisdom in the listening.
Bring your greatest ambitions for your work, and let's have art take up more space in the public discourse. More art means less destruction, and we can aim that creativity all around us.
JANUARY 2020 CRIT LAB
Happy New Year!
Artists and Leadership, Artists and Love
In rooms all over the world, artists gather. They talk about materials and process, they argue about movements and terminology, they share their work in passionate critique. As in any community, they breathe together, eat and drink together, and spend hours sharing common space. The studio is solitary, and the world outside does not always notice or share our concerns. Art making is internal and introverted, while the artwork looks out at the world, forward facing, hungry to be seen.
Artists naturally build community wherever we go. Conscious communities, such as the Crit Lab, artist-run centers and spaces, museums especially regional ones, intellectual communities such as MFA programs and alt communities such as Brooklyn Institute and SciArt, create pedagogies that reflect their values. These communities often have a life span, creating dynamic programs and communities for a length of time before circumstances change, people change, things evolve or dissolve.
Sometimes leadership changes, and inevitably this changes the community. Strong leadership can build a community of respect, of listening, of ethical, kind communication, of conscious collegiality and dynamic creativity. Strong leadership can model a world we want to live into, it can reflect our values and create an environment that is rich and full of genuine friendship and yes, love.
Leadership change can be full of hope, it can be full of joy, it can be filled with grief. When a new leader models a lack of respect, a lack of listening, a measuring of quality through the lens of a market, a disregard for institutional memory and the treasure, talent and hard work that built and invested in the community, we grieve. Communities that have been so carefully and lovingly crafted can become dissolute in mere moments. Leadership matters.
When shown extraordinary leadership and community, we can all pay it forward. We can bring that respect, kindness and passion into all that we do, to model and bring into being a world that actively lives our values.
Thank you to Craig Stockwell, Lucinda Bliss, Brian Bishop, Jason Stopa, Gaby Collins-Fernandez, Jonathen VanDyke, and all the incredible colleagues at NHIA (now NEC) for modeling a community of such careful listening, passion, intellectual rigor, friendship, and art.
“Art … demands an observer’s active participation. It moves. It provokes. It infuriates. It inspires. It elevates and equalizes. And our humanity is dependent upon it…..We should not need to defend the arts—nor to protect the arts. The arts deserve celebration, not defense. They demand affirmation, not protection….
Today, our reliance on—and reverence for—short-term, market-based justifications reveals a profound imbalance in the way our society is organized. An inequality of the highest order.
And we cannot sit idly by as the imaginations of our young people are starved of the fuel to fully fire. We cannot sit idly by as their horizons are pulled in and closed off. Their dreams are curtailed. Their sense of the possible is diminished.
As democracies, we owe ourselves better. We still can be a society that celebrates art—that, literally, treasures creative expression. And must continue working to translate this aspiration into action.”
Darren Walker, Ford Foundation President
See full statement from Darren Walker here:
Each month I write a free-ranging missive with my thoughts on art and life for the month's Crit Lab.
On art, life, and the death of a loved one.....
October was a busy and difficult month. Upon arriving home from London, a decades-long dear friend became very ill after a 2-year struggle with leukemia. After nearly a month in the ICU, sadly he passed away November 1. As his health proxy, I was dealing with doctors and decisions and many hours at the hospital wishing for the best outcomes. Now I continue as his executor, to manage his affairs and try my best to honor his wishes.
I relate this personal story not for condolences. (thank you) We have all been through these experiences, or will, and will continue to, until it is our turn. These experiences make the world suddenly very small, focused only on the most immediate and important details at hand, on our loved one, on our grief. Simultaneously, these moments open the world up - to the vastness of the universe and our small place in it, to the mystery of life and consciousness, and to meditations on our purpose (and to systems of health care, the amazing work of nurses and doctors…but that’s for another note). And, in this context, to art, and to our lives as artists as a purpose, as a deep expression of our short time on earth as a unique human. We make our mark, because it matters that we do. To care for those we love, and hopefully leave a positive impact on our little plot of life through relationships and through our artwork, are fundamental acts of humanity.
There are two ways to live. You can live as if nothing is a miracle. You can live as if everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein
On a lighter note- I watched a lot of Queer Eye during this time. Five fabulous flamboyant queer dudes descend on a nominated person and "remake" their life- their hair, their clothes, their home. Can a life be remade in a 5-day makeover? Probably not. But I began to ponder what it was that I loved about this show - beyond the reality TV manufactured scenes, the makeover, and of course, the five, who truly are fabulous, and hard not to love. They come to someone who was lonely, or felt alone, unnoticed, even with families who love them, and had perhaps neglected nurturing themselves. They then pay them such close and complete attention, shower them and them alone with a focused loving light on a physical and emotional level. They spend the 5 days actually seeing this person. Under this warm empathetic light, the recipients bloom like flowers. I thought about what it means to be seen, to be known, for who you are, who you might imagine you could be. To be seen as a unique beautiful individual. And what it means to not feel seen….. The effect is remarkable.
Art is not a person, so this is not a direct comparison, but allow me to stretch the metaphor. When you bring your work to the Crit Lab and place it on the wall to be seen by the community, the work is showered with loving attention -attention that is not condescending or full of false praise. Attention that honors the work as a unique form and being. We see the work, just as it is in that moment, a unique being in the world. Under this attention, the work literally blossoms…..
So in my roundabout and, perhaps ridiculous, comparison, I think of how we come to the Crit Lab and see the work of others, and allow our work to be seen (and if art is a verb, as you know I believe it to be, I can feel seen). This is an act of love towards the work, and towards ourselves as artists.
We speak in the Crit Lab of the space of empathy that opens up in front of a work, the space where meaning is created. I would extend that to hanging the work in front of the group, and the discussions that unfold before it, as an act of empathy towards the work, and towards yourself.
Am I stretching too far? Perhaps. That's ok. I am thinking a lot about empathy and its role in the work and in our lives. Lennon Flowers, co-founder of The People’s Supper and The Dinner Party, says “we have mistaken empathy as walking in someone else’s shoes. Let us be clear, you can’t. But what we can do is witness, and accompany.”
At Crit Lab, we witness and accompany. The Crit is an act of empathy towards your work and towards yourself, and towards the work of others in the Lab. This empathetic critical attention can make our work ever more seen, and help grow it into its best self.
Art is alive, and it feeds us.
October 2019 Missive
I just returned from a quick whirlwind art trip to London with 6 artists, exhausted and completely inspired. Traveling to a new place (albeit one I lived in in my "youth") and seeing art is such an enlightening experience. London is a lot like NYC, an international art city, filled with world class museums and galleries. (and not insignificantly, amazing food everywhere, from the lowest to highest end!). I found that I was "looking" in a different way, perusing more openly, discovering objects and works that at home I might not otherwise spend time on. When home I tend to see new exhibitions in arenas I am interested in, look at gallery shows of new works, follow the latest discussions. At home I rarely revisit permanent collections, time periods or cultural movements outside my main interests. This is primarily a time issue, at home there is much to do- so museum and gallery visits on my rare days free are reserved for the "latest" scholarship. Being in a new place meant my mind was free to roam, to look at objects without my usual agendas, outside my usual interests. This was liberating, enthralling, and left me all the more convinced of my love of art, and museums and galleries as institutions, even with all their (many) problematics. I felt full of the same joy as always, to see objects crafted by humans over vast time and place, and the life force, the sheer human presence all these objects represent, combined by the openness of being in a place far from home.....
Welcome newcomers and returning Labbers!
I am looking forward to the Crit Lab fall sessions. After busy summer travels and lots of changes, it feels like it's been so long since the last sessions ended. I hope you are all well- and ready to dive in to some hearty discussion.
As the NY art season bursts open, these past two weeks I've been out looking at a lot of art. There's so much thoughtful, insightful, material, political, poetical, beautiful and fiercely singular work out there, I am inspired. It is a cacophony of art- of diverse voices, full of passion and heart and soul. The variety is astonishing, the depth is invigorating, the intensity is.....intense.
This is a great time for art - with no single dominating voice, style, genre, media. All voices and discourses are needed. Your voices matter in this symphony.
What do you care about exploring more deeply this session? What and how do you want to make your work better, and how do you want to make it matter, for you, for the times we live in? What will you commit to this session? There are no "right" strategies. There is your vision- and yours to know the way your work can speak to the world.
Articulating intentions moves us into a state of being rather than aspiration. Let's start the session with an intention- for the work, for the session as a group, for how you want to take your work to the next level- whether technically, conceptually, professionally, or all of the above. Come with an intention, one to share or keep private - a goal, a question, a concern, a hope. This will be a year of turmoil and change.
Art can be an inspiring, enlightening, calming, enraging, peacebuilding, action in the world. I am a fierce believer in the power of art – and in the work we all do as artists.
The Crit Lab was excited to visit Jason Stopa's exquisite exhibition at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects on the lower east side in Manhattan. Jason was gracious enough to join us and give us some private insights into his work and his process. Thank you Jason!
Look for more Crit Lab activities this fall!