ON THE GOOD SENSE
OF MAKING YOURSELF A STUDIO
A great many years had passed in my own life before I understood the desirability, the sanctity, the glory of a studio of my own. years lost to imagining that, despite drawing and painting from an admirable young age, I did not deserve such a thing. A special place. My own private study. A workshop, a room, a corner of my room, a ten square foot holy land where my mind and my hand might partner up in adventuring the unsurveyed. no one else in my house thought I deserved it either. I did, at long last, have my own studio at the advanced age of twenty-two years which I, at long last, made for myself. Curse the wait. I should have done it age three.
Georgia O’Keeffe in Her Studio
Salvador Dali in His Studio
I was living on the lower east side of Manhattan, street level old apartment house with one big room, tall barred-up windows in front, tub in the livingroom and half a partition with a bed on the other side. It was on the corner of Avenue B. Opposite Thompkins Square Park.
Six months later I moved a block up to Ninth Street between Avenue A and First Avenue into a five floor walk-up on the fifth floor. It was long and narrow, half the building’s width of about 12 feet, full length of about 35 feet maybe with windows on both ends, what was called a railroad flat. It cost $36 a month. The first place had been $26 a month. I was working steady now and could afford the extra ten, though I confess, it took my breath when I decided to move. $36 was a lot of money. Mostly I was enchanted by the back-most 5 X 10 foot, glass enclosed ‘extension’. I’m coming to that. I promise. I just want you have the whole picture.
Like a lot of New York City, neighborhoods were defined block by block and the nationality of who mostly occupied that street. This was Italian. Shining Cadillacs lined this part of 9th Street. No spotless windshield ever sported a parking ticket, no fingerprints on the chrome. The block I’d left behind was Polish, Jewish, and Russian. If they had cars they got tickets. But it was the lower east side and nobody was rich and if they were rich they already left.
Edward Hopper in His Studio
My multi-locked front door opened into the kitchen, tub and sink on the left, stove and fridge on the right, the water closet in the skylit airshaft next to that. The middle room had space for a narrow bed and table. The front had two windows looking down on ninth street. The tenant before me had pulled up the old-timey linoleum and polished that sucker to its high shining gorgeous broad planked wood grained oak self. There was an exposed brick fireplace too hazardous to use. Mr Neri was the landlord. He was crazy about me. He brought in a really fine near-new stove for me. And a couple of months later when the old refrigerator exploded Freon, the firemen rushed in and carted it up the narrow flight of stairs to the roof and left it there. Mr Neri got me another one. To do that, Mr Neri called up his friend “The Humper” who showed up within a few days, early morning, lifted the fridge off the back of the truck parked in the street below then carried the new refrigerator up five stories on his back, held in place with a mover’s strap and stopped one time only for a breather. The Humper was about 6 foot 5 and something in the neighborhood of 275 pounds. I never saw anything like it before, and not again until I met Barefoot Adam of big Sur who is a slim vegetarian-farmer with dreadlocks and can lift about ten times his weight with one hand.
You know whose studio,
and Claude Monet’s.
But back to New York in the Sixties and MY STUDIO.
It turns out they kind of build themselves. Trust me on this. I was too self-conscious to think I could make a studio –do it–just like that. But here was this beguiling wide and narrow place at the last drop end of the back of the apartment with about floor to ceiling windows and a wood roof and a door of its own, facing clothes lines above concrete courtyards filled with a lot of crappy New York millions of people’s left over and forgotten and thrown out the window stuff. But screw the view. If you’re not familiar with them, and they may no longer exist, an ‘extension’ at the far end of a New York apartment is a very chancy deal. Most likely entirely illegal, really old and unstable. It hangs out over the back of the building, nothing below, usually only on one or two floors above the second or third, no heat, no electricity, and built of wood planks, old window glass and other questionable materials by the mother-in-law’s nephew around the turn of the last century. Why it didn’t fall off with me in it I will never know. But it did not.
It sang songs to me every time I looked at it from the day I moved in. first just folksy chanting bare melodies, then serious pop songs about love and glory, and then full-blown opera that was very loud in my heart and ears and bursting soul and I thought OH! Wow. Is that you? Might you be a studio? My studio?
And all I heard was yes I am.
Come on in. Which I did.
Kamenstein’s Hardware was a block off, facing Cooper Union Square on Third Avenue and Ninth Street. They carried everything, and in the heady mix of serious tools and lumber and nails and electric and plumbing supplies for the landlords, were things for the artist. Kamenstein had easels and palettes and brushes and paint. He had palette knives and linseed oil, turps and varnish, and sketchbooks. He had canvas stretchers, brass tacks, and gesso. One day I walked in there and bought a huge redwood palette (which I still have) and a seven foot high huge easel on a square base with wheels (which I left with Misia in Virginia). I wheeled my bold declarations of my trade one block home and lugged them up five flights and opened the front door then walked straight to the back extension and put my new life inside. I brought in my brushes. I put a slim bookcase against the wall, filled my big glass jar of turpentine and set it on top, and rags, and boxes of charcoal, pastels, pigments. I laid out the new palette with all the colors I had. Then I stepped back and look at this wonderland and I whiffed it in deep and long and then I cried. It’s very moving to do something like that. Here I am world. No more guessing. You will recognize me from a mile away by this aroma.
The cheapest white pigment to buy was Lead White (likely outlawed in public and private today). I’d get it by the quart can. It was actually heavy, good heft to it. It covered really well, wonderful texture but had a serious propensity to go yellow, and that meant the solid white places and all the colors you mixed with it too. Friends from Goddard would stop by my place to crash the night, have a bath, eat spaghetti en route to elsewhere. Part of the deal on a good day was helping me get the huge canvases I was painting weaving it around a short staircase to the roof to lay out flat in the sunshine in the hope it would bleach the yellow out of the white lead. I’m not sure it actually worked but it was entertaining to do and made me feel like I was on a blue river green grassy bank next to an impressionist’s rowboat living the life, taking advantage of the great outdoors. Fantasy is an important component of surviving slum living.
there’s the business of joining a, well, what….a kind of….way of living, that all of a sudden you’re doing something other people have struggled with and loved for centuries. You are a part of all that, is what I mean. Like understanding mathematics, or how the stars turn, or a leaf grows, or fixing a motor, is this experience of being inside something magnificent bigger than just you and crowded with fantastic people since the beginning of time. You have to love it to get there. Love is what does the trick. You can hate it later but at some point it really has to throw your spine out of joint so that you’re never the same you were, only better.
I lived in that apartment about two years, and painted like mad whenever I could. It was a thrilling, freezing, airless, roasting, terrific first studio. I can’t believe I only have one photograph of my first studio, but that’s it, maybe due to its sacredness, the privacy, the wanting it to remain inscrutable, a thing of spirit, untouched by historic actualities.
East Broadway, View to Manhattan Bridge
I moved to a Chinatown loft when I left Ninth Street. It was on East Broadway next to the Manhattan Bridge, third floor, and by then I knew who I was and what I was up to. I was in the animation business and making a lot of money though irregularly. I never have learned how to budget anything. The rent was $75 a month. And that was really a lot. But I did it. And applied to the city for what was called an ”A.R.T.” Permit. ‘Artist In Residence.’ It became a law when artists started to lust after big empty spaces. Light manufacturing buildings housing people needed to alert the fire department in case of emergency. It was an enormous badge of honor, not easy to get. You had to prove you made your living painting. Oh ha ha.
I had 7 rescued cats by then, not one with sense or training to stay out of my palette, not scratch my canvases, not get fur in the portraits. Sylvester, Brownie Golden Swallow, their babies Theophrastus, Jasmine, Orion; and Muffin and Pennywhistle. So I built a room out of 2 X 4’s and chicken wire that the cats could climb up but not get through. I had an unhindered view of Chinatown and the bridge, and protected my ever-increasing emotionally connecting output of paintings and drawings. The loft was huge. About 50 by 100 feet, fifteen foot ceilings. I remember more than ten floor to ceiling windows. The windows were huge. I was in half the corner building’s floor. There was another artist on the other side of me who was a successful fabric designer and related to the Impressionist, Prendergast. the floor below was storage. The floor above was occupied by a Chinese guy who made leather coats. His forty workers showed at 8 and left at 4. I have no idea what else was in the building. All eleven windows rattled when subways traveled across the lower part of the Manhattan Bridge. It was a hell of a lot of glass. Huge sheets, only two sections the top and bottom, and about six feet wide by ten feet tall. They never shattered or cracked. Old stuff. Great light. In a couple of weeks the shake, rattle and roll was no big deal.
Chinatown was likely the best place I’ve ever lived in a city. The colors and words, the architecture, shapes, smells, senses electrified at every turn. Friendly people. The Tongs ruled and made the streets incredibly safe. Most everything ran 24 hours a day and I’d walk out of my loft the three blocks to shops, get some fabulous bun or noodle thing at two in the morning cheap and good, and walk back home, happy for the freedom. Around the time I moved out a couple of years later the young, bloodthirsty and ruthless Hong Kong gangs were doing the impossible by challenging the Tong leaders. Blood ran red in the streets. Wholesale murder came to Chinatown. It was wild and dangerous for the first time since maybe the 19th century, maybe ever. But it was spectacular to me when I lived in it. If I forgot to say it then, thank you all for the good time.
It’s the same with most things in life. Better remembered for the precious moments, the brief spells or unexpectedly extended ones. We get touches, glimpses, episodes, departures, arrivals, enter stage left exit stage right. Home fires burning around heady, productive fires in the belly. Unforgettable decor. Fabric that looked just so in a certain shadow or brightness. The hat hanging on the peg. The broom in the corner. The orange ladder-back chair from a Vermont farmhouse. Sketches pinned over the sink. The palette empty, full, the easel on wheels. Peculiar lights. The smells of heaven. Build you one. The studio.
Copyright October 23, 2016 BD Sparhawk
PS There seems to be some trouble correcting typos–especially capitals at the start of sentences. It has something to do with doing a copy/paste from another page that’s preventing doing the change. Sorry for that, still working on it. Thanks for the visit. Sparhawk.