A chronicle of studios

1960s. My first studio was in the cinderblock basement of my parents’ suburban home in Bethesda, Maryland. At the very wise age of 16, I was certain I’d be a potter, so my parents, always so understanding and supportive of my artistic tendencies, bought me a kick wheel, a small electric kiln, and clay.  I took lessons with a lovely potter named Judith Simmons who taught me how to throw, trim the clay when it was leather hard, add handles, make lids that fit, fire the greenware, mix glaze recipes, glaze and fire again. My pot shop was tucked into a corner past the freezer, my father’s wood shop, and the ill-stocked and badly maintained air raid shelter under the stairwell that my father had felt obligated to set up due to his job at the National Academy of Sciences, where he was privy to detailed reports of the firestorm, ferocious winds, and radiation that would result from a nuclear attack on Washington DC. Despite the dire future predicted by our sorry shelter, I blissfully turned my pots, warmed by the furnace and the kiln and the fires of my own creative soul.

Soon enough I turned to hand-built pottery, and then to modeling the clay into rough and sensual female forms, women with oversized feet and hands, large hips, and solemn expressions. I had to hollow them out to fire them in the kiln, lest they explode; I soon learned to build the figures around a core of scrunched up newspaper, which was incinerated during the firing. Of course, the size of my figures was wholly determined by the size of the kiln.

I took a ceramic sculpture workshop at that time; I can’t remember where, but it must have offered students access to a much larger kiln because I remember making a very large clay man seated on a pot; it stood two and a half to three feet high. Although I cannot remember what happened to that sculpture, I do remember that my uncle, the sculptor Gordon Newell, saw it when he visited our home in 1969. He was in town working on the Haupt Fountains, a pair of red granite slabs with bowls carved in them that sit opposite the White House on the Ellipse. Gordon admired the sculpture and gave me an artist’s blessing—in essence he told me that I had something worth developing; later, when I dropped out of college, I took him at his word and became his apprentice, a subject I have written about extensively in my memoir Seeing Into Stone: A Sculptor’s Journey.

When I left Maryland and my childhood home for the west, my younger sister inherited the little pot shop in the basement, and she must have made very good use of it as she went on to get an MFA in ceramics at the University of Maryland.

1970s. In the early 70s, I was the youngest and only female member of Gordon Newell’s sculpture studio at 444 Cannery Row in Monterey, California. In the brief time it existed, the Sculpture Center was a gem of a place, an elegant, rustic and efficient building that Gordon designed from silvered timbers salvaged from nearby derelict canneries. The building accommodated an old Monterey pine and an eight-limbed eucalyptus tree, a rocky point jutting out into Monterey Bay where we could see otters cracking open shellfish on their chests, and a garden of immense aloe vera plants with caves large enough to crawl into. Best of all, it was a communal studio AND a gallery, open to the public. On the right side, our sculptures were displayed, lit by a bank of high windows facing north: Gordon’s marble and granite pieces, Jim Crane’s welded figures, and a few wood carvings all sitting on rough-timbered pedestals. Sometimes paintings or framed poems graced the walls. On the left side we sculptors carved, modeled clay or wax, welded, honed out tools, and shared wine and conversation. Gordon’s sculpture yard was just outside the building catching strong light from the south and west. For a short time, my boyfriend David and I lived below the Sculpture Center in a cave-like room that a blacksmith had dug under its foundation. The eight limbs of the eucalyptus tree pierced the roof in eight separate (and leaky) holes. Living and working there was one of the happiest times of my life, and in many ways, I’m still looking for the essence of the Sculpture Center: a studio/gallery that celebrates art, creativity and collaboration.

But when Cannery Row was subjected to one of its facelifts to better appeal to tourists, the Sculpture Center lost its lease and was torn down. (A high end seafood restaurant now claims the address.) We sculptors scattered. I went north with David to Oregon, first Ashland and then Talent, a small town between Ashland and Medford where we bought a small farm and built me a hexagonal studio made of railroad ties, salvaged wood, and second-hand windows. If the railroad ties were 12 feet long, then the studio must have been close to 375 square feet, not very big, but just about perfect for one artist. It even had a loft accessed by a ladder, and I remember sleeping there quite often. Why a hexagon? I liked the idea of a hexagonal building but had no idea of the difficulties that shape would entail. We were novice builders and figured that the whole structure would have to be custom built, so why not a hexagon?  I remember that the floor was fairly level (an important consideration when making sculptures) and that we placed a high row of windows to the north just like the Sculpture Center, but that they leaked during a good downpour. I didn’t care; the light they let in was steady and strong. I carved quite a few wood carvings, some of them good sized, from 1972-1977 or so when our relationship fell apart and we sold the farm. I doubt the studio still exists.

I moved to Berkeley and lived with my sister Nancy who had a tiny greenhouse in her backyard. I set up a bed there, and carved in her backyard when the weather was okay. Later I moved a few blocks away to rent a room from a friend, and carved in her yard. During this time, Gordon had relocated to Darwin, California and I made several pilgrimages to visit him and carve in the golden desert light. But the Bay Area held me because of Aikido classes and the bodywork school I was interested in. When I became a student of the Lomi School, I moved to Marin County and lived in several houses, all of which were temporary, and none of which really afforded a studio space. Not surprisingly, the sculptures I made during that time were all small and portable. I think by then I had salvaged an old dynamite crate from Darwin, and in it I could pack my chisels, a small mallet, a few files, and my sandpaper.

1980s. In the early 80s, I was still living in Marin County, training intensely in Aikido, trying to set up a bodywork practice, and carving where I could. But I soon realized that suburban and urban life did not suit me; I needed the clarity and empty space of the desert. So I packed up everything into a VW camper, drove to Darwin and parked my van outside of Gordon’s studio: a rusty blacksmith shop and a yard of stone and twisted tree trunks bathed in the glorious light of the Mojave Desert. Gordon gave me a worktable and invited me to make use of his tools, and I set my heart and mind to carving several hours a day. Not surprisingly, quite a few sculptures were generated during this time, the only time in my life I’ve experienced a kind of monastic celibacy completely devoted to art. I thrived in it. This was another very happy time, except that something nagged at me, and that was loneliness and the urge to find my mate.

So off I went to Colorado in search of my mate, and when I found him, we moved in together, first in a communal house in Denver, and then to our own place. Henry made a studio in the basement while I took over the single car garage. We got married in August 1983, and by the following spring, we moved to Darwin where we lived in a corrugated tin shack. I’ve written in the memoir about the studio I built for myself there out of timbers from an old bridge that was once part of the mining operation, and how the studio leaked when it rained, and how I placed buckets under the drips, and how nervous I got when the building inspector came to town. It was a good studio for the two years we lived there, with glorious light from the south and west. I experimented with many different kinds of sculptures in the two years we lived in Darwin. Henry taught me to understand color, so I ventured into colored pencil drawings, and some watercolors.  I loved being able to leave my tools right where I set them down; even though I enjoyed the communal atmosphere of Gordon’s desert studio just up the wash, it was good to have a studio of my own.

During that time, I got a commission from the community college in Ridgecrest to create the school’s entry sign out of stone. Each letter in its name—Cerro Coso College—was to be carved into slabs of local desert-varnished basalt, exposing the light gray heart stone petroglyph style in honor of the ancient people who had lived in the Mojave Desert. To do this job, I had to make use of Gordon’s air compressor, and to move the stones, I needed manpower, so the entire job happened in the outdoor yard of Gordon’s studio. I remember taking long hikes north of town where there were several stands of basalt slabs to find and mark the stones I wanted to use. If I can recall, they had to at least three feet in length and width, with a smooth enough face into which to carve simple letters. The school’s landscape architect arrived with a big truck and hydraulically-operated boom to move the stones from their desert cradles onto a series of worktables I had fashioned so I could carve each stone one-by-one. It was my first time working with the air compressor, and I could only manage two to three hours at a time before my body screamed for me to stop. The stones turned out beautifully. However, since I had nothing to do with their installation, I had no control when the landscape architect (and his crew) botched them up badly. A hard lesson to learn.

After my father died in 1984, my brother packed up my father’s two carpentry workbenches, one of which he inherited from his own father, and shipped them to LA along with a dismantled Shopsmith, a kind of multi-purpose power saw my father had used to make his furniture. Henry and I drove our International truck down to the city to pick them up—quite a culture shock coming from a town of about 50 souls—and even though I never did make much use of the Shopsmith and later passed it on to someone who would, I still have the two carpentry tables and love using them, knowing that I’m continuing what my father and grandfather loved to do: crafting beautiful hand-made things out of wood.

As I have written about in my memoir, our time living in Darwin came to an end. In search of jobs, Henry and I moved south in 1986 to another mining town, Johannesburg, whose place name, along with its neighboring town Randsburg , echoes the mining industry of South Africa.  Jo-burg was close to Ridgecrest where we both found work teaching in the same community college for whom I had carved the entry sign. Henry’s studio was in the large front room of the house we bought right on Highway 395, a major artery linking the cities of the LA basin with the Eastern Sierra and the ski resort of Mammoth. We soon learned to think of the constant traffic as LA refugees. My studio got crammed into an old trailer out back with a shed roof shading a patio area, so I could still carve outside out of the hot sun. It was much hotter in Jo-burg than in Darwin, and some days we measured the heat by how many times we had to soak our tee-shirts in cold water. We’d be actually cold for the first blissful minute, then comfortable for about twenty minutes before the tee shirts were completely dry again. I remember carving a female torso out of an old piece of gray marble Gordon had given me. The marble was sugary, meaning it had dried out to the point where the stone crystals had lost their tight structure (which is probably why Gordon wasn’t that sad to let me have it). The figure was combing her hair, but I couldn’t get her arms right, so one day I pulled out a hacksaw and cut her head off entirely. I remember feeling exhilarated by my brash impulse, like the thrill of a cheap ride on a rollercoaster. Later on I realized that the now headless torso still didn’t work. Some sculptures are not meant to be saved.

In 1988, Henry returned to college to complete his degree in art. We sold the Jo-burg place and moved to Berkeley, California to live in my mother’s in-law apartment below her home, close enough to California College of Arts and Crafts (as it was known then) for Henry to bicycle to school. He set up a studio of sorts in half of her garage while I created a studio in the basement of my sister Nancy’s house up the hill. Honestly, I can’t remember what happened to the Shopsmith and my father’s work tables. Did I store them somewhere? Did we cram them into my mom’s garage? How strange memory is, sometimes laser-sharp and sometimes blurry and diffuse like the moon behind clouds.

In any case, I didn’t have much room in Nancy’s basement. No room for marble carving, and only enough room for small wood sculptures carved under spot lights. All the work necessarily got reduced to an intimate, hand-held size. In the foggy morning, I would walk up a hill steep enough to make my lungs burn, and then I’d carve all morning and walk downtown to get a coffee or lunch from the Juice Bar, then back to work again in the afternoon, and down the steep hill again to meet Henry after his day at school. During this time I experimented with some woven sculptures of horses made of raffia and caning, light and airy compared to the density of wood or stone. I’m not sure if I’ve got the timing right but I may have also made some wax figures of figures doing Aikido which I cast into bronze, since I know that during this time I was driving across the bay to train in Aikido again.

In the late eighties, Henry’s Denver friends Lynn and Jane invited us to take a look at Jaroso, Colorado, a tiny town near the New Mexican border that they had “discovered” while searching for wild asparagus. There was an old hotel and several other buildings for sale there, and they asked Henry and me if we wanted to partner with them by buying the north side of town. Later, some Darwin friends, Bob and Gunnel, were also invited into this venture, and although the partnership never jelled, eventually all six of us became neighbors in Jaroso.

1990s. By 1990, Henry was almost done with school, and we were ready to move out from underneath my mother. I began looking north in Healdsburg for a house to rent. I had also begun to volunteer at FCI Dublin, teaching stress management and holistic health to a group of long-term incarcerated women. I remember that my wood carvings began to reflect the experience of working with those women: I carved a pregnant woman, a woman with her arms outstretched searching for freedom, another figure of a mother tenderly holding her child. I continued working at the prison for the next four years, founding the Prison Integrated Health Program, which I also administered by writing grants and recruiting volunteers. That experience is a whole other story. During this time, Henry and I would go to Jaroso for all or most of the summer to work on the hotel or the old house, and dream about future studios in the golden light of southern Colorado.

But I’m jumping ahead of my story. In 1991, we found a place to rent in Healdsburg, right on the Russian River. Henry set up his studio in the front room while I took over the garage and one of the bedrooms. The women in the prison continued to influence my work. I began to paint mandalas of them, which later turned into the two large quilts which are hanging in my living room right now. Henry joined the prison work by teaching the women arts and crafts. But Healdsburg proved to be an expensive place to live. Henry couldn’t find steady work, and writing grants to fund volunteer work is hardly a secure way to make a living. The prison work, however, was compelling and important enough to justify our financial insecurity. But it was hard work, hard on the soul, and this is when our summers in Jaroso were critical to restore our creative spirits and to dream of living the life of an artist.

By 1994, we were ready to move full-time to Jaroso. The prison work was getting too difficult. We were learning that in correctional work, there is a pendulum swinging back and forth between the rehabilitative model and the punishment model. The rehabilitative window was closing and it was time for us to move on. Even the women could see that, and in fact, they urged us to get out before we burned out. So in 1994, we moved everything to Jaroso, not knowing how we would make a living. By then, Bob and Gunnel had moved into a place outside of “downtown” Jaroso, a joke if you’ve ever been to Jaroso with its sole post office, and we had bought Bob and Gunnel’s place, much bigger than the little white house, with much more room to create studio space. They had built a pottery shop in the front end of the house, and a kiln shed to house their large kiln. That’s where I set up my studio, both carving and painting, eventually adding on an outdoor shed so I could carve outside. My father’s and grandfather’s work benches (and the old Shopsmith until I gave it away) just fit into the space with room to walk around. We gutted the pottery shop, rebuilt the walls (the wall studs were scabbed together 2 by 4’s every four feet or so set up big flat rocks), poured a new foundation and even tore off the roof and rebuilt it. We subdivided the space into an office and an L shaped studio for Henry. When I wanted to sew a big quilt, I used the big table in the office space. Here in Jaroso, we lived and worked and patched together a living for the next 19 years. For a short time, I worked as a county court clerk, hoping that I could split my life between having a straight job on some days and making wild art on the others. I tried working for my neighbor Lynn, who was by then a successful artist making bronzes for the liturgical community, but my body rebelled at the thought of helping to create more images of sad-eyed Jesus on the cross, and my eyes refused to work on someone else’s creation. In 1999, my brother made it possible for us to visit him in Benin, West Africa, and that experience catapulted our artwork on a new trajectory of music, rhythm, color, and abandon.

2000-2013. For several years, we participated in the local annual studio tour, and at one point we actually believed that we could make a living as artists. But our hopes fell with the towers on 9/11, after which no one seemed able to contemplate investing in art anymore. In 2003, I went back to school, hoping to find a way to support my art by banking on my bodywork skills and becoming a chiropractor. However, after really understanding what a financial commitment that would be, not to mention moving to sleazy part of Dallas to attend the chiropractic school, and hearing Henry say that our marriage would not survive that move, I had a meltdown on the flooded roads of Texas on our drive back. Through a torrent of tears, I slowly realized that I wanted to stay in school, and with that insight, I began to envision a whole new interdisciplinary major centered around art and creative expression. Later, that major changed again to creative writing, and thus I added being a writer to my identity as an artist.

I don’t mean to make that identity shift sound so easy; it was actually quite a struggle. Unlike many authors, I had never thought of myself as a writer. Even though I journaled and wrote long letters and chronicles of certain experiences, none of that writing carried the same urgency and gravity as writing about my experience working with the women in prison. That book, titled Soaring Over the Wall: A volunteer’s collection of prison freedom stories, was self-published in 2000. I mean the kind of solo self-publishing that involves printing pages from my computer, and taking images to the copy store, and having them spiral bound. I mention this book here in this chronicle of studios because that book compelled me to add writing to my list of mediums, and changed my concept of an artist’s studio so that it can accommodate the tools and books and images and words that inspire that art.

In the mid 2000s, after my mother died, we added a straw-bale room to Henry’s studio to make a gallery space/all purpose room, and once it was completed, we really couldn’t imagine how we had lived without it. I moved my painting/drawing studio into a corner of Henry’s studio in an attempt to stay warm and also separate clean work from dirty work so that Henry could use the carving studio to work with wood.

Despite having a good space to work in, several times Henry and I tried to move away from Jaroso. Small town life has its positives and negatives, and sometimes the negatives crowded into our lives. We thought about the Bay Area, and Santa Fe, but couldn’t afford either place. At one point we even considered the western part of North Carolina around Asheville. Closer to home, we thought about Alamosa and looked at places with a realtor a couple times, but never found a place we liked, a place that had ample studio space. We realized that we were looking for the place we already owned.

It was until the summer of 2013 that we finally moved from Jaroso. My cousin had bought a horse ranch in Dolores in the Four Corners area of Colorado, and she needed help creating a place that promoted natural horsemanship. Horses have always been a major love of mine, and I was charmed by my cousin’s vision and excited to move deeper into the world of horses and horse whisperers. The timing felt right because we both felt ready for a big change. Many factors contributed to our restlessness: an ongoing agitation with contentious neighbors; fatigue and expense from having to drive so far to Alamosa where I taught at Adams State University; my frustration with teaching as an adjunct professor with no security or benefits; a feeling of stagnation and isolation; and a lack of opportunity for Henry to use his creativity to make a living. The way I described us back then was we were treading water. We told ourselves we needed a big change, one that would force us to let go, leave Jaroso, and plunge into something new and scary where we would have to use all our skills—art and creativity, writing, conflict resolution, counseling, listening, envisioning, planning, implementing, and collaborating—to help give birth to my cousin’s vision. We told ourselves that even if things didn’t work out with my cousin or the ranch, we STILL needed to launch ourselves into the creative unknown. Amazingly, we easily found buyers for our place, two singer/songwriter/artists who were able to make us a decent offer. We sorted through 19 years of stuff, had a huge art and moving sale, packed up everything—house, studio, artwork, marble, air compressor, and horses—and left our beautiful studios behind to head west to a very uncertain future.

Within a couple months of living and working on the ranch, we began to suspect that it wasn’t going to work out for us, and we began to back away as gracefully as possible. The troubling story of that summer is something I’m still trying to sort out. By late summer/early fall, we found a place to buy just down the road from the ranch, thinking that it would be easier if we had our own place. It had a double garage which we converted into studio space with a minimum of effort or investment.  But we soon realized (Henry figured it out before I did) that the less we had to do with my cousin and the ranch, the better. Quite a bit of new work got generated in that little studio; speaking for myself, it was work borne out of fractured dreams, disappointment and doubt, and depression, but any artist knows that good art can be borne from an emotional stew. We tried to find work to pay the bills, but the prospects were dismal and what work we did find didn’t pay near enough to sustain us. By June of 2014, I accepted a job teaching summer school back at Adams State in Alamosa. Just walking down the street to get coffee one day, I received about ten hugs in ten minutes. I burst into tears, called up Henry, and told him we had to move back to the valley.

So by the late summer of 2014, we found a buyer for our place and despite the turmoil and expense, moved everything—house, studio, artwork, marble, air compressor, and horse—back to the valley. We stayed with friends and boarded the horse and eventually found a place just east of Alamosa with enough acreage for the horse, a very decent house, a small garage, and best of all, a barn for studio space. Hopefully the last studio, since we are now both in our mid-sixties.

We have been working on this studio all winter and spring, sinking a small fortune into it—the bulk of our savings—so that we can finally have the studio of our dreams. It’s not the rustic, hobbity hexagon of Oregon, or the rough bridge salvaged in Darwin, and it’s certainly not the elegant silvered timbers of the Sculpture Center. It’s a 30 by 50 steel barn that had been used to store the former owner’s vintage trucks and cars. But what it lacks in charm on the outside, it more than compensates for by offering us more space than we’ve ever had to make a studio/gallery/classroom. Working with a variety of contractors, we started at the bottom with a cement slab, and from there built walls and a ceiling, and then insulated and installed a heater. When we cut windows in the north wall we opened the vistas to the Sangre de Christos, the Great Sand Dunes, and the mountains on either side of Poncha Pass at the north gate of the valley nearly 100 miles to the north. We cut windows and installed a double glass door to the south to let the light stream in so I can have a warm sunny spot to carve on a winter’s day. There’s plenty of room for worktables, the air compressor, drawing tables, Henry’s framing table, the flat files, and all of our work. We’re planning to arrange everything along the walls, or at least put casters on tables that go in the middle so that everything can be pushed to the perimeter to make a big open space in the middle, big enough for a house concert or a water color class even an Aikido dojo.

I think we’re creating a studio/gallery that celebrates art, creativity and collaboration, just as Gordon did with the Sculpture Center, and we don’t intend to move our studio ever again.  Welcome to Dreampower Art Works. May it help catapult us into a whole new phase in our art and in our lives.

7 comments on “A chronicle of studios
  1. Natalie Schutz says:

    Kathy, I absolutely love this. As I sat here with my dumb broken foot elevated,checking email, your story came. I lost myself happily. All your adventures — of course I know you so I was aware roughly of your various homes, but what a joy to travel with your words. I may not ever get to see your current home, as I never saw Jaroso, but my goodness, you provide pictures for my mind to visualize. And I love those workbenches! I loved both your father and our grandfather so I love those benches from a distance!
    Keep writing!

  2. Mary Berman says:

    Thanks for the plug!!! Fyi, hard to have known, but my mfa was from Antioch university , a satellite campus in maryland.

    Love M

  3. Nancy Park says:

    Rich chronicle, Kathy. Keep it up!
    Love N

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.