Artists, writers become as one with their workspaces
The studio is an artist’s sanctum. A controlled environment that frees the imagination, insulates against interruption (much of the time) and confers a sense of continuity.
Similarly, the writer’s studio or office.
But apart from being conducive to creativity, to what extent does an artist’s or writer’s workspace affect his work, and how are these spaces conceived?
“It’s the physical extension of my interior world,” says Johns Island painter John Duckworth. “So it’s not that the environment affects me, but more that it is me. Most importantly though, it is a safe place where I feel comfortable to say and do and create whatever I want. Ideas are fostered and germinate here.”
After Hurricane Hugo demolished her Hayne Street studio, painter, musician and batik artist Mary Edna Fraser employed a room at the Dock Street Theatre for a time. But the studio of her dreams emerged soon after, a spacious two-story space a short distance from James Island Creek, offering something of a rural feeling while also accommodating an office.
“Whereas my home is filled with antiques, the (studio) working environment is modern and also functions as a gallery,” Fraser says. “Folks often come to visit by appointment. When I have an opening, the yard serves as a gathering place as well.
“My colors are derived largely from the gardens and the tidal creek. Most of my work has a calming effect. I forget the housework and life’s problems and enter into a creative mode. When I am working, there is nothing but nature for me to see with the north light. It really is a peaceful retreat from the world.”
Novelist and short story writer Bret Lott, a professor of English at the College of Charleston, returned to the Charleston area in 2007 after a stint as editor of the Southern Review in Baton Rouge.
The family relocated in Ladson, but office space wasn’t Lott’s principal consideration.
“It’s only a room cluttered with books, and with curios, like any of a million rooms. But what’s different is that the combination of those items belongs only to me. Period,” he says. “It affects me in every way possible: it settles me into place, one with which I am intimately familiar, and which gives me peace, giving my imagination the confidence to wander out and begin to do its job: finding the story.”
Design and ‘flow’
The arrangement, details and “flow” of a studio/workspace can be the product of a conscious design, piecemeal evolution or happenstance. Most are a constant work in progress.
For painter Susan Colwell, there were additional challenges. Transitioning from Awendaw to Mount Pleasant meant a logistical upheaval, though she is adapting.
“When I lived on the Wando River in Awendaw, the view was so stunning that I felt as though I was living within a painting,” she recalls. “The sun set in the backyard, and my studio overlooked the water through picture book oaks. So when I moved to Mount Pleasant, I wanted to create a similar oasis.
“Space dictated the size of the studio, and in reality the size or lack thereof has been the biggest problem. Call it cozy or intimate, it is downright claustrophobic. I need to haul the paintings outside to get enough distance to critique them.”
Author Harlan Greene, senior manuscript and reference archivist for special collections at the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library, says that with a limited amount of space, compromises were required.
“The place I set aside in which to write also became my library,” he says. “It’s a constant battle. As I buy more books and try to write more books, the two sides meet in my office. It’s a tug of war as I have to keep moving other people’s work out of my way to get to my own. So definitely, it’s an evolution. Maybe a regression.
“The only thing I must have for a work area is a place where I can’t hear human voices. Birds are fine. Music is fine. But if I hear people speaking, inevitably I listen to them, instead of the voices inside my head.”
For Lott, the “design” has been piecemeal.
“Of course, there are bookcases, and I’ve set the desk facing the window because I like to look out a window. Beyond that, though, I’ve just hung pictures on the walls, placed mementos on the desk (along with the really, really important books in my life), filled the drawers with oddball junk and cluttered the place up with items that are important solely to me.
“Otherwise, it would be only a room.”
Fraser’s, by contrast, was meticulously fashioned.
“The studio I designed has been a huge influence on my peace of mind and creative process,” she says. “The computer, light table, photographs, maps and files are upstairs with my assistant, Celie Dailey.
“Downstairs is a working studio with silks suspended on sawhorses or completely transformed into a gallery with batiks, monotypes and giclees prints for sale. The studio also has a bathroom that operates as a dye room for the batiks. The studio has met my goals and continues to evolve.”
Duckworth, who has rented out his house and is moving into his studio full time, says his workspace was envisioned in intimate detail before he found his Johns Island property.
“I made an offer on the property before I even looked at the house. The farm building was structurally sound, but open to elements and with a dirt floor. It took a few years of renovating before I was working in the space while not simultaneously working on the space.
“It’s absolutely perfect. I love it. It’s custom designed to accommodate my working process with as much ease as possible.”
Control is vital to an artist or writer. Fraser furthers that factor, and looks ahead.
“The studio needs to be clean, and music without lyrics creates an atmosphere conducive to art-making,” she says. “I have ADD, and that helps me to hyper-focus on the unforgiving medium of batik. The studio also is designed to become a small home in the future, with wiring for a kitchen.”
The subtleties of light, reflections on the water and the softness she perceives in the landscape greatly influence Colwell. It is not surprising that water also helps “expand” the dimensions of her studio.
“For me, the yard and the pool are part of the total package, and when the (pool’s) waterfall is running, I feel as though I’m a million miles away. Just the sound of water is stimulating.
“I truly have an inside/outside studio which is totally private in the middle of a busy neighborhood. Apart from the size, this is an ideal painting setting for me.”
Lott says he’s found the best way to use his room is to stay away from it when not in use.
“That is, I don’t go in there to pay bills or grade papers or just to read. That way, when I do go in there, what’s on my mind is the idea of invention, of creation. I keep it a kind of sacred space, so going in there means something.”
Greene views his workspace as simply a threshold or portal, a place where he can immerse himself in the process.
“When I know I can settle down in there to write, I may start to calm down,” he says. “If you compare it to a church, or the beach, or where you do yoga, you can see what I mean.
“You may have arrived, but only once you begin to write, and hopefully get inspired enough so that the place you are in recedes from your consciousness, then and only then are you at your destination.”
Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.