A room of one’s own

25

Dear Artist,

A question appeared in the comments on a recent letter about studio space. “I have always painted at my kitchen table; because of the holidays and guests coming I have had to clean. Sorry to say I have not picked up a brush since then. If my table is cleared then there are no paintings. It makes me feel sad; it is hard to find a balance between keeping the house clean and producing art. Any suggestions?”

virginia-woolf_

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

“A woman,” wrote Virginia Woolf in 1928, “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” While the dining table is a tempting workspace, by its first purpose it earns the honour of a regular clean up. And while homework can be returned to the backpack, art needs room to breathe, to dry and to nudge warmly from your peripheral vision. Paintings, mid-stream, evolve best in a shop-like flow. As-yet unrealized ideas emerge from existing works-in-progress strewn around a space that’s clear in its commitment to creation. Like ideas bubbling and refining in the workshop of the mind, a bit of semi-permanent disarray is the name of the game.

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Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group

To reduce disruption and sadness caused by stops and starts, carve out a site with a single purpose. Consider re-prioritizing a space. Many a great masterpiece was created under the basement stairs or some other nook away from critics and the buzz of the vacuum cleaner. Last week I found in an old sketchbook a mock-up for an imaginary, dishwasher-sized box with a door in it. Presumably, the diarist was working on a subsistent painting module that could be plopped on the side of the road or in the middle of an immaculate dining room. I remember my parents’ visit to my first Vancouver apartment — the derelict portion of an old, converted Craftsman. “The largest, most light-filled room in this apartment is your studio,” mused my mom, while investigating a small, adjoining sitting room. I recalled my parents’ own examples of work rooms: designated studio building, boatshed, sewing room, a study and always a place to snooze and contemplate with a notebook. “The studio is an extension of the sandbox and the kindergarten playroom,” wrote Dad. “It’s a room at the service of a dreamer on her way to becoming a master. With something to get on with — something to finish, something to start — even the tiniest of workrooms has within it the building blocks of talent.”

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Virginia Woolf study shed

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “Here in a little lonely room I am master of earth and sea, / And the planets come to me.” (British poet and critic, Arthur Symons)

Esoterica: Adeline Virginia Woolf was born in January, 1882 in Kensington, London and grew up with her blended family in a literary household. She received critical acclaim for her best-selling novels, Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse and Orlando, publishing her long-form essay, A Room of One’s Own, in 1929 at the age of 37 — a book based on lectures she gave at two women’s colleges at Cambridge. It addresses the space needed to create — both the literal and figurative — and the unique challenges women face in achieving this. In a recurring bout of depression in March of 1941, Woolf wrote a love note to her husband, filled her coat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse, near her home in Sussex, England. In less than four decades she’d published 9 novels, 6 short-story collections and dozens of works of non-fiction including essays, translations, biographies and diaries. “I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again — as I always am when I write.” (Virginia Woolf, from An Inner Life)

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“The mind of an artist, in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him, must be incandescent… there must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.” (Virginia Woolf)


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25 Comments

  1. I have a friend who paints in her laundry room. Where there’s a will……I’m so grateful for my studio work space having had much less comfortable areas designated for that purpose. Sacred space. Make it where you can. Thanks again, as ever.

  2. When we visited the Charleston House on the southern Downs it felt like the artist was there since even the furniture and the walls were painted with their designs.
    The need for a space to work is essential since the disruption and time consuming task of getting out then cleaning up is a discouraging way to work.

  3. I had no space of my own while growing up in a 1930 craftsman home, 3/1, with a family of 6. My first “studio” was a cranny of my favorite tree. I would read, and sketch for hours in my sanctuary. In high school years I discovered we had an attic. My brother laid sheets of wood on the rafters. I moved all of my art supplies from the coffee table, through the crawl hole and into my first real studio. I had no heat or air conditioning (Texas), but I endured because it was MY space! I won many art awards my senior year. since then I have always carved out spaces – laundry rooms included. Over 30 years later I have the best lit room in the house that we built! BUT you have to have a mental space, too, or your physical space is worthless.

  4. That is why the outdoor studio is my favourite…..the doors are always open and
    It’s ceilings are endless. I also believe there’s no harm in having a few studios: some that are small and cocoon like and others like galleries with lots of people watching (as when demonstrating). These can all be springboards for breakthroughs or new series; It’s all a matter of getting in that place. Thanks for the letter, Sara

  5. super
    thank you
    (- sidetracking: my website helps with “room of my own” needs too. For Christmas I regained by original domain name of 14 years, after a hacking forced me to create another till the thing was sorted. I had no idea it would make me so happy to regain my “room of my own” properly online. wheee! )

    But Sara – your letter today sent me to refresh my memory of Virginia Woolf’s biography – WOW!

    I’d fortgotten: once happily married and delighted mother of son and daughter and all of us with such good lives – I lost interest in the “fashionable troubled” strata of arts and went on the hunt for those whose creativity was blessed with happy personal lives, as well – there are plenty. It is not always ‘the irritating grain of sand that causeth the pearl to grow” – for many , there is just that compelling light that must be shared, feeling it an obligation to pass on the good.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Woolf

    elle

    • Sara, I love this and it is so true. I am 72 years old and spent most of my life, out of necessity, in the corporate world but I always painted when I could manage the time. I, too, have used the diningroom table, kitchen, guestroom, and a portion of the basement over the years. Finally, after so many years, I have a 12 x 12 studio in the woods away from my house. It is not only for my art but a sanctuary for my soul. I agree with you … artwork must often rest before being finished or continued and ideas can bubble up when one is doing something complete unrelated in the studio. I am protective about those who visit it because I want to keep it as a peaceful, creative space.

      It took me a long time (years) to realize that creating art is not like producing a product. It does not progress in a methodical fashion with a specific starting and stopping point. That is one of the reasons it is best to have a space which can be kept sacred.

      • I too am so grateful for my studio space. It is where I go to feel calm and whole again and to put the irritations of my life aside. I turn on my music and in the peacefulness of my space, my creative mind appears and the painting begins.
        Thank you Sara for this letter.

        • Sara, This is so meaningful to me, for I have created spaces in unseen, unlikely places for both writing and art. In Berkeley, Calif., I painted in our tiny apartment above a parking garage. In Palo Alto, we had a cheap, and poorly furnished apartment, but I sketched and painted during long walks to Stanford University. Working spaces may be tiny, but the entire West breathes life and soul into me.

  6. I recently did a portrait commission for a family of a 27 year old suicide victim. I share this as I ponder difficult times in my life, and for anyone who may yet be getting close to eternal choices.

    I have been thinking a lot lately about the “Quality of my Thoughts. I often allow my thoughts to wander aimlessly in directions unwanted to dark emotion based thinking where there is little that could possibly be beneficial. At this time of year it is unbelievable how much I can bring that darkness on. Perhaps it was the last song on the radio that brought me to tears, taken further with wings of my own creation. Those emotions brought on by those thoughtless “thoughts” carry unnecessary anguish with their shocking ability to manifest exactly what I do not want in my life! While wandering slowly and looking so intently into an abyss of past ruin during these times of unchecked thought-power, I hear above my ceaseless mind-chatter a gentle voice that asks me a poignant question of reason, “What are you thinking about right at this very moment?” It then asks a very important question. “Where are those thoughts taking you?” I listen closely now as they say to me, “Stop allowing your thoughts to wander aimlessly in a downward spiral of needless ambiguity and think creatively! Re-focus now!” As I consciously take a moment to feel and look at what I am thinking, those ethereal admonishments can almost always take me to a place of great healing. In a fleeting moment I glimpse a chorus of wide smiling, beautiful, familiar-faces laughing hysterically at me. They know full well I will do this again. There seems to be no way of stopping it completely. Our creative will brings with it much joy and sorrow. It is much like a physical workout. When I am not sleeping I find I need to consciously work very hard to use creative thought power to push me forward and upward, and not allow my thoughts to drag on me and bring up unwanted emotions that only bring me harm.

    Depression can happen to anyone, anytime. “Please, don’t go into the water Virginia. Turn around.”

    • As always, thank you Sara for always helping me keep focused on what is necessary for myself. And, Sharon, your letter touches me in a myriad of places and spaces of my mind and soul. Thank you.
      Lynni Nelson

  7. My husband is a saint. I moved my 20×20 living room into my dining room and took over that two story space for creating. We don’t miss the larger living room at all, and I’m happy. Happy wife, happy life!

    • I have recently turned my entire living room and dining room ( north light, big windows,) into my multiple media studio space. Now, my ” living room” is a much more intimate cluster of furniture on the south side of the big room where the energizing sun shines in in the winter. I can lie on my couch and soak it up! It’s nice having all this space be one big studio in which I live and work every day. I am the only occupant but those with families and houses with a ” living room” AND a ” family room” or unused formal dining room, should consider repurposing some of the space.
      There is nothing wrong with having your ” studio space” be A PART of the general living space as long as nothing to do with your creative process needs to be cleaned up for alternative use, and family members respect it as YOUR STUDIO SPACE.

  8. I know how hard it can be , i paint with pastels and for a while i used a space in the sun room , when my son moved out about 15 years ago , I took over the room , windows all four sides , have a drafring table , Ott lights , monitor and my wife stays away from the room , very happy all winter long , music, my dog , a bottle of Scotch , what more could you wish for, I produce a lot of work and in the summer I paint out doors (PleinAir) . My painting keeps ne sane !!
    Cheers , Rae Smith PAC

  9. This letter is so apropos….we have moved into a lovely new home and the entire upstairs is my studio space, a bedroom/office and plenty of storage. I left a funky downtown studio space that I loved, but relish the idea of that ‘room of my own’ owned by me, and controlled by me. My previous space got cluttered quickly and sometimes I felt overwhelmed by it all. I will put as much stuff away as possible, in order to have a clean space in which to create, contemplate and play.

    I am so fortunate to have this space in which to work….I have used the kitchen counter, my son’s old room, and many other spaces. I hope to make a lot of good work here. It is a dream come true.

  10. I teach a lot…and when women (mostly women) take my classes, they often say they “don’t have a place to do their work” I ask them if their husbands have an office or study. Deep breath. And they usually say. “Yes”

  11. A. M. Greenwood on

    Thank you for the inspiration again as I’m thinking about creative spaces. It has taken me years to find a suitable physical space to work in. where I can put the beginnings of paintings and leave them. It is a small area next to the machines, the washer, the dryer and the treadmill. As soon as I sit in my chair, surrounded by tubes of paint, paper,& brushes, I exhale and the sacredness of this spot emerges. I am thankful for this. This is my space and my time.
    It brings me back to thinking about two women folk artists whose canvases were their homes. Their tiny homes were covered by their art, Enni Id in Finland and Maude Lewis in N.S.The beauty of their souls shone all around them. Their souls were laid out for others to enter and see.
    I suppose we can find inspiration and sacredness wherever and whenever we breathe it in.
    Aune

    • Nancy Holloway on

      I happily gave up the garage for my car in order to convert it into an art studio! I’m content to scrape snow, bird poop, dead leaves, whatever off the car in order to have that wonderful, spacious private space and every time I walk into it, regardless of whether I paint or not, my immune system goes up about 50%! It is healing retreat as well as creative space.

  12. Thank you for your post about studio spaces and the note about Virginia Woolfe. My family have to put up with my dreams of turning our shed into a studio space. It is yet to happen, but I am hoping for the best. In preparation and inspiration, I like to think of the people who had these special creative spaces. For example, the poet Dylan Thomas had a shed with a view. A replica was built and transported around England in the celebration of 100 years since his birth. At one time, Roald Dahl visited the original shed and that helped him build his own creative space. George Bernhard Shaw also had a shed that could be rotated to catch the sun. AA Milne started his famous Winnie the Pooh books on holiday in a shed/conservatory, sheltering from the English weather. On a recent trip to England, I went to the village of Grantchester, south of Cambridge, and saw the house where the poet Rupert Brooke lived, and I even had tea in the Orchard tea rooms where he and his friends including Augustus John and Virginia Woolfe, used to meet. Brooke’s poem “Grantchester” gives some idea of this quiet time before WW1.

  13. My husband is a saint too… I have had the use of the garage for many years. The decision to create my sacred, creative space within this context has only emerged during the last three. It has made all the difference. I have created other sacred spaces too in my home for prayer. I noticed how our bedroom can be transformed into powerful presence with the closing of the door. The act of closing the door, even when I am home alone, allows me the freedom to be. Entering my studio/gallery must have the same mindfulness or I tend to bring the worlds worries with me. This is easily adjusted with awareness and a prayer or moment of reflection. Awareness, mindfulness, surrender. Life is so good.

  14. Sara, i appreciate this essay…i just moved from a l bdrm apt to a 3 bdrm house, and now i have a really nice stodio in the dining room, which also has a computer in it, and dvd player for instructional videos. My hubby, Paul arranged much of it…actually i have 2 studios, the other one is in the family room and the map file is in there. But the family room is cold in winter, if the woodstove is not going, which it isn’t now. We need to clean our chimney. But with the warm weather in May i will, no doubt, return to my other studio to play as well. And work. I do alot of pen and ink. Penmanship. & flourishing.

  15. Love this article. It seems to me that Vincent VanGogh once said to his brother, Theo, that he loved his studio as a sailor loves his boat. I am grateful that I have a large sunny, north/west facing studio that I can use; however, I also believe that where ever a person is most comfortable creating art is where they should be if there isn’t enough space for a ‘whole’ studio! Sometimes I often work on smaller pieces in the family room with dog, cats and husband within reach for companionship and even inspiration! The desire to create is the pull; it’s not always about the amount of space available.

  16. My dining room table is currently covered in brushes, oil paints, palette knives, palettes, mediums, sketchbooks and an easel. I do have a room, but it is currently full of file boxes waiting to be sorted (which I am procrastinating on since I would rather paint) and rather cold (being over the garage) so I tend to avoid it. I also have bookshelves in the basement, full of supplies, plus my big easel – but it is in shared space, so hockey games on the TV take priority.

    So, I do have spaces, just not the single, spacious room I long for. I dream of a cavernous room all to myself where I can have all my tools of creativity and can let paint drip wherever I wish and leave things lying about without worrying about one of the cats walking across a wet painting but for now, I have a small storage space with no room to work and more stuff in the basement with my dining room table serving as the real workspace. I am grateful for that.

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My art represents an artistic journey that has been on-going for more than thirty-five years with help and guidance from many wonderful artists. Now, with years of plein-air painting experience, study and solo exhibitions, I believe that my current work has reached its highest level, reflecting the depth of my absorption in the wonder and beauty of the world around me.  I have learned that, as an artist, I will never stop looking for better ways to express my feelings in art and that struggling to more fully understand myself is integral to my painting; a philosophy that was part of every workshop I taught. Still is.

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