Throughout my painting life, which is pretty well all of it, I’ve been interested in the idea of working in confined spaces. It has something to do with a dream of simplicity and minimalism — perhaps influenced by Thoreau and Whitman‘s concepts of self-reliance and doing more with less. It may also have something to do with an overly cluttered studio I need to get out of from time to time. I love to escape to airplane seats, cars, boats, park benches, and any number of portable easels.
In my spare time I’ve been building simple workstations based on an inexpensive and easily available folding chair. A feeling of smug independence overcomes everyone who tries one out. Getting into my current model, the “Mark 8,” is like getting into a very small sports car, but once in you’re snug as a bug in a rug. Compared to Rocky Mountain ledges, they’re really comfortable. They’re difficult to get out of as well — which might be a virtue. The user’s weight adds to the general stability and makes it possible to take paintings right down to the signature. Anyone with a few sticks of wood and a couple of tools can build one.
One might say art is a private job. Some might say lonely. I’ve always found beauty and delight in being alone with the things I love. Joys and struggles seem more poignant when you’re in a self-anointed sanctuary. There may be nothing new under the sun, but I think the values of confinement need to be studied. Byron noted that his understanding of freedom was at its greatest when he was in the dungeon. Add confinement within the great outdoors and we are blessed indeed. While the world and its flinty shale may be at hand, the imagination is free to roam, and joie de vivre works its way right down to the end of the brush. So enthroned in privacy, the mind clears and memories are easier to catch and hold.
Confinement need not be limited to outdoor locations. A tight corner under basement stairs will do. Thoreau noted, “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.”
PS: “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” (Frida Kahlo)
Esoterica: Writer on architecture and urban design, David Masello has stated, “Just as paintings are confined to a frame, so are poems to a page. Most poets still adopt the stanza (the Italian word means “room”) to organize their canvas of images.” The “room” we go to may be of our own devising. Limitations and even constrictions may be vital to creativity. An artist is an independent unit and a self-energizing force. We need roots to channel this force and contain this unit. We need the ability to say, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Art in a small room
by Petra Voegtle, Denmark
My living room is my studio and cleaning up each time after working is paramount for me. I do not regret working in such a confined space because I am convinced this pushes the very best in you as an artist if you cannot lay your hand on just anything you would like to have and try out but have to refrain to the resources which are available to you. You can compare confined spaces with working with a very limited colour palette. You have to concentrate on the most important and set priorities to achieve what you want. You have to leave clutter and distractions behind you, ornaments and paraphernalia have no place in a confined space.
Art in a chicken coop
by Susan Schneider, London, England
I have just returned to London from a week of painting from dawn to dusk in a small English village called Aldeburgh, Suffolk. It gets strong winds from the “teacoloured” North Sea with big skies. The town has a lower and upper level with great views of the far off container cargo ships plying between Felixstowe and Holland. And then there’s the Dutch influenced house facades that lead to the small black fishing shacks. My favorite moments last week were while sketching with India ink and watercolours at the chicken coop kept by Mr. Denis Pegg, an old, white-haired gentleman who feeds the chickens a disgusting-looking mix of mashed potatoes, dog pellets, wilted cabbage leaves and other stuff.
Art in the closet
by Sandy B. Donn, New Smyrna Beach, FL, USA
My daughter asked “What are you doing?” and I confessed I was in my studio closet. Yes, my studio closet floor is where I head when it’s raining and I’ve got it in my head that I need to slow down and study all the myriad of art magazines that I haven’t gotten around to yet. I put on soft, wonderful music (Afterglow by Michael Hoppe, Martin Tillmann and Tim Wheater) and spend hours in my studio closet. I also refer to it as my hibernation. When I’m overloaded from the rigors of daily life involving being a mother, community contributor, friend. . .the list goes on. I make it a point to NOT answer the phone. Sometimes an artistic spark comes from my closet, but most of the time I find it somehow gives me tremendous energy and a willingness to be all that I must the very next day. I’m considering moving very soon and the first thing on my priority list is a lit, walk-in closet where I can once again create my sanctuary! I don’t believe a single man in my life has ever been privy to this information, nor would suspect that I long to sequester myself in a closet. Ha, guess I’m out of the closet on that one!
Work stations all over
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I have work stations set up around my studio for different activities and mediums. I find that I work much better that way. I do three painting mediums, casein, acrylic and oil. I also do a lot of cartoon illustration, so I have a marker and pencil station as well. I have discovered that changing mediums frequently helps me to stay fresh and interested in everything about art.
Limiting the field of action
Your observations on confinement are so interesting and not always what we are being told in this art academy. But there is good evidence that you might be right. Ann Frank wrote in her journal, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature… I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.” And on the other side of the spectrum, Richard Diebenkorn wrote, My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles.” Interesting.
Meditations on Self
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
This space/time alone that you speak of is so vital. Sanctuary is a place of self-nurturing. The bottom line is that we can give ourselves the experience of the diamond in the heart. Alone time, whether in the studio or in the wild(er)ness, is where I find the source of connection with the grace of being alive, vitally, wholly and creatively. In childhood it was in the outdoors that I grasped expansiveness, and it was in my basement that I had the solitude to paint and dabble in the magic of what I could manifest. It is essential to have a space for the Self to hear the Self, and address the empty page with paint in visual song or with words in verbal poetry. The page does echo the nature of the space in which we create, as it resonates the same vibration that comes through the artist. Perhaps there is a sense of structure and order that benefits one from a solitary experience and in the limits of a space.
by Elaine Fraser, Australia
Alone time can be found anywhere. It’s all about inward focus. When I need it I can find it either on top of a quiet hill looking out over the plains below or just as easily at the dinner table surrounded by my hubby and 4 teenage children. Confinement can even be found in the most crowded of places, e.g. a coffee at the mall on the weekend, by simply blocking out distractions. I have been able to find confinement easily since I was a child growing up in a household of 12 (2 parents, 2 grandparents and 7 siblings), and all living in a four bedroom house. Being able to ‘block out’ since a child has been a blessing for me as an artist in my adult years. Easily finding that quiet zone to ponder life’s little secrets and be inspired is perhaps a gift in this world that spins so fast. Everything in life seems geared for speed so I think it would be easy to miss one’s life altogether. Being able to block out and be inside oneself for just 2 minutes can be enough to inspire and relax.
Suspended in space
by Gail Griffiths, Ocean, NJ, USA
On a commercial airline plane one evening, during a long flight, I decided to expand my surroundings. I sat in the small confining passenger seat facing the window with my legs crossed. It was dark in the cabin of the airplane and outside. One could barely see a thing out the window but a few stars. To block out all cabin light, I put a small pillow on the arm rest and a navy blue blanket over my back and head then against the wall above the window. At that moment I entered a whole new world, a Peter Pan world. I was flying free in completely open space, it was pristine and cold, clean, a nothingness that I absolutely did not want to leave. My mind was clear.
Escaping from reality
by Pat Kagan, Rockville, MD, USA
I always love your quotes, and the people you cite are often new to me, so I learn a great deal from you. I identify with the solitary artist you speak of, although I hadn’t thought of myself as confined when I paint, but rather as having escaped to be alone in my own universe, quite the opposite of “confinement.”
Although classical music is my thing for actual “listening,” when I paint I play Enya, whose music makes me feel more spiritual, as though I am part of the celestial cosmos, and I go into a space that is not of this world. I don’t hear if anyone speaks to me, and I don’t register time. When I go into that place to paint, I know a peace and a freedom from the world that I get no other way. It is also a place where I can be more in touch with my deepest and often hidden emotions — that I need to draw on now that I am experimenting with painting in a more abstract style. I found that when I painted (mostly people) in a more representational format, it was more likely that I’d be in the here and now, since it was necessary to observe what was materially present.
Keeping it real
by Lynn Harrison, Toronto, ON, Canada
I was struck immediately by the connection between your headline, “I’m not going anywhere” (a phrase I’ve used when I’m uncomfortable with my present circumstances or level of success) and your meditation on confinement in the physical sense. I was glad too that in your esoterica, you mentioned the frames and structures required by art. I agree that there’s an important relationship between all of these things. The more I can become comfortable in my station — the place where I sit — the more I see the beauty that can only be seen from that vantage point. In addition to helping me observe the world and reflect it more truthfully (which might or might not lead to more career success), the embracing of my “confined” space (“lacking time,” “needing more money,” “not in the right places,” “not connected”…etc.) helps me let go of distracting fantasies of less limiting situations. They don’t exist!
This theme keeps coming up, often indirectly, in songs I write. “Where I Sit” is a good song title! In the meantime though, Music Everywhere does a not-bad job of celebrating beauty found in every circumstance. It takes as its starting point the three-note C chord which matches the chime of the subway doors in Toronto, where I too experimented with busking for a time.
Titles make or break a painting
Can a painting be ruined by a bad title? I see a pleasing landscape painting and then read the title, The Triumph of Nature, Mother Nature at Rest, or similar and think: “euugh!” It ruins a perfectly fine picture for me. Then there are the safe ones, Untitled, which say nothing except perhaps I’ve got a BFA. Your thoughts?
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. In the last chapter of my book, The Painter’s Keys, I discuss the five main types of titles: Sentimental, Numerical, Factual, Abstract and Mysterious. The type of title an artist chooses can make or break connectivity. Titles need to be tuned to both the personality of the artist and the intent of the work. Some types of titles are “safer” than other types of titles, if safety is a virtue, but trite titles should be avoided at all costs.
Request for a tribute
by Dave Edwards, Blyth, Northumberland, England
I have recently had a rather distressing e-mail correspondence with Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, a Haida artist. I greatly admire this man’s work and as he is the only Haida artist I have ever contacted, I sort of see him as their representative. I wrote to him saying that I would like to do one painting using motifs found in Haida art. I refer to the ovoid shapes, etc. I explained my intention was not to make any profit from it, because I don’t sell my paintings anyway. I would put it on my blog and label it as a tribute to Haida art. I then planned to include a few URL links to Haida art. I intended this as a sincere compliment and a tribute. He wrote me back and said; “My answer is clearly that I do not support or encourage your efforts to “do” Haida. Please do not continue this conversation further.”
Can you personally find anything offensive in this desire to do a tribute?
(RG note) Thanks, Dave. My experience with Haida artists — and there are many of them — is that they may be proud, but they are not all tied to a sense of entitlement and ownership as this gentleman seems to be. It is a small mind indeed that thinks you will be taking something that belongs to him when you honour and interpret in your own way the cultural icons of his people. I’ve spent most of my life painting Haida and other West Coast Native subjects. Many terrific people have gone out of their way to make friends and to bring me in to their homes, families and community halls. At no time have I received significant criticism from anyone.
Enjoy the past comments below for I’m not going anywhere…
Maria Bowl and Callas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Edna Hildebrandt who wrote, “Your letter made me remember favorite places we used to gather around. Under our shady mango tree on our high school campus was our favorite space.”
And also Janet Badger of Bangor, ME, USA who wrote, “Sitting on a Greyhound bus I realized that I was free. Nobody could make me do anything; I couldn’t study or clean my room – it was pure Freedom from all those things. Freedom to just be, think, dream. A lovely, pressure-free limbo. Everyone needs this “freedom of the Greyhound bus” now and then.”
And also Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg, VA, USA who wrote, “I do not tell people that I am an artist. It is my way of staying alone while yet among the crowd. I need to keep my private space for art.”
And also Karin Huehold of Redwood Meadows, AB, Canada who wrote, “I was so inspired by your amazing Mark 8 video clip that I decided to pack up and go to the river this morning to paint. Well, I haven’t painted outdoors in a while and this tiny venture reminded me why… such whining! Comfort seems paramount; inspiration interrupted and how does one slide into that ‘zone’ out there? Is it learned, then earned?”
And also Ann Janus who wrote, “The essence I feel when I read the letters and especially as I watch the process, is love. This I feel in all the aspects — from the letter, to the sharing, video of the process, the results of the beautiful landscapes, the songs… the whole.”
And also Crystal Manning who wrote, “I have asked my father to make an easel chair for me because it looks so convenient to use. He wanted to know if there was a pattern or any measuremens available. Any tips or additional information would be helpful!”
(RG note) Thanks, Crystal. I have no patterns available because the dimensions and distances are so personal. It also depends on the type and height of chair you are able to purchase. I like the canvas ledge to be relatively high18 inches in my case. You can also see by the video that a maulstick is hung from specific places on the upper end. Some people can’t stand this concept.
And also Gammy Miller of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “My workspace is tiny, almost 6′ wide by 9′ deep and I love it. Once a year, like a packrat, I clear the clutter and begin again.”
And also Marj Vetter of Three Hills, AB, Canada who wrote, “I used to use a 1760 sq ft house for a studio. My husband finally decided that was silly, combined with lack of housing in Alberta, so we rented it out and I moved into a 12′ x 14′ foot “bunkhouse” heated with a wood stove. I now paint more than I did before!”
And also Larry Peterson of Fox Island, WA, USA who wrote, “This video with the water weeds and birds walking along the beach in front of you sitting at your easel gives the feeling of the peaceful place where you are.”
And also Martha Abernathy who wrote, “3 Cheers for this multi-inspiration! I missed Dorothy, though.”(RG note) Thanks Martha. Dorothy was getting her hair done that day.