Your easel, your altar

6

Dear Artist,

The American architect and author Anthony Lawlor looks at rooms as containers for the elevation of the human spirit. The kitchen, for example, is a sacred place where raw foods are transformed by the alchemy of heat into sustenance and delicacy. Bedrooms are sanctuaries for the mysterious transformations of sleeping and loving. Bathrooms are closed retreats of personal cleanliness and hygiene. Apart from perhaps the nursery, nothing compares to the remarkable container known as the studio. Here is a sanctuary where mere materials are transformed into objects of beauty. Like the laboratory, the studio is a domain of imaginative possibilities — as near to “creation” as mankind is likely to go.

The easel Grandpa Genn built, 1970.

The easel Grandpa Genn built, 1974.

At the center of most studios is a piece of furniture called the easel. Whether simple and humble or complex and magnificent, it is at this unit that the creator sets her forces in motion. You might pause to consider how blessed are we who daily stand or sit before the easel. Ideally, it should be a strong object, so it can be pushed hard against, or be made to hold rock-steady during our more delicate passages. The easel needs to be well lit from above so those born on it can be properly examined, pampered and reconsidered. The easel is an altar to productivity.

Traditional altars have been places of worship and sacrifice, and the studio easel is no exception. He who would do well at one must respect and honour the gods of quality, truth, composition, imagination, pattern, perspective, story, drawing, colour, fantasy and flair. To stand or sit at one, even in play, you need to prepare yourself for labour. The easel is also a place of sacrifice. Substandard passages or whole works are summarily struck down at this often troubling altar — but rebirth is its usual fruit. Both honour and responsibility go with your easel, your altar.

Edith Lake, 2010 Stanley Munn photo

Edith Lake, 2010
Stanley Munn photo

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “For thousands of years, much of humankind has believed that only special places are infused with the sacred and that you must get away from the everyday in order to find it. Not so, everything is infused with the holy — from chairs to clothing to kitchen stoves.” (Anthony Lawlor)

Esoterica: While I’ve built, bought, worn out, and rejected countless outdoor easels and boxes, my studio easel is home-built and has been with me for a lifetime. My dad and I built it in 1974. I’ve sometimes looked at more sophisticated cranking and tilting models, but I’ve always come back to this one. Maybe it’s the spirit of Dad in its rugged design, the Luddite way it holds onto my paintings, or the patina from my cigar-smoking days that keeps it in its place. But maybe it’s the tradition. I’ve made a lot of art on it, and rejected a lot as well. It’s been a life together — this easel and me. I guess you could say I’ve fallen in love with it.

Robert Genn EaselThis letter was originally published as “Your easel, your altar” on June 22, 2012.

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“Since every building and designed object is made of memory, every place can become a memorial for re-membering our lives and the world around us… a place to recollect the fragments of our lives into a revitalized whole.” (Anthony Lawlor)


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6 Comments

  1. Ah yes! The easel. I still have the large folding mast easel that my parent bought me for graduation from high school. It has served me well and traveled the country with me through youth, adulthood, children and now grandchildren. But I replaced it with a sturdier more flexible addition about 7 years ago that I can wheel around and it comes in from the outside covered deck to the studio space as needed. Yesterday was so pleasant I stayed outdoors on the deck to work. Late last evening ended with a collage of work-in-progress images sent to the potential collector of a commissioned painting based on my references and another of my paintings that has sold. It was “the blue” hour in the shade on our deck where I had been painting all day. The last thing I did, after cleaning my brushes, was bring the painting in and put it on the studio table. I didn’t want any raccoons thinking that the wet walnut oil paint was possibly a tasty snack. Now the still-very-wet work is “resting” while I finish my coffee and see if it asks for anything else before I paint the edges. At least the gentle light through the window is warmer on the canvas this morning. It may have to go back out onto the easel one last time so I can decide if it works, if it is finished and if it is worthy. For now, the large easel sits empty, waiting.

  2. Marjorie Moeser on

    My life as a Plein air painter led to adjusting to working on a portable, light aluminium easel. Light weight was key; but it had to be sturdy enough to withstand wind, and eventually be easily transportable on an airplane.
    Trekking to New Mexico initially entailed air travel. In time, as I went for longer stays there, I drove and the easel fitted perfectly into a 4’ tube. Easy to pack. On arrival in NM, I usually set up my studio on the portal outside, or the garage which with the door open let in brilliant light. My easel became a 4’ x4’, 3/4” sheet of plywood, against the wall, raised by being placed on 2 sets of double crates at each end. That was perfect.
    Painting on unstretched canvas, then stretching once I was home, made packing the car for the return journey
    a cinch! Now, even here in my studio, I really love the plywood surface, hoisted on my large 8’ or so easel.

  3. Or skip the easel entirely and just hang the work on the wall to work on it.

    I had a large easel made of steel pipe when I had my 330 sf warehouse studio, but it doesn’t fit in the 12 x 14 ft converted bedroom I now use, so I just hang stuff from a nail.

    A. M. Schaer
    https://www.artgeekgal.com

  4. Call me crazy, but I feel my easel is highly over-rated. Almost from my first drawing/painting, I have worked on large plywood boards (drawing/paintings) and evolved to using the wall and floor in my studio. I like being able to walk around my canvas and see it from all angles, and splashing/dripping paint is easiest when the canvas is horizontal on the floor. As things dry and I need to REALLY step back, it’s good to hang it up on the wall which has screws and nails placed at various heights. I bought an expensive easel about 5 years ago, cause all real artists should have one in their studio (!!), but I only use it to place finished work on.

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