The end of stuff


Dear Artist,

One of my earliest memories is of seeing a small, domino-shaped tile amongst hundreds of items leaning on a long shelf above the workbench that stretched the length of my dad’s studio. On it was written, “Creative hands are rarely tidy.” It was the cherry on the sundae of permission — the sundae being a life in art and a messy space devoted to it.


Francis Bacon in his studio, London
1977 photograph by Carlos Freire

By the time I’d left home at 18 and art school at 22, I’d already destroyed a few linoleum floors and filled a converted boatshed with fits and starts. When my next workspace was a picnic blanket and the lid of a Coleman cooler, I realized that it might be possible to make perfectly good progress somewhere between studio abundance and the vagabond freedom of stufflessness. Looking around the local Walmart today, I’m pretty sure we’ve reached “peak stuff,” which, as a producer of stuff, invites the personal question, “Is it the end of stuff?”


Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George
1918 photo by Alfred Stieglitz

This week, I am again forgoing a New York January to squat at my Dad’s easel on the West Coast. Having grown accustomed to my intermittent comings and goings, like an old sloop, she creaks into seaworthiness when I flip the studio breakers, take the chill off and check her seams. “You’ll use this space when and for however long you can,” my dad told me. “Make it your own.”

Between paintings, I tend to my other calling here — processing a lifetime’s accumulation of objects that represent tens of thousands of hours of art making: a million almost-completely-squeezed-out tubes, an hourglass, the primary wing feather of a Golden Eagle. Breaking down canvases sketched with ancient, abandoned beginnings, I remember that this is how you get good. “Thank-you for your service,” I say to his and mine, now slashed with a box-cutter and folded into the bin. Through the window and beyond where the herons nest, the rain-soaked estuary winks with the silver ripples of the recently airborne. “You need a room with no view so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” (Annie Dillard)


Andrew Wyeth at work in the field



PS: “I don’t really have studios. I wander around people’s attics, out in fields, in cellars, anyplace I find that invites me.” (Andrew Wyeth)

Esoterica: Whether you’re a packrat or a monk, your creation station need only reflect today’s creative requirements. “As far as outdoor work is concerned, a studio is only a garage; a place in which to store pictures and repair them, never a place in which to paint them,” said Joaquin Sorolla. “I believe in deeply ordered chaos,” said Francis Bacon. “I hate studio. For me, studio is a trap to overproduce and repeat yourself. It is a habit that leads to art pollution,” said Marina Abramovic. You may prefer some stuff around you in order to get to work, or perhaps you need only to quiet the space within. “Today I drifted with Camille on the Seine at Argenteuil,” wrote Claude Monet of his floating studio. “The views materialized and dissolved and I was as contented as a cow in her stall.”

Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, hereProceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.


“To have a sacred place is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room or a certain hour of the day or so, where you do not know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody or what they owe you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.” (Joseph Campbell)



  1. Thank you for this. It’s a dilemma all artists share – and I often wonder (anguish?) about the futility of “making stuff” when it often feels so clear that we’ve reached a breaking point for it…. and then of course the difficulty of sorting and acknowledging that some things need to be let go of, to recognize that they are simply part of the process… Great post. Good luck with your ongoing creating and sorting…!

  2. As a landscape painter I find that everything starts somewhere but it always ends in the painting.

    First Artist walks into second Artist’s studio and see a complete mess. ” He obviously isn’t up to much!”
    Second Artist walks into first Artist’s studio and see complete orderliness. ” He obviously isn’t up to much!”

    It is all in the picture. Don’t look around the room.

    • Mary Simkins Federici on

      Well said. Reading this, there is a new perspective and I take heart at looking at my Life as a creative. Indeed it is all there.

      Mary Simkins Federici

  3. I just spent a day trying to organize an overstuffed studio and have discovered that I’ve run out of room to work. Perhaps it’s time to try the vagabond route and see where it leads!

  4. Thank you Sara. Talking of how spaces are organised or not, you are completely filling the gap left by your father’s absence. I am instinctively drawn to your Friday pieces now more than the repeats of his wise words on Tuesdays. You have taken the spirit of your golden eagle’s wing feather and learned to soar. Keep at it.

  5. Great letter, Sara. I take pleasure in disposing of futile stuff and giving due space to the stuff that invokes thought, hope, and joy. Your story and quotes by the great ones are very inspiring. The photo of Bacon’s studio always saddens me, while Georgia’s is delightful. I admire art by both of them, and of course by Wyeth. and Monet.

  6. You do know that it is illegal to own that feather unless you have specific ancestry. You might not want to mention it publicly like this.

    • The temptation is always here as, in our area in South Surrey/White Rock, eagles are flying around the peninsula and their feathers do fall out. We have a high, high tree with an eagle nest way up high and feathers are on ground occasionally. There were a couple of “First Nations fellows” called to me and asked if I could find some feathers, which I did and I gave them to these fellows, they were very happy. They have permission to possess the feathers as far as I know….

  7. What is the psycho babble all about? It’s like a commentator on the TV , having to fill in dead space on the air until the next program . Bacon’s studio is fabulous . FYI- Irish museum carefully transferred his studio piece by piece to Ireland to honor Bacon Replicated it exactly in Ireland . Mondrian studio , immaculate and a total bore

  8. I really like your Joseph Campbell quote as well as the other quotes from all these valuable posts. Yours and Robert’s words do such great work in my life. Thank you :-)

  9. Thank you, Sara. I agree that your Dad would be proud of you for carrying on his legacy.
    And oh, wow, do I know what you are talking about. It seems to be a continual battle with myself about the orderliness/messiness of my studio…which may be my own procrastination at actually working in it. I much prefer to be outside! So glad that spring is on it’s way!
    All the best,

  10. Love the pic of Wyeth on the hood of a car! I cringe a little at the use of box cutters on canvas, I still paint over, but then I’m relatively new in the art field. Thank you for all your letters.

  11. Thank you Sara – just today I was thinking it is time to trash my first 10 years worth of canvases of failed attempts. Things are on the up but it’s time to be rid of the clutter. By the way my favorite place to paint is on a rock – my brushes propped against another rock – canvas on my lap.

  12. Thanks for a great letter Sara.
    My problem is what to do with my ‘treasures’ from the past! I’m happy to toss out the failures, the boring, the bad: plenty of them!, But what to do with un-solds that you are fond of? I put some on my walls, but my studio is storing too many! Not fair to leave them to offspring to deal with.
    I’ve been painting for more nearly 50 years, and I still have my first one done at 16 for my boyfriend (hubby)!! Help!!

  13. Great photos and wise thoughts to expand your physical areas in producing art. Can only create more interesting results!

  14. Order and Chaos are second nature to me! My studio spaces are chaotic, but my thoughts of creativity are in order.
    I love to hear about others having the same issues. I know where most things are in my chaotic work space and my fear is, if I tidy too much I won’t know where to retrieve something when I need it. …… So why bother with tidiness. Life is too short and art is longstanding. I will get it tidy someday, maybe!

    Your letter is food for thought, Sara! Thank you

  15. Did you know that there is a web site of photos of artists’ studios? Hundreds! It show s all kinds from the very neat to Francis Bacon whose messy studio won the day. It looked like a knee deep river of paper that he had to wade, slog through to get to his work space. I had to laugh and tell myself: Well,I am not that bad! I agree with the person who said that if all the stuff was put away she/he could not find anything. That is a description of my house. Piles here, piles there. Put them away and I am lost! Donna Veeder

  16. 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 is no paintings. It makes me feel sad,it is hard to find a balance between keeping the house clean and producing Art. Any suggestions?

  17. Such a GREAT pic of Wyeth! One I’ve not seen before; Have to be careful, however, in extracting a bit of a quotation in order to illustrate a point. The point is taken, and although Wyeth may have indeed said this somewhere along the way, he in fact, had two of the most amazing studios ever. One in Chadds Ford, PA, that you can visit, and where he painted many of his masterpieces; the other in Cushing, ME where he summered, and where he painted many of his other masterpieces. He did sketch in the field quite a bit, as this photo shows, and always carried a set of watercolors with him, but he never (to my knowledge) completed a finished painting without taking it back to one of his studios for more work. He did thousands of paintings however, so I’m sure there are exceptions. If you have the opportunity to visit Maine, you can visit his grave and also the Olsen House, his third “studio.” Thanks for the post!

  18. maybe we could cut the clutter by letting go of the precious idea that everything must last forever. Archival quality is what I strive for but, really, why?
    The process of making art feels great. having it around for a few years, decades (centuries?) is ok, but what is so critical about my existence on earth, that I have to leave my detritus lying around for future generations to worship? Maybe if I were selling to collectors I would feel responsible for the longevity of their investment. hmmm…..

    And as for cutting or burning old paintings – what’s wrong with painting new masterpieces over top of them? Less garbage, more fun at less cost.
    Maybe my ideal painting would stick around until it’s significance fades and then the painting would fade away and ask to be painted over.

  19. Valaida D'Alessio on

    Thank you! I appreciate your posts as well as your father’s. I moved from Ill 16 yrs ago and left a huge studio to paint in a small space indoors as well as outdoors. It is worth giving up space to live on Maui. I found out I don’t need all the stuff that I thought I needed.

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