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I have a collection of smooth black stones on the windowsill in my studio. When I’m in the middle of a project, I spend time at the window, absentmindedly pushing the stones around. I hadn’t thought about the shapes I was making until one day, after snapping a picture of a spectacular sunset, I noticed that the stones were in a series of neat lines and spirals. Seeing a photograph of this unconscious, yet deliberate arrangement made me realize that I perform a ritual—a tactile meditation—as part of my creative process.

I’ve always been intrigued by the influence that architectural space can have on one’s work, and how it has the power to inspire or stifle creativity. The physical contents of our workspaces and the ways we arrange and interact with them can also have a powerful (and often ignored) effect. My newly discovered relationship with my stones led me to pursue this question: Are we aware of the ways that our workspaces feed our creative mojo?

Photography is a well-known method for seeing what we tend to overlook, so I asked friends to send me pictures of their workspaces. I was seeking physical evidence of the elements—and their associated rituals—that support a balance of efficiency and inspiration.

The first photos I received were from a writer, showing the expected fundamentals: desk, chair, computer, phone, printer, books, and a cup full of pens and pencils. But then I noticed, next to the desk, a rumpled bed with two big pillows. I figured it was for napping, but when I asked my friend, she responded, “I hadn’t thought about this before, but I have a specific body position for each stage of my writing. I lie on the bed to read catalogs and books for my research. My actual writing takes place at my desk, and when I reach the later stages, I read my final drafts on the bed, but this time with my head at the opposite end.”

A programmer/designer friend works in his Manhattan high-rise apartment; he chose the place for its floor-to-ceiling windows, each one filled with midtown’s density. He, too, has the requisite computer (or two or three), phone, printer, a jar of pens and so on. But his primary desk is a large table where he spreads out a precise grid of index cards covered with intricate, color-coded notations. I’m familiar with his process, but when I looked at the photographs he sent me, each one carefully composed to show both his table and the view from his windows, I was struck by the similarity of his grid of index cards to the grid of the city’s buildings. I may be reading into this, but it was impossible to ignore his choice—conscious or not—to infuse his workspace with his particular essence of visual thinking.

A multimedia designer sent me pictures of her boyfriend’s studio. He is an artist who creates meticulous, detailed illustrations. His space is a giant Joseph Cornell box: each surface holds an installation. Hundreds of objects are organized with careful attention to texture, shape, color and size: a white lace tablecloth under a dark watercolor of two skulls; hunting knives beside an antique globe; driftwood next to a toy model of a Lamborghini; ram’s horns on a rickety bookshelf. My friend had been admonishing her boyfriend to work more, to be “more productive.” But after taking the photographs, she realized that his workspace is teeming with productivity—ongoing activities that are elaborate works-in-progress, all integral to the development and meaning of his paintings.

I love receiving these photographs; they show the similarities as well as the uniqueness of people’s items and habits. An architect’s studio includes a wall unit filled with skeins of knitting yarn and a sweater-in-progress on an Eames chair. An animator’s workstation is tucked into the corner of a tiny bedroom; her dog sprawls by the desk, and her two cats are curled up on an overstuffed armchair.

One friend, an artist whose work is abrasive and political, sent a photo that showed his studio’s marked absence of artifacts. There is a computer on a slab of wood, balanced on Home Depot–style sawhorses, plain walls, no windows. There is nothing personal other than a half-full plastic container of trail mix. Though he has occupied the studio for years, the space conveys the feeling that some anonymous entity has flown in and might leave at any moment.

All of these photographs have shown me each individual’s inclination to shape, quite literally, his or her creative process, whether it’s collecting artifacts, performing rituals or removing all extraneous matter. What would a photograph of your workspace reveal? ca

© 2015 W. Richmond
Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.
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