My Studio Wall
by Wendy Richmond
Within the first few days of my residency at the MacDowell Colony, I learned that it was perfectly OK to draw and write and nail things on the vast white walls of my studio. With this simple permission, plus a ladder, hammer, magic markers and pushpins, every idea I had went onto the wall without judgment or hesitation. As its space filled, the wall became not only a physical artwork itself, but also a metaphor for my creative process: all ideas are worthy of being made visible.
I had come to MacDowell to begin a new body of visual work. I was replacing my dense, urban, technology-laden Brooklyn environment with a spacious, solitary, Internet-free studio in the middle of 450 acres of snowy New Hampshire woods. Now I faced, literally, a huge blank canvas.
My first day with the wall began timidly: in pencil, tiny and at eye level, I wrote, “Starting here.” Then I told myself it was just a wall, and my goal was simply to fill it. I went to the Dollar Store and bought a bunch of permanent markers in different colors. I came back to my studio, climbed to the top of the ladder, and wrote out every word of my most recent column, “What Do You Do with Beauty?” I climbed back down and felt the satisfaction of having physically filled a chunk of wall. As I perused the words, I remembered a discussion with friends about how we all interpret beauty differently, and under the column, I scrawled, “Odd Beauty: think about it.”
Next I moved to the middle of the wall, where I made a list of themes that I wanted to explore: new technology/old technology; urban/rural; frozen/melted; pristine/spoiled; frustration/success.
I sat down and noticed the pencil I had first used. I had sharpened it, along with six others, with the old-school metal rotary pencil sharpener that was mounted above the sink, and I’d mangled them badly: some were cracked and split, others were shredded and looked furry, like a dog with a lead snout. I taped the pencils to the wall, and drew an arrow to the words Odd Beauty. Then I shot a close-up of the broken wood and enlarged it tenfold. That, too, went on the wall. Later in the day I went for a walk and found frozen puddles, which I videotaped as I crunched them with my boots. I printed pictures of single video frames of beautiful cracked-ice patterns, and tacked them on the wall near the list of themes. I drew more arrows. I was off and running.
By the second week, the wall was populated with notes, sketches, video grabs, photographs and objects, all having conversations and making connections. This spurred more observations, which led to more video recording, more picture taking, more writing. The volume of stuff, and its visual exuberance, inspired me. Because of the growing abundance, no single item had too much pressure; it was like a community of individuals there to support one another.
I was feeling more playful than I had in years. Joy, humor and physicality took full command of my work. I started a new list, titled: “What can I do in this studio that I can’t do anywhere else?” (Item #5: “Dance, big and loud, before dawn.”) The list grew, encouraging and challenging me to see everything in my surroundings as creative fodder. (Item #7: “Draw a target and practice throwing snowballs.”).
During my third week, the visual artists decided to have an open studio walk to see each other’s studios. I was anxious; I would be exposing this wall that had been for my eyes only. But all fears evaporated when I saw the glee of my fellow colonists (including writers, filmmakers and composers), and heard them say, “Wow! I want to do this on my wall!” Yes, they were looking at what I had created, but what they were really seeing was the concept and practice of making all ideas visible. Then they looked at my target. We ran outside and collected snow, and one by one, a dozen of us threw snowballs in my studio. The wall soaked up the laughter, and it stayed with me.
Taken separately, each of my wall activities might seem like a crazy, silly diversion having nothing to do with “real work.” But every day, as I sat with a cup of coffee and let my eyes scan the wall, I learned more about my art making. Not only was I seeing connections, I was also allowing spontaneity and freedom to guide the work. By making all ideas visible, I was letting them lead the way. ca
© 2013 Wendy Richmond