Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Mess Inside

Annie Heckman
Artist, Educator

Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago

You go there for 10 hours a day, sometimes 12. You stare at the project, thinking with a strained look, interrupted only by phone calls from important friends who have brilliant insights on your work. You wear very scruffy clothing, but you’ve been working this look and people know you’re covered in a thin crust because of the intense schedule of painting and building to which you are a faithful acolyte.

You have a pile of drawings scattered in the corner in a tornado of angst. One day, perhaps, a true connoisseur will pick one up from the pile, the best one. You keep creating, and are rediscovered from time to time. You stay there late, exhausted. You bring beer.

I’m not sure where this image of the artist’s life came from, but this is the vision I sustained even as I exited undergraduate studio life and moved forward. Graduate school modulated this image, but I must have tucked it into some deep brain recesses, because it comes back to haunt my idea of what a studio practice should look like. Today I look out onto my garden-surrounded porch and view a sea urchin sculpture explosion on the table, covered in gesso and black paint, drying from the night before. There are oversized penguin drawings on the dining room table, surrounded by feather pieces that my cats have been trying to conquer for weeks.

A few miles south of here in a hot industrial space, there’s a mass of pink foam chunks surrounded by paper slices, with DJ black lights and skeleton chandeliers balanced around the moat of scraps. Things are messy. And studio time rarely comes in those beautiful 12-hour cascades of productivity. I clean things up and have a sort of homeostasis for the space during visits and open studios, but a ragged spillover in terms of time and space is my happy reality.

To help question my original ideal studio universe, I did some surveying-the-choir research with the following post on Facebook:

hello artists -- what does your studio practice really look like? How many hours, all at home, all away from home, are you messy like me?

Yes, I went looking for a mess. And I heard from Darrell Roberts with photos right away, showing the overflowing visual splendor of his space.

Somewhere in my striving for sustained professional practice I had decided that the studio should be a symphony of clarity and purpose. When I stepped into Darrell’s space and saw a big pile of pencils and chalk flowing over onto a stack of papers, I felt like I was home. Now when things start to get entropic in my space I think about Darrell’s joyful and productive way of working, stop in my tracks, and snap a picture on my phone to celebrate it.

While Darrell’s practice has a specific site, he travels his studio-at-large fluidly and immerses himself in making, viewing, and teaching at intervals. Which brings up the issue of time. Recently when poet Dan Godston asked me to participate in a panel discussion on the intersection of writing and visual arts practices in Chicago, our conversation about space quickly became an analysis of time: the idea of the studio needing to occupy a space of any sort was tossed out, with time being set as the determining dimension of artistic practice. While I need to produce and stage work with an understanding of how it will meet its audience in space, the emphasis on time stuck with me.

I’m reminded of this turn in our conversation as I type furiously, waiting for sea urchins to dry. In my case, an effort to find the perfect spatial situation for artmaking was a detour from the need to establish clear boundaries for time. Creating periods of relevant focus, and allowing for things to happen without my ideal 12-hour daily retreats is crucial for me in making anything happen with a degree of independent thought. Brian Kapernekas reminded me of this when he responded to my query, including a summary of his time:

Work 8 hours a day, parent time 3-5 hours, studio 2-3 hours a day, weekends longer 4-6, sleep 5-6 hours.

Depending on upcoming exhibits, his time shakes down differently, but there are some basic proportions in play. For me each day is broken down differently, with a combination of office, studio, teaching, and whatever-the-hell else needs doing. But whenever time is dedicated to art consistently, with attention given every day or in big enough chunks for my brain to process, thoughts are formed and art gets made.

This leads me to my current expectations for studio practice, which are looking richer at the moment than my original fantasies:

You go to the studio every day, but the studio is situated in four different places, and travels. You go there for 10 hours a day, split into fragments, with residencies adding in more hours and teaching subtracting or integrating some time in phases. All friends are important, and you contact each other in waves. People discover your work because you tell them about it. Your clothing is scruffy sometimes, but the thin crust is unintentional and you relish the chance to wash it off. Your cats are hell-bent on curbing your productivity. You bring coffee.

Annie Heckman is a visual artist based in Chicago. Her work explores mortality and afterlife ideologies through sculptural animation installations and works on paper. She graduated with a BFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago and an MFA from New York University, both in Studio Art. Annie has exhibited her projects in numerous spaces, including exhibitions in Chicago, New York City, Budapest, and BiaƂystok, Poland. Her recent projects include animation installations using phosphorescence and moving parts. She is the founder of StepSister Press and works as a museum educator with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.  Other Links: Darrell Roberts:, Dan Godston (Borderbend Arts Collective):, Brian Kapernekas:

1 comment:

  1. Those sea urchins (and the jellyfish under Bucky's head) went public on Saturday. Paul Germanos wrote a beautiful piece and posted photos of the exhibit at Swimming Pool Project Space: