Monday, December 7, 2009

My Many Studios - A Journey of Sorts + Self

Guest Blogger:
Kevin Henry
industrial designer, activist, curator, and writer

The studio, or active work space in general, has defined my creative life for the past three decades in strange but curious ways. I returned home to Chicago to attend graduate school in the early 80s. At that time there were two cheap places in the city where artists lived - Wicker Park and Pilsen. Mayor Jane Byrne had just shut down two bars in Wicker Park due to shootings. So, I choose Pilsen. While I had studied painting, printmaking, and sculpture, I decided to focus on sculpture and chose carefully the materials I used. So that I could own all required tools. Preparing for life after school meant having your own space. In fact I never maintained a studio inside a school after my undergraduate degree. As a first year graduate student living in a residential apartment in Pilsen, I set up a small woodshop in the living room and promptly stopped making noise after 5:00 pm at which time I would draw or paint. While the space was filled with dust, I got things done. I was very happy.

From there I moved to Lake Street into what was then known as the “Noise Factory." I managed to get free work space in a dank basement and living quarters in a windowless room of my own partitioning two floors above. This in exchange for letting bands in and out of the building and for being present in an emergency. The cacophony of clashing bands on various floors became white noise, blending with the sound of the CTA on Lake Street elevated which passed a few feet from my bedpost. I could wake up to the hammering sound of speed metal and retire to the sweet sounds (and smells) of reggae.  It felt like living in Charles Ives’ brain but it was free of charge and mine (more or less). Free, of course, does come at a price: in my particular case it was sinusitis - too much saw dust and not enough oxygen to breathe. This after only two years.  

Surrounded by performance art taking place in the Noise Factory, I began experimenting in this medium eventually switching my MFA focus from sculpture to time-based media. I guess you could say I was responding to my new idea of what a studio could be - anywhere and unconstrained by location. It was enticing. Besides I had been interested in time-based art forms and had started taking filmmaking classes. This was one of the only ways to gain access to decent equipment.  Many beginning filmmakers at that time bought old 8mm cameras from pawnshops around the city to have their own equipment but the limitations of silent film were too much. I think one of my main reasons for not pursuing serious film work was the inability to own my tools. Just as importantly I realized that film was a social medium requiring crews and a lot of planning. This was nothing like sitting around a studio and thinking up ideas and executing them spontaneously. Getting beyond the comforting aspects of a studio space was a real challenge. 

In my second semester of graduate school, I decided to study at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin.  If nothing else it would be a big change of scenery and fresh air. This was long before the Celtic tiger awoke: Dublin dealt at that time with a serious heroin epidemic, high unemployment rates, and an atmosphere of general ennui but artists were incredibly resourceful and made work anywhere. Without a studio, I mostly stayed away from wood, and focused on performances and installations. I began to think of the studio more as an idea than a necessity. Work could be done in many places and in many ways.

I returned home to Chicago to finish my MFA and then apprenticed with a furniture maker to have enough professional skills to support myself while doing performance work and writing. I discovered dust masks around this time (what an epiphany) as well as the art of solving problems that weren’t my own. My previous work had largely consisted of staring at my past to make sense of it; now I was for the first time stepping outside of myself. I was also beginning to realize that my skills were internal (inside me) as opposed to external (defined by my space and my tools). Nevertheless I still felt the need for a physical work space (if nothing else than to park all my tools) although things were truly beginning to loosen up. 

My next studio was a storefront space with a beautiful view of the Kennedy expressway and the Morton salt factory. The price was right in large part because the interior looked like Dresden after the war. An artist friend who had lived in it before me had decided to strip off the walls to expose the bricks.  He did this in a flurry of activity getting halfway through before realizing how much work this was going to be. He gave up and decided to leave. I secured cheap rent in exchange for renovating the place. This was my first taste of fixing up other people’s places. While I had a cheap place, I was also growing tired of being an itinerant woodworker; my studio and all of its tools had become a noose around my neck even as it defined me - or so I thought.  

The next stop several years later was my own storefront in Humboldt Park, complete with rival drug dealers squatting on the front porch. I also quickly learned that the flip side of secure housing was non-stop responsibility.  After five years of one rehab project after another in a quest to secure my future and my own space, I began to realize that the studio had its liabilities as well. Here I was finally living in my own studio with no time to actually work. This reality combined with the shift away from fine art studio practice and towards design practice made me radically rethink the whole studio idea. I decided that if I was to ever work in a studio that it would be a commercial design studio and that I would move into it as a part of the process and leave it at the end of the day and go home. It would not be me and I would not be it.

I returned to graduate school for a second time the year I finished paying off my loans for the first MFA. I studied industrial design which has been a good fit for the most part. While I don’t regret the long and sinuous path I have taken, I find it both satisfying and a bit strange (I won’t say frustrating) that so much of my work can now be accomplished inside a mobile studio, my MacBook Pro, which I transport on my back in a messenger bag while riding a folding bike. Sure, I have a roof over my head and a nice office where I park all of my books and a desk to work on. However, more often than not, I am glued to this machine (as I have been for the past three hours retelling this tale) and either building something in the computer, editing film shot on my flip camera, creating podcasts with garageband and other software and generally getting everything I need done on the spot regardless of where I am. And if I need to make something it’s often done virtually. I can print objects much as anyone can print documents. While I greatly miss the haptic qualities of using my hands - and I certainly miss the smell of wood and the engagement with materials - I am finally able to merge all of my interests in a studio that assists me rather than defines me. 

Kevin Henry is an industrial designer, activist, curator, and writer. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago and has lectured on a variety of topics from sustainability to bike culture and the dynamics of photo sharing. He is active with "Design for the Majority"  through the Industrial Design Society of America which advocates for greater design participation for the other 5 billion people on the planet.  He is finishing up a book on design visualization for the UK publisher Laurence King.

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