Master of the Studio Disaster

or How I ended up with no place to work

“You’ve really let yourself go” said the studio, looking itself in the mirror. This is just one corner of a garage workspace that no longer functions. The mess stretches for another 10 feet.

I’m cleaning out my studio contents. Its a hot mess piled into my garage. I’m tempted to push it into the driveway and set it on fire. But before I do, some background -

I’ve had a career as a designer since the mid-90s. At the end of 2013 I was working for a local company that suddenly went through internal turmoil causing several people to leave or get fired. I was one of the first. Call it a rage-quit. I didn’t like what was going on so I showed myself the door.  I launched a design business with a partner, and we wanted to position ourselves in the heart of our city’s booming tech scene. We found a 400 square foot space in the alley behind our favorite coffee spot, made some cool desks, ordered some knock-off Eames chairs, and made it look like we knew what we were doing. We were really good at the design part, and learning all we could about the business part.

In 2015 my biz partner took another gig and we split (we are still friends). became a one-man show and I turned the space into my dream studio. By day I did my client work (branding and UX/UI design), late afternoons and evenings it was my art studio and music rehearsal space. I was also restarting an artspace project I started in 2011, and did a handful of pop-up shows and events with other artists. 

I had unlocked a new level in my creative practice, and was going to blend all the silos into a dizzying one-man production factory. Like Andy Warhol without the drugs, or studio assistants (both would have made it better. Probably) I was going to do client work, produce my own art and design objects, and have multiple streams of revenue all from my own genius-over-confident-dragon-energy. This was something I had wanted for years and I loved every minute of it. 

But reality is a dick. Here are a few things I did not account for:

  1. I have A.D.D. and organizing my time and being disciplined with my various activities was really difficult. I’m impulsive with my creativity and have a tendancy to get sucked into the things that make my brain feel focused and calm, and I avoid things like bookkeeping, sending invoices, scheduling meetings and other necessary things you need to do to keep a business viable. I love working in the work. Working on the work requires a level of focus that often feels out of reach.

  2. A family of five is expensive. Keeping enough work coming in to support us was much harder than I expected, especially if you are trying to keep so many creative plates spinning. The rule of going solo is to make sure that you have at least 6 months saved up in the bank so you can manage the inevitable ebb and flow of client work. Due to the emergency transition I found myself in when I left my previous company, I did not have 6 months saved up. If I ever try going fulltime solo again, I will definitely have a cushion in place.

  3. Too many silos of activity can challenge your ability to do anything well. I have many interests (and consequently many ways I can become distracted). I see them all as connective tissue. They make me who I am, afterall. But without better control over my focus, big ideas get in the way of finishing and getting things out the door. Too many creative activities can actually be a drag. 

Though I had been moonlighting as a freelancer pretty consistently for well over a decade, this was my first time trying to run a full time studio all on my own. By 2017 I was burning through both cash and my ability to sleep well. My wife had been an amazing support during this whole experiment, but it was time to read the writing on the wall and give us both a break. The building my studio was in had changed owners. They were a bit shady and not answering emails or responding to texts about my lease. They had a key to my unit, and suddenly the security of my studio was in question. I decided it was time. I moved out on a weekend, left the keys on a nail, and didn’t tell anyone. I kept the design work going for a few months and then finally took a job with a branding agency in town. This was a welcome change, financially and mentally speaking, but it brought my art practice to a screaching halt.

Which brings me to the photo at the top - I moved all of a spacious art studio back into the dark corner of my garage in a rush to not have to pay any more rent. Now it’s a gross pile of dried-out markers, crusty paints and ideas that never saw life. I had some momentum on a few different bodies of work and was working towards getting them completed and submitted into exhibitions. Others I wanted to release online. Whatever work I did finish is wrapped up and buried like frustrated treasure on a beach nobody finds.

Survival of the fittest

I did adapt. Sort of. Space changes things. For the past few years my only consistent visual art practice has been my sketchbook. It’s small and mobile, and has been vital in keeping tabs on a symbol language that is central to my larger bodies of work. I also make experimental electronic music that started in my downtown space. I’ll write more about that later. 

A page out of my 2020 sketchbook. You can’t hit a “Like” button without your thumb.

Now as I unpack, sort, clean, and start to make space to work again, I’m faced with a bunch of old plans and concepts, a ton of drawings that have never been seen by anyone (and quite a few really bad paintings that I should probably just throw out.) Sharing this personal history in public helps articulate to myself where to go next. I also want to give myself a break and figure out how to stop doing so many things so I can get better at fewer of them. I struggle with not being active in many areas. But the older I get, the more pointless it seems. I’m sure there is a psychology paper on “core wounds” to be written about it. Sounds boring.

This Tip Jar is cool.

I know I’m not the only creative who’s faced a life change that derailed artistic momentum. I don’t know what is going to come out of this purge I’m in the middle of. At a minimum I want space and clarity. I might get reinspired by old projects. I might get free of unfinished projects that have taken my brain hostage for years but arrive in this moment as irrelevant. 

I’m curious about who ends up reading this, and what others have dealt with. If you are tryng to run your own solo studio full time - give yourself a break. It’s hard. If you are a parent and/or partner with other humans who depend on you, and your creative practice is taking a backseat -  give yourself a break, the people in your life are the most important. Being a parent is really fucking hard. If you have ADD or any kind of learning disability, or something that is a physical or mental roadblock - give yourself a break, take care of your health and wellness first. Everything else will follow. 

Leave a comment

Tell me a story. How has your workspace changed over the years? Did your practice and output change along with the environment? I wanna know.