I’ve started using my presto card as a bookmark and it’s been quite the life-hack to help me find time to read as someone with limited personal time available. I am probably prouder than I should be to report that I’ve been reading two whole books recently that have inspired this little entry. One is a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work and the other is the House on Mango Street.
I started reading How Artists Work searching for some kind of formula to enhance my productivity or inspiration. Unfortunately, it seems the common theme in the working style of some of the most notable writers, scientists and painters is heavy narcotics use and strict routine, two things that are similarly repulsive to me.
And so I took a break from reading about the breakfast preferences of those who have “made it” and opted for a lighter read recommended to me by a friend who lent me the book long enough ago that I should have probably returned it to her by now, the House on Mango street. This book is a collection of short stories that read like snippets of childhood memories connected by a come theme of vivid imagery of the setting and people throughout Mango Street and the nearby community. It’s eclectic and scattered but also the most effective way to come to understand the soul of that place and the writer’s connection to it. It’s a really comforting read that feels compatible with me, written in the same pattern my own brain feels and thinks.
Anyways, both of these books got me thinking about my connection to my space and how I work. I digest a lot of online influencer content about morning and night routines, art studio and room tours, day-in-my-life breakdowns, etc. but I have never really felt able to authentically create anything similar. When people ask me where/how I paint, I’m always pretty stumped because it’s complicated and inconsistent, and consequently, it feels a little embarrassing and unprofessional. In those moments, I feel like I’ve been caught, exposed as the amateur that I am. Like how people could “trust my process” as an artist if I admit that there is no dependable process?
But still, I know I do feel inspired and affected by “my studio space” even though it is ever-changing and unreliable, and if the House on Mango street can make me understand the writer and her home through a hodgepodge of short stories and descriptions, then I will attempt to do the same.
Moments that feel like my art studio:
The TTC after dark on my way home from working overtime plus my note’s app is a dangerous combination. Something about working a closing shift as a host standing for hours doing nothing but telling high profile guests to enjoy their night as you do the opposite, makes my previously under-stimulated mind overcompensate. I pick out my favourite forward facing seat that is free of the yellow COVID “don’t sit here” signs where I can put my white to-and-from-work sneakers up onto one of those stabilizing bars for standing commuters (which, according to the NY Daily News, are just called “poles”). I was disappointed to realize one day on my way back from work wearing a black mini skirt that I wouldn’t be able to put my feet up without flashing other commuters, but have since come prepared with a lap jacket or tote bag so that I am not forced to sit like a lady and thereby impede my creative process. The red velvet seats that leave it up to the imagination what is a stain and what is just the fabric become my temporary studio for most of my creative concept planning. I may be exposing myself as a psychopath, but I don’t listen to music in transit, I don’t even bring headphones around with me when I leave the house. I sit in silence and listen to my thoughts, get in my feels, reflect and process. By the time I exit at Sudbury Street my notes app is filled with bad poetry, title ideas, art prompts and things I need to remember to fix on my current painting once I get home. While the streetcar is my usual mode of transportation, I feel especially creative on the subway since that just feels objectively artsier.
My mom used to tell me to stop doing my homework in the kitchen and remind me of the purpose of the literal “homework room” my parents included when creating my family home’s floor-plan. When I transitioned from leaving my school binder at the kitchen table to my canvas, paints, brushes, pencils, palette and my mug full of paint water that I hoped would wash out, I can’t imagine she was thrilled. But every now and again, maybe when she, an artist herself, was feeling hopeful about my current work in progress, come dinner time, my family would accept displacement. Dinner would be served buffet style, and we would all eat around my clutter rather than running the risk of killing my creative flow and motivation to continue the painting into the evening. She could feel that in that moment, this was my art studio. Whatever that is, might just be my love language. Coming from a family of five children, distraction is the norm. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Peace and quiet are uncomfortable, and solitude comes with the distraction of loneliness and boredom. I pace myself with interruption: three brush strokes… one funny story I forgot to tell you… five brush strokes… a task to delegate to my younger siblings since I am clearly busy… I mix a new colour… I run to the kitchen to share in the snack that will only be available for the next five or so minutes… I mix the almost the same colour since the other has dried out. Painting in the company of my family brings about the added difficulties of working from a reference photo off my phone to preserve the privacy of my customers and the frequent unsolicited feedback of “that looks off” with no suggestion for improvement, but I choose company over comfort every time (and sometimes it really did “look off”).
When I feel irritable, I like to retreat into my own space. You know when you can feel the muscles in your forehead tightened and you feel physically incapable of relaxing them? Like someone could make a really good joke and still you wouldn’t be able to fix your face. When I have minimal patience, tolerance, or empathy to give but I absolutely need it from others, then it’s time for some self-soothing. I make my bed, take a minimum twenty-minute shower, put on some cotton underwear, make myself a lavender chamomile tea, light a candle or three, ask Alexa to play my R&B playlist (think “Comfortable” by H.E.R.) on volume 8 and start painting. Nights like these I can paint for hours without checking the time, checking my phone or checking in with others. I get into the kind of flow state that allows you to start and finish a project that same night and then have the best sleep of your life. For just a moment, with the right balance of hormones, emotions and life stresses, my personal space is my art studio and I am on fire. My tea gets cold and my eyebrows unfurrow.
Sometimes my art studio is the result of a battle between aesthetics and functionality, should and want, what people say is right and what feels right to me. I love the idea of painting early in the morning or late at night, just for the mood and ambience of it all. Viewers could look at my art and just know that it was definitely painted at dawn or dusk because of the energy behind each brushstroke and colour choice. But in my tiny Queen West apartment the sun shines directly into the unit each morning, too bright and too warmly tinted to see the colours properly even through squinty eyes. In the night, the missing lamp we have been meaning to buy for almost two months now is my undoing. Sometimes I will impulsively try to paint, knowing I actually cannot see, and this is about as good of an idea as doing your makeup in the dark. Then I wake up the next day and the first thing on my to do list is assessing the damage and painting it over. I try to work on my easel, and that’s always where the paintings start but not where they usually end. I know that it would be better for my posture and I might look and feel more legitimate, but instead I end up sitting on the ground or kneeling over my coffee table. Working from above the painting, I feel more in control and it feels less daunting. On the easel it’s a work in progress, but remove it from that pedestal and now it’s just an arts and craft project to complete, and I can do that.
During a recent identity crisis, I asked the people close to me in my life to describe me in three words and my older brother said "fickle, passionate and industrious". I think he kind of nailed it. And I think giving a tour of my studio or explaining to people how/where I work feels so personal because it is me. It is inconsistent and unpredictable because I am still figuring out who I am. It varies immensely with how I am feeling because my work is motivated by passion. And it finds space to exist and adapts accordingly because my time is limited but my desire to create and be productive is extensive. So maybe one day, my art studio will be a set space with fancy supplies and large canvases and white walls with high ceilings, but for now, it's DecoArt Dollar Store paint and my living room rug and it exists in between welcomed distractions and part-time employment and CW series' episodes.