From Will Cotton's studio. All pictures courtesy of Sarah Trigg.
An artist’s studio is a window into the soul of his or her oeuvre, a sort of private sketch pad for the inner workings of an artist’s process, accessible to only a select few. Curators, gallerists, critics and art buyers are privy to the studio visit process, counting this behind the scenes view as a perk of membership in the art world ecosystem. But with these studio visits comes the stress and reminder of relating the work process to the art market – as artists open their doors to bare their souls for the potential buyers of their work. But what if this apprehension of relating the studio visit directly with sales of their work was removed, motivation provided instead by the important insight into an artist’s work that is achieved by spending time in the place where their ideas come to life? This is the premise behind the new book, Studio Life: Rituals, Collections, Tools and Observations on the Artistic Process. Rather than being examined by a curator or art critic, fellow artist Sarah Trigg delves into the minds and studios of artists across the country, on a quest for an intimate view of the art making process and an alternative approach to understanding art. Painters, performance artists, sculptors, photographers and video artists such as William Wegman, John Baldessari, Theaster Gates, Michelle Grabner, Tauba Auerbach,Will Cotton and Trenton Doyle Hancock opened their doors to Trigg, resulting in a wide-ranging collection of poignant narratives and beautiful photographic documentation.
Being an artist herself, Trigg’s approach to the studio visit process gives her an insider’s advantage, experiencing these visits in a more raw and relatable way than a curator or client could. Rather than creating a project of artist portraits in their studios, Trigg instead looks to the objects that populate each work space, letting these accidental collections help to build and inspire the narrative for each artist and their studio. Faces of artists won’t be found in “Studio Life,” but instead a collection of documentary still lifes from her studio visits accompany each interview and show off Trigg’s passion and talent for photography.
When looking at the collections of objects and tools that populate a studio, Trigg looked to her own habits. With her experience as a painter, she created a list of categories for organizing an artist’s studio; mascots, collected objects, makeshift tools, rituals, residue and habitat. These bobs and bits are present in each artist’s day-to-day life and practice, but do not constitute finished art work in themselves. Mascots come in forms of failed sculpture, found objects or bric-a-brac that seem to travel from studio to studio and stand watch from a specially allocated vantage point on a shelf or table, like the giant stuffed polar bear in Marnie Weber’s Altadena, CA studio that was a subject of a 2009 Sonic Youth poster. Collected objects are pieces of would-be inspiration waiting to reveal their purpose, stockpiles of reference photos, or as in Brooklyn-based Fred Tomaselli’s case, boxes of carefully separated pharmaceuticals, or sheets of cut out noses, ready to be used when the moment strikes.
From Marnie Weber's Altadena, CA studio.
From Fred Tomaselli's studio.
Makeshift tools are familiar to all artists but may not be obvious to the outsider. Each is created over time as artists discover their own methods for creating their craft. It is through trial and error that these gadgets transition from makeshift to actual tools becoming an integral part of the art making process.
Both ritual and residue lend an intimate vantage into an artist’s practice. Diana Al-Hadid, who was one of Trigg's first studio visits, has a ritual in place for any studio that she occupies where she performs a somewhat superstitious act of hanging two hammers facing each other, and drawing a heart in between. These sometimes subconscious practices make an artists’ studio their home-away-from-home, but also expose vulnerability by revealing some deeply held personal beliefs. Residue can be proof of life for artists, but unlike Jackson Pollock’s stray drips left in his Long Island studio, artists today don’t just accumulate paint, they collect all sorts of detritus and leftovers from their art-making like the post-it notes and VHS tapes that litter video artist Jesse McLean’s Chicago studio, or the wedding rings purchased in state-themed souvenir shops from Maria Yoon’s project Maria the Korean Bride.
From Jesse McLean's Chicago studio.
From Maria Yoon's studio.
The final category, habitat, looks to the actual studio space as inspiration on the artists’ works or lives. Artists Carol Bove and Gordon Terry’s Red Hook studio has two examples of this categorization. The first is a ticket window, which has inspired their young daughter’s imagination when playing make believe, the other is a locked walk-in vault, which gave an aura of mystery to the space until it was finally opened only to reveal that it contained tax documents and rotting furs. In this way habitat is an element of the studio that remains long after an artist has moved out, and goes on to influence the next artist that sets up shop in the space.
These categorizations let the reader delve deep into the minds of the artists’ featured. Trigg does not use the studio visit to help the reader understand each artist’s artworks better, but instead has painted a portrait of the very personal creative process that varies from artist to artist, and that would otherwise lack specific definition. For the project, Trigg visited around 200 studios, choosing just 100 to feature in the book, which successfully gives a robust range of artists operating at different levels, habits, mind sets, with or without assistants, in different corners of the country. “Studio Life” is an invitation to the private life of the artist’s studio, a welcome invitation that gives readers an opportunity to understand an artist’s process, from an artist’s point of view.
Book cover of Studio Life: Rituals, Collections, Tools, and Observations on the Artistic Process
MutualArt’s Lori Zimmer sat down with Sarah Trigg to ask her a few questions about the book.
MutualArt: You’ve limited the documentation of your visits to categories such as collected objects, residue and rituals, avoiding actual portraits or completed works. Why was this decision to make the imagery about process and environment so important to you?
Sarah Trigg: In short, I wanted to dig up the untold stories. Plenty of exposure exists about the general ambiance of one studio versus another and of portraits and artwork but I couldn’t find much documentation about unusual curiosities surrounding artists' practices. I found it remarkable that these types of examples hadn’t been captured before as they have a marked presence in an artist’s daily life in the studio.
I wanted to give voice to the topics that come up between artists when placed in a studio environment which stand unique to those that happen at gallery openings or when a curator or collector is at the studio considering work for an exhibition or for purchase—which are also very important but those conversations are well represented whereas the day-to-day yet more intimate worlds of artists are not. So, to be clear what I was bringing up for discussion, I decided not to publish portraits, artwork and general environmental shots of the studio.
MA: How did you choose the artists to feature in the book? Did you take the opportunity to approach artists you’ve admired from afar?
ST: I knew from the start that the specific investigation I wanted to do had to represent a wide range of artists. So, the location, career stage, ethnic background, gender and artistic discipline (painting, performance art, etc) of each artist played an important role in determining who I included in the book. (I met with and photographed the studios of around 200 artists of which 100 are in the book.)
From there, it came down to which examples were the most important to expose. Sometimes there was overlap, so I would have to choose one over another. There is also a subtle narrative—a beginning, middle and end—to the book, so that also affected my editing process.
To answer your second question, a handful of artists were longtime favorites beforehand. But by far the majority of the artists I contacted were through research and by the suggestions of artists and art professionals—particularly when I was in cities outside of New York. I never would have found Rob Keller and his bee apiary in St. Helena California, for example, had Lewis deSoto not mentioned him. It was the range in practice I was looking for and not a list of my most favorite artists. That said, I won’t deny that with every choice I made there was subjectivity.
MA: Do you think that being an artist yourself gave you a unique perspective to the routines and practices of other artists? Is that conveyed in the writing of this book?
ST: Yes, of course. Because I was a fellow artist, the role I had was an empathic one. Sometimes after the visit, an artist would write to me later that our meeting had brought to light something in their practice that even they had not been aware of, a habit, etc. The book, in essence, is my best attempt to capture what I encountered, but it will always fall short. There is nothing like a real life experience.
MA: I know the studio visit process can be stressful, letting a person into the inner workings of the art making process. That said, do you think artists opened up to you more based on the fact that you are “one of them?”
ST: Many of the artists commented that they wouldn't have agreed to this type of an investigation had I not been another artist. Nearly all the artists participated when I asked them, and I was sort of astounded by that. Their full trust in the concept of the project underscored the need for this book to exist. In most cases, artists were excited to finally share perspectives on their practice that were normally hidden. In other cases, they were curious to see what the interview would uncover. The results of my visits weren't collaborations, but there was definitely a sense of going through an experience with each artist.
MA: What audience did you have in mind when putting together this project? Other artists? Art buyers? Galleries?
ST: Initially, I would say the audience I intended it for was other artists. Especially younger artists as a way to show the ways in which one can set up his or her practice. I knew the project would appeal to people in the art world at large as well—gallerists, curators, collectors. But once I started sharing the idea with those who had even only limited knowledge of contemporary art, I realized that the project provided a perspective that many could relate to. Collecting objects, inventing tools to problem solve and having rituals are all part of being human. Now that I’ve finished the book, I feel like the audience is broader. The book is an invitation to any person willing to cultivate their observation of the world and their surroundings from a unique approach.
MA: Now that the book is completed, do you continue to conduct studio visits?
ST: Right at this moment, no. I have dozens of photo-shoots-in-waiting on my hard drive that I’m looking forward to posting on the project’s website (thegoldminerproject.com), so I’m still in writing and photo editing mode. I still occasionally shoot and write about artists in their studios for Modern Painters though. I plan to extend my project outside of the US someday however. I’m just on hiatus for the moment.
MA: Do you feel these studio visits has personally given you more insight into these artists’ works?
ST: Each visit gives me a window into how an artist’s mind works. So, yes, comprehending an artist’s belief system and values by looking at their relationships to what they collect, tools they make, rituals and residue from their process, by extension, informs my experience of their artwork.