State of the Arts – an ode to a studio

Victoria Ward

making art in below zero temperatures

This blog is a rumination on making art work during the winter and how important having a studio is. 

On the weekend I attended the Peterborough ReFrame Film Festival. Now in it’s tenth year, the festival showcases lots of big and small films, many of which are locally made. I was thrilled to attend the screening and Q&A for the film I Hate Change by my friend Kirsten Johnson. In the film Kirsten deals directly with the trauma of losing her studio of thirteen years to condo development in the Liberty Village area of Toronto. She is seen fretting. There is much fretting as you can imagine; an artist losing their studio is no small thing. We see her moving her work and all the many, many things she has acquired over a decade of using a studio. And she showcases some of the other artists who are seen putting things into trucks, it’s funny but ultimately quite sad. The film hit a cord with the Ptbo folk as they are dealing with a possible casino in the down town, a highway through a park and several other corporate gentrifications that may alter the town’s irrepressible independence.

What also struck me was the fact that the down town streets were alive with people in sub zero weather (double digits no less) scurrying from venue to venue in order to see non-commercial films made by people they had probably never heard of. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, don’t tell me small places don’t have thriving cultures.

Kirsten as one of her 'new' neighbours in her film I Hate Change
Kirsten as one of her ‘new’ neighbours in her film I Hate Change

Winter has always been a significant time in my calendar year since moving into a rural area. My day now involves the making of a fire, shovelling snow, wearing fingerless gloves and a fleece poncho in the office. But it also involves gorgeous night time stars, trees cracking, fox & deer tracks, skiing, and essentially feeling alone but not lonely in the universe. The studio has to be warmed up as well and all sorts of sundry items prepared for the tiny trek over to it. I usually work at this time of year in a toque, as taking it off and on becomes annoying over the course of the day – my studio does not have facilities, so trips to the house are in order.

Our original vinyl collection - part of it anyway. A studio is perfect for these holy relics.
Our original vinyl collection – part of it anyway. A studio is perfect for these holy relics.

My art making also takes an unusual turn in the winter as well. Doing your work, you become a little more like a monk in the Himalayas working on a mandala that can’t be completed: it’s cold and draughty, it’s silent, and your art is transformed into a task of minutes, ticking away at mortality, making time itself an art. The vacuum that is winter allows your thoughts to amble and you find your cognitive abilities sharp and dull at the same time. You wander inside your heart; this takes courage when the days are short, not so much in summer when there is noise, traffic, sun and your species all around you.

I am lucky, unlike my dear friend Kirsten, my studio is still here, on my property and will never have to make way for a condo – not in my lifetime anyway. A studio is a special place; it is a lab, a wood shop, a library, a music listening den, a bunkie for guests who don’t mind fumes, a gallery, a storage area, and a repository for thousands of items that come into our world over the course of a creative journey. To note: we have a two foot plastic Godzilla with movable arms and legs, Russian leader nesting dolls, a moose head skeleton, an ancient scythe, glass skulls with angel wings, fossilized Halloween candy, and a vintage record store stacking unit that allows us to flip through our album collection old school. We keep the vinyl moon landing recording out front and listen to it every July.

Everybody has these things, but not everyone has them in their workplace. Studios are not offices, they are not warehouses or factories, they are personal spaces where artists can “make weather” as Tom Waits would say. An artist can’t work without one; they are as necessary to survival as a place to sleep. Like your bed at the end of a long day, your studio is a place of refuge, where you try to make your dreams come true.

Please visit KirstenJohnson.com and watch for her film I Hate Change at an independent festival near you.

State of the Arts will return February 13. 

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