Thursday, June 2, 2011

My Studios: Part III

London Fields, Hackney, London

In the summer of 1995, I moved into a three-storey Victorian house in Hackney, a down-on-its-luck borough in east London. Without knowing it, I had moved into an area awash with old factory buildings that either had been or were in the process of being converted to artist’s studios. I found a space in a huge structure that had once been a tanning factory, and it was only five minutes’ walk from my house across a stretch of parkland called London Fields (Martin Amis wrote a novel of that name, though it has nothing much to do with the area).

The building had about thirty studios, and it was owned and operated by Space, an artists’ organization set up in the early 1970s by, among others, famous op-artist Bridget Riley. They wanted to provide cheap, subsidized studio space for London artists, and 25 years later they had several buildings in the east end, where property prices were still low and there was an abundance of empty space. The building I was in was their flagship, and it was known collectively as Martello Street Studios. I had a 400 square foot space right in the centre of the building. It was pretty spacious, but with the drawback that it had no windows. None at all. And of course no heating. As I said in an earlier post in this series, English winters are usually mild, so that wasn’t a real problem. There was actually a French artist who had a large studio in the basement, and he lived, worked, and slept there despite the lack of heating and water.

The way my studio was set up meant that if I wanted to, I could just shut the door behind me, enter my cocooned room, and work there for hours in splendid isolation. But when I went to the slop sink in the corridor to empty water jars or clean off brushes, I would bump into other artists and gradually get to know them better. There was Robert, in the studio two doors down from mine, who made welded metal sculptures for regular public art commissions. There was a woman next door to me, a proudly lesbian artist who made these large photographic pieces reflecting her identity and politics. There was a guy at the end of the corridor who had one of the biggest studios in the building. He was one of the original residents from the early 1970s, and he made huge abstract canvases based on landscape, that were part Pollock and part Kiefer. There was an open studio once a year, publicized by Space and by the local council, during which we opened our doors to the public, and took the time to visit each others’ spaces and see what everyone else had been up to. It was actually during one of the first open studios that I met someone who said he taught printmaking, and with whom I eventually studied for a year and learned most of what I know about intaglio etching.

Me (left) with a friend during an open studio in 1998.
The work I was doing continued with the abstract-landscape paintings I had started during my MA. After a month-long trip to California in 1997, including a week driving around the Mojave Desert, I started making paintings and prints using imagery derived from the rock shapes in the Joshua Tree National Park and other areas. By 2000, one of the directors of Christie’s, who had seen my work at an open studio, introduced me to a dealer in a posh gallery in New Bond Street, which led to a short-lived relationship during which he exhibited my ‘rock’ paintings, and took my work to some art fairs. Alas, that relationship ended when I moved to the USA in 2002. But I think that these chances wouldn’t have come about at all if not for being in that particular studio at that particular time.

In all, I had the London Fields studio from 1995 to 2002. During that last year, I was already living in the USA, married to a beautiful and talented American writer, and was subletting the studio back in London while I set myself up in Chicago. Finally, in October 2002, I spent a week in London packing everything up, selling materials or giving them away, overseeing a removals company while they boxed up seven years’ worth of canvases and materials. I put the keys in an envelope, gave the envelope to the caretaker who lived in a small flat at the front gate, and left Martello Street for good.

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