Art friendships are the secret elixir of an artist's life, if you ask me. They are way of getting perspective and remembering to stop and consider milestones, to be kind to oneself and to see things from another perspective. Sometimes, I meet with artists in a more formal way. I find this Studio Visit practice to be more of an east coast norm than a mid west norm. We'll sometimes use a specific structure to meet and work together over the phone, over zoom or in person. Above is my a picnic visit with dear friend and amazing photographer Lisa Abitbol. We met when she bought a painting of mine in about 1997 and stayed mulitple hours (like six?) at my studio when she came to pick it up.
Here is a the kind of formula that I've used with others that help this kind of meeting work well for me and those I meet with (Ceramic artist Leiligh Towfigh calls these "artner" meetings!). I have also created this kind of structure as a coach for artist groups while working with the Arts & Business Council in Boston.
Time boundaries - these allow me to sink into listening better, or sharing, knowing we've got a shared understanding and plan.
1. Check in about time at the beginning so you know what you've got to work with.
2. Do a 15 minute check in each (depending on the time you've got), leaving the last 5 minutes for feedback from the other. It is really helpful to have one of you keep time, and not to be squeamish about just stating when time is up. Otherwise, the vagueness of time creates a little energy leak that's unnecessary and counter to really diving in.
In checking in, I like to answer and suggest to the other person some combo of these questions as prompts:
"What am I working on?
What's going well?
What are my challenges?
What would be great to walk away with from this meeting today?"
Sometimes we choose to respond to these or similar questions by writing on these questions first, and then we each check in for 5 - 10 minutes and give feedback. Usually, there's an obvious interest in the talking or the writing, depending on how the day is going.
3. Once that's done, we look into what kind of time is left, and we might do a second round with more focus on whichever is most either in need of support or perspective, or we work quietly in parallel, leaving 5-10 minutes at the end to check back in on where we landed.
(Above is an image of artist and friend Paloma Nunez Regueiro visiting me with some of her treasures in my studio last fall).
4. If it's a regular meeting, we might want to mention steps we intend to take in that wrap up, and then we may start with how that went in the check-in next time.
It's also very important that you be clear in the kind of feedback you are looking for, and what you are not looking for. Some people give advice or critical feedback on a project you have completed, and that can feel yucky when you didn't ask for it. If you're not sure, ask: What kind of feedback would you like?, or what questions do you have for me? Try to avoid seeking approval for your work or just giving empty strokes of praise - so the exchange can have some meaning and depth.
There are also many critique type processes that you can also apply with a little internet sleuthing to get pointers on this if you'd like them.
Some of my regular artner friendships have been with Sue Murad (film, performance, artist books below), Andi Sutton (interactive and public projects MN), Valerie Isaacs (painting), poet Carrolle Morini (poet and librarian), and Erika Blumenfeld (literal artist to the stars). May there be many more to come!
In the theme of messes, I introduce the topic of the insurmountable problem.
An insurmountable problem is one for which there is no present solution, no clear way around, and nothing to do about nothing. Something that is insurmountable is something 'incapable of being overcome'.
I would call an insurmountable problem a mess, in that it is something that grinds to a halt, like, for example, a movie theatre during covid. It's a mess because one is powerless to change that fact.
A smaller example has come up for me in the past several weeks that to me has felt big. Yes it is a complete luxury problem, and still, it's in my face and has been blocking my work. I have a new wood stove in my art studio. It was going gangbusters, and then suddenly, two months in, began filling the room with smoke whenever I opened the door. And I mean even when I was lighting the fire.
I cleaned the baffle, the lower chimney pipe, I called the manufacturer, I consulted friends about the wood quality, I lit smokeless fires with no paper. I cleaned the ash pan and the firebox out completely, and even the stove glass window. Still, smoke pours into the room.
So this, right now, seems like an insurmountable problem to me, a mess!
For about five days, I avoided the studio. It had soot dust floating hither and thither, and it was cold, and it reminded me of my insurmountable problem.
When I was imagining the studio finished, when it was just a rough shell, I knew that this amazing new space would be incredible, but eventually, in the manner of Pavlov's Dog, would become either ordinary or overlooked, or worse, the source of a problem or headache, or lots.
This is how it goes. A boon is often accompanied by stress from new responsibilities and new things to attend to. And this studio was a major boon for me. So, the insurmountable problem in my tiny world is the stove.
For an insurmountable problem, my only answer, and my very very best move, is prayer.
What prayer does, is it allows me to put the insurmountable concern down. To stop the obsessive anxious brain spin. To not worry this like a bone, lose sleep, catastrophize, try and force solutions, freak out, break something while exhausted and forcing things, avoid showing up, and lose all perspective. When I surrender it, I actually can stop thinking about it and focus on other things. And I have found when I do so, things shift without my trying to shift them.
I wrote or said a prayer something like this:
[ ], I place this wood stove situation completely in your care. I hand it over, I surrender it completely to you. Thank you for taking care of it, and thank you for inspiring me and directing me toward any small action to assist you in so doing. I am deeply grateful that you are taking care of this and I thank you for this beautiful stove and studio.
Instead of avoiding the place, which was feeling like a set jaw, or like a stubborn latch I didn't want to open, I prayed or in other words, set an intention to find myself in there again, enjoying and appreciating the space, thriving creatively, engaged and happy, this week.
As prayer, this intention looks something like this:
[ ], I would love the inspiration, willingness and motivation to be in the studio again, happily at work, engaged and filled with gratitude for what a lovely space it is. Help me to be warm and at peace with things just as they are and, oh yeah, again, that stove? I leave it entirely with you.
So today is Monday, and after avoiding the studio all weekend and praying when it started to roost in my thinking, I felt inspired to step in there with my tea and journal this morning, put a blanket down on a seat so my butt wouldn't get cold, and blasted the milk house heater at my feet. There I did some writing.
The other form of prayer that I engaged in this morning was a form of gratitude, to 'want what I have' rather than only see things as a SNAFU (which stands for Situation all fucked up in case you didn't know).
I wrote a list of everything that I love about the studio:
It's location, the light, the views out the windows, the white walls, the closet, the table space, the organization, the wifi...
and everything that I've done in there since I moved back in
Inventorying, completing lots of work, starting a new series, photographing and filming, completing the space, writing a lot, having an occasional covid-safe studio visit...
Both of which helped me see things in a new light, and give me a feeling of inspiration and accomplishment and gratitude.
To be clear, this is now an automatic process, that began in times when I was super stuck for a long time, and it is a process that I use not to be 'good' or saccharin, but because it literally blasts out the shitty cobwebs that yield more shitty cobwebs when allowed to hang around for long.
When the list was done, I found myself trying one more fire - NOPE! no change, just a smokey, shitty mess. I then found myself sweeping, dusting, organizing, rearranging, making a list of what I'm doing with what project, and then came three actions, a minor plan of sorts, for further troubleshooting the stove. By showing some love to the space, I also got out the soot and cobwebs, and cleaned up the flow and possibility in there as well.
As I write this, I've asked for help, spoken with my husband's friend Lenny, troubleshooted with him, and asked our good friend Al to borrow his chimney cleaning brush.
The next step is a little unclear, but I am likely to be shown what it is when it's time. The goal is to inspect the upper section of the chimney as creosote has likely blocked the opening as I've only gotten to the lower half.
So the tools at work here for insurmountable problem situations are - (not necessarily in any order, or looking or feeling good in the process)
This metal box is a bit not the right container for the teas and tea paraphernalia that I use in the studio because it is a) too small b) meant for more serious things, and c) ugly. However, it is *the* tea box, and has been for years. It usually and currently contains some dish towels, boxes and individual packets of tea bags, and a few tea cups and mugs. It sits atop a bookshelf, and carries with it the friendly anticipation of a studio visit where one might serve tea. If I have snacks, the fact that the tea box is metal with a latch means that a mouse would be less drawn to the box. Happily there are no mice as of yet in this studio!
When it is just me, which is most of the time, the tea cups are stacked in a jumble and most of them have the dried dregs of my own tea or coffee drinkings. Which means that when someone is coming for a bonafide studio visit, I will wash these, or swap them out for other mugs from my kitchen that are dishwasher clean. Sometimes it's a bit like camping in the studio when it's just me.
I currently have mostly tisanes: or herbal teas, in the manner of ginger, ginger turmeric and mint. A few green teas lurk, and if one requests black tea, I can dig some up in the house.
The studio for many years has been the receptacle for things I have discarded from my home, but can be handy anyway. The Q tip jar for example, which was a failed coffee cup, extra fancy china that no one else in my home likes to use, and the beer steins that I once started compulsively collected but stopped after I had 5 of them. I have two left, and they are actually part of a Stand In sculpture, though at times have been used for tea during a visit. Other objects from home that have a rag tag second life in the studio include favorite cashmere sweaters with too many moth holes, corduroy jean shorts and heavy messed up pants for dirty paint projects, plastic molded clogs, and lots of yogurt containers at one point, though not currently.
In a sense, the studio can certainly be an excuse to never let anything go, in the tradition of the New Englander who can find a use for anything, and as a mixed media artist I mean anything.
But these days, though there is certainly a lot of serious stuff in the studio, it has been pared down to only the more essential junk, and whisked away into what I hope will stay an orderly closet.
Finally, here is an image from an art project from 2007 called Tangle, in which contents of my Tea Box were wrapped on my head. To see more of this project visit hannahburr.com/tangle.
THIS IS HOME
May 27 - June 26
Gallery B in Castine, ME
A four woman exhibition opening Feb 3 2023 at the Ann Arbor Art Center.
Curated by Thea Eck.
Janice Charach Gallery
West Bloomfield MI
Jan 15-Mar 1 2023
Works of pure abstraction by 18 artists including five new puffies!
Make your own hand sewn book from the papers left by a loved one.
If you feel overwhelmed, confused or just plain excited by what's afoot in your life, and would like some excellent clarifying space and tools, try a session with Hannah! She's been a coach for 15 years. First 30 minutes is just to see what it's like...
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.