CAR Artist Story: Gwen Zabicki / Chicago Artists’ Resource

On the Importance of a Studio, and How to Afford It

Chicago artist Gwen Zabicki is interested in the ways people in urban environments live alone together. In her most recent body of work she explores the idea of a shared urban melancholy. Her work is deeply invested in Chicago’s urban landscape. In discussing her work, she quotes Bosnian-American novelist AleksanderHemon who once said that Chicago “was built not for people to come together, but for them to be safely apart.” Drawing further on non-American perspectives, she reaches to the Turkish “hüzün,” a type of melancholy that is quite often cherished by the dwellers of Istanbul. Contemporary Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk writes often about “hüzun,” suggesting that it is like what “a child feels when staring through a steamy window, but multiplied and shared by the inhabitants of an entire city, and so intrinsic to their consciousness that it becomes not negative – in the sense of depression – but poetic.” Zabickimarries the concept of “hüzün” with Hemon’s statement, and then paints it onto canvas. In her artist story, she talks about the centrality of a studio space in creating work, and how to make that happen. Story by by CAR Visual Arts Researcher Alicia Eler.

It’s important to have a good studio space. I like the structure, the mental trick that happens when I leave my home and go to the studio. I work in oils, so I need to work in a studio space with proper ventilation; otherwise I’d slowly poison myself and my loved ones. After I graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I made paintings on the unheated back porch of my apartment. From December to April it was too cold to use, and from June to August I had to wake up early in order to use it before the temperature got too hot. For awhile, I even tried painting under a tarp in my parents’ backyard. It was depressing to work that way and made my pursuits seem sad and small. Some of my painter friends switched to acrylics or gouache just so they could work in their apartments—but that still meant working at the kitchen table and not being able to leave anything set up and inconveniencing everyone around you.

I looked into renting a studio with friends, but it was too expensive for me. I couldn’t afford $200–$400 a month. The studios always seemed to be located in hard-to-reach neighborhoods. I continued to work out of my home until 2010, when I went to grad school at University of Illinois at Chicago. One of the best parts about grad school was getting a private, gigantic studio with a real door and windows that opened and shut! Tuition was about the same cost as renting a studio. I considered the more expensive graduate program at SAIC, but the tiny little closets posing as the grad painting studios convinced me to go elsewhere.

The grad school studio experience is different from having a studio on one’s own. Lots of other full-time artists are working all the time, all around you. Everyone is young and wants to hang out, and the school provides you with deadlines and assignments. The après-school studio experience has fewer friends dropping by, no advisers and no deadlines. There isn’t that built-in community, which can make your individual studio practice seem like more of a free fall. That doesn’t have to be the case, however. Share a studio space with friends or get a studio in a building with your friends. Both of these techniques can go a long way to re-creating the grad school community experience, or even founding an entirely new community outside of any type of academic experience. Another way to bring a sense of community to your studio practice is to schedule studio visits with your friends. Don’t refer to it as a “hang out”—call it a “studio visit.” This adds a sense of professionalism to the whole experience. Most likely you’ll wind up spending less than half the time talking about your work, but this exercise will certainly connect more people to you and your work. Plus, the feedback that you do receive from friends will be incredibly honest, useful and meaningful.

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