Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Place to Paint

click pix to enlarge

Autumn always gives me a case of the bends when I leave my summer studio and return to the city. The studio turns cold and forbidding in the winter months. By November, the water is shut off, the light is low and my fingers turn waxy & blue as the temperature drops. About the most productive thing that gets done is shivering to stay warm. I am reminded of Anne Truitt's account of gathering up her basket of paints from her unheated studio in DC and I feel embarrassed to be complaining at all. Her Daybook[s], were a guiding light when I was a younger artist—a model of toughness & steadfastness—but now, all I feel is old and cold. As my parents live nearby and it has fallen to my sisters and me to get them situated in a nursing home, I have become quite sensitive to the day-to-day insults we suffer with age. Suffice it to say, we've not had an easy time of it, but are close to a good solution for them.

I'll have to go back one more time before it freezes hard to put some anti-freeze in the toilet and turn the water barrels upside-down. The goldfish however, just hunker down at the bottom of the pond and wait for spring.

And because the roof on the north end of the building leaks mightily, we may be back up there with bales of shingles next summer. Last time I did that, I ended up with vicious tendinitis in both elbows simultaneously.

What I can never get over is the extreme contrast between winter and summer here in the Northeast (where I grew up, by the way). From June until October, which is my time to paint, it is a complete paradise. The building was originally a laundry built in 1928, which serviced the Navy as well as the big mansions on the other side of town. Strictly utilitarian, it has an odd architectural charm of its own. Over time, it was added to just like "the house that Jack built" and with each addition, gained a new section of the above-mentioned roof. By the time we got it, it was on the verge of disintegration.

I have fantasies of winterizing a portion of this vast space, but then, I also dream of moving to California. As it is, there's no money for either and with the current economy it will most likely stay that way for the foreseeable future.

We, that is my husband and I, discovered it back in the early 90s when we were rather desperately seeking to escape our crackhead-infested ghetto down in the city. So we've actually had the building for thirteen years and are still working our way around opening the boarded-up windows. These old steel-framed factory windows require a couple of months of restoration each. I admire (jealously, I admit) the windows out at DiaBeacon which were obviously removed, sand-blasted, lusciously powder-coated in pale gray and re-glazed off-site, using some sexy silicone-like material out of a tube, before being reinstalled. I imagine teams of professionals were involved. As we do not have a luxurious construction budget, our work involves removing the glass, grinding out the hardened old putty, chipping away rust & what remains of the original paint, priming & painting before setting in the new lights. Glazing in place can be tough; it would be easier to do it on a flat surface; and I still do it the old way with putty & a knife. The beds in these windows are deep—7/8"—so it takes a lot of DAP and a steady hand. Tedious work, although strangely soothing. But, nothing beats the drama of pulling down 50-year old plywood and letting in the light.


The other fabulous find was the pond in the back. Our first year there, we realized that the level of the yard along the eastern side of the building was a little over a foot higher than the floor inside. There were moisture problems and my 90-year old aunt came visiting one day and declared: "You're going to have to lower the grade here." And so we did. With shovels. We dug up about 80' x 22' of crappy brick-laden dump. In so doing, we unearthed the foundation of what was once an enormous yellow brick smokestack and a rectangular pit filled with rubble and cinder. The pit turned out to have been a sump for the boiler and once we got it all cleaned out, it seemed only natural to fill it with water and fish and lilies.

The interior is completely unfinished still, but makes a good workspace. And nobody seems to notice the dirt constantly raining down from the undersides of the roof (because there is no ceiling).

We've tacked up just enough sheetrock to make a couple of painting walls and put in a small electric water heater.

Summertime, and the livin' is easy. But winter, not so much.

As I have run out of steam (and time), in the interest of keeping up with the blog, I'll post this now and write some more later. If you're interested, you can see some more pictures at flickr.

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