Welcome to the first installment of “Creative Spaces,” a regular Gwarlingo series that will focus on the creative habits and work spaces of visual artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other talented individuals.
I’m so pleased to kick off the series with an intimate profile of visual artist and MacArthur recipient Anna Schuleit.
Anna graciously agreed to talk with me about her daily work habits, studio space, recent projects, and much more. She also gave me permission to photograph her studio in exceptional detail, granting me access not only to her works in progress, but also to many of her sketches, personal collections, notes, and books.
Such generosity is in keeping with Anna’s personality. She is curious, playful, open-minded, intelligent, and exudes a positive, contagious energy. But forget the stereotypes of flighty creative geniuses (a word that makes most MacArthur fellows squirm). Anna is as deep and introspective as she is energetic and outgoing.
Born in Mainz, Germany, and raised in a family of artists, Anna came to the US at 16 as a high school student. She went on to study painting at RISD and creative writing at Dartmouth.
Anna’s early, large-scale installations included Habeas Corpus (2000), in which she brought the crumbling Northampton State Hospital to life with the music of J.S. Bach, and Bloom (2003), where she filled the Massachusetts Mental Health Center with 28,000 blooming flowers and 5,600 square feet of lush, green sod. In 2007 she created Landlines–a public art project commemorating the centennial anniversary of The MacDowell Colony.
In 2009 Anna’s paintings and drawings were exhibited at the Coleman Burke Gallery in New York City. In 2010 she completed Just a Rumor, a large painting commission at UMass Amherst, as well as a painted set-design for Ivy Baldwin Dance at the Chocolate Factory Theater in New York. Her work has been praised for its “conceptual clarity, compassion, and beauty.”
Anna has been a visiting artist and lecturer at MIT, Brown, Smith, RISD, The New School, Bowdoin, and other institutions. Residency programs have been an important cornerstone to her artistic development. She has been a fellow at The Blue Mountain Center, The MacDowell Colony, Bogliasco, Yaddo, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard, among others. In 2006 Anna was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
The following interview and photo shoot took place in the early spring of 2011 in the small, rural town of Harrisville, New Hampshire, where Anna’s studio is currently located. On the morning I arrived at the studio, Anna’s dog Finnegan was relaxing on the couch and Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” was playing on the stereo. When I commented on this musical choice, Anna explained that she begins every work day in the studio by listening to Steve Reich’s “Drumming“ and “Music for 18 Musicians.”
Michelle Aldredge: Anna, what is your typical routine? Do you have any rituals that are important to your creative work?
Anna Schuleit: When I wake up in the morning I first go outside with my dog to check on the weather and the overall feel of the day. That’s the very first thing, going outside. Then a walk or run in the woods, then breakfast. And then off to the studio for the rest of the day.
Once there, I usually continue working on what I was doing the night before–a series of works, never just a single piece. If I stay long enough in the studio, just stay with the work even if it doesn’t feel great or seem satisfying or directional or conclusive, if I just stay to tend and garden, then my mind gradually yields control to the more automatic labor of painting, and with that comes a sweet spot in the process further down, a worn groove, a sense of ease.
That’s a bit elusive and hard to describe, and it doesn’t really depend on any rituals other than, well…presence. Just staying with it allows it to open up. The same is true for any creative task, no?
I listen to music while I work, usually abstract things. But I also enjoy the quiet, sounds from elsewhere–birds. I eat simple meals, more lunch than dinner, and I read the news when I can, or make phone calls, or run quick errands, but usually I’m in the studio for long stretches of sameness: mixing paint, looking at paintings, drawing, looking more, painting, mixing more paint, drinking some tea, looking more. And so on. Just maintaining a presence. And I do enjoy this more than I can adequately express.
By the time I leave the studio at night I often feel deeply connected to my work, and I have to tear myself away like a kid from a playground. The process feeds itself, somehow, and I get to be a part of it, which is the best and simplest, and most tumbling and humbling feeling I know.
What do you do when you hit a roadblock or get stuck on a certain piece?
For the past six years I’ve been working in series: multiple panels of drawings and paintings that help prevent the formation of serious roadblocks by creating a multitude of views of the same thing. That means there are multiple options spread out across more than a single pictorial plane, side-by-side, which means repetition, which in turn, means a built-in possibility for continuation.
I try to keep going at the speed each particular piece seems to require naturally, some slow, some fast. Slow for me means more than a month, and I actually have several works in that category right now, large paintings on linen. They just seem to need more time to remain “open” while I keep them around, keep looking without specific expectations other than to stay engaged.
When I do get stuck and nothing moves forward for several days I will take a snapshot of the painting and enlarge it at a copy shop onto a large piece of paper, which I bring back to the studio with me. I cut the copy apart, paint on top of it, and use it as an impermanent collage. It gets me back into the work through a back-door and lets me see the colors and the composition differently, which can be crucial to getting unstuck again. But that kind of roadblock is ultimately part of the piece like all the rest, a sort of necessary detour.
I love the combination of intense creative energy and controlled order in your studio. Can you explain how your studio is organized?
My studio is one large space subdivided into several parts: paintings on the walls, drawings and prints on tables in the middle, paints and inks and dry media and other tools in-between, and books and papers on the fringes. The different parts of the studio help me to keep moving, like stations along a road.
Things are in flux though; it’s definitely not overly neat, nor is it too tidy. But it’s not chaos either. It’s a good, medium kind of state with room for dried paint and dust and empty bottles and clothes and traces of use. And there are large, handsome industrial windows overlooking a row of trees. Oh, and lots of lamps and spotlights, since I work at night, too. Working at night makes all the other things that aren’t part of the paintings fall away, adding contrast and saturation and a kind of temporary authority in the composition that the next day supersedes again.
Are there any objects in your studio that have special meaning to you?