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Artists open their doors for City-Wide Open Studios
By Holly Gitlin
Posted On: 07/01/2006   

Studio visits bring the work of an artist full circle by breaking open how his or her projects are rooted, constructed and conceptualized. They allow patrons, visitors and the public to explore the creative spaces we often only know through conjecture.

On July 8, art-lovers will have the opportunity to replace conjecture with experience during City-Wide Open Studios Day. Four artists invited me to explore the mysteries of their workshops and shared their insights on a subject they know very personally: their art. I wanted to explore their spaces, unravel their work and, most importantly, know why they chose the work they did.

I met with Cheryl Wassenaar and Jane Barrow after a long day of work. Their studios, located at the Lemp Brewery Complex, are neatly tucked away at the end of the Cherokee Antique District.

In Wassenaar's studio, fragments of old signs were clumped together in organizational stacks throughout the room. A band saw and a table saw located near the entrance made the space seem more like a wood shop than a studio, but Wassenaar uses those saws to cut up the old signs she finds and then juxtaposes the pieces into shape-shifting collages.

"I use design and the process of repositioning as the means to see these commercial signs and the language that appears on them differently," said Wassenaar. "I've always been intrigued by the power of arrangement - the fact that it can take visual priority over the individual elements being arranged. It addresses one of the core principles of design: gestalt, which says that a whole cannot be understood as simply the sum of its parts."

Does she steal the signs she works with? "Not anymore," Wassenaar said with a smile. She often contacts an array of people - from business owners to real-estate agents - in an effort to obtain signs that were left to rot at now-closed businesses.

"Signs are the last things to go," noted Wassenaar. "I see the sign as a recognition or homage to the place. Coupled with that is the desire to make use of materials we no longer use."

When I asked Wassenaar how she felt about opening her studio for the City-Wide Open Studios Day, she said, "In a certain sense, it sort of takes away the mystery of the process."
The work we see in galleries is entirely removed from the artistic process. As a viewer, our only insight at a gallery is a card or sheet of paper that states the title, the medium and maybe the dimensions of the artwork. In the studio, we see the tools, the materials, the floor scattered with works in progress. We see the layers that go into conceiving and producing each piece. In the studio, we are reminded that the art is so much more than something hung on the wall; it is the product of dedication, vision and execution.

I found Barrow's studio down the hall, where crates from a recent exhibit in Taiwan were being unpacked and a large sculptural branch of kudzu was tucked away in a corner.

Barrow often uses kudzu in her work. She noticed the vine on her drive to work and became intrigued by its shape and form, particularly its swooping nature. When I looked closely at her work, I noticed technical drawings amidst the kudzu, faint etchings that subtly haunt the predominant vine. The drawings appeared to be blueprints, architectural schematics or complex mathematic equations.

"After lots of painting and studying, I realized I had taken this [kudzu] interest of mine out of nature and therefore was freer to follow my own intuition," she said. "That lead me naturally to look at mathematics and finally to flow dynamics, which is, in essence, studying the movement of fluids like air and water."

The swooping kudzu is an interesting application of flow dynamics. Ironically, the vine grows in a way that appears as if it is moving in a swoosh, yet it's not; it's fixed. Still, there is the insinuation of movement, a peculiar illusion, one that is articulated by the principles of fluid movement, or flow dynamics.

A few days later I headed to the Soulard Fine Arts Building, where I meet with Brett Williams and Jamie Kreher, who have been sharing a studio space there since February.

As I entered their studio, I see Kreher seated at her computer working on a new project. The space was simple, with two styles of work hung throughout. Both derived from digital photography, one is of streetlights with a '60s design sensibility, with the streetlights repeated in tight patterns. There is something very uniform about their presentation.

Then there were larger pieces of isolated parking lot islands, austere representations of the suburban manicuring of nature. The islands stand on their own, chopped away from their parking lot habitat. They rest isolated on a large white page.

"I'm interested in the ways in which the built environment affects the quality of our lives," said Kreher. "I enjoy researching the topic and learning about how we might improve various components of our lives through changes in urban planning."

As we discussed her work, it came as no surprise that Kreher has an undergraduate degree in sociology. She was careful to not pass judgment on suburbia; rather, she has a fascination with the manufactured reality that is commonplace in this setting.

In contrast, Williams' work is an investigation into life's recordability and commercialization. Working with multi/mixed media, Williams works with single channel pieces. His early work is an interesting array of video snapshots from slices of his life. Ironic and humorous, they explore the self-consciousness of being recorded while encouraging interaction.

"I started videotaping myself and my everyday life," Williams explained. "I would edit the videos using traditional commercial styles using the 30-second to one-minute format that commercials use. I had to tell a full story in that time frame. I shot, edited and made my own music. The one constant in all the commercials was [that] my name appeared at the beginning of each commercial. This device established me as the brand."

I suspected the idea of "Brett" branding might be lost on the casual observer viewing one of Williams' plasma-screen installations. It would be easy to pass it by and enjoy its sense of whimsy but miss the depth of the work.

As I left Williams and Kreher's studio, I realized how valuable it is to tour the workspace of an artist. Experiencing the work and talking with the artist was as delightful as it was affirming. It brought the work to life and created organic connections for the viewer. True, most artists are available upon appointment, but a day of studio touring was an intimate and intense way to experience great art.

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