Sunday, December 31, 2017

Studio Visit: Shelley Gilchrist, Chicago area

By Shelley Gilchrist

From my back door I walk 40 feet across the yard to my studio over the family garage. This structure was built ten years ago to replace a collapsing single-car shed that housed chipmunks. Once we designed and customized my work space, my aim was to keep my finished pieces stored away so that I could work adventurously, unencumbered by old ideas, past designs, and too-familiar color palettes. While I routinely wrap up completed pieces and store them away (under the train table in the house basement), when I cleaned up the studio to take photos I found long-forgotten works hiding under bags of wax scraps and piles of drawings. Revelation! I’ll revisit this in a moment.

The staircase you see here leads from the garage to the custom-built studio above it. Could the message 
Keep out! be any clearer? As the steps have become a storage area over time, the clutter now serves to deter all but the most determined visitors (a.k.a. family members). Bear in mind, I have tidied up this scene so I could photograph it.

Having several work areas became a necessity when I started using wax. As most of us have discovered after a few disasters, keeping wax off drawing paper, and charcoal dust off wax pieces takes some forethought. I’ve found that dividing the space also makes it easier to focus on a project since I can turn my back on other ongoing work. My wax workbench has overhead fluorescent lighting and was built at 38 inches, an ergonomic height for a tall person. The rack under the bench stores paper and portfolios.

The wax area with plenty of outlets and an exhaust fan. (The drawing at right will be mentioned shortly)
Inset top: The intentionally not-so-inviting entry to the studio

The east window area has a seven-foot table for drawing and painting. Left over from my oil painting days, the easel is still useful as a stand for photographing small work. Note the pile of paper on the shelf to the left–templates for all the sectional pieces stored away in the house basement, saved to make future installations easier. Recently I added a larger computer screen to my desk–a boon for working with Photoshop or any image program.

 My “research and development” desk overlooks the garden beds and rear of the house. Observant chocoholics will note the box of truffles close at hand on the nearby shelf. Chocolate can inspire great things, am I right? 

Inspiration usually starts on an ipad with an old “Adobe Ideas” program. When I’m not in the studio, the ipad is usually close by and doesn’t require any drawing materials. Conversely, a photo of something I’ve made experimentally, such as these curving strips, can become the first layer in the Ideas program, and then I can draw over that, by way of exploring further “what happens if . . . ”.

I am experimenting with heating and bending strips of pvc panel, to see what shapes I can make and what they inspire. Some projects take off, but many more experiments gather dust, and eventually make it to the dustbin. (The jury is still out on this particular effort.) 

A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned a revelation. Well, perhaps it’s an insight. As I diligently cleaned and straightened up my studio this week, I uncovered this piece, Patterns of Flight, from 2005, made in my old studio in a nearby artists’ building, and long forgotten under my present workbench. It serves as a good example of my painting style at the time: grid-based and representational. 

 Patterns of Flight, 2005, encaustic, 20” x 15”

And yet in the same box of forgotten things, I found the charcoal drawing you see on the wall next to my wax workbench, from just a year later (inspired by Sol Lewitt?). I also uncovered another 2006 work, Giverny, which seems to be on the cusp, one of my first embraces of abstraction.

In retrospect I see that both the drawing, right, and Giverny, below, positioned me for the work that came next

Between 2005 and 2007, there was a sea change in my work that was a likely consequence of my studio change in 2007. My new studio arrangement gave me the impetus to put away old work purposefully and erase it from my mind. It also enabled me to fulfill an emerging vision because I had the opportunity to add new skills and tools (saws! sanders!) to my process arsenal. It’s unlikely that I could have made Cherry Creek, 2007, in my old space. With its new color palette, curvilinear design elements, shaped sections, and use of negative space, it denotes a transformation in my thinking about art-making.

Giverny, 2006, encaustic, 14 x 14 inches

Cherry Creek, 2007, encaustic, 18 x 19 inches

In order to design large work or photograph installations, I move out the cars and use a large wall in the garage below the studio. It’s also a useful space for working with saws and sanders, with a shop vac to control sawdust. 

The scroll saw, left, is my most beloved power tool.

I show up in the studio nearly every day, often eager, but sometimes resistant, in which case I make my appearance toward evening. There are times when, no matter how willing I am, a full day in the studio yields little except a swept floor; this reinforces my sense that it can be valuable to spend time not working. Occasionally, distraction ends up serving as a back door for an idea or long-sought solution enter my brain, so I try not to feel guilty when I don’t work. 

“Do you spend a lot of time out here?” is usually the first question asked by intrepid visitors who make it up the gauntlet and into my space. The follow-up from non-artists is “You must like to be alone.” I own up to enjoying solitude, and appreciate that being an artist gives legitimacy to this personality trait. For that reason, having a studio is a joy and a necessity. 

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Shelley Gilchrist is a contributor to ProWax Journal. A widely exhibited artist, she is the author of Form and Iteration Across Mediums in Issue 14. Learn more about her in our Staff Bios.

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