One thing I know about serious artists is that we each need a good place to work.—a loft, a garrett, an open field, a room of one’s own; a dedicated or otherwise undisturbed place in which to visualize, craft, mull over, admire, despise and panic about our creations.
Inspiring Studios and Trade Secrets
I decided very early on that I was an artist. In fact, at three years of age I predicted that I would be a famous artist. I know this because it was written by my father on the back of a shirt cardboard where I had painstakingly scrawled the image of a pointy-crowned princess. My father continued to comment upon and dutifully archive nearly all my childish drawings until I began to be inclined to charge him for them.
Now that I’ve drawn and painted and designed my way into near dotage, one thing I know about serious artists is that we each need a good place to work—a loft, a garrett, an open field, a room of one’s own; a dedicated or otherwise undisturbed place in which to visualize, craft, mull over, admire, despise and panic about our creations.
It recently occurred to me that it might be interesting to sniff out and expose other artists in their element. So I set about with phone in hand to track down three talented creative types with wildly dissimilar studios. All three make their living fully or partially through the sale and/or teaching of their art, but each has a different approach for creating a conducive and inspiring atmosphere in which to work.
Winifred Ross Reilly: Melding Art and Industry
The vivacious Winifred Ross Reilly likes to say that she is “way, way into signs; all about signs.”
Standing in her 1100 square-foot Baton Rouge studio, complete with breezy front and rear porches, deck and skylights, Reilly confided that she’s in love with the rich, rough graphics of weathered hand-painted signs, and often explores the seedier areas of cities in search of old signage to photograph and use in her work. “I also buy interesting signs from people,” she added. “I once gave a drifter twenty dollars in return for his crudely-lettered cardboard sign. I even handed him a fresh Magic Marker to use in making another one.” She paused for a split second. “I think we hugged,” she said with an impish grin.
Reilly is also quite partial to including scraps of rare vintage billboard postings with their enormous halftone images and typography. And where does an artist come across such treasures? In the warehouses and production plant of a huge facility, of course, if she is lucky enough to be married to Kevin Reilly, Jr., Chairman of the Board of Lamar Advertising, one of the nation’s largest and most prolific outdoor advertising companies.
“The old hand-painted metal billboards are the hardest to find, and the most beautiful,” said Reilly. “I’ve been able to salvage a few panels from the warehouses at Lamar to use in my dioramas.”
Dioramas. This is how she often refers to her silkscreened and collaged constructions, splashed with riotous colors, repeat patterns and abstract images gleaned from these billboards and from various exotic textiles and folk art gathered in her travels. Simplified forms occurring in nature, like banana leaves and magnolias, also appear in her assemblages, which resemble Pop Art in that they are iconic avatars, distilled and redrawn in forms from contemporary culture.
Reilly works on a large scale, mostly utilizing recycled pieces of reflective aluminum from scrapped highway signs on which to silkscreen her enticing images, then placing and floating the pieces in her studio, which is furnished with an enviable assortment of tools and heavy equipment. It’s very physical work, which also requires a good bit of outsourcing to machine shops and other industrial service providers for cutting, drilling and finishing; and of course, to the Lamar printing facility, where she silkscreens the images before hauling them home to be assembled and hung. “I call it renegade silkscreening, as it’s down and dirty,” Reilly points out.
At the end of a brief studio visit, the effervescent, high-energy Reilly chauffeured me to Lamar Graphics, the Baton Rouge production facility, where she was greeted warmly by everyone we met. It was obvious that she was a regular on the scene. We wound our way back through the cavernous billboard production shop and into the rooms where the silkscreens are exposed, prepped, and used for hand-printing those colorful interstate logo signs familiar to all of us, like “Taco Bell, Exit 25.” Winifred introduced me to the men who help her to produce and print her images (on their own time, and with remuneration). “Here is Steven Boney,” said Reilly, introducing me to a young man hard at work mixing and sampling paints to an exact match. “Steve’s our Master Color Mixer, and he’s a genius. And this is Marvin Turner, who helps me pull the larger prints.”
Reilly’s design influence and many of her works are evident throughout the Lamar Graphics building, as they are in the Lamar Headquarters, which was the next stop on our whirlwind tour. The exterior of the three-story Lamar Building on Corporate Boulevard is much the same as when it was built by Louisiana National Bank in 1970. Winifred explained that the architects, Eskew + Dumez + Ripple of New Orleans, concentrated their efforts on making the interior an exciting and creative office environment, with an abundance of common areas, casual conference and brainstorming arrangements; and an open and inviting floor plan with a soothing interior green space. Reilly worked hand-in-hand with the architects in the choice and compilation of graphics and art as well as wall colors and furnishings. The overall impact is spectacular, and gives one a sense of excitement, efficiency and community.
Throughout this tour, Reilly gave a hello to everyone we encountered, called them by name, and was greeted warmly. It was plain to see that in this huge company she is as engaged as she is engaging. As a confirmed introvert, as many artists are, I was as impressed by her outgoing nature as I am in the range of her work and her influence.
I am inspired by Winifred Ross Reilly’s work, her multi-hued, expansive ideas, the ambitious and creative management of her medium—not to mention the scrap materials she generously shared with me. It was a glorious day.
Kat Fitzpatrick: The Secret Life of Beeswax
“I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.”
— Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
In the book, when Lily Owens enters the Boatwright house for the first time, she is enticed by the heady aroma of beeswax and honey, and a feeling of magic. Kat Fitzpatrick’s home studio near the beach in Bay St. Louis gave me the same sensation, and the tantalizing scent of warm beeswax was also in the air.
Our paths have happily crossed more than a few times over the years, most notably as fellow participants at the Mississippi Art Colony retreats and again recently when I took one of her encaustic workshops in Natchez.
“What’s encaustic” did you ask? Encaustic refers to an ancient method of painting in which hot wax (primarily beeswax and Damar resin) is mixed with pigments, oil-based paints or oil pastels and applied quickly to a surface with a brush or stylus while still in its melted state. The fragrant wax mixture can also be applied with or without pigment as an overall glaze or between layers in a collage. It can be scraped, stamped and molded, too, and it’s wonderfully forgiving. (“Forgiving” is an artist’s term for a medium that can be worked, worked and reworked without losing its original freshness.) Another advantage to choosing encaustic is that dreamy quality it gives to your painting or collage as layer upon translucent layer of wax softens harsh lines and adds depth where a gentle, diffused light can play just beneath the surface.
There is much beneath the surface of Fitzpatrick’s home and studio, too. The home itself is actually two houses—one which is the reclaimed remains of her original 1905 wood-frame gingerbread home of more than thirty years, shouldered off its piers by angry wind and water and dropped almost a block away during the fierce hurricane we called Katrina; and another charming house of the same age, destined for the rubbish pile, which was rescued, taken apart board by board, numbered and labeled by room and reassembled on Kat’s property. Great care was taken in the delicate repair of fragile windows and walls, and in the supplementing of new wood in the places which were beyond help.
When one is within the walls of Fitzpatrick’s studio home, besides the gentle surprise of bee perfume and the patinated surfaces of weathered wood, there is a palpable feeling of tranquility. “The volunteers who dismantled the original house wrote on the backs of the boards, and added little prayers and good wishes. It made the walls come alive,” she said. Fitzpatrick’s environment is very alive, indeed, with art on every wall and many comfy little treasures to enjoy in just about every nook and cranny.
Fitzpatrick herself is a bright light and a gentle soul, brimming with artistic and musical talent and reverence for her creative process. “I once saw a tiny photograph of an encaustic painting in an Art News magazine and I fell in love with the depth and layers in the piece. I did some research into the encaustic method, and finally found someone who could teach me how to use it. Since that time, nine years ago, I’ve never looked back.” She went on to say, “I feel like I’m a front man for the bees. We are creating together.”
There is a meditative quality in Fitzpatrick’s work, as well. She often uses the hexagonal shape of the apian honeycomb as a background or beginning pattern for her work. “I’ve recently begun to see the hexagon as a perfect metaphor for community, as each wall of the hexagon supports the other. For me the hexagon is the shape du jour,” she offered.
Another artistic offering from her that day was lunch. A hearty, one-of-a-kind, Mediterranean influenced chicken and vegetable soup lively with red curry and cinnamon; it was creative, decidedly memorable and most delicious. One thing I know about most artists is that they love to share. And many of them are spectacular chefs—the ones that do eat, that is. Some of the most tortured and other-worldly artists are at their best throwing together a smashing little dinner party for a tableful of eclectic friends. And you will rarely leave the premises empty-handed. There will be the spontaneous herb cuttings wrapped in damp newsprint, recipes scribbled on both sides of sticky notes, an unframed lithograph print, a swatch of unusual Japanese paper, an admired garment; but never, never, never, never will you leave with an artist’s brush of any kind. That would be as unlikely as sharing a contact lens, or giving away one’s debit card. But I digress.
With a mouth full of her tender Jalapeno cornbread, I asked about her future plans. “Every moment unfolds as it will,” she replied. “I strive to balance my schedule between doing my work, showing and selling it, and teaching. I’ll be holding workshops and studio intensives here in my studio, at the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center in Ocean Springs, the Garden District Gallery in New Orleans, and at Patina in Natchez.”
I hated to say goodbye, but promised to come back again for an extended visit. I would have asked her more probing questions, but it was really none of my beeswax.
Dunbar McCurley: Three Thousand, Nine Hundred and Seven Wooden Bowls
Dr. Dunbar McCurley is one artist who doesn’t want to be cloistered away, attending to his muse. His studio is right by the side of the road, and open to the public. When I called to ask permission for an interview, he said, “I’ll be nervous ‘til you get here.” I thought that was charming. He really meant it.
For many years the sole veterinarian in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, Dr. McCurley has been liberating wooden bowls hidden within the hearts of trees since 1992.
“I started out whittling to pass the time whenever I had to wait for a client to pen up his cattle. I’d sit in my truck and make little animals and birds. Kept a few odd pieces of wood in my truck for that purpose,” said McCurley, in his sort of James Stewart chewing-on-a-straw manner. He went on to say that someone gave him a large piece of Tupelo Gum, which he knew would rot before he could use it all up making little animals, so he decided he could carve out a big bowl from it. He used a hoof knife (ordinarily used for trimming a horse’s hoof), a rasp, and a knife to make a bowl from the inner flesh of the log. “It took a long time,” he added.
I teetered on a mountain of fine wood chips as Dr. Dunbar hauled out bowl after bowl to show me how fungus makes beautiful black trails on the edges of its allotment in the gut of a tree. He introduced me to the way in which a fungus respects boundaries, limiting its voracious dining to the immediate carb-rich area, a respectful distance from its neighboring fungi, and thereby innocently imparting the drunken paintings of light-colored or even pinkish patterns with charcoal edges which enhance a finished bowl. He showed me how the rings can speak to us about a tree’s age as well as the weather conditions during each of its years. He said he had a secret knack for knowing how to make the center of a bowl coincide with the center ring of the tree, so that the rings at the base of the bowl spiral out prettily to the rim.
I also learned that “spalted” is a fancy word for the beginning stages of rot or decay. And that McCurley has a secret appliance for dehumidifying his bowls so they can be ready for a particular market, like a Christmas shopping season.
Dunbar McCurley’s studio is a mess by some artist’s standards (mine) but it suits him just fine. The real work is done in the open-air shed, where several big electric fans do their best to create a windstorm strong enough to deport the most determined horsefly from the area and keep things cool at the same time. The sharp and deadly tools are kept inside, mostly hanging from the rafters on large nails. Only a lonely chain saw lies conserving its energy in a corner of the room. “Some people say I shouldn’t use a chain saw to cut out my bowls, but it saves me a lot of time, he offered, “Besides, I’m proud of the fact that not many folks can cut such a mean circle with a chain saw, like I can. Everything else I do with my hand tools.”
McCurley showed me an unfinished bowl with a small crack near the edge. “You see this crack? A cracked bowl usually means it dried too fast, but this one will catch up with itself. Wood always draws toward the bark, and this fissure will close back up when the whole bowl dries out. If not, I’ll put a little darkened filler in the crack for those people who don’t like the flaws. Some of them look just fine as they are.”
This thought lead to another, and McCurley mused a bit. “I’m not trying to be ugly, but you just can’t make a bowl for everybody. I don’t even want to. I want people to really like a bowl before they buy it. I also like using woods people wouldn’t expect, like Mimosa. And I’ll take an ugly piece of wood, too. If I culled out all the ugly woods, I’d lose some real pretty bowls. Just like people, you can’t always tell what the inside has to show you. Even though you might not like some people right off, you can learn something different from each one of them.”
“Another thing,” he said, “I never will cut down a tree to make a bowl. People just bring me all kinds of wood: Poplar, Walnut, Oak, Sassafras, Mulberry, Persimmon, Dogwood, Black Cherry, Ash, Red Maple, Sweet Gum, Pecan, Catalpa, Cypress, Cedar, Holly, Bois d’arc. I could use some Persimmon, if anybody has some to let go of. Persimmon is related to Ebony, and it gets real black in the middle. Makes an outstanding bowl.” I told him I’d ask around.
“A fellow once brought me a log from a downed tree that had stood in back of the Natchez Children’s Home. I made three beautiful bowls from it. Two sold and the third one just sat and sat. One day a lady came by and couldn’t decide which one of my bowls she wanted to buy. I saw her looking at that third bowl, so I bet her she couldn’t guess where it came from. When I told her, she burst into tears and said that children’s home was where she had been raised. She bought the bowl, and treasures it to this day. She says it’s like a piece of home to her.”
“Yep, she was just elasticated,” he finished off, with a twinkle in his eye. I knew he was teasing me then.
Anna Macedo is art director for Country Roads, and an artist and writer who enjoys inspired store-front studio living in a pint-sized Mississippi town. She can be reached through her website, www.annamacedo.com.
Details. Details. Details.
Winifred Ross Reilly is represented by Ann Connelly Fine Art in Baton Rouge.
www.annconnelly.com. You can also view her work at www.winifredrossreilly.com.
Learn more about Kat Fitzpatrick and her encaustics at www.katfitzpatrick.com.
Her work can be found at the Garden District Gallery in New Orleans.
You can visit Dr. Dunbar McCurley and see his work at Country Things on Highway 61 between Woodville and Natchez, Mississippi. Look for the signs advertising Handmade Wooden Bowls and Gifts.