The air was so thick. Even our N95 masks didn’t seem like sufficient protection. Fine particulate matter that comes from forest fires is mostly invisible and toxic, stealthily moving through the lungs into the blood stream, causing all manner of ills, but I observed, as I’ve done during previous smoke seasons, that very few people were conscious enough to wear masks. I sat inside my studio looking out at people sitting on their condo decks, unprotected, and shook my head.
It’s amazing to me how delusional we can be as a species. If you look at last month’s photo of Seattle (where the AQI was even worse than Tacoma’s for several days), it gives a portrait of what we were sitting inside. Thankfully we have an air purifier in our bedroom as well as in my studio, so we made it through this episode of around 200 AQI without any symptoms other than irritability and a quiet foreboding about our future as a species. I feel for those who have either no awareness about what this kind of air quality means for all living things, but especially for those without access to shelter, masks, or options.
After the Tacoma Studio Tour that happened last month, I kept my mini-retrospective up for those who could not come that weekend. A new friend came to visit the following week. They were astonished by the range of work and found it hard to believe that all of it was done by me. The idea that an artist comes up with a style and keeps producing in that way, decade after decade, must be a leftover notion of consumer culture or a poorly-taught art appreciation class. Or maybe it’s a recent experience of artists selling their particular brand on Instagram. I’ve encountered this bias towards consistency of style whenever artists are being reviewed for funding or teaching positions. There’s not much space or an embrace for those artists who frequently morph into new ways of making and seeing, finding inspiration from diverse topics, and the mediums we scavenge. We inhabit the margins and are not easily boxed.
I took my visitor to spend time with various pieces, and shared some of the motivations behind certain works or the locations where they were made. I let them ponder the huge range that my muses inhabit. I should mention that they were not critiquing the fact that my work had such a wide range, in fact, they were excited by it, as if they were exploring a secret treasure box. Perhaps my work is best digested in this way.
To prepare for the annual Tacoma Studio Tour, I had spent weeks diving into some decades-old, bruised boxes, and dug through a dozen flat file drawers, deciding which pieces or bodies of work needed to be aired. The exhibition was installed and pieces were selected with the help of my friend, A.P. She has been my friend since 8th grade Algebra class back in New Jersey. She knows most of the chapters of my creative output well, She has her own significant collection of my work on display in her home. She’s not a fan of public exposure & social media of any kind, so I’m not naming her here on purpose. During the hanging, we reminisced about the times when certain work was exhibited, and ways that she and her partner, both retired architects now, helped me install various large projects in museums and galleries from NYC to Long Beach, CA and Seattle, WA.
As work began to populate the walls, I became excited by the visual and conceptual tensions revealed by work and how this kind of mini-retrospective began to suggest an integration of diverse parts of my psyche. Of course, without evidence of my many interactive installations (from “THIS IS NOT A TEST” http://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/THIS%20IS%20NOT%20A%20TEST.html to “We Almost Didn’t Make It,” http://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/We_Almost_Didnt_Make_It.html, this exhibition is missing a huge part of my practice. Only a few folks who visited the space thus far know anything about my long career, and given the overwhelm or delight that many expressed, they did not need to know about this historical omission. I had begun to prepare a slide show of installation work to run on a loop in a corner of the space, but once people were in the space, I saw the absurdity of that plan.
My studio of the past few years on the third floor of what was originally an “odd fellows home.” It has an interesting history that I’m only beginning to research more fully, as a charitable organization and residence for single Black men who worked on the railroad. Built in 1904, some of the spaces in the building (the Tai Chi School and the Tacoma Ballet School) have a grandeur that is very evocative. My own narrow but very commodious space looks out on the Port of Tacoma’s industrial landscape, and if one skews one’s head at the left-hand window, on a clear day, you can see our beautiful volcanic mountain, Tahoma, Tacobet, or təqʷubəʔ (aka Mt. Rainier) in all her grandeur. When I’m not fretfully contemplating the “EYE OF MORDOR” offered by the pulp mill, the endless arrival and departure of container ships, the ever-present dangers of the LNG refinery (often in view), the evils of the private prison for people without papers, the countless violations of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 and the resulting harm done to the Puyallup people, and the continuing plunder of this sacred estuary by petro-capitalism, I can gaze across the harbor at the often hazy, purple Cascade mountains and remember that all of this is temporary. This view is one of my muses, a trickster who conflates the horror of these times with the deep time of geology and the flow of the tides. I am enormously grateful for the luxury of this space and the time to contemplate what has befallen us, a species sitting both on the edge of extinction and within a portal of possibilities.
In writing about this current studio and the amazing privilege that it offers, I began to reflect upon when I first had a studio of my own, and what it’s meant to claim a “room of one’s own.” If you have the patience to read this mini-memoir focusing on my nomadic artist’s life, please know that writing this was a good distraction from the pain that I’m feeling about the world right now as well as the stress and grief of witnessing my beloved husband of 34 years going through chemo treatments for Stage 4 Melanoma.
I was not conscious about the arrogance it took for my 20 year-old college student self, to move into a vacant storage room, adjacent to the painting classroom, when I was a junior art major. I had no permission for such a takeover. Perhaps this action predicted my predilection for doing disobedient art over the years? Instead of inhabiting the square feet surrounding an easel with a patch of wall, I could close a door and experiment without observing eyes. Such a luxury was not accessible to me again for over a decade and a half. No one asked me to leave, so from this experience, I can suggest a certain entitlement began to accumulate in my ego. Perhaps that was good practice for occupying space in the capitalist art world, but now my more culturally democratic self is a bit aghast at the behavior. As I write this account, I continue to decolonize.
At the same time I had self-isolated to do my work, I was organizing with my female peers. We were fed up with the sexism in our education, and had a sit down strike in the chair’s office, demanding funding for a women’s art show, visiting women artists, a women’s poetry and performance festival, and the inclusion of the work of women in the art history classes. I had also gotten fed up with being treated like a “queen bee” by the male art faculty. According to them, I was the exception among my gender, the one who was going to go on to become an artist, while my sisters were going to marry well and buy art. I was deeply offended by this attitude, and the best way to respond was to create solidarity. All of us “baby feminists” became artists and designers, by the way; an excellent way to respond to the male faculty blinded by their bias.
I was doing my best to remove my own blinders. I wasn’t as aware then about the truckload of bull shit that I needed to deconstruct thankfully. I would have been overwhelmed. I just started with the ways I’d been programmed to be a “good girl” and that topic kept me going for years. There were angry, red paintings cut into pieces, and intensely emotional portraits of the spaces I inhabited. While few of those paintings exist today, I remember them all, and recognize the strength that my sister art students gave me to shout, wail, and guffaw – the not-so-tender beginnings of my artist’s voice.
There was a wonderful exception among the art faculty, the lovely and kind George Jones, a Black painter from California who worked with me my final two years of college. He was as supportive as they came, and always gently admonished me to not be so impatient and hard on myself. George, if your ancestor self can hear me from the great beyond, please know that the seeds you planted within me still buoy me up. I wish you were still here on this plane, so we could schmooze.
Another influence during those last college years was that of Andrew Leicester, a British conceptual sculptor and public artist. He introduced me to the wonderful art of scavenging materials (our first field trip was to an army/navy surplus store) and working with found objects. I credit him with directing my attention towards the whole conceptual movement, and as a result I discovered my first book by Lucy Lippard, Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object 1968-1972.
During the last two summers of college, I headed east to study at the Provincetown Workshop on Cape Cod. I shared a working space with a group of about 20 young painters, all crowded into one room, all on full scholarships, each claiming a battered easel and a table for our supplies and palettes. The teachers, Victor Candell and Leo Manso, were both committed modernists who encouraged us to drop anything representational in our work. This philosophy was ultimately very freeing, although difficult to follow at first.
Most of the students came from Cooper Union in NYC where they paid no school tuition, and as a result, many of them had the budgets to be well stocked with paints and brushes. I would gasp when I saw some of these students lather on thick coats of paint and then later in the day scrape everything off into a pile of mud on the floor. The waste of it all tested my frugality, as I thought about placing containers under their canvases to collect their excess to be reused on mine.
In the midst of the crowded room, every precious mark I made could be observed, and, at the same time, I could witness the images emerging from others. I thinned my paint carefully with linseed oil and turpentine, cautious to make my meager supplies last the summer, using the contrasts of translucency and opacity, lined with charcoal, as a regular recipe.
I had begun journaling a few years earlier. In those pages, I documented my thoughts about the cognitive dissonance of cleaning the vacation homes of the wealthy for several hours a day before coming to the painting studio. I was a very imperfect house cleaner, but no one complained; I received many welcome perks like the leftovers from fancy parties. My roommates and I ate well.
Another perk of the last summer in P’town was gaining the peer network to help me find an apartment in NYC. The former occupants of the tiny cockroach-ridden tenement apartment on the edge of the East Village in Manhattan were two P’town peers. who had moved into a nicer place.The rent was $200/month and a college friend and I shared that cost. The work I created to get into grad school was made on the floor of our living room (also my bedroom). Frankly I was amazed that these small paintings, created with so much self-doubt, offered me a free ride to grad school, but grateful I was. Little did I know that the acceptance at NSCAD would determine so much about my decades-long art career.
During my first year of grad school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I shared a loft studio space, one of the many perks offered by this free MFA program. In retrospect, it was one of the most generative spaces I’ve worked in, a section of a floor of a former warehouse, not too big and definitely not too small for all sorts of mischief to emerge. My studio mate was an erudite, inquisitive, and conceptually sophisticated, performance artist from New Zealand, Bruce Barber. He sat at one end of our space with his neatly arranged, push-pinned posters, a file cabinet, and a very orderly desk with typewriter, and I roamed around my end with a lively sort of chaos that included small piles of paper, scavenged supplies, all manner of found objects, tools, and random hardware. My projects in process flowed from the tables onto the walls and the floor. The contrast between our sides of the loft was distinct. Despite the lack of privacy, his questions often expanded my practice in unexpected ways. He introduced me to John Berger, Ivan Illich, and other radical thinkers who became important to my thinking about art’s place in the world, eventually influencing my teaching practice; his observations about my painting and drawing habits began to shift those practices as well. He already had a Master’s in Art History and was actively engaged in theories that emerged from Marxism and the Frankfurt School. So it was no surprise that a hand-me-down typewriter began to occupy my creative landscape, with a dictionary nearby to translate words like “reify” and “putative” that flowed out of Bruce’s mouth with ease. I started placing short and long texts on the wall next to my imagery or as stand alone’s, and began a series of “readymades.” The latter eventually grew into installations filled with scavenged objects and text.
Over time, the parade of visitors into our space included many luminaries from the NY, Toronto, and European art scenes. One of them was Laurie Anderson who took one look at the texts on my wall and asked me if I liked the idea of recording them in the sound studio. Having played with a hand-me down dictation recorder as a child, telling stories to the machine, delighting in the sound of the playback of my voice, I responded to Laurie with an enthusiastic “YES, of course!” With her support for the next few days, I began a journey into multi-layered tracks that satisfied my desire for performing as much as anything else. The challenge was that after grad school, there was no free recording studio. I had to scavenge access to equipment for the next 20 years until I put that passion to rest.
When the NY Times’ art critic, Donald Kuspit, visited our NSCAD studio, he took one look at some of my older paintings and spoke frankly with me, “stay away from this installation stuff, it’s just a trend that will not serve you. At your core, you’re a real painter and you have the makings of a great painter.” Despite the unexpected compliment, I was saddened by this response, and was even more determined to shake that strangely appealing painter out of my system. Although I didn’t like the cliché, “painting is dead,” I began to embrace the possibility that my practice would not include making commodities for the wealthy. That meant I’d have to figure something else out or have a clandestine painting practice.
There are many other stories that I could tell about visits to my NSCAD studio, but I think this post will become too unwieldy if I continue sharing them today. So moving on:
After grad school, my studio space contracted for a bit. It was the surface of a hand-me-down drafting table at my end of the Beaver Street loft in Lower Manhattan. With barely any privacy from my incredibly nasty loft mate (then a feminist editor who went on to become a ruthless CEO of various corporate media institutions) and the not-so-interested office workers across the street at RCA Global Communications, the notebooks and drawings I did on that table were crucial to my well-being and ability to navigate those first, intense years of the “NY art world.” The loft space was cheap ($325/month); it smelled like greasy hamburgers (two floors above the Kansas City Meat Exchange) and precious “natural” light was reflected off the windows across the street in this urban canyon dwelling. Despite the challenges of this living & working situation, I was able to organize and install two major works, Daily Reminder about 9-5 work life: https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/Daily%20Reminder.html and Apply Within that explored the difficulties of being unemployed and the misery of looking for work,,https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/APPLY%20WITHIN.html Soon before the latter installation opened to the public at the Franklin Furnace, we had a fuse blow in the loft, and a visiting electrician advised us to move out immediately, and told us that we were living in a fire trap with illegal and dangerous wiring. So off to Brooklyn, I fled, grateful to be out of the emotional and physical sphere of my loft mate and her racist, skin head boyfriend.
“Beaver Street Loft” watercolor, pastel, and pencil, 1980
In a former factory on Atlantic Ave, I rented a recently renovated space. I scattered some hand-me-down furniture in its 1500-square-foot vastness, feeling a bit overwhelmed by this next chapter. Downtown Brooklyn had not yet been gentrified, but my presence as well as that of a few other artists who I began swimming with at the local YWCA, clearly indicated an economic shift in process. I loved the neighborhood, the local library, the thrift shops, the Arabic groceries, and biking around Prospect Park and over the Brooklyn Bridge to work. The loft had huge windows, with NW light, and a sunset view over the rooftops of brownstones. I was entertained by passionate rehearsals and performances of the local gospel church next door, and had a fascinating group of friends, that included Black & Puerto Rican Muslims who swam at the pool and a well-known jazz pianist. I threw a few good parties, enticing Manhattanites out to what was then considered “the wilds of Brooklyn” by serving up homemade knishes or latkes & borscht.
Despite all these benefits, I found it hard to concentrate and be with my work. I was financially squeezed by the higher rent, eating more than my fair share of rice & beans, and looking for new ways to get income. My creative blocks were a combination of lots of self-doubt, unresolved and challenging romantic relationships, a shitload of unprocessed childhood trauma, a fair amount of imposter syndrome (caused by early recognition of my work in the art press), and ultimately so much more. There was an intimidating, yet enticing, big wall on which I could make art. There were days when I walked by it in shame because I hadn’t yet punctured it surface with a push pin. Eventually I found that it was easier work to deadlines than to produce work for my own pleasure. I still procrastinated quite a bit, even when I was deeply passionate about the project. I felt that I was cheating myself and others when what I considered were half-baked projects emerged. I was swimming with many responses to the world of the early 1980s: the damage of Reaganism (from housing, job insecurity, environmental degradation, and nuclear fears). Perhaps no one knew that the work I produced then felt half-baked to me. My inner critic was well-weaponized, and did a remarkable job of taking away the pleasure of my creative process.
Although the hurdles created blockages, I did make a fair amount of art in my downtown Brooklyn space. The media attention generated by my installation at the Franklin Furnace brought offers to participate in shows. I was invited to participate in my first international exhibition at the ICA in London; a show curated by Lucy R.l Lippard called Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists. My contribution, an audio installation called “The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling: A Panacea for Pre-Millenial Tension,” talked about my fears about the cold war heating up, the damage being caused by Reagan, and my feelings of cynicism and powerless. I had not yet discovered the work of Joanna Macy and other anti-nuclear activists to help me transform those feelings.
Still, I was truly beside myself when I was invited to participate in this show. I was 26, showing with some of my s/heroes. It was a real honor! Unfortunately, I was less than pleased by my contribution to the show, created with with scavenged subway posters, photocopy petitions, and a very layered, audio loop. I had no funding to create it or ship it, with just enough funds to eat one meal a day while in London. ICA paid for the hotel and air fare and I was grateful to be there. I never share images of this work in my slide talks about my work because even today, I don’t feel that it measures up. Thankfully, I’ve remained in warm relationship to several of the artists, and sadly three of them, Nancy Spero, May Stevens, and Bonnie Sherk, are no longer on this plane.
While in Brooklyn, I developed a series of drawings called “The Empire’s New Clothes” as provocations for people to do creative interventions in public spaces. Accompanying that series was a package of stickers (commissioned by Collab) called “Stick-its: Ra-decals for the Angry Consumer.” They were well used by high school students and others. Another project was a series of photocopied collages about gentrification; they were wheat pasted in various frontline neighborhoods and exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. My previous obsession with satirical game boards (I started inventing them in grad school) returned as collages. The one below was printed in Heresies Magazine and another chronicling the not-so-visible crimes of James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, was put on display in one of Lucy’s curated exhibits about environmental issues.
“The Waiting Game” collage and ink, 1981
At the same time these overtly political works were being made, exhibited, and published, I was painting more banal imagery on stretched canvas: views of the loft’s interior with a phone, often off the hook, and an unmade bed or an empty table, with views out the window. These themes struck me as strangely neurotic at the time, but now I treasure the intimacy of the subject matter. One of them is the collection of A.P., but the others are only documented in photos, whereabouts unknown.
Two painters from my grad school days, Eric Fischl and April Gornik, asked to come and see my new work. When they visited, they expressed delight and curiosity when viewing this series, and asked why there was so little paint on the canvas. I explained that I had learned to stretch my paint well during many years of low income, and that I did actually like the contrast of translucent and opaque that emerged from diluting the paint. They encouraged me to create more and to find a dealer to sell them. I held off on the latter until another friend, Mike Glier, Jenny Holzer’s partner, persistently asked me to get a major dealer to come to my studio.
One fine day, a year or so later, Ms. Annina Nosei, a short, attractive Italian woman who ran the Nosei Gallery, arrived an hour late to our appointment at my studio. She was full of apologies, saying her driver did not know Brooklyn, and, after all, these were the days before GPS’s and cell phones. She was bubbling over with excitement because she had just been visiting with Jean-Michel Basquiat, then mostly known for his street graffiti. His work and their discussion had made her very animated and she told me that she had decided to lock him the basement for the summer, with a plan to bring him food and supplies, so that he could paint her an exhibition. I was stunned and horrified by her comments. I knew of JM, and had respect for his enigmatic presence as a street artist. I could not imagine how he would respond to being locked in her gallery’s basement, but it sounded awful to me.
Annina started looking at my work, most of which were small works on paper and canvas. She said, “I really like your work. I can give you a show in the fall if you can make these small works much bigger. I can’t pay my rent with art of this size.” She stretched her arms wide suggesting that 10’x12′ might be a good start. I was polite, but I had neither the funds for making large paintings nor the interest in making my work to accommodate her needs. I could see her vision of my work on a production conveyor belt, like pairs of shoes in different sizes, and the image did not nourish me. She invited me to a party of her clients and artists, a week or two later, where I heard real estate investors and others complaining about their legal problems. I left wondering if they were living in the same moment in history that I was. I did not contact her again. I met a few more dealers over the next year or so, but had decided at that point that I would find another way to support my art habit.
In my quest find more work in order to pay the bills, I trained to do paste up and mechanicals (a now extinct aspect of graphic design and typography). After a 6-week course, I was able to find work that paid decently. My first gig in that genre was deeply ironic, given my future challenges with environmental illness: I was pasting up labels for pesticides, and as the rules at the EPA keep changing, the word “victim” shifted from “person” and then back to “victim” multiple times. Thankfully I was lured away from that position by the lovely Sara Seagull, a graphic designer who offered me well-paying work assisting her with brochures and catalogs for art spaces. She also gave me time off to develop my art projects.
To that end, in the fall of 1983, I was offered a month-long residency at the Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondack Mountains. My studio consisted of a desk in my small bedroom. I was the only visual artist in residence at the time. The others were all writers. The view from my window of the lake and my daily hikes expanded that desk studio into the amazing fall landscape. This retreat ultimately shifted my relationship to urban life. Walking the trails alone (something I had not dared do before as a single woman) gave me a sense of agency and strength that I had not expected. I realized that I could no longer pay the emotional and spiritual price that was charged by my daily NYC life.
Blue Mountain Center had been founded by a philanthropist who made his money as a timber and mining baron. I’m not sure what shifted his values, but towards the end of his life he began to invest in artists whose work might be described as critical realism and whose politics were definitely progressive. Above my bed was an original George Grosz ink drawing of a tree. It filled me with so much compassion for the artist who had witnessed and painted so much horror during the Weimar period in Germany. That many of his first art works upon arrival as a WWII refugee in the States were images of trees somehow gave me permission to take breaks from revising the text of THIS NOT A TEST (my piece about my nuclear nightmares). When I wasn’t wandering through the woods or boating on the lake, I drew and painted the landscape with a deep thirst for a kind a nutrition that I was lacking. I knew my time in NYC was over. Despite receiving praising reviews for my installation int the New Museum’s The End of the World show, multiple incidents during my last months in the city confirmed the decision to leave. When my alma mater offered me a visiting artist gig in Minnesota, I jumped at the opportunity.
I spent those two years in Northfield, Minnesota either working in an unheated porch or sharing a small studio space in the campus art building with senior art majors. It was less private than my own senior year art space, but, in some ways that helped with my tendency to procrastinate. I did many, many paintings on canvas and on paper during that time, almost all of them were done from memory of landscapes, buildings, and spaces in NYC, rural farmland, and warehouses in the Twin Cities. I had a solo show in the Carleton gallery where I also rebuilt a version of THIS IS NOT A TEST.
The above painting was a memory of my Brooklyn loft, filled with hand-me down furniture and plants from my grandparents’ apartment. I find the perspective in this view of the space fascinating. I have no idea where this painting ended up.
Another favorite piece from that period was this small ink drawing. I had just given a short lecture on my work for students at St. Olaf, the Lutheran college on the other side of town. Some students in the audience were a bit concerned about my subject matter, particularly the pieces that dealt with the possibility of nuclear war. I did this drawing in response to a student’s question: “What are you gonna paint in the middle of the cornfields?” And I responded, “there’s plenty of nuclear missile silos out there in those fields, if you have a mind to look for them.” I painted this one from my imagination and then learned that there was a particular site outside of town that looked somewhat like this image. A friend drove me there; I was flabbergasted when he showed me this place that looked like my imagined landscape.
In the spring of 1986, I was offered a tenure-track position at Cal State Long Beach. My first years in southern California were difficult ones. Aside from the adjustment to southern Californian culture, I was in a difficult, long distance relationship that should never have happened. I developed a creative block for months at a time. I had no studio other than my living room during that first year in Long Beach. I made a few pieces – a satirical calendar to playfully acknowledge my culture shock and a slide tape piece that was performed at Beyond Baroque called DON’T LOOK AT THIS. The latter work featured graphite illustrated scenes that provoked my cognitive dissonance in southern Cali culture, with the red stenciled letters of the title over each scene. The sound track has been lost in the winds of time. As this blog post indicates, I’ve moved a lot in this lifetime.
After a year working in the living room of my first rental in Long Beach, a sweet, vine-covered California Craftsman cottage on Walnut Ave (a neighborhood with a reputation for crack dealers living harmoniously next door to old, retired ladies), and a much needed break up, I moved into an apartment closer to the beach with the best landlady ever. I had a garage where I worked for a year or so, creating paintings about the bad air and water quality. I reworked my series, Taking the Empire’s New Clothes to the Laundry https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/TheEmpire.html built the first version of the installation, Please Take a Numb-er, https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/Please%20Take%20a%20Numb-er.html and created a facsimile of THIS IS NOT A TEST for the Long Beach Museum of Art, just a block away from my apartment.
Sadly one day, at the end of the summer in 1988, someone was observing me at work in that garage and when I went into the apartment for a few minutes and left the garage open, my keys were stolen, as well as my car that was on the street around the corner. It was a traumatic situation that left me feeling quite vulnerable about garage studio life, so when I learned that a studio space had opened up at the Angel’s Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro, I decided to pay rent for an external studio for the first time in my career.
The San Pedro studio chapter (1988-1992) coincided around the time I met Bob, my partner of the past 34 years. I only have positive memories of working in that space. Even though I had to drive to get there, the industrial landscape of the Port of Long Beach was inspiring, as was having a repurposed army barrack as my studio. I loved the mostly neglected, windswept grounds of the center, filled with roaming stray cats (I brought home two kittens). As someone who grew up in a different bioregion, the wildly expressive and exotic native plants dancing together with invasive species delighted me, as did the exquisitely peaceful views of the Pacific Ocean. My co-studio resident neighbors included many fascinating folks, and that meant for good brainstorming when I was distracted. And I was distracted a lot, roaming the grounds, looking for conversation, foraging for harvests and catalysts for my unconscious. This was long before the era of smart phones, the world wide web, and so much that has exacerbated my distractibility.
Before leaving the studio in San Pedro, I built REMOTE CONTROL, an audio installation about what it means to feel disconnected from the web of life and how our educations may have increased that tendency. It looked like a surreal classroom. It was inspired by Bush Sr’s statement that he was the “education and environmental president.” I found that presumption mortifying. I used mostly scavenged materials found in piles on the grounds of Angel’s Gate, and imagined the drum-like desks made of tight tracing paper inscribed with repeated phrases, healing from the mound of dirt at one foot. Four desks in the room, discarded grade school desks, had vegetation pouring out of them in an uninhibited way, demonstrating subversion in the midst of oppression. The walls were painted green like many traditional blackboards were, and people wrote on the walls, sharing their stories about their educations and how they helped them connect or prevented connection with the web of life.
In 1992, a group of local artists of color organized to do a counter-quincentennial exhibition at Angel’s Gate and they asked me to participate. I was honored to be invited and created “A Klug Tzu Columbus: A Curse on Columbus,” an audience-participatory installation that looked at assimilation and fear of the other through the lens of 1492, that included the beginnings of genocide against indigenous peoples and the Jewish expulsion and executions during the Inquisition. That project expanded into the artist’s book, What Kinda Name Is That?, commissioned by the Jewish Museum in NYC. It traveled around the country in dozens of exhibits. I was very sad to leave the community at Angel’s Gate when we moved to Venice, CA, but it made no sense to be commuting to both work at the university and a studio elsewhere. In Venice we had a small, covered room in the backyard, and I used that space as my studio during three years of a disabling environmental illness.
My husband got his first Master’s degree from the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont soon after we met. For many years, ISE was located at the Goddard College campus. Bob’s thesis was on activist art and after meeting me, I became a part of his thesis. ISE decided that we should both come and teach in their month-long, summer session. Starting in 1991, for more than a decade of summers, we facilitated “Activist Art in Community” for students who came from all over the world, some who were already full-time community activists wanting to learn more about organizing for social and ecological justice, permaculture design, and ecofeminism. I felt such a deep alignment with the values promoted at ISE and was grateful for being able to participate in that unique pedagogical experiment for over a decade. During that first summer, I was given access to the art building on campus to use as my studio. It was in that very funky & echoey, but clearly well-used space that the images for The Fat Book, originally a photocopy book, (later retitled One Size DOES NOT Fit All by my publisher) emerged. I thank the anthropologist, Dr. Chaia Heller, for inspiring this project. She invited me to sit in the ecofeminist class where I learned about body hate as a form of ecocide. I left a group discussion enraged about the damage done by consumer society to creative, beautiful people, finally understanding that body dysmorphia, eating disorders, obsessive exercising, and dieting were the result of a systemic problem, a form of patriarchal and class oppression underlying capitalist exploitation. What seemed like a private neurosis was much larger. I went back to studio to paint, draw, and collage the stories I was hearing from my younger peers, and I could not stop.
In 1994, after years of struggling with my health in the smog & aerial pesticide spraying of LA, we made the difficult choice to leave my tenured position at CSULB. At the invitation of friends, we moved to Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts just a few weeks after our son was born. One month was spent with these generous friends, after which we rented a small Victorian house with one of those classic front porches on the Deerfield River. It was owned by a distant family member. After a few months of attempting to make art while our son was napping, I realized that I needed a space outside the house so that I could regain a sense of my identity as an artist. I was very sleep deprived and still healing from my environmental illness, but I knew that having a studio would help in my recovery. A very inexpensive space, two blocks from our house, was available in the Art Bank, a new community art center in this village of 2000 people. With a view of the hills surrounding the village and a fascinating neighbor, a drama teacher in the studio next door, I began to feel more grounded and at home in this rural village.
During this period, I learned how to paint on a computer and developed my photoshop skills through trial and error. I didn’t have a mentor or YouTube videos to help me, so I made many newbie mistakes with my first experiments. The World Wide Web was brand new at that point so I didn’t have a place to get good feedback. My first digital project was the artist’s book, What Kinda Name Is That? Looking back at that project, I’m somewhat amazed that I sold out 500 copies of the photocopy version at the Jewish Museum. Despite the less than proficient technique, the content spoke to people. Someday I will make time to rework that content with the skills I’ve accumulated in the past 25 years.
My second digital project was “Canary Notes; The Personal Politics of Environmental Illness.” As I traveled to local clinics to treat my environmental illness, I met many environmental refugees who were recovering from chemical exposures in all kinds of settings: working in a lumber yard, at a dry cleaning shop, in newly carpeted and painted offices, etc, I started to paint their portraits from memory, after hours of sitting together getting IVs of nutrition, when I returned to the studio or to my desktop. A collection of Time Magazines from the mid-1940s that I had found in an attic while living in Minnesota, provided me with dozens of advertisements for pesticides. I started to scan these ads, inserting stories of those who were sick, and culture jamming the lot of them by changing the company name to something satirical. It was very therapeutic. One day, our four year-old son, Sam, was watching me paint on the computer, and said, “why are you always painting sick people?” His simple question and observation caused a huge shift in my work. I started painting Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and yoginis, and not surprisingly my body began to heal more dramatically. CANARY NOTES has been shared in many forms over the years, including a slide show with a dramatic reading for various conferences. This project introduced me to a wonderful cohort of ecoartists, sitting on panel at the College Art Association. Ironically, I was finally well enough to fly and give a talk at the conference in Los Angeles without any health repercussions. This project needs to be rebooted and updated since it was never published.
I’ll always remember a visit that my parents made to Shelburne Falls, not long after I moved into the Art Bank studio space. My father was excited to see what I was conjuring up in the space, but my mom refused to walk up the stairs, and expressed deep concern that I was spending money on the rental of something so “frivolous,” especially without a very secure income at the time. She had found it very difficult to accept my choice to be an artist and tried unsuccessfully to steer me in other directions when I was younger. As much as she enjoyed going to museums, she had hoped that I would be an art consumer not a practitioner. She would often complain, “you have such a good brain, you could be making money with it.” Only after I became a full-time professor with tenure, for the second time no less, and after publishing a book that she felt was well written, did she stop pushing me to consider another career. Her childhood of poverty as the eldest child of immigrants had really scarred her, not to mention the years that my dad was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. Having a daughter who was seeking personal and collective liberation through art making and social engagement was a real trial for her.
In the 19 years that we’ve lived in the Pacific NW, I’ve had a plethora of studio spaces, only two of which I’ve paid rent for, but the so-called free ones came with a price. When I was offered the job at UW Tacoma, the search committee requested (or demanded) that I be given a studio space on campus since my salary was so low. Like a research laboratory, students would be able to come see me at work and assist with projects as needed. I loved this idea since it meant I could really build community that way. The Arts program’s start up funds paid for the expensive renovation of a corner room in a warehouse space owned by the campus. Overlooking the library, it was a very airy space with great light. I shared it with my colleague, also a new hire in the arts, and despite the lack of insulation and privacy, it was a great place to build the installation, “AND NOW, Behind Curtain #2.” There were many weeks when students came to help sew the curtains that created the structure for the project. I had developed the concept of sewing together curtains made from used clothing after the curator at the Lehmbruck Museum in Germany told me that there was no budget for materials or for shipping my work. I could pack the whole installation into 4 large suitcases, and with my assistant, we were able to carry everything and install the work successfully in the museum.
Unexpectedly, soon after returning from the show in Germany, we were evicted from that studio space and moved into a basement under a restaurant on campus. The real estate powers on campus decided that our newly renovated space could make them a tidy sum as a rental to 12 artists sharing the space. It was a corrupt move followed by many corrupt decisions during my time with UWT.
The basement studio was dark, dirty, and unpleasant, even for this artist who had worked in rough spaces before. Liquids from the kitchen above my drawing tables started dripping onto my work. It took months of complaining before a catchment system was set up next to the ceiling to protect me and my work. Sadly that system was never cleaned, so spending time in my studio was not desirable. The place smelled terrible. I complained again, and was moved into a space in another building that had brick walls (so the walls were unusable). I was told that this space was temporary as well, and was so frustrated at that point that I stopped negotiating for an on-campus space. At one point, an interim administrator told me that if I did not use the space, they would assume that I did not need a studio. The behavior of the administration towards the one tenured artist on the faculty was despicable. If I had had other job options, I might have left UWT at that point. I had also been told that I could not be promoted until the arts major was approved, and although it had been approved by the faculty (actually four times over the 17 years I spent on that campus), it is still not in place.
What kept me at UWT was the ability to create and teach innovative curriculum and the very eager and diverse, non-traditional students. They wanted to tell their stories and be in a safe space to create and share with each other. I decided it was time to write my book about the nascent program and what it meant to teach art for social change and healing in an interdisciplinary context. I was encouraged to write this book by an activist artist peer from my NYC days, Greg Sholette. He was incredibly supportive. The book emerged like a series of letters, interrupted by a fable, that included the stories of 33 other artists who worked with students in similarly socially engaged ways. Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame is still in print. Get your copy from https://bookshop.org/p/books/arts-for-change-teaching-outside-the-frame-beverly-naidus/10531427?ean=9780981559308
I moved my studio art practice to a shed in the woods next to our house on Vashon Island. The space was large enough for a work table and two shelves with supplies. It was a tight fit and required a portable heater. In warm weather, I worked outside on a small patio so I could build larger pieces. My practice became more improvisational. I had just learned “contact improv” at Earthdance https://www.earthdance.net/ in Massachusetts where I had been a visiting artist soon after my book came out. I came home full of the desire to move with my materials, “dancing” as I worked with found objects, the trees, the lichen, the rocks, as well as more traditional art materials. I joined an artist collective on Vashon and gifted them with their name, Vashon Artists Linked in Social Engagement aka Valise Gallery, and shared some of my new projects in their space. The contact improv series became “underGROUND: Artifacts of the Present Moment.” It focused on things that I was finding out about the ecocide under my feet, including the toxic soil caused by the copper smelter in Tacoma and its particulate plume, the vacant Nike missile silos at the top of our hill leeching chemicals into local wells, and the legacy of pesticides at long-closed nursery known as the Beall Greenhouses. https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/underGROUND%20Artifacts%20of%20the%20Present%20Moment.html All of these pieces featured mulberry bark that I’d received for free. I was fascinated by the material and just let it take me where it wanted to.
The next phases of my post-studio work (aside from writing a book and fooling around with all sorts of materials on my patio) were two projects feeding into each other, Reframing Eden https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/Reframing%20Eden.html and Eden Reframed. Both centered around the idea of healing traumatized ecosystems – one was more symbolic, digital collages created with found photos, and the other was a permaculture design project created with the community.
Eden Reframed would not have existed had I not been part of an international ecoart network, https://www.ecoartnetwork.org/ who inspired me to consider creating works that remediate damaged or toxic sites. Also my husband’s organization, SEEDS (Social Ecology Education and Demonstration School), was looking for ways to demonstrate soil remediation using mushrooms and plants. I combined that intention with some training in permaculture design and my desire to make healthy food more accessible. I also was interested in creating a public conversation about the task of planting seeds in a time of ecocide.
With funding from various places, I was able to hire consultants and engage the community in contributing to and working on the project with me. It was a huge effort, but thankfully I was on my first sabbatical ever and could afford the time and energy to complete the project in 2011. Circumstances in our family unexpectedly caused us to move off-Island and into Seattle, the day after the project had its opening ceremony, but despite being over a decade old now, this project continues to thrive through the love and care of continually shifting stakeholders, and has been recently renamed “L’il Detroit Community Garden” by the current team cultivating food in the space. For more information about that project go to:https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/Eden%20Reframed.html The food forest continues to be a snack bar for those who use the park, including critters of all kinds.
Around the time of our move into Seattle, a new dean at UWT was dismayed to discover that the only tenured artist on the faculty did not have a studio on campus for students and the community to visit. He fought hard for me, and finally I was offered a storefront space about a block up the hill from my original campus studio. It was a wonderful space in what was known as the Swiss building (a place where Swiss union workers gathered back in the day). It had an office type area with cabinets and shelves near the street. Adjoining that area was a small room with big blank walls and sufficient lights where I created very large (mural-size) drawings. I felt blessed. I worked there whenever I could, especially on days when I had faculty meetings that brought me to Tacoma. For the first time, I felt valued by the administration. I was able to participate in the Tacoma Studio Tour twice and that connected me a bit more to the community. Sadly, this perk only lasted only as long as the Dean did. He resigned after two years, and I was evicted soon after. I was told to make my art in the classroom. Imagine a scientist doing their research in the classroom?
Realizing that this was an unworkable situation on my campus, I soon discovered a studio in Seattle, not far from our rental house at the MLK FAME Art Center in Madison Valley. It was a former elementary school, now under the auspices of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. The administrative staff was very welcoming and helpful as I moved into the former first grade classroom. I was happily installed there from 2012 until 2016, creating many new series of works, including Curtain Call: Portable Altars for Grief and Gratitude that traveled to a gallery at Plymouth University in New Hampshire.
Probably the most important aspect of my time in the Seattle studio was the organizing of monthly gatherings to talk about art and social change. Without much history in the Pacific NW, I was always fascinated by who showed up and what stories they shared about activist art projects of the past. A few of us eventually formed the collective, ARTifACTs, with Ed Mast, Carol Rashawnna Williams, Camilla Cooper and Matthew Hamilton. We were a mix of visual & performing artists who were eager to address issues like abolition, the environmental crisis, and social justice. We worked together on a series of projects and the group was especially helpful in supporting my new installation, “We Almost Didn’t Make It” that traveled from Seattle to Brighton, England’s ONCA gallery.
In 2016, I had to leave the wonderful MLK FAME studio and our Seattle community. We searched for months to find housing we could afford and were unsuccessful. We could afford Tacoma, so this is where we found our current home. For the first year living here, I worked with the new Dean to try and find a studio space on campus or near it, but she was unsuccessful at convincing the former engineering-obsessed Chancellor that my studio was a necessity. Even with two international shows on my calendar, and a Fulbright scholar/artist from Spain working with me that year, my request for a work space was left hanging.
So I ended up working in my classroom, a huge sanctuary space in the former Japanese Methodist church that had been renovated to become the art building. It was a very unaccommodating space with poor heating, acoustics, and it was not ADA accessible. Despite the huge scale of the space, it was not a comfortable place to work, as I had to roll up my projects or store them carefully so that students would still have space to do their own work during class time. Obviously this was not sustainable.
During this time, I created our canoe garden with the help of Bob and Antonio (our Fulbright scholar who came to learn how I taught eco-art) and eventually called this project, “Navigating the Flood.” It sits on what had been developed as a putting green by the former owner of our home. Now it grows organic food that is often shared with our neighbors.
I also reworked The NIGHTMARE QUILT from 1989, adding more nightmares and dreams to make THE NIGHTMARE QUILT REVIVAL and installed it at the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture’s storefront gallery. I also finished the work on the installation, We Almost Didn’t Make It. I feel that my practice was amazingly adaptable, considering the working conditions. Soon after Antonio went back to Spain, I learned that there was an empty studio in the Merlino Art Center, a mile from our house in Tacoma.
This coming June 2023, I will have been working in the Merlino space for 5 years. During the Pandemic it was a goddess-send to be able to work there whenever I wanted. Other than the sound of sirens, it was a quiet place to contemplate the world. Looking out at the Port of Tacoma, I noticed that there was little interruption in the flow of capitalism. Smoke stacks were still belching out their particulate, and container ships were still moving goods. It was cognitive dissonance multiplied to the nth degree.
In the past four plus years in the Merlino, I’ve produced a lot of work, written many words, read many others, struggled with stuck places, hosted gatherings, and daydreamed. When the ballet school is rehearsing the Nutcracker for the hundredth time below me, I just put on my noise cancelling headphones, and remember that having this studio is a rare thing in today’s world. I almost moved out of the space in May of this year, due to our dwindling income and the annual raise in the rent, but I was convinced by various visitors that the price for this space is actually quite reasonable in today’s market, and was reminded that it offers multiple benefits for exhibiting and teaching; it’s almost 4 times the size of our garage on the alley. The garage was renovated last spring with a new roof, insulation, lighting and a skylight. Rather than being my austerity studio, it now functions as our Zendo on a weekly basis and nicely fits our sangha of 10-12 people. It also provides a peaceful place to sit or get healing treatments during the rest of the week.
After writing this blog post off and on for a month, I have realized that I might be able to grow this into an honest memoir, but there’s a part of me that hesitates. Another memoir of a life that is no longer accessible to younger artists, what would be the purpose of that. It makes me quite concerned that someone might be inspired by what I experienced and then become deeply frustrated because they won’t be able to find the cheap housing and the part-time gigs, the free MFA, the honorariums to support installation work, and the time to just muck about being an artist.
That’s why I’m writing a book that might serve better for folks on restricted means, with less creative time than they would like, who want and need to create things and experiences that might be useful, illuminating, or necessary in this time of great sea change. These blog posts are helping me see where the book needs to go: how I might inspire others to find the resilience to create without a studio. There’s so many people without sufficient time, energy, or resources, who have so much to say and share that can enrich our world and help us move from the end of THIS world into the next one.
As a final note, I noticed many feelings emerging as I wrote about the hurdles I had to jump with my self-doubts. I’ve thought back to my earliest memories of creating: the child who doodled, scribbled poems and told stories with abandon; whose passionate improvisations on an out-of-tune upright piano sent her into magical realms; the altars – she created altars everywhere, before she knew what an altar was; who took random inanimate objects and performed with them in the intimacy of her bedroom, scripting her dolls and rocks into outrageous dialogs; and who made wild & wonderful constructions out of anything she could scavenge. Back before I became conscious of myself as a CREATOR, there seemed to be nothing hindering my process other than some aspects of dysfunctional family life and my chore duties. I had air to breathe that was uncontaminated by judgments, both internal and external.
Yet, after years of schooling, and developing an artist’s mind, I rarely started with anything that resembled confidence. It was often a struggle to believe that my strategy or my content was worthy of an investment of time. Sometimes my rage or grief overcame this hesitation, other times it was my love of a material, a color, a texture, or a phrase that helped me dive in. Each time I traveled into mostly unknown turf, risking failure, as all creatives do, but I worried so often that what I had to say was meaningless and ineffective, and that my strategy for saying it was not the right one. Given the fact that many of my projects resonated deeply with others, you’d think this feeling of self-doubt would dissipate, but I now know, after lots of self-reflection, therapy, and the wisdom of aging, that the opinions of others are not the important piece. It’s allowing MYSELF deep permission to be my full creative self, with all the messes and beauty that emerge. It is an essential key for contending with this shadow and a mean super ego. Making art just for the pleasure of it and as an act of service to oneself and the collective requires decolonizing from a shitload of stuff, including early programing. That programming can cause a kind of claustrophobia, a narrowing of the throat, and shallow breathing in a smog of one’s own making. The antidote requires deep breathing, moving the body in expressive ways, modeling more joy, and accessing it as a revolutionary act in a world of angst.
The Port of Tacoma, view from my studio window, with neighbors across the street, enjoying a bite on their deck.
And from one corner of my studio if you skew your neck and look southeast, you can see this beauty on a clear day. No complaints about this particular delight.