Why Having an Art Studio
Isn’t as Important as I Thought

By Benji Thomas

It’s the artist’s dream. To stand in your sprawling studio, shelves packed with top quality materials, ambitious work on the walls, and collectors and gallerists lining up outside to get in. But the current health crisis has put a stopper on that particular dream for many. A lot of artists have had to downsize or even do away with their studio entirely, adapting to working in bedrooms, kitchens and other nooks and crannies that their loved ones have reluctantly agreed to sacrifice to the cause.

My own studio was painful to give up. I’d been lucky to get it – a bustling complex full of emerging and established artists and makers, and I worked in it for about two years before the pandemic struck. Then, sometime during the first lockdown, a friend called me up saying she needed a housemate. The person she had planned to move in with had suddenly changed their mind, and she asked if I could fill that space in a flat that was miles away from me and my studio.

PICTURE: Benji Thomas

“Oh no,” I thought. “I can’t do that. I’ll lose my studio, How would I make any work?” And so on. “It would be a catastrophe.”

Soon enough though, I started to see the value in a fresh start; and through that lens I saw that while I had placed myself in a beautiful studio for the last two years, I had totally neglected the space that mattered most.

During those two years, my studio was a direct projection of my headspace. Messy, cluttered and nightmarishly disordered. Full of stress and worry and panic. I spent hour upon hour in there but made very little work that I would have been happy to put my name to in an exhibition. My mental health was suffering, and it was only when I stepped back and self-isolated at home that I was able to see that more clearly.

I spent hour upon hour in there but made very little work that I would have been happy to put my name to in an exhibition

Mental health problems are currently a pandemic in themselves, catalysed by the deeply unnatural isolation from friends and family we’ve all faced this year. I slowly began to realise that I had placed my studio above my health in my list of priorities. So I was excited when I ultimately decided to say goodbye to it: excited to find new inspiration from a new place, excited to put my mental health first and see what I could create from stepping into the unknown.

What I found was that once I’d made some basic improvements – like waking up earlier, making time to read, putting less pressure on myself to constantly make work – the work began to flow from life naturally. I now make art in either my bedroom or my kitchen, depending on where the light is. I have a roll of canvas I put on the floor to catch the drips and a slab of MDF to pin my work to. From this makeshift setup I’ve created better work than I could have imagined possible, in a tenth of the space of my old studio. My mental health has improved, and I now have a much healthier relationship with my practice. In fact, the smaller space has allowed me to focus my practice much more and think more consciously about the projects I pursue.

Of course, if you’re an established artist, then downsizing could be harder to navigate, but if you’re an artist still in career infancy who believes that you need a studio to rightly call yourself an artist, you don’t. You truly don’t. 

White Rock Theatre at Night by Benji Thomas

What you do need is to cultivate a good relationship with yourself as an artist, commit to being a perpetual student of your craft and have patience with yourself as you embark on that journey. Your mind, after all, is the most important space that you as an artist will ever inhabit.

So I don’t believe anymore that a studio is the be all and end all. If you have a brilliant idea and you’re compelled to see it through, then not having a professional looking space isn’t going to stop you. Not having the right tools or even seemingly enough time won’t stop you. What will stop you is a poor mental state, and that, before anything, should be addressed. 

So to all the artists finding themselves now working from their kitchen, bedroom, shed, or the cupboard under the stairs, remember to be kind to yourselves. Trust the process and treat your mind as well as you would a world-class studio – until you do get that world-class studio.

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