Trading spaces: Lawndale’s Artist Studio Program provides temporary digs & inspiration

Daniel McFarlane, “Aqua Quartz II,” 2011

I’m still fixated on spaces artists work in. I call it the “Center for Dance” phenom: A new building in your art form pops up and then you wonder where everyone else is cranking it out. I’ve always been a space nut; the “where” effects the “what” big time in my book.

Last weekend, I gawked at the snazzy new Spring Street Studios, an anchor of the new Lower Washington Cultural Arts District. They are pretty, but fairly pricey for an artist who might also have a residential rent to deal with, which is why so many artists “studio” at home, where you get convenience and economy at the expense of isolation and occasionally tripping over your work.

Putting a roof over your art practice doesn’t come cheap, but it can deeply influence one’s work life.

Houston has its share of residency programs, but since I accidently leftLawndale Art Center out of my story on underground art (a Lone Star-size omission), I thought I would pay a social call to hear about their outstanding Artist Studio Program.

Listen up, three lucky artists per year get nine months of free studio space, a stipend, a materials allowance, and a show at the end of it.

Wow. Nice.

And it’s a chic space on the third floor of Lawndale’s sleek art deco building, with wood floors, plenty of natural light, a healthy AC unit, sparkling white walls hungry for a new batch of your work, artists as neighbors to bounce ideas off of, free parking and a separate entrance so you can come and go through anytime of the day and night.

Wait, it gets better: Lawndale arranges meetings with visiting artists, curators and writers, which is certainly an easier way to show off your work than having them traipse over your pets, kids, and messy living rooms.

Attention Gulf Coast artists from any stage in your career, all this can be yours; the application deadline for Round 6 is May 16 at 5 p.m.

I popped in to visit  the current crop, Hillerbrand +MagsamenAnthony Thompson Shumate and Daniel McFarlane, who make up the Measured exhibit, running through June 4.

I met Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen while their two children (who often appear in their work) milled about their spacious studio. The husband and wife team look at their Lawndale time as a chance to branch out, which is how the photo series House/Hold took hold.

“We got here, looked at these empty walls and thought we had better put something up on them,” says Hillderband.

Mythic ideas embedded in everyday heroes began to develop as a theme, inspired by G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.”  Most poignant is the portrait with their couch and the family human pyramid. It’s domestic and epic. Both enjoyed the camaraderie of their fellow studio dwellers.

“Feedback from artists is always helpful,” says Magasmen. “We haven’t had that since grad school.”

The studio gave the couple a chance to make and live with the work outside of  their home.

“As video artists, we literally could work with our laptop on the kitchen table, and when we would shoot our videos, they were always set up in our living room, backyard, in the car or the garage,” says Hillderbrand. “So this idea of having a physical space where we could go and work and think and put something on the wall and then at the end of the day lock the door, and know that when we came back the next day, it would still be exactly there, was wonderful. The dog didn’t eat it, the kids didn’t spill cereal all over our print or the clean laundry didn’t get mixed into our installation.”

Shumate used his time to start from scratch.

“I wanted to build a whole new vocabulary, challenge myself and pare it down,” says Shumate, talking a mile a minute. A quick glance at the body of his work lets me know that he’s one versatile guy.  Shumate projects a mad scientist’s vibe, as he tries to show me as much work as possible during my brief visit. All the while, a modified CAD machine re-traces his drawing of a fish. Like the others, Shumate thrived on the right dose of companionship.

“It’s great to have another set of brains around who know the jargon,” he says. “We’ve had some great conversations.”

He describes his work for the show as neither “analog nor digital,” but some kind of middle ground. Yet, there’s nothing unconsidered in his detailed to scale drawings of such objects as a gun and a car, now occupying a clinical pale green wall in the main gallery. I like the way he includes the unit of measurements within the piece itself, lending a completeness to his investigation. There’s a pristine exactitude to his work.

“It was a nine-month blur of exploration and experimentation in a quiet environment,” sums up Shumate. “I am sad to see it go; I’ve been so spoiled.”

I felt a sense of elation just walking in McFarlane’s studio, and it’s not just because he never stops smiling. Paint takes on an object quality on his glistening canvases. It’s hard not to touch them (I may have). His paintings juxtapose his signature amorphous paint forms with architectural elements. Sculptural and witty, this body of work projects a celebratory edge, within a disciplined structure.

“I feel as if I should be dressed up and drinking champagne,” I tell the artist.  “I know,” agrees McFarlane, the youngest of the pack. “They are so positive.”

The Studio Program brought McFarlane back to his hometown after finishing his MFA at University of Florida, where he accumulated numerous honors. He left Florida with a career on a roll, able to roll right into Lawndale to keep it going.

“It’s been fantastic; I get to reclaim my birthright as a Texas artist,” McFarlane says, with his characteristic optimism. “The residency was an encouraging environment that created a sense of community with access to the resources of the Houston art scene. It provided a great space and time to make work. I wish it was longer. As far as residencies go, this is a good one.”

Reprinted from Culturemap.

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