LESSONS FROM GARY’S STUDIO: Beauty vs. Function

One year our kids were very young, we drove from Keene, New Hampshire to visit my family in Michigan.We always went through Canada to save a few hours of driving time, often stopping for a break to visit Niagara Falls.

On this particular trip, we’d gotten a late start, and didn’t reach the Falls until after dark. We were going to stay at a hotel for the night, but decided to drive by the Falls first.

We’d never seen them at night, and it was fabulous. Colored spotlights uplit the epic torrents of water cascading over the escarpment, making it glow in the dark.

Robin (age 4) refused to look at them. She was tired, and hungry, she said, and wanted to go straight to the hotel.

“But Robin, look! They’re beautiful!” I exclaimed.

Heaving a extraordinarily world-weary sigh for one so young, she said, “I’ve had just about all the beauty I can stand for one day.”

Now, decades later, I can sympathize.

I’ve always had a problem in my studios with too much beauty. I’ve always had things I love in them, items that are cute, or attractive, or interesting, or just plain odd. That happened for many reasons: Lots of space. A space that people could easily visit for open studios. And because I’d never had a reason to cull or sort my studio stuff. Hence the antique squirrel cage.

Antique squirrel cage. Nope, I'm not using it. Yet. Beware, squirrels!!

Antique squirrel cage. Nope, I’m not using it. Yet. Beware, squirrels!!

Then there were the big glass jars of shells, pebbles, the hanks of antique trade beads, the doll collection…. All wonderful to behold.

I’ve talked before about the process of packing up 20 years’ worth of studio stuff. (Keep posted for Part 2 of that article on February 26.)

Now, for the first time in my life, I have more limitations. I have perhaps a third of the space available. And it’s mainly a working studio only. I’m not sure I can have open studios in my basement space. If so, it’ll be limited to people under 5’5″. (I kid you not.)

But I also I have better guidelines. And so this second article on setting up a new studio, inspired by what I learned from Gary Spykman’s studio.

Function vs. Beauty.

Today’s example is thread, a basic in my mixed media work. I use embroidery floss, tatting thread, quilting thread, waxed linen thread, and regular cotton sewing thread. In the past, these were stored in many different places in my studio. I had two hanging thread racks; an antique standing rack for spools of old silk thread. I had several decorative glass jars filled with crochet thread and string.

And, of course, once those threads went into a big jar and look beautiful, they never came out again. Oh! I need that one that’s at the very bottom. Mmmmmmmm…….never mind.

I had a rolling cart of drawers I stored sewing thread in, sorted by color. But I bought more thread wherever I found it–thrift shops, fabric stores, antique stores–to add to my collection. And when I pulled several colors to work on a hand-sewing project, I rarely put them away. Instead, when I cleaned for an open studio, I’d arrange them attractively in antique glass dishes. Soon my tables were covered with attractive glass dishes of thread and beads. Pretty. But not very functional. Oh well, I’ll just sit at another table. (Which was also filled with pretty displays. Do we sense a pattern here?)

But my new studio is different. I don’t have as much space. I can’t keep all the threads I brought from New Hampshire.

My first task was to go through my entire stash and eliminate thread that was too old for use. Some threads age well. Others, affected by heat, sunlight, moisture, simply weaken and break easily. (These went into a jar-like lamp base. It looks great!)

Jar of mixed threads (not very accessible) and the jar lamp with old thread behind.

Jar of mixed threads (not very accessible) and the jar lamp with old thread behind.

Then I organized by color. I consolidated three different collections of embroidery thread, and put them into a drawer. The colors I knew I’d never use, were donated to a thrift shop here that supports a number of local non-profit service organizations. (Somebody remind me, please, why I have not one, not two, but THREE sets of neon bright pinks, yellows and fluorescent green embroidery thread???)

The waxed linens went with jewelry-making supplies.

So what to do the rest of the odd lots? Crochet threads and lightweight string that can be used for embroidery, but too bulky to fit in the skeins-of-floss drawer?

I sorted them by color, into see-through wire baskets (more on these in another article.) And I hung them on my new steel wire shelving units, coordinated by color with my fabrics.

Shelves of working fabrics with wire basket of color-matched embroidery thread.

Shelves of working fabrics with wire basket of color-matched embroidery thread.

And here’s the blessing in this decision:

It still looks beautiful.

I reduced my fiber stash by about 75%.

I reduced my working fiber stash by about 75%.

Still sorting my sewing tools and stuff, so please do not look at the messy table top. (I can tell you're looking.)

Still sorting my sewing tools and stuff, so please do not look at the messy table top. (I can tell you’re looking.)

LESSONS FROM GARY’S STUDIO: Do It Right

Everything is polymer clay, except for the single antler and the antique wood boxes that I cleaned, repaired, painted, refinished and waxed.

Everything is polymer clay, except for the single antler and the antique wood boxes that I cleaned, repaired, painted, refinished and waxed.

A few years back, I had a vision for my next body of work. Shadow boxes are not ‘new’, but I envisioned them to display not only my sculptural work, but my jewelry, too.

I was already a box collector. (Okay, no comments about all the stuff I collect.) I had some great little boxes I thought would work beautifully, except for one thing. They were from a tool manufacturing company, and they were black with smelly oil and grease.

I met up my friend Gary Spykman who works with wood to create furniture, cabinetry, even a new bed for his pickup truck. (See Gary’s new line of eco-modern outdoor furniture at Sebbi Designs.

I showed him a stinky box and asked him if I should use shellac to coat the wood.

He suggested I clean it thoroughly instead. “But I love the waxy black look!” I exclaimed. “It’s just the smell I can’t stand.”

Patiently, Gary explained why that was not a good idea. Now I can’t remember why. But I believed him.

“Once you clean up the gunk, there are better ways to get that old dark patina you love,” he said.

“Teach me stuff?” I said, a la Susan Sarandon in that great old movie, Atlantic City (See the quote in this clip at 54 seconds.>)

And an apprenticeship was born.

For the next four months, I was a guest in Gary’s woodworking shop. We worked out a rough gentlemen’s agreement, where in exchange for small sundries and chores, I would work on refinishing my vintage and antique wooden boxes as he guided me step by step on how to clean them up, repair them and restore them.

I have no idea what Gary gained from the synergy, except for someone to yak with during the day and who happily did the shop dishes each afternoon. (Why is it always more fun to do someone ELSE’S dishes??)

But I benefited hugely. And not just in how to work with antique boxes.

And so starts a new series, LESSONS FROM GARY’S STUDIO. In fact, I got the idea because I’m setting up my new studio based on certain principles, as much as possible, that I observed in Gary’s studio.

I was going to jump right in about that. But then I remembered the first thing I learned: “Do it right.” Don’t take shortcuts. Start at the beginning, and build from there.

And so I am.

(Actually, I guess the VERY first thing I learned was, “Ask”. Ask someone who DOES know. But I don’t want everybody calling Gary to ask him for help. Although I’m pretty sure he would. Help you, that is.)