Looking at artwork in the studio is special. It's like glimpsing a bird in the wild instead of studying a captive specimen or seeing a racecar on the factory floor instead of in a showroom. Otto Von Bismarck famously observed that no one wants to know how laws and sausages get made. However, the growth of North Coast Open Studios suggests the converse is true when it comes to art around these parts.
Some 140 artists will open their studios as part of the 17th annual event over the next two weekends. Coordinator Monica Topping added 30 participants to last year's roster, recruiting emerging artists to join festival perennials. She also diversified the event. Open Studios now features local luthiers, glassblowers, leather workers, tattoo artists and artisanal manufacturers alongside practitioners of more traditional media.
Open Studios is more than a tour of art: It's also a county-wide tour of mother wit, featuring a close-up look at how practicing artists organize creative spaces. Some artists present their work in professional studios; many others do the best they can with what they have. "People are inviting you into their home, or into the backyard where they've set up their easel," Topping said.
When you view art in the place where it was made, you get some respite from contemporary conventions of display. It hasn't been positioned in magnificent isolation on a stark white background, carefully situated in a neutral, yet tasteful space. Instead, you're viewing an object in the company of its maker. And you're seeing an artwork in its element, surrounded by whatever detritus accompanied its creation: ashtrays, sketches and scarred palettes, hardware store receipts, matted brushes, pencil shavings, contact sheets, beer cans, fast food remnants, scribbled notes, obscurely sourced clippings on the wall.
Elaine Benjamin, who was part of the first North Coast Open Studios, will be showing new work at Beth Kabot's printmaking space this year. "It's going to be fun because we're four very different artists, all showing work together there for the first time," Benjamin said. "Beth makes silkscreens. Robin Friedman makes glass mosaics. Linda Parkinson makes wonderful watercolors of wildlife, and I'm working with pyrography." She started using the technique, drawing on wood with a heated stylus, after a visit to Steven Vander Meer's studio three years ago.
"I saw a hand-turned bowl that he had designed," she said. "He gave me a piece of wood and this tool, which heated up to red-hot in two seconds ... I was hooked."
Several longtime participants share a hands-on, DIY ethos. Kabot will have a screen-printing station set up in her McKinleyville studio where kids and adults can print T-shirts from original designs. In Arcata, Patricia Sennott will be doing monotype print demonstrations. "I set up a little plate in the press," Sennnott said, "and when I wipe the ink away and the image gets revealed, it's a transformative moment."
Some visitors find that the intimate, behind-the-scenes nature of the experience stimulates their own creative practice. When you go into artists' studios, Topping said, "you aren't just looking at finished works, masterpieces. You see the different phases of projects, you see things that are partially done. And maybe you're like, Huh! This looks like something I might be able to do. You see the wet paint on the canvas."
Multimedia artist Joy Dellas said Open Studios has gained relevance beyond Humboldt County in recent years, with out-of-town visitors now traveling to the event. Landscape painter Stock Schlueter noted the event has attracted more serious buyers over time. "Now, so many people come with serious intentions. They plan for it, make sure they get there early." But Schlueter also said, "The overall object is not necessarily to sell. It's to educate the public, let them see the nuts and bolts of how art gets made. They get to see the stuff you stick on the wall: posters, easels, piles of paint. The workshop is an interesting place."
Several event participants cite interactions with visitors as Open Studios' most rewarding aspect. "That's been the most wonderful part for me," Sennott said, "meeting people, hearing their stories, sharing where we like to go hiking." Benjamin was moved to learn that a cancer survivor had made Benjamin's pyrography depiction of a starfish her personal talisman, inspired by the echinoderm's regenerative powers. "Last I heard, she was in remission, and she was planning to get the image turned into a tattoo," Benjamin said. "For an artist, that's really what it's all about."
Art critic Craig Owens once said a key aspect of postmodernism is the tendency for analysis to shift "from work to frame." In other words, most of us now accept the fact that the meaning of pictures, words and objects is highly dependent on context. Open Studios provides a perfect opportunity to contemplate this premise, since the studio experience is all about context. When you visit an artist's studio you become part of a short-term micro-community that morphs according to chance. You might have an adventure. You might make a friend. You might be inspired or become entranced by a piece that you didn't know existed yesterday. Embrace the situation as it evolves.
North Coast Open Studios takes place on Saturday, June 6 and Sunday, June 7, and Saturday, June 13 and Sunday, June 14 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. See the insert in last week's Journal for participating artists or visit www.2015.northcoastopenstudios.com.