Visiting an artist studio is always a privilege – in fact I think that of any workspace, whatever the context. The attention I give to work and workspaces comes from an extended fascination with how we spend much of our lives working: the domestic and the unpaid, alongside employment and self employment. Through my art practice I have gained access to offices, architectural practices, engineering hubs, and seen behind the scenes at museums and archives; each of which offers a fascinating insight to otherwise closed or semi closed worlds. The ways in which people move and carry out work activities in these spaces is the basis of Postures of Making.
Within the Postures of Making project Val and I envisage undertaking a number of studio visits to expand our understanding of how artists work and interact with an environment of their own design. Studying individual movements, postures and interactions with space and equipment will further our understanding of the practitioner’s body when engaged in creative practice. Each artist we visit in their studio will be given the option of being identified or to remain anonymous. They have the opportunity to view any photographs / video footage that will be made public. This allows them to identify images which may hint of long developed innovative processes or works in progress, and request cropping or deletion. Practitioners also have the opportunity to read the blog text before it is published.
Polly Cruse has her own studio in her back garden, where she undertakes her photographic and sculptural practice. During the visit, I asked her to talk about the types of activities and tasks that she typically undertakes, any pain and discomfort she experiences whilst working, cycles of work and repetitive tasks, tools and equipment used and adaptions made in the studio. I also asked about the psychological components of the work she undertakes.
What I initially thought would be a verbal explanation was quickly accompanied by physical demonstrations of a variety of movements. I wonder if this kind of instinct to demonstrate is particular to people whose main activity involves physical working: would clerical workers also use gestures to describe their work activities? The studio based interview differs from the focus groups where individuals talk about practice away from their work and tools. In the studio works and tools are to hand, movements around the space are familiar and recallable. I can also ask additional questions about the things that I see.
We started our conversation with Polly’s photographic work and looking at the movements associated with using the camera, tripod and setting up the still life. The work involves both seated and standing positions. The body looked at times compressed when seated, shoulders were raised, neck forward and head lowered trying to see through the camera view finder which was set at a low height, due to the arrangement of objects being photographed. The tripod was an interesting piece of equipment in this studio, as from the outset its size within the space is noticeable. The very nature of the tripod is to provide stability for the camera, but in moving around the space trying to avoid the tripod legs can cause instability in the person using it. Polly detailed how after a period of time of stepping over and around this object, it finally gets moved or the legs are folded in and it’s put to one side. The tripod, much like the camera used in the creation of Polly’s work, has become a familiar and instinctual object with which to interact. She described how it took a period of time to get used to the tripod, and although the mounting plate went missing a decision was taken to adapt rather than replace the equipment. This propensity to adapt is a regular feature in this workspace set up, and Polly repeatedly spoke about the flexibility of the space. She has the practical and spatial skills to order and re-order this workspace as the task requires. It generally has a similar set up but heights of desks and tables are altered depending on the image being composed.
One wall of the studio is covered in shelving and on these contain a concentrated myriad of objects, grouped in specific taxonomies. The body extends to reach objects, one hand is used to take down the object whilst the other is used to aid balance to the outstretched body. Some of these objects are at height, and Polly uses a set of steps to access them. The stretching seems to be of short duration and the objects are not overly heavy. Setting up the photograph is a repetitive cycle: objects are selected, placed, moved, removed, replaced. Polly has a sensitive dexterity with the objects and the ways in which they balance; all the arrangements are temporary. Objects come down from shelves and are ultimately returned. There is a lot of moving between the shelves and the arrangement, between arrangement and camera, checking compositions. The floor space in the studio is fairly small – 3 x 1.5 metres – but Polly said having a bigger space might not make any difference. When taking the photograph the shutter release is set to auto and Polly stands well away from both camera and set up, sometimes standing outside the studio if necessary. Photographs are mainly taken using natural light, controlled by some blinds and additional pieces of card balanced up at windows.
In terms of pain and discomfort, sitting behind the camera and tripod leaning forward with her head back is the most difficult. Polly reported that her neck and either side of the upper spine ached, but that this was eased by moving position and stretching. The amount of time spent on these activities varied, from half a day upwards to a day, depending on how long it takes to get things right; and may include working intensively for several days.
The desks in the studio are mainly made up of pieces of wood under which archive work is stored in an assortment of boxes. It’s an efficient use of space and means the space can be adapted easily. Sometimes this does involve heavy lifting as workspace heights are altered, but this is not an everyday feature of Polly’s practice. The desk in front of the window is where the sculptural practice is undertaken and looks low, but Polly doesn’t look uncomfortable. There is a noticeable lack of space beneath the work surface with no room for her feet. Being unable to tuck feet under the desk causes the body to tilt at the hips and a leaning posture adopted. This standing position is alternated with sitting in a swivel computer chair where the body is leaning forward, arms extended and held aloft. Materials are selected, placed, moved, re-arranged and then finally fixed. Individually the found forms that she works with are of different sizes and weights, but again nothing is overly large or heavy. When pain and discomfort is felt, usually in the neck and hips, the working height is raised using an ad hoc turn table.
In terms of psychological issues, Polly works in this space alone but not in silence, as she often has a story tape playing in the background. Working to deadlines was seen as a positive thing. When she stops making the work (the making of the work happens in the studio) and the images are processed at the computer (located in the house), the final decisions are made and marketing, framing and pricing all considered. This finishing of the work and preparing it for exhibition Polly finds “good, it gives me a purpose for the work, makes me look a the photos harder – trying to see it through other people’s eyes. The ambition is always to do the work in the studio, then processing via the computer. The majority of the decisions are made in the studio, as they become more difficult to take when working at the computer”. Polly sees her studio as a location which offers a good deal of choice and freedom. In fact the issue of choice and freedom is an important one: as a self employed practitioner she is able to make choices over the work she produces, the intensity of work flow and the types of activities she engages in. Any pain and discomfort seemed to be temporary as she is able to change activities to do something else. This level of control and freedom and its impact on relieving any pain and discomfort is one I am expecting to see when we visit other artists’ studios.