Downsizing an Artist

What often happens, when people’s life circumstances change, is that they consider downsizing.  On paper, this looks like a very sensible thing to do.  Outgoing expenses reduce, your utility bills decrease and you get rid of a lot of the detritus that accumulates in your life.  People will tell you that material possessions are not your life.  In fact, they can be a burden.  That’s correct, if you surround yourself with needless fripperies that you wanted, rather than needed and collections of useless things.  However, what happens when you significantly downsize an artist?

They stop creating, that’s what.

Why is this?  It’s for the most prosaic of reasons.  If you don’t have the room for your tools and materials, or enough space to create the things you create, whatever they happen to be, then you will be unable to create them.  It’s really that simple.  If there is nowhere to store your supplies, no work space in which you can work safely and comfortably and no place to store your finished works, until they are sold, then you have no option but to stop being creative.

People can struggle on.  I’ve had to spray paint guitars in the loft of a one bedroom flat, in near darkness.  I’ve created custom pieces of metalwork with hand tools, the work held in a vice, clamped onto a cheap living room coffee table (a study one).  My writing desk doubles as a recording studio and its total footprint is scarcely as big as a typical office desk.  When I make electronics, I do it on a piece of plywood the size of and A2 sheet of paper.  You don’t need much space, but you need some.

If you have a comfortable working space, though, you create better.  There is no doubt in my mind about this.  Denying an artist their studio or workshop space is the same as suffocating their creative output.  Everything will be a compromise.  Nothing grand or challenging can be contemplated or attempted.  There will be a bias to do everything minimally, which might work for you artistically, or else it can radically cramp your style.  The scale of your work will also tend toward the miniature.

The problem is compounded, of course, if you have polymath tendencies.  Each work space that you are able to eke out has to serve double, triple and even quadruple duty.  A lot of your time is spent clearing up the accoutrements of one creative activity and laying out the tools of the next.  You cannot leave work in progress.  If you do, rest assured that it will be abandoned forever, or else damaged, by the time you resume work on it.

People will ask you why you get so little done and so little accomplished, unaware that your elbows bump into things, while you work.  They’re oblivious to the struggles and energy it takes to put things away and get them out again, before you can do anything creative at all.  They don’t realise that without good light, you cannot really paint.

To get your space, you have to earn it, which means getting enough of your outstanding artworks sold, so that you can afford to pay for the rapidly and constantly increasing price of workspace.  The Catch-22, of course, is that without the space, you have one hand tied behind your back, in trying to earn enough from your art to pay for the new atelier.  Everything you create for sale cannot be as good as it ought to have been.

This is just another one of those artists’ struggles, of course.  It has always been hard to get a place to work.  However, it seems to be getting harder, tied as it is to the price of property, which in my lifetime has inflated outrageously and beyond all logical reason, over the course of several unsustainable housing bubbles, and never really come back down again.

Downsizing might work for people that never create a thing, because they can live a monastic, minimalist life, almost as a fashion statement.  The architecture journals and up market real estate brochures are full of such places, bereft of books, work benches, work in progress, materials and tools.  They pretend that such things as artists’ materials and tools do not, or more fascistically, need not exist.  It’s a total lie.

Every creative person has their creative things, or there just won’t be any creating taking place.  It’s not clutter.  Those items are extensions of an artist’s very essence.  They represent his soul.  In truth, they are no different to limbs.  Without them, the artist is disabled; creatively crippled.

Some of my artist friends endure winters in bitterly cold, draughty, un-insulated, garden sheds, which conveniently also swelter in the summer.  Others work in spaces so cramped, that they need to rein in their natural performance inclinations.  These people are breadwinners, not hobbyists.  Yet, peruse the houses or workshops for sale and you almost never see their professional needs accommodated.

In recent times, I have seen two properties for sale, which had once had purpose-built, soundproofed, recording studios inside of them, but which subsequent owners tore out, to make way for a party barn, or recreational rumpus room.  It’s heartbreaking, really.  Artists, more than most, have to make-do, when it comes to their creative spaces.

That’s not to say that it’s all roses in the corporate world, either.  Ever since the perverse, oppressive  fetish for open plan offices and office cubes, creative people have had to struggle, within both of these workspace design horrors, to either get enough quiet to do their thinking, or else enough actual space and inspirational surroundings to produce imaginative work, rather than just answering email and working on spreadsheets.  Considering how crucially a company’s value depends on the ability of its people to push the competitive envelope, when coming up with whatever it is the company does, it seems insane, in the extreme, to put an office furniture-shaped obstacle in the way of every such breakthrough creation.  No wonder corporate innovation is dead.

The people with ample work space, who enjoy spectacular, picturesque, breathtaking views, high specification office furniture, designer lighting and enough room to create to their heart’s desire are administrators, of course.  It’s usually upper managers, bankers, public servants above a certain pay grade, executives, insurance brokers, and C-level staff.  What do they do with all that space and those breathtaking views?  Sod all!  They could bark the same orders out, over the email, from a cupboard under the stairs, in truth.  When they fly, they sometimes do.

The world lavishes work space on the non-creative and makes the creative people compromise their art, for want of enough geographical foot print to work, unimpeded, within.  When they do find space, it’s in old barns, decrepit, abandoned warehouses and other buildings, not initially designed or intended for human habitation, which have been cheaply adapted to serve as a studio.  It’s all a bit poor, really.

Ultimately, it is the economy that suffers.  Creative people with the space and facilities to do their best creative work, in reasonable comfort, produce.  They are supremely productive.  Their creations are the value we actually trade to sustain all the other rentiers, in the economy.  If we nip it in the bud, the whole time, all we’re succeeding in doing is ensuring we cannot export vigorously, or serve domestic markets without importing everything.  With an economy now so heavily dependent on precarious financial services, or primary industries, or else on other services, yet with a growing, yawning, abyss of a balance of trade deficit, it makes you wonder why nobody, with the power to change things around, sees it as a priority.  Making things is a form of national security.  If you are wholly dependent on imports, then you have tacitly become dependent on another sovereign nation.  That’s not a very secure position to be in.

Will this situation ever change?  I am personally doubtful.  The people that could make the changes don’t even recognise the problem at issue, let alone have any will to solve it.  Cramped artists and other creators, working in sub-optimal work spaces, are an invisible problem.  Nobody who doesn’t create for a living knows or cares.  They don’t see the relevance to their own standard of living and yet, their financial well-being hinges on it.

I suppose the old adage is true:  “There are none so blind as those who will not see”.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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