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Gwen Zabicki: Studio Artist

On the importance of a studio, and how to afford it

Chicago artist Gwen Zabicki is interested in the ways people in urban environments live alone together. In her most recent body of work she explores the idea of a shared urban melancholy. Her work is deeply invested in Chicago’s urban landscape. In discussing her work, she quotes Bosnian-American novelist Aleksander Hemon who once said that Chicago "was built not for people to come together, but for them to be safely apart." Drawing further on non-American perspectives, she reaches to the Turkish “hüzün,” a type of melancholy that is quite often cherished by the dwellers of Istanbul. Contemporary Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk writes often about "hüzun," suggesting that it is like what "a child feels when staring through a steamy window, but multiplied and shared by the inhabitants of an entire city, and so intrinsic to their consciousness that it becomes not negative – in the sense of depression – but poetic." Zabicki marries the concept of "hüzün" with Hemon’s statement, and then paints it onto canvas. In her artist story, she talks about the centrality of a studio space in creating work, and how to make that happen. Story by by CAR Visual Arts Researcher Alicia Eler.

It’s important to have a good studio space. I like the structure, the mental trick that happens when I leave my home and go to the studio. I work in oils, so I need to work in a studio space with proper ventilation; otherwise I’d slowly poison myself and my loved ones. After I graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I made paintings on the unheated back porch of my apartment. From December to April it was too cold to use, and from June to August I had to wake up early in order to use it before the temperature got too hot. For awhile, I even tried painting under a tarp in my parents’ backyard. It was depressing to work that way and made my pursuits seem sad and small. Some of my painter friends switched to acrylics or gouache just so they could work in their apartments—but that still meant working at the kitchen table and not being able to leave anything set up and inconveniencing everyone around you. 

I looked into renting a studio with friends, but it was too expensive for me. I couldn’t afford $200–$400 a month. The studios always seemed to be located in hard-to-reach neighborhoods. I continued to work out of my home until 2010, when I went to grad school at University of Illinois at Chicago. One of the best parts about grad school was getting a private, gigantic studio with a real door and windows that opened and shut! Tuition was about the same cost as renting a studio. I considered the more expensive graduate program at SAIC, but the tiny little closets posing as the grad painting studios convinced me to go elsewhere.

The grad school studio experience is different from having a studio on one’s own. Lots of other full-time artists are working all the time, all around you. Everyone is young and wants to hang out, and the school provides you with deadlines and assignments. The après-school studio experience has fewer friends dropping by, no advisers and no deadlines. There isn’t that built-in community, which can make your individual studio practice seem like more of a free fall. That doesn’t have to be the case, however. Share a studio space with friends or get a studio in a building with your friends. Both of these techniques can go a long way to re-creating the grad school community experience, or even founding an entirely new community outside of any type of academic experience. Another way to bring a sense of community to your studio practice is to schedule studio visits with your friends. Don’t refer to it as a "hang out"—call it a "studio visit." This adds a sense of professionalism to the whole experience. Most likely you'll wind up spending less than half the time talking about your work, but this exercise will certainly connect more people to you and your work. Plus, the feedback that you do receive from friends will be incredibly honest, useful and meaningful.

Another more obvious option is to set-up a studio space in your home. My significant other and I bought a house in 2012. My studio is in a spare bedroom. I never thought home ownership would be in my future, seeing as I’ve never made more than $25,000 a year. Because of the housing bubble, we landed a beautiful house for the price of what we were both paying in rent. If you can scrape up a small down payment, you can buy a two-flat greystone and turn it into your fantasy artist commune/indoor badminton court. 

In August 2012, I started a year-long residency at the Lillstreet Art Center; that’s where my second studio is located. They have artists-in-residence for all of their departments—ceramics, metals, textiles, photo, painting/drawing—and everyone gets a private studio, stipend and opportunities to teach. It’s an ideal working situation that re-creates the grad school community feel. I do all of my messy projects there and use my home studio for cleaner projects.  I’ve learned that without a good studio, the desire to make artwork quickly dries up. The studio is a necessary expense; without a studio it’s hard to even consider myself an artist. 

 If you’re stuck trying to figure out how you, too, can afford a studio space, here are a few tips I’ve come up with: 

  • Put the word out there that you are looking for a studio. Ask your friends, and post about it on Facebook. Someone will know someone who is looking for a person to share a space or of studios available in their building. This is how you find bargains.
  • Consider studio location. Choose Humboldt Park over Garfield Park. Pick a place that is easy for you to get to. If it's cheap but far from a train or bus, you'll never use it. 
  • Don't feel guilty about the expense. A studio is essential to your practice. Think about the studio space as a second rent. Be sure to keep your rent as low as possible so that a combination of your home rent and studio rent adds up to something close to what you’d pay for a reasonably priced one-bedroom.
  • Make sure that your studio is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I know people who got industrial/ warehouse type studios without thinking about how cold the space gets come December.
  • When you’re working in the studio, fill the silence by subscribing to lots of podcasts. Listen to music that you like. 
  • Make a schedule for yourself. Treat your studio practice like a job. Don’t sleep past 8 a.m...OK, 9 a.m…and then get to “work” in your studio. 
  • Invite friends over for studio visits. You may not spend the entire time talking about your work, but the feedback you receive will be incredibly honest and useful, and it will come from people who care about you and understand your work. 

Gewn Zabicki is a painter from Chicago. She received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005 and her MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in May 2012. She is currently the 2012-2013 artist in residence at the Lillstreet Art Center, where she teaches painting and runs an emerging artist lecture series. You can learn more about Gwen here:


Gwen Zabicki

Published by CAR_Alicia on Tue, 11/27/2012 - 4:44pm
Updated on Wed, 02/10/2016 - 4:07pm