When Beverly Morris first heard of Marlowe McGraw’s idea for the old warehouse at Toulouse and North Murat streets, she recognized it was a winner.
Not only would the conversion of the building to artists’ studios solve her problem of where to work on her clay projects, but it meant she’d soon have the camaraderie of other artists nearby.
Almost 20 years later, the Mid-City Art Studios continues to provide space for more than 25 artists to explore new processes and turn out fascinating works. Today, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 4436 Toulouse St., the group hosts an open studio event that aims to offer the public a look inside the creative process. Better still, photographs, paintings, pastels, ceramics, multi-media works and more will be for sale.
“We love doing this every year and getting to know the people who come to explore what we are doing and how we do it,” said Allison Stewart, who exhibits at Arthur Roger Gallery. “The event makes it possible for all of us to make connections, especially those of us who aren’t affiliated with a gallery.”
Because artists spend so much time working in their studios, the spaces turn into a sort of “home away from home,” a place of refuge as well as a place of challenge. Read on to find out how four of the artists have adapted studios of varying sizes to suit their creative needs.
A pastel artist and photographer, Burshell said she bikes to “work” at the Art Studios from her home near Bayou St. John.
“I am one of those artists who needs to get up and go to work, to separate my personal life from my professional life,” she explained. “We have a community here — if you get stuck, you can get an opinion from another artist and you can support each other.”
Burshell has installed shelves in her 12-by-24 foot studio space so she can prop up images she is working on and consider how to proceed. Her easels and drawing table are on wheels, the better to maneuver them to take advantage of the northern light she prizes.
“I started out as a portrait artist and eventually started adding the body to the portrait. Then I placed the portrait subject in an environment and gradually the environment became much bigger than the person. Finally, I took the person out of the picture,” Burshell said. “I call the resulting images ‘roomscapes’ — portraits of a people without them in the room.”
Her studio is filled with richly colored and textured images, a “candy store” of pastels (“You’re always searching for the perfect color to say what you want to say”) plus a yoga mat and a timer. But there is no trace of a lounging area: “When I need a little rest, I roll out the yoga mat on the floor, set the timer for 15 minutes, and take a nap.”
A mixed media artist who now focuses on clay, Duffey has made the Mid-City Art Studios her creative home ever since she moved to New Orleans 15 years ago. Although her studio in the building has changed location over the years, she now occupies a 500-square-foot space which she shares with artist/lawyer Jane Eggers.
“My studio is big enough now that I have room to spread out,” Duffey said. “Plus, I have a sink, which few of the studios have — I used to have to go out into the hallway and use the communal sink.”
If the sink situation was not ideal before, Duffey said that the communal nature of everything else was and continues to be a huge advantage of working in a building with other artists.
“You get great feedback from others here,” she said. “And when you need a break, you can have lunch or spend time in the common area with other artists. “Duffey’s work has transitioned over time from figurative pieces of saints, voodoo sticks and other New Orleans-centric items to a form that is quite the opposite in the delta environment: Rocks.
“I make them out of porcelain, and there are a number of structural challenges because of the nature of the clay,” she said. “I make my own glazes and finishes, and use a lot of oxide washes. Now, I have enough room and glaze area and another for building the pieces.”
Although Duffey works three days a week assisting at Derby Pottery, she spends the other four at the Art Studios. She has furnished her space with comfort and beauty in mind. “I found an old French metal crib at a junk shop that’s about 5 feet long and I made it into a daybed,” she said. “I can sit in it or lounge and look out the window. And I covered one of the walls completely with feathers.”
A painter and monotype artist, Stewart came to the Art Studios by way of the Louise Day Nursery lofts after Hurricane Katrina.
“The studio space there in the Lower Garden District was wonderful,” she said. However, everyone who had a studio in the building was evicted after FEMA requisitioned it to house government employees after the storm.
“But this is a great place for all of us. We are all really compatible and there is great camaraderie. Painting is a solitary profession, but here there is a lot of give and take.”
Stewart’s studio is the largest among those on-site: At 1,000 square feet, it affords her an area for painting, another for printing monotypes, an office for the business side of her endeavors, and a “quiet corner.”
“I have an old cast-off Sheridan-style sofa, a rattan chair, and bookcase for my art books and sketch pads,” Stewart said. “I use that area for studying and reading.”
The huge space and banks of windows on two sides (not to mention a coveted sink) make it ideal for the large format works Stewart paints, abstracts that deal with the fragility of the natural environment.
“Some are 4-by-6, some are 5-by-5, and they can be connected as diptychs or triptychs,” she said. “I need a lot of wall space.”
Morris has devoted considerable effort to making the 600-square-foot space she shares with potter Mary Morgan feel like home.
“For one thing, we have a propane heater which keeps it nice and toasty when the power goes out and it’s cold outside,” she explained. “I laid down linoleum on the floors and put some floor cloths on top of the linoleum. To screen out the fluorescent lights, there are canvas sails hung from the ceiling. I also have Christmas lights and Chinese lanterns.”
Morris and graphic artist Laura Ates are the last members of the “original crew” of artists who started out at Mid-City Art Studios in 1996. Although Morris explored other techniques and subject matter in the ensuing decades, she currently focuses on coil-building clay into vases, orbs, wall hangings, panels and boxes. She then carves swirl patterns into the clay.
“I like coil building and carving because of the imperfections,” she said. “Nothing’s symmetrical and it all has an organic feel.”
In addition to the other homey amenities she has installed, there are kitchen appliances, including a small refrigerator, a microwave and electric tea kettle.
“There is also a big couch,” Morris said. “It’s for napping.”