Before Michael Barton Miller enters the art studio adjacent to his home after a long day of work, he likes to ring a bell, or light some incense. “It keeps Cal Poly out of my head,” says the art professor, who needs clarity to avoid overworking the delicate touch of his large-scale ink paintings.
Some artists can find the mental space to create in improvisational studios, such as kitchens and back patios. Others need a room or entire building to contain their practice.
Over the next three weekends, 252 artists will reveal the varied spaces that enable their art as part of Arts Obispo’s 12th annual Open Studios Art Tour.
The Tribune interviewed four artists with highly involved creative lives in spaces devoted expressly to their work.
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Bruce Everett: The search for personal truth.
It pleases Bruce Everett when visitors think the tall red barn beside his home is historic. Completed in 2007—he designed the 1,400-square-foot studio to blend into the rolling Templeton hills it sits atop. This is the studio Everett dreamed of for decades while making sprawling landscape paintings in his Los Angeles garage.
In the early 1970’s, Everett was in the burgeoning photorealist movement, and his painstakingly rendered, 10-foot wide paintings of shiny gum wrappers, door knobs, and keyholes were being snapped up by New York City collectors and the Yale University Art Gallery.
But Everett was evolving away from what the art world expected of him—and he turned to nature for his images. “It was an act of personal truth,” says the artist, who grew up as an only child among the cliffs of Lake Michigan in Illinois.
Today his paintings, from 10 feet away, still have the exacting presence of photographs. But unlike the chrome-smooth renderings that once took Everett years to complete—his current work, up close, is built of dense networks of lush, brushy mark-making.
His paintings of dry creekbeds, fields at dusk, a thunderhead over Morro Bay—some from photographs taken during rides over lonely landscapes in an ultralight airplane—are about solitude.
Though he continues to show in art world hubs like Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, Everett has followed his instinct into a tranquil setting where he can be fully himself: “I’m hiding here,” he says with a smile, “being an artist.”
Ken Frye: The space to create
Ken Frye can make the pear wood arms of a dressing table look like taffy, as curvaceous and undulating as the long dirt road up to his studio in rural Nipomo.
The 2,800-square-foot workshop, once his father’s airplane hangar, is filled with what Frye calls “simple tools”—the scroll saws, chisels, and smoothing planes that create shapes, symmetry and marquetry too intricate and subtle for computerized equipment to render.
An admitted romantic, Frye says the main function of his woodwork is “beauty”—such as the hand-carved, scalloped surface of a cigar humidor that might look more at home in an Florentine palace than at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, where Frye was recently honored with a retrospective.
He learned fine woodworking techniques during 3,200 hours of study with Russian master woodworker James Krenov.
Because it can take 400 hours to complete what he calls his “museum-type” pieces, Frye can finish only one a year amidst the custom woodwork he completes for upscale homes and restaurants.
Until he met his “sweetheart” Lauren, seven years ago, Frye spent up to 11 hours a day in the studio. Now he tries to leave before evening.But three miles into the hills, with a distant view of the Oceano Dunes and no Internet connection, he’s able to gain the focus he needs to complete such involved pieces.
Frye admits his dream would be to have the financial freedom to focus solely on his artwork, to have patrons say, “What do you want to build next, Ken?”
He’s already working on a special piece he’s been mulling for years: a small, free-standing cabinet with elliptical sides he calls “a sacred spacemaybe for love letters.”
Tera Galanti and Michael Barton Miller: Sharing a studio and a life.
One of Michael Barton Miller and Tera Galanti’s first interactions was an art happening in a room at Tera’s Long Beach home, where she had invited guests to the frenzied feeding of mulberry leaves to 2,000 silkworms: “We turned off the lights, and it sounded like rain,” said Tera.
“That was my first warning,” says her now-husband Michael, that life with an artist whose subject matter involved ecology could test one’s boundaries.
Fifteen years later, there are dead mice (used to feed owls) next to dormant silkworm eggs in their refrigerator; and Tera, who is a dedicated volunteer for Pacific Wildlife Rescue, wakes nightly to feed baby possums in a crate beside their bed.
And though Michael is “not really an animal person,” the two artists and Cal Poly professors manage to work long hours together in a studio they designed for their Los Osos home.
For a January exhibition in Alabama, Tera is creating a “ghost forest” by sewing transparent fabric into hanging plumes that mimic the trunks of a disappearing species of long-leaf pine.
“I’m the wuss who does watercolors,” jokes Michael, who uses a near-pointillist technique to wrestle the difficult medium of ink into dense and luminous paintings of narrative moments inspired by film and sociology.
The two are no strangers to conflict, as preoccupations about their artwork can follow them from the studio to the kitchen table.
“Sometimes it’s like, ‘I don’t want to think about your work right now,’” said Michael.
But each admits that the feedback they share is a valuable part of their relationship, and they set aside specific times to talk when one needs it.
In December, both have work due for a show in Los Angeles featuring artist couples. And that same deadline will mean many hours together sewing, drawing, self-doubting, and consulting in an intimate space.
Tera said and Michael agreed: “If we weren’t married, we couldn’t do it.”