Vol. 1 No. 3 2008

Space to Be

A California studio indulges the artist's spirit

By Teri Harllee King

Marin County, California

The flow of creative energy is both fluid and complex. It is as if our environment has to be fine-tuned to our personality, producing just the correct harmony for the floodgates to open and allow the creative juices to flow unimpeded. Not that an artist cannot create under even the harshest, most miserable circumstances. But every artist knows that whether one is personally elated or in the midst of grief, finding creative expression for emotion and ideas comes more easily in some environments than others.

I came to Smith Ranch Studios after the death of my oldest son, Andy. The life of a talented guitarist, caught up in a ten-year battle of heroin addiction, ended when his likewise drug-addicted girlfriend neglected to call 911 as he overdosed. The pain of his death was overshadowed only by the devastation of knowing that a phone call could have saved his life -- perhaps, even, ended his struggle and left his family intact.

Although I had a studio in my home, I knew I needed a place to go to each day, a reason to unfurl myself from my embryonic posture and take that first step in the morning that is the difference between life and living hell. A friend and fellow artist told me there was a new studio project off Smith Ranch Road near my Marin County home; a search online told me their location. I came to Smith Ranch Studios looking for space to paint. What I found was much more.

Lighting, set and high-end furniture designer Real-estate developer Michael LeValley created Smith Ranch Studios. His interest in architectural design stems from his background in functional art. interest in the creative intersection between the artist and the viewer. What LeValley has done in the process is to afford the 25 artists working at Smith Ranch Studios dignity by design.

A former warehouse, the building is a great example of adaptive reuse. The studios are open ceiling, to allow for both ventilation and natural light from 14 skylights in the warehouse roof above. Full-spectrum fluorescent lights dropped from the 15-foot ceiling provide additional studio lighting and connect to dimmer switches for those cocooning times so necessary to the creative process. The long-term health needs of the artists were considered in the design of the building, providing a state-of-the-art ventilation system. Two bathrooms, one with a shower, and two washrooms with deep stainless steel sinks for artists to clean their tools are also part of the design. Each studio has wireless Internet access, a separate phone line, and data ports.

Smith Ranch Studios artists have 24/7 access to their studios. The kitchen includes a microwave and commercial-grade, stainless-steel refrigerator where artists store their munchies for reheating at their leisure. The operation of Smith Ranch Studios is done according to standards defined by the Marin County Green Business Program. Energy use is monitored, water heaters function on demand and low VOC interior paint was used. Smith Ranch Studios artists and staff use a recycling system and encourage use of nontoxic substances whenever possible.

LeValley's artistic background, coupled with his obvious business acumen, is evident in the light-filled studios. LeValley was a successful furniture designer and woodworker set designer in Los Angeles who moved into lighting and set design started in technical production for theatre and music. As a craftsman, he had a successful fine-woodworking/high-end furniture design business. He knows the needs of an artist first hand.

Unique to the studio’s management style is the support LeValley and studio manager, Lynnette Lynette Daudt, give the artists. From being open to suggestions for changing the function of the space, to buying print advertising in support of the artists’ shows, this is a management that knows the true meaning of supporting the arts by supporting artists.

LeValley understands the organic nature of the Smith Ranch Studios project, as well as the need for it to be a financial success (it is). At times, the artists seem to be playing musical chairs, moving into larger or smaller studios as the financial vicissitudes of their lives dictate. LeValley himself has experienced the need for this flexibility in the project as he learns what the community at large will support. His own endeavor, Spin Gallery, was a lesson learned about the need for a full-time gallery director or manager and a stable of serious collectors. George Sumner, an artist whose underwater paintings of dolphins skyrocketed him to commercial success in the 1980's, now leases the gallery.

At the Smith Ranch Studios, organic evolutions occur as artists mingle and share knowledge, ideas or technique. Stroll the hallways and you will find artists in the kitchen sharing information about the San Francisco Bay area art scene, opportunities to show, workshops to attend. It is not unusual to find that one artist has asked another into his or her studio to give an opinion on a certain aspect of the work in progress, a look with fresh perspective to hurdle what seems an insurmountable stopping point, or perhaps just a small question of technique. An oil painter dabbles in acrylics or takes the leap from realism to abstraction with the encouragement of a studio mate familiar with the medium. The artists support each other openly.

Smith Ranch Studios has taken on a life of its own, and it feels good.

Of course, the open ceilings can be a challenge to noise levels and musical tastes. There are minor scuffles over noise - some artists seeking out an almost monastic quiet for their work, others needing the sound of laughter and voices and music. But it usually works itself out with a bit of patience and indulgence. There is enough respect for the creative process in all of us to understand that each artist is only wanting his or her own floodgate to open.

There is much respect for each other's time. While initially the artists introduce themselves to a new tenant, they will be reluctant to interrupt afterwards, so feeling a part of the community here can take time if you are not the type of person who feels free to join in conversations overheard in the common areas. But sooner or later you cannot help but experience the camaraderie of this group of artists working together to make its collective shows more than just another gallery event.

In outreach to the larger community, and as a nod to LeValley's theoretical interest in the creative intersection between the artist and the viewer, Smith Ranch Studio artists hold First Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. On the first Saturday of every month, the public is welcome to walk through the studios and watch the artists work, ask questions, gain knowledge of the art world behind the scenes.

In addition to an annual group show, the artists at Smith Ranch Studios participate in the Marin Arts Council Open Studios, which drew over 200 art buyers into their studios last year. They used the event to seek donations for Drawbridge, a non-profit organization that provides art programs for homeless children.

Smith Ranch Studios artists attend each other's individual shows, knowing that seeing a friendly face helps reduce opening-night stress. There is a definite buzz on the day of an artist's opening, with well wishes and “See you there!” heard multiple times at the artist's studio door.

Individual artists are active in the larger arts community in organizations such as the Art League of Northern California, The Marin County Watercolor Society, Marin Society of Artists and the Marin Arts Council. Their work is found in permanent and private collections around the world.

Being the brainchild of an artist, it is not surprising that Smith Ranch Studios has drawn an extraordinary and eclectic mix of people within its walls. The backgrounds, as well as the styles of the Smith Ranch Studio artists, vary widely.

Bill Russell, a Parsons graduate, husband and father of one, is an abstract painter and collage artist with 30 years in the art world. A former illustration teacher at the California College of Arts and Crafts, he has won awards from the New York Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts and American Illustration.

Ann Bernauer, a Stanford graduate whose oil pastels draw the observer into their foggy landscapes and evoke multiple emotions, shares her knowledge when asked and is unfailing in her encouragement of other artists. Bernauer's work is in the collections of Stanford University, Bank of America and Kaiser Permanente.

Celeste Parcell is a professional counselor as well as a bit of a renaissance woman in the arts. She creates and teaches what she terms ‘fun folk art.’

Bruce King, a structural engineer and green-materials consultant, houses his Ecological Building Network and publishes Green Building Press at Smith Ranch Studios.

Pamela Handleman paints in a finely detailed style and color palette reminiscent of the 60's. Her studio is always full of friends, fellow painters, wine and music.

Rebecca Madrone is a garden maker who paints with flowers and light, as well as being a professional photographer and poet/writer.

Carol Bigot, wife and mother of two, first picked up a brush five years ago. Although she humbly refers to herself as still searching for her voice, she excels in every style she attempts and was picked up by a Bay area gallery her third year of painting.

Georgia Annwel, a prolific artist came to the world of art just three years ago after chronic illness and debilitating surgeries forced her to give up her architectural firm. Annwell has produced more than 400 works of art and is doing a series of 1,000 figurative graphite sketches. Nearing 70 years of age, she feels an urgency to create that is contagiously stimulating. Seventeen other artists, equally talented and accomplished, work here. You can see their work and get a look at Smith Ranch Studios.

And me? I have managed to muddle through my grief with more good days than bad now, after 2-1/2 years. Always encouraged and supported, with the artists here also having the uncanny ability to know when to leave me alone. After all, we each have times of suffering in our lives. Ultimately we have to work through it ourselves.

I work large, and in acrylic. My paintings of a couple of years ago were dark, often violent brush strokes of pain on canvas. My paintings now are calmer, more reflective than reactive. I am still exploring what physicist Stephen Hawking calls “people of the shadow bryn”: those other-dimension beings that both haunt my dreams and fascinate me in my waking moments. But where there was darkness, there is now a dim light, pregnant with possibility.

Teri Harllee King is a freelance writer and full-time artist living in Marin County with her husband (jazz guitarist Jackie King) and their two dogs, Safire and Sadie.

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