In our continuing series about homeowners and their
environment, Sheila Sabine of the Glass/Sabine team recently met with
professional artist and teacher Thekla Hammond at her studio near Berkeley’s popular Fourth Street area.
The interview focuses on the process of building an artist’s studio behind
one’s house! This is just what Thekla and her husband Steve did, and
here’s what the Glass Sabine Team learned about the process.
GST Tell me what you saw through your
artist’s eyes when you first looked at this property.
It was 1985. Steve and I had just been married and we were living in
the city which was a very exciting place to be, but somehow for me, I always
felt like I was on vacation – mostly because I couldn’t walk out my back
door into a garden. Steve was working at an urban planning firm on
Fourth Street in Berkeley so he knew about the changes in store for this
area. And, as everyone knows, the growth of Fourth Street has been
phenomenal. What used to be a “no-man’s land” when we first
moved here is now a place where there’s no place to park!
Anyway, at lunchtime, Steve would drive around this neighborhood and then
tell me ‘This is the place to buy. This is the only place in Berkeley
that makes any sense.’ And I said, ‘OK, fine.’ Actually,
Steve saw this house the day it came on the market, and he saw it as perfect
because it is zoned for mixed use – meaning I could build a studio.
So we called our realtor to say we had found something and when she came over
to look at it, she began telling us all the reasons that we should not buy
this house! However, I immediately envisioned what you see here today;
I could build a studio behind the house and walk through my garden to get
there - and that was the clincher.
GST You can have a connection with
nature on your way to create.
Exactly right. The house itself had been built in 1902 as a summer
cottage for people from S.F. Along the way, there had been a few additions,
but it was definitely a hodge-podge. However, the lot was large enough
that we knew we could put in a garden, and build a studio. Also,
another very important element for me is the light in the house; it was very
appealing to me.
So, we put
in an offer, and even back then – almost 20 years ago - the market
was very active and competitive much like it is today, and we got it!
And then . . . I invited my family to come have a look. Their
reactions? Well, my brother said ‘You’re not going to actually live
here, are you?’ His concerns centered on the back-hoe company next
door, the complete lack of curbs and sidewalks on any of the nearby streets
and the rather rundown condition of many of the houses in the neighborhood.
However, as it turned out, many of those houses had studios behind them.
At the time, this was a real center for potters and almost every house had a
potter or an artist of some sort working there and it is still a center for
So it sounds as if there was a sort of collective energy in the neighborhood
that was calling out to your artistic soul; almost as if you could feel it
and therefore in terms of making the space more livable, you were not
intimidated by the physical challenges facing you. Right?
Right – but I should have been! LAUGHS! But somehow I wasn’t
– I thought ‘Oh, sure, we can do this.’
You’ve already said that you decided to build a studio behind the house
with your husband as the designer and you as the general contractor. But did you pull in an architect at any point?
Steve did the drawings and then we found an architect/friend who was willing
to prepare the drawings to take to the city for final approval, and we worked
out a trade. He took a painting in exchange for his work which was
great. Following that, of course, I couldn’t imagine how we were ever
going to pay for the project. And at that point, the most interesting
thing happened with my father. When we bought this house, I had my
painting studio in West Oakland, and I know my father always worried about my
working so far from home in a fairly isolated area. Also, I had
always suspected that he disapproved of my being an artist because he had
wanted me to be a teacher. So, imagine my surprise when, after hearing
about our plans to build a studio here, he said ‘Just build it, and I’ll
pay for it!’
So what did it really mean for you to be the general contractor of the
project - what kinds of nuts and bolts challenges were facing you?
Well, it meant that I had a new full-time job. I had a hard hat.
I found, coordinated and scheduled all the sub-contractors and made sure they
were doing what they were supposed to do so that the next guys could come in
and get started. Then, there would be a question, like ‘What kind of
door handles do you want?’ After deciding what kind, I then had to
track down a resource for door handles then get in the car and go buy them.
GST So you were a decision-maker, a
coordinator and a gopher!
TH Yes – plus I
baked a lot of cookies – and made a lot of coffee!
GST And you handled the payroll?
Oh, sure – and I also dealt with all the necessary permits and documents
required by the City of Berkeley.
And how long did all this take?
Actually, it was really quick. From the time we started to the end of
the project was three months. But then, it was my full-time job for
those three months.
Regarding the house itself, what did you do? In particular, what steps
did you take to make the house more livable for you?
Right away, we took out three walls in the living room/dining room area where
there had been three tiny little rooms and following that, we re-did the
kitchen. We painted of course, but that’s all we did before we moved
Did you have the feeling that the process was somewhat organic as you moved
through the house? For example, did you work from a master plan, or
were you mostly working from your own vision about how you wanted to live in
Again, I knew I wanted a lot of light and it was clear that these small rooms
not only prevented the light from flooding in, but if you’re going to hang
big paintings on the wall, you need expansive wall space. So that was a
challenge: if you’ve got a lot of light, you may not have a lot of walls
but if you take some of the walls out and make bigger spaces, then large
paintings work better – if that makes any sense!
Yes! You created an extremely interesting balance between large windows
allowing light and also space for some of your large paintings. Can you
talk a little bit about your paintings?
Well, I paint in oil, and I prefer large paintings – at least 5’ x 5’
or larger – and these little Victorian houses definitely do not have that
kind of wall space but the solution is to put the paintings right up to the
edge of the wall! There is not a lot of space around the paintings.
To answer your question, I usually work in series. The particular
series in our house right now is called Solitude. The truth is, when
you work in the way that I do, you are isolated, and the best work comes from
that. Realizing that, I did the Solitude series.
It is a necessary process in creativity to be alone – to allow the creative
juices to manifest and appear in your paintings. And regarding the
physical space for that process, you created a studio here at the house to
make that happen! So, talk a little bit about the studio itself.
Well, the studio has proved to be an absolutely wonderful space. When I moved
away from the studio building in West Oakland, I was slightly anxious that I
would feel really lonely. Working in a setting where there were lots of
artists, you could always walk down the hall and grab a fellow artist to come
take a look at your work and get some immediate feedback. So,
naturally, I was worried about losing that community. But it turns out
that my studio here in Berkeley is so inviting that people visit – which is
great. And I have also found other ways of using the space For
example, I have a singing group – a quartet – and we rehearse in my
studio every Monday night, and then we have performances! And that has
blossomed and mushroomed – the acoustics are wonderful with the high
ceilings - so that other musicians are now asking to use the space. So
in a way, the expanded use of the studio perpetuates my father’s
involvement in the creative aspects of my life. My father was a singer
– he taught me to sing and then, as I told you, he helped finance the
studio which is now being used for music as well as painting and teaching.
It’s really a beautiful story of a circle of events that have happened
here. I was wondering if you ever painted or worked on your art while
music was being performed in your studio.
It’s interesting that you mention that. I did a collaboration with a
cellist who was the son of a friend of mine from the East Coast.
When Michael was coming to Cal Arts to get a master’s degree in cello, he
stopped here on his way, and stayed with us for about a week. As you
have no doubt noticed, we have a guest suite attached to the painting studio,
and we are almost never without guests! Anyway, one day Michael asked
if I would mind if he played in the studio, and I was painting and working
around, and said ‘Sure’ and he started playing a Bach suite, and I just
about melted! His music was so beautiful and I said to him, somewhat
jokingly, ‘You should just come here and play the cello for me and I will
make paintings.’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t we do that?’
So, we did! I did a painting that, for me, was about the creative
process – rather dark and swirling and confused and without much definite
form. And then there would begin to be little flippers of form
indicating that something was about to happen. I sent the painting the
Michael who by now was at school, and he kept it for nine months at which
time he sent back a tape of 24 pieces he had composed in response to the
Wow! That is fantastic! There again, look at what has happened in
your home environment. As an artist, you established a canvas that is
actually your living environment.
So, out of your living environment, this “living art” - the actual
physical space - is continuing to breathe and grow.
You’re absolutely right. And, I don’t think the musical
collaboration would have happened in a big warehouse-type space. Partly
because it’s not that personal, and also because Michael would not have
been staying there.
Yes, I notice the close proximity of the guest room to your
studio. Your guests have the luxury of being able to meander through
your studio, then into the gardens, then into the main house for morning
Yes. My work is my life, and I want my life to be my work, too. I
don’t want there to be a separation.
Actually, I am privileged to be able to do something that I love so much and
it’s wonderful to then share it with other people.
It seems that we are seeing that thread as we talk with other artists about
their home environments. That’s just the way for it is for artists.
So, let’s go back to what you said about how the neighborhood started to
change right after you moved in and transformed this property.
I don’t think the neighborhood changes were a result of anything WE did, it
was probably more of a general trend and the fact that realistically this was
an area that was affordable. The energy of the area is very positive,
but it’s maddening when you come home with groceries and you can’t park
within two blocks of your house! Of course, being the somewhat funky
neighborhood that it is, there are no driveways or garages because they are
Do you ever have neighborhood get-togethers?
Oh, all the time. I’m always glad to host neighborhood get-togethers.
Or, if I’m going to have a show, I sometimes will have a preview here
at the studio.
How has your art changed and been influenced by moving into this house and
working in the environment you created?
Well, that’s an interesting question! Let me think about it for a
moment. It’s actually a little startling to recognize that once I had
moved here and created the garden and created the studio with all the light
that my work became darker and more somber – maybe even more serious –
and more interior. allowed me to explore the darker side of things.
So you could always go into your garden to experience an uplift and then
return to the studio to plunge back into the deeper themes of your painting.
What are some of those themes that appeared as a result of living here?
Well, again, the idea of solitude – and those paintings are so dark,
they’re almost black. Following that, I was able to work on a
series of paintings that focus on meditation. They’re not exactly
dark but they’re quiet. My previous work was never quiet; it
was very energetic and bright with lots of primary colors. The
mediation paintings are a combination of subtle colors and metallic
grays; again, the studio and garden are so bright and lively that
it allows me to make paintings that explore the darker side of things.
It’s a little bit strange to think about the environment influencing me to
do the opposite of what it is, but it gives me a kind of freedom.
That is so interesting! Where do you display your artwork now?
I’m represented by Toomey-Tourel Gallery in San Francisco at 49 Geary
Street on the 4th floor. And in April 2003, I’m going to have a show of the
meditation paintings at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art and I’m
very excited about that.
So, Thekla, what advice would you give to another artist who wants to do the
same thing you have done here?
I’m struck by the fact that since I built the studio, there have been so
many people who have come by to look at it to get an idea of what’s
possible. It’s always an interesting process because some people come
full of grandiose ideas, and I think I’m a bit of a downer for them.
I tell them about some of the challenges – and the first one will always be
the City of Berkeley. You have to get all the permits to do the work
which can be an enormous problem. It certainly was for me, even though
the zoning allows it in this neighborhood. An art studio is still an
odd request for the City to deal with and they put up a lot of hurdles.
And then I think the most important thing is to ask yourself what you
really want the space for? Is it simply to do your work or do you want
to use it for other activities?
Another important issue is to try to figure out how much of your life do you
want to have in your studio? Do you want to be able to walk out of your
house, close the door, not answer the phone, and bury yourself in your
studio? Or, do you want your studio to be merely an extension of your
house? It’s difficult, and I still haven’t answered the question
When I was painting at my studio in West Oakland, I would work on paintings
that were going to be exhibited somewhere. They would go off to the
gallery, and I would look at them there, and I would be so surprised by how
different they looked and it was because the light was so different. So
when I built my studio, I hired a lighting designer who works for art
galleries in downtown San Francisco, so I have lighting similar to that of a
Another issue is storage. When we designed this studio, I thought the
storage area was huge but now, of course, it is completely full and it could
be twice as big. I also thought I would want space to actually display
my work. I’m glad I have display space because my paintings are on
the wall and are in dialogue with each other, but it means I don’t have
enough storage space!
Those are so many great
points! Would you be the general contractor again, if you had it to do
Well, I laugh about it now remembering how much hard work it was, but it
really was a lot of fun. The sub-contractors got a big kick out of the
whole process since it was obvious that I didn’t know what I was doing –
even though I did have an orange hard hat!
GST How I wish I could have seen that hat – you probably painted a design on
TH I didn’t – but I should have!
Fantastic, wonderful, brava! Thank you so much.
TH Thank you for your enthusiasm about my studio and the process of creating it.
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