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House Talk

No. 2 - July, 2002

Creative Space as Living Art
A talk with Thekla Hammond, artist

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.

TH        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.

TH        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 potters.

GST     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?

TH        Right – but I should have been!  LAUGHS!  But somehow I wasn’t – I thought ‘Oh, sure, we can do this.’

GST     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?

TH        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!’  

GST     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?

TH        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?

TH       Oh, sure – and I also dealt with all the necessary permits and documents required by the City of Berkeley.

GST     And how long did all this take?

TH        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.

GST     Regarding the house itself, what did you do?  In particular, what steps did you take to make the house more livable for you?

TH        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 in.

GST     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 this house?

TH        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!

GST     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?

TH        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.

GST      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.

TH        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.

GST      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.

TH        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 painting.

GST     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.

TH       That’s true.

GST     So, out of your living environment, this “living art”  - the actual physical space -  is continuing to breathe and grow. 

TH       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.

GST     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 coffee.  

TH       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.  

GST     That’s beautiful!

TH        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.  

GST     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.

TH        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 not required! 

GST     Do you ever have neighborhood get-togethers?

TH        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.   

GST     How has your art changed and been influenced by moving into this house and working in the environment you created?

TH        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.  

GST     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?

TH        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.

GST     That is so interesting!  Where do you display your artwork now?  

TH        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.  

GST     So, Thekla, what advice would you give to another artist who wants to do the same thing you have done here?  

TH        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 for myself.

            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 gallery.  

            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!

GST     Those are so many great points!  Would you be the general contractor again, if you had it to do over?

TH        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 top! 

TH        I didn’t – but I should have!

GST      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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