A Room without a View : Reflections on Studio Practice from a Privileged Poor

Chantal Feitosa

→ BFA FAV 2018

“Buy a fish at the market, cut it in half, but don’t clean it out. Draw its insides from observation, and make it as big as you possibly can.”

I knew the one I wanted almost immediately—a mackerel, slim, a little over a foot long. The wet body lay atop a bed of ice in a way that looked both glamorous and depressing. Soft, round, glass-like eyes gazed blankly upon the ceiling of the fish aisle. My step-dad (confused by the purchase) drove us home as I held the weight of my dead art experiment on my lap. The market attendant had wrapped the fish very nicely in brown paper for me—the same kind I’d soon use to re-create its likeness.

Growing up in New York on a tight budget, space was always an issue, especially when making art of the Make-It-As-Big-As-You-Possibly-Can variety. In our small Queens apartment, the navigation of living space was dictated by a constant, Tetris-like rearrangement of furniture and bodies. The rotation of subletters and foldable furniture and revising my own relationship to home became a frequent routine. As a high school student, I bent over backward readjusting the small spaces around me to create the art I wanted to make. A studio always felt like a reward reserved for established artists. Like a home or a car, such it seemed like a very adult thing to own. As a teenager trying to build a portfolio to apply for art school, any surface area was enough.

The hardest part wasn’t accommodating the actual mackerel, and the fish smell was not as bad as I expected. It was the paper that needed space. I started my fish drawing on the roof of my building. My five-foot body matched the length of the butcher paper assigned to me. I remember struggling to unroll it against the wind. As the fall season grew colder I moved back inside, some days in the kitchen, some days in my room. With each daily revision of the drawing, I was faced with the task of converting my surroundings from a space of living to work and back into one for living, and then again, and again. Upon completion, the drawing finally took on a new life outside my home. The conditions of its creation didn’t matter on the wall of my after-school art class, or months later, in the student gallery of my high school, or even as a JPG file in Slideroom for my RISD application. At that point, affluence and space weren’t essential to make interesting art.

Nearly a year after graduating with a BFA, living and working back in New York, I’m still trying to make sense of my education. Most importantly, I’m trying to understand my relationship toward making and how its often privileged structures don’t fit within my background as a low-income practicing artist. For me:

    A studio practice is a need        
                                                    a career,
                                                    a purpose.

    A studio is a want
                                                    a gift,
                                                    a luxury.

But we’re trained to believe the two are mutually entwined.  

At RISD we learn to collectively identify Studio as a proper noun. Like your best friend’s house or the one bar you revisit together weekly, it’s an establishment in and of itself, so much that it is never preceded by the article, the.

What are you doing this weekend?
I have a lot to catch up on in Studio.

Are you going to the party tonight?
Depends when I’m done with Studio.

When do you wanna schedule that studio visit?
Whenever. I’m always at Studio.

As students pursuing art and design degrees, the language we build around our relationship to a production room reflects our deep codependency. The studio is an entity. It is part of who we are and connects to all the things we do. I often wonder exactly how RISD’s pedagogical identity relates to this attachment. Perhaps the Studio mentality is embedded in the notoriously demanding curriculum—a method of working and self-worth directly tied to one’s capacity for production at highly unrealistic rates. RISD instills a drive in its students that is both admirable and self-destructive. It becomes an incubator for control of the creative self but also for the body’s purpose in a professional field with no clear-cut formula for success. At its worst, our relationship to Studio becomes elitist and prescriptive.

The first thing I notice about studio spaces I’m awarded, at RISD or elsewhere, is how they often overshadow the size of my entire childhood apartment. The instructors and staff within these rooms barely ever look like me or share my experience as a first-generation immigrant from a working-class household. At RISD I learned how to utilize space, resources, and knowledge to my creative advantage, but the inaccessible nature of the institution also forced me to take up space in ways that felt exhausting. As long as I was working, I felt like I was thriving, useful. Being granted a studio was an act of permission—my desire for an art practice in an industry that doesn’t cater to marginalized folk suddenly felt validated. This reassurance from Studio in my late teens and early twenties, however, did not train me to believe in my own professional integrity when these spaces ceased to exist for me. Marginalized students learn to perform privilege through the resources they pay to have access to. When a student doesn’t come from a financially stable background, the ways they learn to engage in such performances as the default approach to art making become hard to sustain upon graduating.

Reflecting on where I am today, I find myself struggling with the same social and financial hurdles that many recent grads often face (the exploitation of unpaid labor, the inability to find secure employment, the weight of student debt for a brand-name degree, a three-way work-work-life imbalance, with 9-to-5 and art-making work tipping the scale). Despite these inconveniences, I also reflect on all the accomplishments of my peers and how studio culture has trained us to be our own harshest critics, struggling to celebrate our respective growth and accomplishments. Art making looks dramatically different when we’re not affiliated with an institution, yet if the work is important to us, we find a way to make it. We seek new forms of production through ingenuity, collaboration, and skill sharing. These approaches inform our practice in ways we didn’t experience in school. The studio is no longer an externalization of the self, but instead one facet of our fluid creative professional identities.

So, to those about to exit RISD Studio, I offer a few further thoughts:

—We each embody Studio differently as we branch out to different jobs, different cities, different social circles. The studio is built by the resources and people we are lucky to find.

—Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time, like finding a discounted loom on Craigslist or acquiring a digital printer for free from a kind acquaintance.

—Sometimes it’s about claiming space through the entitlement of others, like artist assistants and arts administrators who are smart to take advantage of the resources their employers provide.

—Sometimes it’s in the people we know, like a room of friends and strangers bonding over cornbread and facilitated acting workshops.

—Sometimes it just comes down to being humble, an exercise in remembering our innate human ability to adapt to change and circumstance. (I often forget how good artists are at adapting, and maybe with all the learning and growing we experience at RISD, having flexibility in times of scarcity is an asset we shouldn’t be trained to leave behind.)  

Looking back, my five-foot mackerel drawing from the 12th grade became one of the most important art lessons I received. Rather than strictly teaching me about observational drawing, material exploration, or compositional challenges with scale, the assignment forced me to make interesting art within the resource limitations of my environment. After four years of a privileged BFA program and two artist residencies just months after graduating, I had completely forgotten what the mastery of improvisation feels like. Regardless of one’s background when entering art school, the luxury of Studio training grants us a sense of entitlement to space. We don’t think about the rooms we’re in because they’re simply there. Access (or a lack thereof) makes us hungry to want more, but sometimes that hunger pushes us to find what we really need.

Chantal Feitosa is an artist and educator from New York with a growing list of pop-culture conspiracy theories.