Renting a studio in a building where other artists are working can be a life-changing experience. It is not for every artist and it can depend on what point an artist is in their career too. Four years ago I began renting at Var Gallery & Studios in the downtown neighborhood of Walker's Point in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The availability of a Var studio at this time was critical. There were few options available, each had their own hurdles, and I was really eager to create my own work. Since I was able to pursue my art career at Var, I was able to grow. Now, I am excited to announce that this summer I am building my own studio with the help of family and friends.
Before sharing the details on my new space, I'd like to reflect on this experience of renting first. Perhaps this will be helpful for other Milwaukee-artists or prospective-tenants for an art space. When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2012, the Walker's Point Center for the Arts were generous to allow me to setup a space in their storage basement. That was a lifesaver to my art career.
Then about a year later, after many cold days and nights, I tried working at a shared-studio space for potters. That had everything I needed, ceramics-wise, but my own personal space to do whatever I wanted. I decided to move into my Riverwest flat and use the kilns at the U.W.M. Studio Arts and Craft Centre to fire my work. That helped reaffirm my bonds with a place I worked at for 4 years, but driving work back and forth grew old quick.
At the end of 2014 I was telling everyone I needed a space. A new ceramic-shop in West Allis was opening up at the time and it would have been an amazing setup. Unfortunately it would have been a long bike-ride from Riverwest. At the same time, three friends from different social groups all told me about Var and this mysterious guy named Josh Hintz. Eventually I called him and set up a studio visit. There was one spot left. I took it immediately.
When I began renting at Var, I started in a 16'x12' space shared with another artist. It felt tiny, but it was more than I was able to get anywhere else. The space was under $200 and included 24/7 access, wood shop, kitchenette, regular gallery exhibition opportunities, air conditioning, internet, free admission to events, and the electrical setup and technical maintenance for the kilns. This was a phenomenal deal! Again, I was earning little money at the time so this studio arrangement was impressive. I never went to graduate school either, so having this opportunity seemed unbelievable.
I approached this opportunity very professionally. I came into the studio nearly every day, kept quiet and did not listen to any music, recorded my hours in a log, and cleaned up when I was done (including washing the floors). Eventually, though, I loosened up and became more amicable.
The availability of other artists was a quality that made Var so worthwhile. Many artists were in a similar situation as me with a recently-earned BFA from U.W.M. or MIAD. Being able to consult with them and hang out was supportive and helped grow my confidence. It is important to note that while there were other artists working in the same building, we each had our own spaces.
I was also fortunate to be sharing a studio with a beatnik artist who had decades of knowledge and experience in the art and design field. Even though I recognized his talent and expertise right away, there was a little tension at first. We both had TONS of supplies and work in a tight space. I also had dust! In short time, however, we became best of friends. And, I learned a lot from him that I would not have been able to gain on my own.
By the time four years passed, I was renting a full-studio, operating under an LLC, self-published a book, developing a new portfolio, and working on commissions. I was able to grow and challenge myself in a safe environment. There were plenty of struggles and mistakes I made, pieces I threw out, hours wasted on a failure, but the support-structure at Var helped me overcome those hurdles and continue pursuing my bliss.
Now four years later I am moving out of Var and building my own studio. This is a tremendous step forward that I am able to take because of the incubator-space-like-quality that Var is. Any recent graduate from U.W.M. or MIAD would be at a a loss not taking into consideration Var as an option to pursue their art career. Whether it is to connect with other artists, focus on a portfolio, enter more art exhibitions, have a site to conduct business, or whatever artsy thing you need, Var is an ideal community to give yourself the needed room to grow.
Last but not least, in addition to all the amazing minds working on their art just steps away from each other, the guidance from owner Josh Hintz is invaluable.
Now I have moved from Walker's Point and into a new Milwaukee neighborhood, Hawthorn Glen. It is a tiny neighborhood mostly taken up by a nature-reserve owned by Milwaukee Public Schools. To the north is Washington Heights. As depicted, the studio is currently a 2.5 stall garage. With the help of family (primarily my dad!) and friends, the garage will be transformed into a winter-proof, kiln-safe, ceramic studio this summer. So yes, the garage door has got to go!
I cannot imagine the journey it would have been to get to this step without all the support from family, friends, and institutions such as UWM SACC, W.P.C.A., and Var (and many others!) Now the magic is just beginning. Certainly there will be obstacles, mistakes, and hurdles, but all the experience I have gained in shared studio spaces and renting from Var will make this possible.
For regular updates on the transformation, please stayed tuned on my bimonthly newsletter.
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest by Ben Tyjeski.