Welcome to My Studio

The East Austin Studio Tour offers a rare chance to see where artists work and live

Jennifer Balkan at Dog House Studios
Jennifer Balkan at Dog House Studios (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

Visiting someone's home is like visiting the inside of her head: You know a whole lot more about her, very quickly. Visiting an artist's studio works the same way – especially if it's also the artist's home. You see the work's ecology.

The East Austin Studio Tour is your best opportunity all year to get that inside look at the environment where art bubbles up. For two days, artists all over the Eastside open the doors of their studios (which sometimes means their homes) to the public, in order "to encourage creative dialogue among artists and their peers, as well as between artists and their city," Big Medium says, and, hey, "their city" – that means you.

This is the seventh year for EAST, the growing-like-a-weed offspring of local arts nonprofit Big Medium, and this Saturday and Sunday will see 250 artists in 151 East Austin venues welcoming visitors. Tour guides and maps are available for free all around town or at www.eastaustinstudiotour.com.

Jana Swec, who co-founded EAST with Shea Little and Joseph Phillips (all three still participate in it), recalls that "the whole concept started with us working out of our studios as artists with a band of friends around the neighborhood doing similar things. We planned on having a weekend where we'd all open our doors and try and get people over to see our work. Then it just started to explode."

Swec says, "Talking about my work with others helps me understand it better myself and how it's perceived." But she says EAST offers visitors unexpected rewards, as well. "People go home and want to start creative projects. The artist's studio is always such a private, personal, intimate space. It's a rare chance to see how an artist lives and thinks."

And during EAST, that studio will be your oyster: You can talk with the artists, learn techniques, watch a demonstration, and perhaps even buy a piece or two, all in what one artist calls their "natural habitat."

When the studio is in the artist's own home, the oyster opens up even wider. "There is something incredibly intimate about seeing an artist's work in their private space," says Dana Younger, one of the artists and artisans behind Blue Genie Art Industries. Blue Genie – which makes parade floats, bas-reliefs, and other gigantic, beautiful, and/or hilarious things at what Texas Monthly described as its "studio-cum-fun house" – has participated in EAST since its inception. But this year, Younger is showing his own work at his small home studio. "To me, what is compelling about visual art is that it is a window into the mind of the artist," he says. "Seeing art in the home or studio of an artist creates a bridge to understanding that artist's creative process."

Visitors to his studio will see his new oil paintings, swirls of Turner-like color and motion, which he describes as "energetic abstract paintings in limited color palettes, which are reminiscent of things like trees, storms, and flowers." As an EAST veteran, Younger says: "It's been amazing to see the event grow in attendance and sophistication. The gang at Big Medium continues to astound everyone with their creativity and diligence."

Blue Genie's focus during EAST is "allowing people to see us in our 'natural habitat,' with whatever our current projects are being showcased," Younger explains. This year, that includes a 10-foot-tall Texas A&M class ring, which will be cast in bronze "and placed in front of the new alumni center at A&M."

Blue Genie will also feature the work of Blue Genie partner Rory Skagen, as well as Blue Genie staffers Michael Merritt, Ryan Day, Kristin Hogan, and Dan Morrison. And finally (it's a big warehouse), Blue Genie is also hosting the Architectural Artisans Collaborative.

Like Younger, painter and printmaker Satch Grimley works from a home studio, which he's opening to EAST visitors for the second time this year. Although it involves "a lot of pressure and hard work," it also – as a dinner party might do for the rest of us – "provides a great incentive to do some house projects that would probably never get done otherwise. Leading up to the event, I question whether it's worth it, but once it's over, I'm sure I'll decide it was."

Grimley has participated almost from the beginning."It's definitely gotten better every year," he adds. Like Younger, Grimley remarks on both the increasing popularity and increasing sophistication of the event. "But I think it still has a really rich local flavor," he says, a "block-party-ish atmosphere."

A native Austinite, Grimley was drawn into screen printing in part because of an interest in the poster scene for local musicians. His home studio "is also a working print shop, producing numerous gig posters and fine art prints for designers and artists worldwide." Grimley's own work includes serigraphy and painting, as well as leaping, swirling collages.

<i>Seriously I</i>, by Jennifer Balkan
Seriously I, by Jennifer Balkan

Ginko Studios, the workspace of porcelain maker Sunyong Chung and her husband, architect turned sculptor Philippe Klinefelter, expands the home-studio concept into a compound of the artists' "studios, residence, and guest artists space." "We've not officially opened our house to the public," says Chung, "but we've welcomed anyone who was curious or wanted to tour the house. We believe that the experience of art in its total environment can be powerful."

For EAST, Chung will show some of her delicately colored porcelain dinnerware, as well as a sculpture she is working on, intended for display at the San Angelo Museum of Art. Klinefelter will show his large, nearly complete granite sculpture Earth Fountain, commissioned by the city of Fort Worth Public Art program. Guest artists showing at the studio include Leslie Nowlin (documentary photography),Melanie Schopper (bright, strongly shaped ceramics), Alison McMillin (soft sculpture), and Chris Novella (mixed media).

Some artists feel trepidation at the prospect of strangers swarming their homes. "I imagine I would feel somewhat vulnerable if I was showing in my home studio," says Catherine Hart, "as the public would suddenly have a window into not just my work and artistic output but also my personal life." Since Hart's home studio does not fall within the tour's eligibility boundaries, she will be showing her drawings and paintings elsewhere."I get to sidestep" that vulnerability, she adds, "but I wonder if I would leave more of an imprint for the public if they saw the whole package of me as an artist." Her husband, printmaker Matt Rebholz, is also showing at EAST.

Hart's first experience with EAST last year was "wonderful" and "came at a great time for me, because I needed to see my work come together in a show format."This year, she will show some of her newer pieces, which include "large drawings and paintings that are bigger than anything I have ever made. This scale shift has been a really rewarding and difficult challenge for me, and I'm eager to hear what people will think of it."

Of course, not all artists work from home. Painter Erika Jaeggli has a studio at Pump Project Art Complex, a nonprofit that offers low-cost studio space in a bright-yellow warehouse on Shady Lane. Still, she calls it "completely in the Austin and artistic spirit to open up one's home for a studio tour."

This is Jaeggli's second year with EAST. She recalls last year as "a truly incredible event. We had a constant flow of people coming into our space." Jaeggli articulates one of the great strengths of EAST: "Seeing work in an artist's studio is a totally different experience than viewing it in a gallery or exhibition space. It allows viewers to connect not only to the work but also to the artist and the process."

Visitors will see her current series of watercolors, "Masks," which features children "wearing costumes and dressing up. I was interested in exploring the concept of identity as it relates to a young child who is in the process of forming his own self," she says. Jaeggli is not the only Pump Project artist; 18 of the more than 30 who share the complex's 20 studios will be showing work, as will two guest artists.

Some artists are private enough that even opening their nonhome studios can be unsettling. "I've never participated in a studio tour before, and frankly, it makes me nervous," says painter Alec Drummond, who moved here from Brooklyn this summer. He will be showing at his studio at Big Medium. "Having strangers passing through my studio, which is somewhat of a private space, for two days is going to be difficult.I've been on studio tours in Brooklyn, and I always felt as if I was somewhat of an interloper, even if the artist's space was made public." But as a newcomer to Austin, Drummond "had heard about what a big event EAST was," so he jumped in.

His current work is shaped abstract painting on paper. "I've done a lot of landscape and figurative painting in the past, so this is a relatively new direction for me," he says. "I suppose that all that past work informs what I'm doing now." Working with shaped paper means "I can cut and add freely to the form; the shapes force me to confront the edges."

Having a home studio can be a mixed blessing. Last year, painter Jennifer Balkan moved her studio out of her home and into Dog House Studios, which she shares with painters Pablo Taboada and Karen Maness, who will also show work during EAST. Dog House "feels like home, since we're in a cozy old house just two miles from where I live," Balkan says. About her home studio, she says, "I had been working out of a small room, and my stuff was migrating into other parts of the house.It was getting out of control." But initially she hesitated to move out, "since I had been accustomed to being able to work at any moment I felt the inspiration and being near my work at all times and just not having to get dressed to go anywhere." But she adds, wryly, "I must say it's all a bit healthier now."

A participant in EAST since its earliest days, Balkan says the project has grown so much that last year she was unable to escape to visit other artists' studios. "People can visit art spaces and galleries any old time," she says. "But they don't always have the opportunity to visit the space where the production happens." Balkan's 2007 show at Wally Workman Gallery was nominated for an Austin Critics Table Award; this spring, the Chronicle said her "Hidden Meaning" show, which featured paintings of women in animal masks, "celebrates and challenges traditional portraiture" and looks at identity with "beautiful and accepting skepticism." (See "Jennifer Balkan: Hidden Meaning," May 23.) Now, Balkan says, "I'm trying some new things," including incorporating sewing and beading in the paintings.

During EAST, Balkan will also show new "micropaintings," oil paintings smaller than a sheet of paper (like her 2007 "Ridiculed & Wounded Candy" series), which are much more affordable than a full-sized canvas. "Everyone deserves to own original art," Balkan says firmly.

That's an excellent philosophy. Once you've toured the homes and studios of the blazing East Austin arts scene and seen what Sunyong Chung calls "art in its total environment," consider capturing some art, or at least some inspiration, and bringing it back to your own home. Just make sure you capture it alive.

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East Austin Studio Tour, Big Medium, Jana Swec, Dana Younger, Blue Genie Art Industries, Satch Grimley, Sunyong Chung, Philippe Klinefelter, Catherine Hart, Pump Project Art Complex, Erika Jaeggli, Jennifer Balkan, Dog House Studios

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