The Decoration of Houses
by Natalie Beall
“Like vernacular art, most hobby art emphasizes the recycling of humble used objects, from plastic bottles to orange peels. The process recalls the often-stated self-identification of women artists with the socially overlooked or discarded, with objects and materials found ‘on the woodpile’...”
From “The Word in Their Hands” by Lucy R. Lippard
“...she lives alone, working with the materials she has on hand to populate her home with objects of questionable function…”
-NB, From a conversation between Natalie Beall & Catherine Czacki, Possible Press 2015
After 12 years of living in New York City, my husband and I moved to the Hudson Valley in August of 2016. Our reasons were similar to those one reads about on upstate blogs–we were tired of spending a second rent on studio spaces, we had been part of the grind for what felt like too long, we enjoyed hiking and often drove upstate on weekends when we could. Another artist couple we knew had recently done it, and we were starting to wonder if we would live in New York forever and what else was out there. Living in the city seemed impractical in the long-term. We wanted to carve out a sustainable situation for ourselves, where making art, enjoying nature, being less stressed, and maybe even having a child could all happen in a bucolic village 90 miles north of NYC.
In some ways, we’ve achieved this ideal. We each have studio spaces in a roomy house which we own, and for which we pay less monthly than our one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. We spend a lot of time outdoors, hiking and gardening, and when we are up here together there is a sense of calm and satisfaction. We chose our house based upon its size and “good bones”, its pastoral setting along a two lane road that runs by several dairy farms, and its location near the Metro North station in Poughkeepsie, to which we are still tethered for our part-time jobs in the city.
However, the adjustment from city life has been intense at times. Our first weeks in the house were filled with rookie mishaps, including an ill-advised home renovation project, a wasp attack and a bout of poison ivy. We know almost no one in our tiny hamlet of 300 except for the next door neighbors who happen to be lovely. When I look out my bedroom window on winter mornings, I can see a confederate flag waving in the distance from behind an unknown neighbor’s home. There are times we look at each other and ask ourselves, “How did we get here?”
I enjoy some aspects of the isolation. Except for those of my close friends and colleagues, I don’t like attending art openings and I often get perverse pleasure out of being physically unable to attend them. Both my husband and I enjoy a lot of alone time, and we can be happy for days with only each other for company. Still, there is a sense that we are not as connected to the artistic community we once had access to in the city, which we slowly built from our years in graduate school and our other activities.
More to the point, maintaining a studio practice up here has proven elusive so far. In the first few months, we were obsessed with working on the house–stripping old wallpaper, painting walls and cabinets, changing light fixtures, hunting for furniture. After months of this, our energy and our money depleted, we were forced to sit with our house as it was. This would have been the perfect time to get back into the studio, but I found it difficult to concentrate. Instead, I made a table using the discarded doors of our kitchen pantry, sewed a table runner for it, and then repainted an old shelf I found in the attic.
I made abstract sculptures in my Brooklyn studio as well as collages and prints reminiscent of domestic objects. I snapped photos on the street of unidentifiable discarded things and strange-looking fixtures, forms that might eventually migrate into a sculpture through an intuitive process manipulating materials. Now I find myself spending hours looking at cabinet fixtures online, making multiple trips to area antique stores, and making sure the grain-filled mason jars in the kitchen are lined up correctly. I wonder if this is a phase, as the house is still a new endeavor, or if this is the beginning of the end of my artistic output. While I try to be open-minded and think about the intersections of homemaking and art, about how canning vegetables could be construed as an artistic practice, I remain uncomfortable with the current situation.
I have previously cited my mother as an influence on my art. While not an artist per se, she sewed matching clothes for me and my dolls and created perfectly sewn matching drapes, pillow cases and chair cushions for our house. I saw parallels to her creative output as a homemaker in my own activities in the studio. I also used fabric, craft, and found materials and had a drive to create things with them, except that I made imagined versions of actual objects rendered useless. I want to see something radical in my mother’s activities, a legacy of slightly unhinged creation within a particular set of limitations.