INTERVIEWS | AT HOME WITH ARTISTS
IN THE STUDIO WITH ERIC BELTZ
Where are you spending this time? What do your days look like?
I am at home. I worked from home for the first ten years that I lived in Santa Barbara. For the last five, I have had a studio on the UC Santa Barbara campus where I also teach drawing. I chose working with pencil and paper to make my studio virtually weightless. When the University started shuttering labs and encouraging the reduction of people on campus in March, I picked up my taboret, easel, and a stack of Bristol. My studio was re-rooted at home in an hour.
My studio on campus is large, brightly lit, cluttered with piles, and has a view of the Santa Ynez mountains. My home studio is small, dark, and more orderly because it is in our home, and my view is of the porch. I see the mailman every day through the large windows. My variegated Brugmansia has just finished blooming. This one is called Peaches and Cream because the flowers change color as they open and age from white to yellow to then become edged in a pale orange. My home studio is more intimate. I am surrounded again by five dark wood bookshelves. I have one metal bookshelf in my studio on campus. My home studio is also my office and my virtual classroom. It is also where our one and only closet is located. And it’s the quickest path from the living room (where my wife’s ‘office’ has been re-located) to the bathroom. My home studio is a lot of things.
This is the opposite of what I had been doing in my campus studio. I was inspired to declutter that space of all the things that did not directly support art-making by something I heard Neil Gaiman say in an interview. He set a rule for himself: While in the studio, he can either write or do nothing. He says that after five minutes, doing nothing gets boring so he starts to write. I was trying to create a physical space with that kind of focus. But with so much extra work trying to rebuild and migrate my classes online; and having to retool how I deliver and manage content for my students, and having our house be occupied by all parts of two people’s lives; this is not possible.
Now I have to work on the invisible boundaries that protect the various parts of my life: home, teaching, studio. Teaching has to be the most important part right now because I have 51 people depending directly on me. I have had to silence the impetuous artist in me who always whines for more time in the studio. I have been practicing building invisible boundaries my whole artist-life so I am pretty good at it. Jeffrey Vallance gave me advice similar to Gaiman’s that addresses the impatience and anxiousness of making time in the studio: it doesn’t matter how long you get in the studio, even just half an hour; during that time nothing else matters. Because I can literally swivel from studio to teaching since my easel is perpendicular to my desk, it is even harder to fight off the urge to write myself a note, make a change to a lecture, or send an email while in that studio fortress. It’s ok though. That is life right now. Everything is jumbled.
That’s what I do all day. And I walk the dogs.
What are you working on in the studio?
I have started a series that I kinda think I will probably be working on for the rest of my life. There is something about the images swimming around in my imagination that feels permanent – meaning they aren’t changing or drifting away. This pool feels fertile, deep, and dark. The series is called "The Garden of Radiance". The sub-series for which I am currently drawing is called "Clouds Over The Garden". I got this title idea from a drawing I called A Cloud Over The Garden. The indefinite article “A” suggests any old cloud. But the definite article “The” points to a specific garden. I like the idea that the title refers to somewhere specific but these drawings show no ground plane whatsoever. The view is only of the sky. So the suggestion is that the viewer is in "The Garden" looking up and away. Plus ‘The Garden’ has obvious ‘Of Eden’ connotations. And that is something I am exploring too. I have an interest in Apocryphal Gospels especially the Forgotten Books Of Eden. The nodes in Christian mythology that resonate with me are the expulsion from The Garden Of Eden and The Flood.
Your work involves elements of botany, myth, spirituality, history & religion. Considering that lens, how do you view this cultural moment?
All I can say to that is that I am glad I was inoculated with Depression-era values. My maternal grandparents with whom I lived for a large part of my youth were both born in the early 1920s and grew up on ranches or farms in Orange County and Imperial Valley. Waste not, want not. I make dog food from vegetable scraps. I re-imagine leftovers into evolving meals. I make food from basic ingredients. I always have one extra of whatever it is I need. Maybe this also contributes to why I work with pencil and paper. I try to live so that I do not need much. The truth is I need a lot. But by having a mind in the future and being organized, prepared, and flexible; this a great comfort to the spirit tormented by insecurity.
What books (or essays/poems, etc) do you recommend people read in 2020?
I am reading the new cookbook titled How To Dress An Egg by Ned Baldwin. I cook a lot and I love it as a counterbalance to the months I spend producing one drawing. In an afternoon or an evening, I have something that brings me joy. This book is about foundational techniques that allow you to build flavors and develop more independence in the kitchen. I am ready to let go of recipes but I need more primary knowledge.
You're seasoned in the art of baking bread, and also a professor (among many other things). Care to offer any tips or lessons to the innumerable people who are now experimenting with baking and sourdough parenting?
Keep it simple and repeat the same recipe until you understand the myriad of frustrating variables within the simple pattern of bread making. Time and temperature are ingredients that should be thoughtfully considered.
As it gets hotter, I have been experimenting with colder, longer ferments. In the winter I use my back porch to overnight ferment because it gets below 55. Plus I like to pick the slugs off my plastic bulk ferment bins in the morning. But now that it is in the 60s at night, the dough gets over-proofed with that long of a ferment. Now I am seeing what the effect of putting my dough in the fridge might be. I just did a 40% whole wheat 75% hydration loaf for 36 hours in the fridge and it turned out excellent.
Do you listen to music while you work?
Yes. When I find something that fits my mood and mindset for a drawing, I end up listening to a couple of albums or one band over and over. It’s a way to trigger engagement with that drawing. I associate those sounds with the specific challenges a drawing presents. This is probably why I have a hard time working on more than one drawing at a time. In a way, I have to be a different person for each drawing. Right now I am going through Tool’s catalog since they finally released a new album last year after 13 years of nothing. Plus the themes in their lyrics drift close to the themes in my work.
Juxtapoz published an article on you a few years back, aptly titled "Drunk Ethnobotanist Eats Visionary Weeds." Can you interpret this title into a playlist?
This is going to be an all-Tool playlist. Listen here on Spotify.