Elizabeth Berrien : Working at Home
Working at Home
By Elizabeth Berrien
What could be more satisfying than working where you live? Imagine... no commute, no need to dress up, working at your own pace in an environment you've developed lovingly....
Carving Out a Place for Work
Set aside a distinct area for your studio. If at all possible, adapt an entire room to your purposes:
Whether your workspace is a kitchen corner or an entire converted barn, it should be adequately heated, lit and ventilated, and as comfortably adapted to the kind of work you do as possible. Pay special attention to the Ventilation Factor if your work entails sawdust, ceramics, spray paints, and/or any toxic substance that can get airborne. Too many artists who laughed off the fumes permeating their studios when they were in their 20's and 30's are finding themselves involuntarily retired from the work they love by the time they hit their 40's.
Opening the window ain't enough: get fans, a dust collection system, whatever it takes to safeguard your health and livelihood.
Rent a Post Office Box
Procrastination Demons are the universal tormentors of artists, writers, and other self-employed folk. Even for those peculiar folk who can discipline themselves to sit down at 9AM and paint 'til 6PM, creativity isn't something you can turn on and off at will; the Creative Cycle has peaks and lulls that differ for each artist. The constant battle is to overcome the inherent urge to futz around, and create in the circumstances that most likely Invoke the Muse. For me, this means dragging myself by the scruff to the studio and putting on music, from rock to classical as long as it puts me in the mood.
I never entirely catch up with the Procrastination Demons. I have, however, come to a Truce of sorts with them: if toward the end of a conventional workday I see I haven't really done diddly, I'll say "Well, I do believe there's a chunk of worktime with my name on it after dinner; been awhile since I pulled an All-nighter." Then again, I may be disgusted to the point of dropping art for the day to do something reprehensible, like house work. And I take on as many show deadlines as I can to kickstart the creative juices.
Use an answering machine, and only peek at break times; it'll pay for itself within a month by keeping you focused on the creation at hand. Set aside regular chunks of time for working on art (working around school, the Day Job, housemate schedules, and the time of day or night when your creative juices are at peak) and chunks of time for business (working around standard hours for businesses you deal with, evening contact times with clients, and times you feel most businessish). Any time you feel creatively blocked, switch over to business and you'll be raring for the easel in no time.
Partners, offspring, and/or other two-or-four-legged animals sharing your breathing space are going to affect how you work. Ideally, they'll wear blinkers as you perform the involved petty rituals preparatory to Booting Yourself into the Studio; setting a work discipline is YOUR responsibility, not theirs. You'll need all your diplomatic skills to condition your housemates, friends and neighbors to understand that just because you work at home doesn't mean you're free to drop everything. Rather, you can, but at a cost to your creative productivity. Buy a copy of Judith Martin's Miss Manner's Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, and learn to say, "Lovely thought, but it's just not possible right now. How about next week?"
Offspring are a Special Case
Artistic Parenthood deserves a chapter of its own. If you've trained your kids to cooperate with your production routine and schedule, great. If you find yourself torn trying to balance parenting with creating enough to feed your family, seriously consider day care for the working hours you would otherwise spend in an office, tapering off as your kids develop the maturity to respect your work requirements. By linking up with other artist parents, you may be able to rotate a clump of kids between you as a day-care co-op.
Maintaining a Professional Veneer
You are a business professional as well as an artist, and you have a responsibility to make a professional impression every time someone calls or visits your studio. Rightly or wrongly, business folk will drop you several pegs if they hear Rock 'n' Roll, howling children and other dead giveaways that this is a family home, not the Hallowed Studio of an Undiscovered Master. They'll question your professional habits and ability if you can't keep your own kids from interrupting or drowning out your conversation entirely. So enlist the cooperation of ALL your housemates (and any guests) in this Conspiracy of Silence:
When the phone rings, the nearest person turns Volume all the way down on the TV and/or stereo; by the third ring, the artist's voice is the only audible sound as she greets the caller, who can devote full attention to conducting business instead of trying to discern what sub-species of hyena is being vivisected in the next room. Even 4-year-olds easily learn "Three-Ring Circus", if immediate praise is dished out for successful muting (or a fifteen-minute confinement to quarters for Deliberate Violations). Upon hearing that even preschoolers can do it, older kids usually loftily comply as a point of pride.
Red Alert: The Client Visit
Sooner or later, you've got to expose your home to a client or business type who's already succumbed to the serene, competent professional facade you have brilliantly constructed via the above-described blue smoke and mirrors. Paradoxically, visitors are likely to have two opposing preconceived notions about the Exotic Experience awaiting them.
Preconceived Notion #1: Bohemian Charm
Our home is in the style of Early Charles Addams; some affect Gauzy Nostalgic Victoriana, and Post-Apocalyptic Appliance Rackage is hot in San Francisco's SOMA District. Those who have foregone the risks entailed in making a living from art and taken conventional careers that make it possible to afford art (Bless them) see us as their Road Not Taken. They envy us our precarious livelihood, and attribute us with all that they've reluctantly forsaken. Scratch the surface of a corporate executive, and you'll find a pipe dream of Chucking It All and setting up as a craftsperson. We artists are a bruised fantasy they gin up in routine days as Paycheck Slaves: we owe them a little Theatre.
The common denominator is a reflection in one's home of the individuality of one's work. Instead of working at normalizing your home to the point where it looks disappointingly like the one your Visitor just left, concentrate on tidying everything from the front door to your studio (and all the sightlines on the way); upgrade from Creative Ferment to Charmingly Eclectic. Include a side channel to a bathroom free of Health Code Violations.
Preconceived Notion #2 The Efficient Office
We wait until we've set a reliable track record with business contacts before allowing a rare peek at our Nerve Center, a 12-foot cubed hamster cage of ceiling-high mounds of paperwork, with the occasional file cabinet, desk, chair and computer interspersed among the rubble. As we don't expect others to automatically embrace our Archaeological Dig system of filing, usually we restrict business and social visits to the studio itself. So keep a reassuringly tidy office, or close the door.
Ask Antie Social
Dear Auntie Social: Our son Guido has achieved puberty and, alas, seems bent upon provoking us to Infanticide. Any creative suggestions on Disposing of the Body?
My Children: Beleaguered Kings and Queens of Yore devised a brilliant Disposal Method, which for Political Correctness was disguised as a Hostage Exchange. To maintain a truce, neighboring kingdoms switched Firstborns, to be raised Honourably so long as nobody went setting up catapults by dark of night. They soon realized that Youth of a certain age respect non-parents to a far greater degree than true parents; they're far more willing to comply with the wishes of an aunt, uncle or neighbor than to those of their own folk, and behave far more charmingly in their presence. Furthermore, they're easier to discipline by non-parents, since rarely do they have knowledge of these people's Guilt Buttons (although THEIR offspring do).
Meet with a few friends to discuss the Signal Joys of Parenthood, and experiment with swapping kids for a day, a week, a decade. The kid who gags at cleaning out the garage is a willing slave when given the chance to lodge with a blacksmith's family; the smith's kid, bored to tears in the presence of a forge, might be fascinated to have access to the tools and materials found in a woodworker's household. If baseball clubs can swap humans like chattel, why can't you? •
© 1992 Elizabeth Berrien, all rights reserved. First published in The Ink People News.
Elizabeth Berrien, acclaimed as Godmother of the modern wire sculpture movement, has made a living from her wire animals since 1980. Her works are exhibited in museums, airports, corporate settings, homes and landscapes around the world. More »