by Michael Damico
Sometime during my senior year at the University of Central Florida, I rented my first art studio in a nearby town called Eustis. I suppose it was late 2004 or early 2005. Even though I was an artist, the concept of an actual studio was new to me. It was a great space, about 10’ x 20’ in size and it even had windows for some good natural light. The guy I was apprenticing under generously leased it to me for a whopping $100 a month.
I spent most of my time in there just setting up and organizing. I should have been working on my fine art. But in hindsight, I think it was just fear or intimidation of the pressure of having a real studio of my own. It was almost like just having one forced me to be productive, even if I wasn’t “feeling it.” So, I would often avoid going all together.
I did end up making several fine art pieces while I was there though. And I was really timid about it. Meaning, I wasn’t exactly pushing my artistic boundaries. I would set up my drawings and limited collections of paintings. Then I’d invite friends over to show them off. It was probably a bit of ego that guided me at the time.
Go West, Young Man!
I graduated from college in the spring of 2005. That summer I went on a trip out West and stayed gone about two weeks. You see, my time out West was smack in the middle of the dry season in Arizona and Utah. I never gave a second thought to the fact that it was simultaneously the rainy season back home in Florida. Little did I know that while I was riding around on a motorcycle through the desert, a torrential downpour was hitting my very well-organized studio in Eustis. Actually, it was more like a deluge. The building that housed my studio was of those old flat-top-roofed structures.
Do you know what happens to old flat-topped roofs that collect rain water approximately as deep as a kiddie pool? Well, it was just too much weight. I speculate that somewhere around an hour or so after my plane took off from Orlando International Airport toward Arizona, that the rubber roof gave way to form an apparently stunning indoor waterfall.
Now, you have to figure that I had around 120 square feet of space in that studio, right? Well, it just so happened that this indoor Niagra poured down directly over my neatly organized collection. And I don’t mean just a few pieces. I mean my entire fine art collection of drawings and paintings, some of which dated back to middle school. Unfortunately, no one knew about the weather conditions that entered my studio. So, I went about my merry way, nice and dry in the wind as I rode a motorcycle down the desert highway…for two weeks. That was the perfect amount of time for my studio, which did not have air conditioning, to build up a ton of heat and moisture. And that, no doubt, gave way to some spectacularly rapid growth of mold and mildew.
This Can’t Be Happening
When I came home from my great Western adventure, you probably expect that I was refreshed and eager to run back to my studio to start painting and making art again. But I did no such thing. I was still timid about the studio, so I avoided it for another week or so. I’m pretty sure my continued absence really helped to expand the mold and mildew growth to…I don’t know…about the maximum amount possible.
One evening, I had a moment of inspiration to make a drawing. So, I eagerly hustled over to my studio. When I walked in the door, I immediately noticed stain rings around the room. It reminded me of the rings on the inside of your mug from when your coffee evaporates. I also saw a mushy, wrinkly pile of ceiling tiles and drawings lying in the middle of the floor. It smelled of musky mildew and mold, like an old sneaker combined with the smell from under the crawlspace of a home.
Stunned, I slowly bent over and picked up a few of my soggy sketchbooks…. I just stared into space with what I like to call that “million-mile stare.” We all have it. It’s that stare that makes your friends question whether you’re looking at them or the formerly-labeled “planet” Pluto.
I was beside myself. My life’s work had turned to mush. I went back to my apartment and holed myself up there for several days. I’d only leave for the occasional snack, laundromat trip, or adult libation. Admittedly, I left for a few more of those libation trips than normal at that point.
I just moped around for about a week, maybe longer. I mean everything I had poured my heart into, my darkest thoughts and explorations, my practice, it was nothing more than a heap of extract for penicillin. Then one day I finally picked myself up and went into the studio to clean it up and throw out all of my mushy and moldy artwork. But I was in for a surprise.
As I began delicately pulling the pages of my sketchpads apart, I discovered something incredible. The colors and patterns were nothing less than epic! To understand why, I need to give you just a bit of background pertaining to my artistic style. Up until this point, I was quite rigid in my expectations about my art. I tried tirelessly to execute it with precision and accuracy. I mean, I did that with every…single…piece. I was a perfectionist with my artwork. Every line, every shadow, it all had to be perfect or I simply wasn’t satisfied.
So, there I was staring into the chaos of a natural disaster inside my studio, but I was completely mesmerized by what the disaster did to my artwork. It took all the colors – the stains from my markers and watercolors, the bleeding inks – and blended them with mold and mildew into beautiful results. This marked the moment I learned an important lesson which led to a paradigm shift in my approach to art.
This so-called disaster helped me understand that there are some things you simply cannot control. With fine art and art in general, there are certain things within your control, such as the medium you’re using. Those things that you can control equal the qualities of the art. Much in the same way anyone can look at a painting and know that the artist used paint. You don’t need to be an art expert to know that it’s paint.
All that is to say, this little accident led me to understand something that changed my artwork forever: I had to learn to allow the mediums I was working with to show their nature and I had to let go of my fear (or the absurd standard of my “best”).
Going With the Flow
Everything started with a charcoal piece I made. It looked like a portrait, but that’s not really accurate. It was more of a self-study. You see, I was only using myself as a subject simply out of convenience. After I made a decent charcoal drawing and felt like it was complete, I decided to do what nature did to my art when the roof caved in: I took water and gently ran it over the drawing. That made things happen that I could neither force nor control. The water created rings where charcoal dust would collect at the edge of pooled water. It would dry in ways I couldn’t even begin to predict. Yet, it made absolute beauty. The splatters that would dry and leave a tiny film of dry charcoal would not have been possible if I hadn’t been open-minded about letting go.
This shift in my fundamental approach also inevitably led me to have less fear about potentially “messing up” a piece of art. Then I started experimenting with drips and splatters in most of my work. Letting the water run, letting it show. I figured that I could make the important parts behave the way I wanted them to, and the water can make all the cool chaos that it randomly makes…just like in nature. I didn’t even have to try. So, there we were, control and chaos in a nice little dance together. I started getting comfortable with the idea that I really can’t “mess up” anything. It’s all happening in the here and now. And on some level, everything has some interesting quality, no matter what.
This new understanding actually led to one of the more prolific periods in the life of my artwork. During 2007 and 2008, I probably created more work in that time than my entire life combined up to that point.
Fine Art in the Here and Now
Now fast-forward to the present wherein I’m proficient in oil paints. In 2017, I find myself forgiving my mistakes, but I feel like I’ve truly learned to work with the mediums rather than fight them. I genuinely enjoy seeing how far I can push something representationally. But more importantly, I feel myself more frequently engaging my canvas here and now. I’m present. I’m in the moment when I paint. At 35, my feeling is one of meditation. In fact, it almost feels like there’s something on my forehead when I’m finished with a painting session. I know that may sound confusing, but I don’t know how else to describe it for you. Other than to say, it’s as if someone has been pressing on my forehead while I paint and when I’m finished, the pressure is gone. But it’s not an unpleasant feeling. It’s simply a sensation I experience.
I try not to pay attention to the sensation, to rushing, excitement, failure, or even success. Rather, I remain curious and in a state of asking, “What now?” I keep moving, keep working, keep pushing. When you do that long enough, something interesting is bound to happen. It just can’t be rushed or forced. It happens when it happens. And knowing that alone forces me to stay in the here and now.
To be honest, sometimes it hurts. Kind of like going to the gym. But the more I show up in my studio, the longer I am inclined to stay. Each session seems to build my stamina. And sometimes I’ll take months off from the studio. Don’t worry about those times. No matter how long you stay away, it always comes back. It may be a little fuzzy at first, but it always comes back. Once I took three years off from painting. It took about one week, but it all came back. That’s not too bad, if you ask me. I mean, for comparison, take three years off at the gym and try to pick up where you left off. That’s definitely not as easy.
Fear = Misplaced Imagination
The mind is an amazing thing. Fear only gives you a reason not to do something. It’s a useless response to getting in the studio. There are plenty of reasons already, such as life, kids, work, and stress. These are all valid reasons. But fear and worry….that’s just misplaced imagination.
Have you had a studio horror story that you want to share? Has anything happened to you that led to a paradigm shift in the way you approach your artwork? What is your experience while you’re creating? Is it spiritual, physical, mental, or emotional? All of the above or none of those? Please share your story here. Let me know what you think…