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A camera travels up a stairway, around a corner, down a hall. A key unlocks a door. “Hi, everybody. Welcome to my studio,” says New Haven artist Susan McCaslin. She’s standing beside a table covered with cardboard packages. “I’m gonna show you around a little bit, but before I do that, I wanted to show you what’s in these boxes.” She unfolds the lid of the first box and removes a stack of cut and torn roofing paper she’s worked into textured shingles. When this video premiered in September, she was about to use them in an outdoor art installation at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art.

This is just one of 44—and counting—virtual Studio Tours presented in a chronological grid by ECOCA, in which artists both local and farther-flung open their studio doors to viewers, sharing where and how they work and what inspires them. Debbie Hesse, ECOCA’s gallery director and vice chair of its board, says video studio tours are “spontaneously happening everywhere in response to being physically distanced due to COVID.” ECOCA staff and volunteers invited artists who had been in the center’s shows, including the pandemic-interrupted Witchy, as well as other local artists, friends and acquaintances in the art world and people whose work they admired on social media to participate, premiering the first video last April.

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Visiting a museum or gallery to see works of art and read about them on object labels is a familiar activity. But in the artists’ homemade videos—some polished and produced, others raw and forthright, all posted to the Center’s Instagram account—something new and exciting happens. While we lose the physical experience of being with the work, seeing it up close and from every available angle, we gain the opportunity to witness it at its source, sometimes in progress, and to hear directly from the artists themselves.

Take, for example, Hamden artist Cat Balco, who invites viewers into her backyard studio with its paint-spattered floor and mixing tables crammed with paper towel rolls and plastic containers of paint. Three large paintings of bold bands and colored shapes hang on her studio walls. All recreate areas of detail from earlier works in this larger format, Balco explains. Stuck to another wall with thumb tacks is an array of small “test strips” of paint on scraps of paper. Originally, they were simply “palettes” to test for “the right hue, the right transparency, the right fluidity” for the paint she was using. Later it occurred to her they could be paintings themselves. “I’m the kind of artist who is always trying to undo, to get beneath, to dig, to get rid of my persona, my conscious attempts at being something,” Balco says. “So I loved to think… that I was making paintings the whole time I was creating these things that I thought of as test strips.” Her next vision, she tells viewers, is to “scale up” these unintentional paintings “while preserving their spontaneity and their freshness.”

Many of the artists in ECOCA’s Studio Tours also share details about their physical process that would otherwise remain unseen. New Haven’s Insook Hwang, for example, shows how she created her piece Blue Dino II (2020). We see it first, nearly two stories high, on the gallery wall at Daegu Art Museum in South Korea—a painted grid of irregular lines that takes on the shape of a large living creature. Later, the video flashes back to show Hwang on a large outdoor balcony, where she kneels on a huge blanket of taped-together paper stencils and traces the lines in pencil, working through the night by the light of a small lantern to stay ahead of forecast rain.

Loren Eiferman, too, shares a process that would otherwise be obscured. At her studio in upstate New York, she creates sculptures out of dried sticks of wood. “You look at her finished work, and it looks very organic,” Hesse says. “You don’t really think about how she created the shapes.” So it’s surprising to learn that one of Eiferman’s pieces contains 244 small segments of sticks held together with wooden dowels, its gaps filled with layers of putty.

Across the country, Holly Wong of San Francisco is seen “drawing” with a knife on drafting film, cutting long, flowing strips that she fills in with colored pencils. She then adds the modules to a 14 x 8 x 6-foot work-in-progress titled She that’s suspended by monofilament wire from her studio ceiling. “As I draw, I constantly have to stand back and look at where I am with the work and think about it and sort of say, ‘OK, how is this going to fit in to the larger context?’” she tells viewers in a voice-over.

It’s fun simply to peek into the spaces these artists inhabit, from custom-built, stand-alone studios to humble apartment corners. Yvonne Short’s yellow cinderblock garage in New York’s Dutchess County is a cavernous, pillared space where she shares her own work-in-progress: the life-sized figure of an African American girl modeled in porcelain clay, Bantu Knot Girl, that will be installed in a pond at an African American graveyard. Matt Neckers’s red Vermont barn, which he built himself, is packed full of projects old and new, including a vintage refrigerator and a camping trailer, both converted into mini galleries.

The tools of the trade are different in each space—a 1929 industrial sewing machine, a photo enlarger, an industrial broom, a hand saw, a kiln. So are the media. These artists find the possibility of art in items the rest of us would likely overlook. Joan Fitzsimmons sees the moon and stardust in a photogram of a bowl caked with dried yogurt. Alan Neider creates his series of 10 Circle Paintings on pieces cut from moving blankets. Taylor Chamberlain has incorporated voicemails from her mother in a piece about addiction and shows a collection of clock boxes she plans to use in an installation on “lost time.” Faustin Adeniran’s work for the past eight years “has been to re-imagine materials that would otherwise be considered trash or recyclable,” his video’s description says. He shows one piece that comments on police brutality using gun parts, bullets and bullet casings.

The tours aren’t long, ranging from under four minutes to just over 10, so you can visit more than one artist in a sitting. A new video debuts every Wednesday at 4 p.m., with extras sometimes airing on Mondays. All are archived on the ECOCA site.

There’s no planned end date for the Studio Tours, Hesse says. “I think we’ll just kind of see what the need is for them… Will things go back to normal, or will people be interested in doing them and learning about them?”

For now, at least, the need is met.

Studio Tours
presented by the Ely Center of Contemporary Art
New tours debuting every Wednesday at 4pm
(203) 907-4151 | info@elycenter.org
www.elycenter.org/studio-tours

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image incorporates photography provided courtesy of the artists and the Ely Center of Contemporary Art.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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