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Living with art

/ 06:57 AM June 16, 2013

Unless you are like that miniature artist who paints landscapes on a grain of rice using a microscope, it’s hard to be a minimalist when you are a struggling artist (in real life, minimalism seems to fit modern architects and interior designers more than painters). It’s hard to leave without your tools, materials, and your old work. So you don’t simply need a house, you need a studio.

In fact, under such conditions, the house is defined primarily as a shelter for art and only secondly, as Le Corbusier would call it, “a machine for living”. Depending on the usual size and bulk of your work and how prolific you are, the challenge is how to squeeze a life amidst the growing mass of art.

Somewhere, you need to find a space for the stove, the television, or fridge (In fact, we are experimenting on living without a fridge, turning it off more often now to save energy and, hopefully, more space.). Eating and sleeping can be done on the floor, more likely next to a painting left to dry overnight or some wet clay in a basin. It’s practically like camping in the forest of art (Or you might say, art camp or campy art. Whatever).


It poses no problem for the artist though unless he or she lives with someone else. My wife, who does breathing exercises (prana or whatever you call it) with her yoga, hates the smell of oil paints and turpentine. So, when I work on a new oil painting, she and my daughter avoid the lower floor which is becoming my turf (in fact, she complains that the whole house is already becoming my turf).

As to the toxicity level of paints and turpentine, I have my hamsters in a cage as indicators. Which makes me think: Was it the smell of my paintings that recently made the hamster mom cranky to the point of cannibalizing her newborns?

When we moved to a new house last year, we had in mind those pictures of minimalist lofts in coffee table books for inspiration. There was also that nearly empty studio of Filipino abstract painter Arturo Luz, who preferred to hide his paintings inside cabinets, displaying only one or two.

We had the same ambitions when we first came in. We sold our old sofa and coffee table as we planned not to have a sala or living room. We replaced the old dining set with a long, hard plastic white folding table and some matching white stackable plastic and metal chairs. It proved great for eating and working. And if you need more work space, you can just fold it away.

We tried to keep the walls bare, save for one wall full of books, a couple of my own work and framed ink paintings I bought in China. To lessen the visual clutter, we made a rule to buy only things that are white or natural (unpainted wood, ceramic, stone, etc.). The zen ambience did not last long.

As I ran out of space for storing paintings and empty canvases, I started hanging them on every available wall space. Even the toilets become mini-galleries with their own clutter of small drawings, prints, maps, charts, postcards, travel souvenirs, and other knick knacks.

Inspired by the apartments in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, I repainted some walls in Maoist red and bombard them with the same clutter of artworks, photos and mini posters. The house itself becomes a work in progress: a lived collage or assemblage.

Near the door, where I also hang a pair of wayang kulit or shadow play puppets from Malaysia, I suspended the huge constructivist-inspired sintra board poster of our art exhibit with Russian artists few years ago. Now, I make a slight revision to our rule in home decoration: anything red is okay.


So the predominantly red Chinese opera masks now share a wall with flame-colored ritual masks from Bali. My collection of red stained brayers (or ink rollers) fills the overhead space at the staircase. On a beam next to the railing, I assembled a set of small family photos.

The kitchen walls too become a vertical storage for my tools as well as for vegetables planted in recycled soda bottles. More of these creep on the walls of the parking space that for now is used only for my three bicycles, potted plants, terracotta stored in ice cream bins, and a collection of scrap wood and metals that I hope to into some assemblage work or junk sculpture some day.

Then, of course, there’s that equally fast growing collection of books that I simply can’t part with. They had to be carefully sorted and shelved according to the Japanese principle of keeping like with like. Same goes with the magazines, exhibit catalogs, clippings, and art materials that travel into big plastic bins each one carefully labeled for fast identification.

So who says it’s all chaos in the artist’s cave? It might seem a miracle to some, but I do find my needles in this haystack. From such mess also is found the joy and inspiration to create—to live.

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