February 2009: A world apart

February 2009: A world apart

It’s what any artist or writer would kill for: a separate space in which to work, but one that requires no commute at all. A space that’s convenient, but allows no distraction. “I wanted it to be comfortable but not too comfortable,” says Sharon Shapiro about her painting studio. In other words, the perfect balance.

A 30’ sightline inside Sharon Shapiro’s studio allows her to size up works in progress. Unlike many painters, she wanted a relatively small amount of natural light.

That’s what Shapiro and several other locals have managed to create. Each has a work space that occupies its own small building, designed for the purpose and steps from their respective back doors. We took a tour of these modest, but beautiful, temples to concentration. Artists and writers (and musicians and crafters): Prepare to drool.

Car spot

Shapiro, a painter who’s shown locally at Second Street Gallery as well as nationally, had spent years renting studio space when she finally talked with the partners at Formwork about converting her garage to a work space. “It was an old 1950s garage with an electric door,” she remembers. Because it was narrow, “I wouldn’t have put my car in it.” But Formwork’s Cecilia Hernandez Nichols thought it had potential: “We really liked the shape of the garage,” she remembers. “Taking it out altogether never seemed an option.”

Outside, Shapiro’s studio shows its status as a former garage, while an addition, designed by Formwork and built by Rick Hazard, is distinct and modern.

Instead, Nichols and her partner Robert Nichols decided to add on to the back of the garage, creating an L-shaped building with two distinct sections that form a small courtyard. She explains, “The idea was to make the little garage as white as possible, and a much darker volume in back”: While the garage could almost go unnoticed in a typical Charlottesville backyard, the addition is modern, clad in copper and moss-green HardiPanel.

Inside, the studio—which was finished in 2001—reflects Shapiro’s well-earned sense of her own working habits. “I needed some natural light, but not a lot,” she says. “I needed big doors to get paintings in and out of.” Shapiro also knew she needed to look at works in progress from a good distance: “She paced it and we measured it,” says Nichols. “It wasn’t 24′, it wasn’t 26′, it had to be as much as 30′.”

Thus the design includes carefully placed windows on the north and east walls, two sets of large double doors, and a work area at one end of a long gallery. At the opposite end are shelves and flat files for storage, and in the addition are a bathroom and a salvaged sink for washing out brushes, flecked with a rainbow of paint colors.

The space includes practicalities, like a computer desk and a coffeepot, that minimize the trips Shapiro needs to make into her house. But more than that, the studio is organized to promote the work, roomy and inviting. Finished paintings, unfinished paintings, and the magazines Shapiro uses for source material are everywhere, but don’t create clutter. Most walls and the ceiling are a gallery-worthy white, but one pale blue wall sets off the desk area. Exposed joists and ductwork, along with a simple plywood floor, keep the atmosphere down to earth.

In the nearly eight years she’s used the studio, Shapiro says, “I think [I’ve been] a lot more productive than I used to be. If I work on something late at night I can come out first thing in the morning with my coffee and look at it, and I don’t have to go downtown and park.” As a mother, she thinks her studio is likewise a better solution than a room inside the house, where distraction would come more easily—though her 13-year-old daughter and the family dog do find the studio couch a comfy spot to hang out now and then.

Shed for thought

Not far away, behind the home of Holly Shulman—a professor in UVA’s Studies in Women and Gender program and a noted Dolley Madison scholar—a onetime storage shed has been just as thoroughly transformed. A decade ago, Shulman and her husband John C.A. Stagg had been living in their appealing Cape Cod for five years. For that entire period, she had thought about making the shed into a study. “It had occurred to me as soon as we bought the place,” she says.

Holly Shulman’s study is diminutive on approach, but once inside, a view opens to the backyard through numerous windows.


She approached Jeff Bushman, at Bushman Dreyfus Architects, about the project, asking for “bookcases, lots of light, and a good workspace.” The result is more than functional, though; it has a contemplative feel. From the wraparound desk, one’s gaze is drawn through windows toward the back yard, rather than toward the house or the street. A high, white vaulted ceiling makes the space feel generous despite a small footprint. And storage for books is made part of the atmosphere through five banks of bookshelves along one wall.

“Jeff managed to put a lot into this space without making it look cluttered,” Shulman says. Though the building’s white exterior speaks easily to that of the 1938 house, which is just steps away, landscape design by Gregg Bleam contributes to a sense of remove. Bleam had screened Shulman’s house from a neighbor with two parallel rows of plantings along a gravel pathway: chokeberry and European hornbeam. He also designed fencing influenced by Japanese latticework. To walk along this pathway toward the study is to traverse a subtle, but definite, passage.

Shulman says this space was a priority that came even before remodeling an unsatisfactory kitchen, even though “I cook all the time …[The study is] a lovely space,” Shulman says. “It’s a fabulous area to work in: light, airy, sunny, warm.”

Days in light

“Sunny” was a priority too for another local painter who hired Fred Wolf, of Wolf Ackerman Design, to design his studio in 2004. In this case, though, the studio would be an entirely new structure. Though there was no existing building for a starting point, Wolf nonetheless looked around the neighboring backyards for some of his inspiration. “The outer skin was about the relationship to the house”—a brick four-square—“and what outbuildings in those properties might look like.” Corrugated metal and cement board make up that skin.

Inside, the goal was a space that was not too precious—a feeling of “messy vitality,” as Wolf describes it. The choice to build a home work space was “a decision about owning rather than renting,” his client (who did not want to be identified) explains, but it was also necessary not to downgrade size or functionality from the rented studio he’d used previously. Wolf thought he could improve on that space in that it was “like going through somebody’s garage or attic. Pieces in process could be struggling for attention.” This wasn’t ideal for an artist who works on many pieces simultaneously.

Fred Wolf demonstrates the permeability of this painting studio: a wall of sliding glass doors. Inside (below), Homasote walls allow the client to move among many paintings in progress, easily tacked up.

Instead, the new studio allows works in progress to be easily tacked up on any of the four walls, which are made of Homasote, a compressed-paper material. A painted OSB floor and plywood ceiling are no-nonsense, and ample storage space keeps the work area clear. Wolf allowed sun to flood in through windows and doors in the south wall, plus some openings to the north—though his client has moderated the light somewhat with blinds, preserving the warmth of a sunbeam landing on the floor but “keeping it low, not on me.”  
In this case, since the studio was a new structure, Wolf had the opportunity to consider how its siting would impact the rest of the property. “On one level there was this relation to the driveway that was important,” he says, for ease in loading paintings from studio to vehicles. But, too, the idea of a retreat—connected to but distinct from the house—was integral to the work space’s function.

Wolf’s solution was to “have this piece float in the landscape that is their backyard,” elevated on piers rather than a foundation, and reached on foot via a short metal bridge. “Even at the small scale, there’s a ritual or a step that, psychologically, [is] about thinking ‘I’m leaving everything else behind,’” says Wolf. “It’s a way to disengage from the everyday and get into a place physically and mentally where you can do your work.”

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