Welcome to “Ask the Art Professor“! Essentially an advice column for visual artists, this is your chance to ask me your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, a technical question about a material, etc. Anything from the smallest technical question to the large and philosophical is welcome. I’ll do my best to provide a thorough, comprehensive answer to your question. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by posting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously. Read an archive of past articles here.
Here’s today’s question:
“Do you have any advice on art storage? What sorts of projects would you recommend keeping? Are epic failures or pieces you hate worth holding on to?”
Storage of both art materials and artwork is a logistical nightmare for most artists. These problems only get worse as you get accumulate more supplies and create more artwork over the years. When I was an undergraduate at RISD, I thought transporting/storing all of the large scale oil paintings, drawings, and prints was bad. Then I did my MFA in sculpture, and storage became exponentially more difficult with all of the fragile, three-dimensional work I was making. Compared to storing sculpture, storing two-dimensional works was a breeze. Most of the sculptures I created were plaster casts, and every single once had to be tightly bubble wrapped and packaged carefully. The summer I finished graduate school I commuted from NYC to Providence to teach in the RISD Pre-College program every week. I remember taking multiple trips in my car, slowly transporting my thesis sculptures from NYC to Boston throughout the summer. On top of that, I had three nearly life-size figure sculptures as well. Each sculpture found a home with a local friend in NYC.
One of my storage closets with bins of art supplies
I rarely throw away art materials, and so I stock up on many, many plastic bins from The Container Store to store everything. I also have a rule that I always hold onto every tool, no matter how specific or obscure it is. You really never know when you’re going to need that tool or material again. Something always emerges unexpectedly years later that you could never anticipate. I once bought a really large rubber mallet that was specifically made for woodcarving for a woodcarving class I took during Wintersession at RISD. That rubber mallet sat untouched in a tool box for seven years, until I discovered during graduate school that it was the perfect mallet for chipping plaster molds. I ended up using this mallet intensively for two years during my graduate degree. Since then, I haven’t picked it up for nine years, but I don’t doubt that it could again prove to be useful in the future.
Coincidentally, this question is being asked at the same time that I went through one of the biggest “art purges” that I’ve ever done in my career. After five years at Wellesley College, I’m moving my studio back home into my garage. My garage has been housing the majority of my artwork for the past nine years, and it was filled to the brim with old sculptures, paintings, etc., with some of the work even dating back to freshman year at RISD back in 1994. My solution: a massive yard sale to give away all of my old artwork in the garage for free. I was so certain that I would be paying exorbitant fees to have a junk service take all of the work away. Some of the work was so awful, really heavy, and awkward that I couldn’t imagine anyone possibly wanting to own any of it. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the majority of work was taken at the yard sale. In my opinion, better to give the work away for free, knowing it’s being given a good home and is being appreciated by someone else. (I know it sounds like I’m talking about a pet, but that really is my reasoning here)
Some of you are probably squirming/wondering how I could possibly bring myself to part with so much of my artwork, and then on top of that, give it away for free. So much of the work is just so incredibly old that I’m completely emotionally removed from the work. The immense amount of space storing all of this work was so overwhelming that keeping the work was a significantly bigger headache than getting rid of it. I understand that I made that work, I learned from it, and that it’s time to move on.
Only you can really determine what is worth keeping. In my opinion, failed work and work you hate isn’t worth the hassle of storage. As long as I have good documentation of the work, it’s fine to let go of the physical work. With digital technology, that’s easier than ever. I always make sure that I keep my most recent projects, so that that work is available for exhibition for at least a few years. In this case, I consider “Falling” and “Wading” to be projects that I’m holding onto. Work from “Digging” and “Waiting” is old enough that I’m either actively selling the work on my Etsy shop, or have given it away.
The one exception I do make in terms of keeping old work is when it’s a large scale, framed piece. In that case, the frame itself worth several hundreds of dollars so that’s an financial investment that I don’t want to part with. When I had a solo exhibition at the Danforth Museum of Art back in 2006, I had a number of 2′ x 3′ woodcut prints matted and framed. These pieces in my opinion are worth the hassle of storage.
“How much of your emotional life do you allow to infiltrate your work?”
“How do you face artistic burnout?”
“How can an artist balance their life?”
“How can an artist overcome their financial issues?”
“How can an artist create an artistic group outside of school?”
“Am I actually an artist?”