Applebee’s has nothing on Dave Van Hee’s art studio space.
You could spend hours looking at the stuff on the walls, ceiling and shelves of this 25-by-30-foot space.
Sure, there are the tools Van Hee needs to make his signature masks and newer ceramic pieces: drill bits, paint brushes, etc.
But it’s the nonessential items that give the room a certain ambience. An old brass euphonium hangs from the ceiling, as do a pair of deer antlers. A sign from a hair salon hangs nearby. There’s a Kansas flag, a set of giant wooden silverware and a strip of tarot cards. All the while, the eyes of Van Hee’s colorful metal masks peek out from the nooks and crannies.
With objects found at garage sales incorporating themselves into many of Van Hee’s works, this is more than junk.
“I’d say it’s about 80 percent retrievable,” he says of his organizational system. “If people say, ‘Do you have a ...’ fill in the blank, there’s a pretty good chance I have one.”
This weekend, more than 20 artists from around Lawrence and Douglas County will open their studios to visitors for the 15th annual Lawrence ArtWalk.
Here’s a look at four of those studios. As these artists will tell you, local work spaces often are a blend of function and aesthetics, balancing inspiration with a good dose of making do with what you have.
Studio 1: The workshop
Van Hee has been using his studio, near his home just east of Lawrence, since the mid-1970s. But that doesn’t mean he’s created the perfect work environment.
“It would look like an airplane hangar, with lots of big tables,” he says of his ideal work space.
That would be the opposite of what he has, in many respects. His current studio is packed to the gills, with small walking paths leading to work benches and shelving areas.
“Basically,” he says, “it’s just a garage.”
But he’s managed to make it comfortable. He has a wood-burning stove to keep him warm in the winter and a collection of records to listen to — though he’s just as likely to flip on satellite radio these days.
Sometimes, Van Hee will take his masks to his house to paint them. But mostly, he finds the studio to be a bit of a retreat, and his wife mostly leaves him alone when he’s working out there.
“She mostly has better things to do,” he says. “It’s hot, it’s cold. It’s dirty, it’s messy. She’d usually rather be elsewhere.”
Studio 2: The spare bedroom
From the window in the corner of her studio, Malissa Martin-Wilke can see a giant willow tree in her neighbor’s yard.
Much of her art is inspired by nature, but that willow tree is about the only natural landmark visible from the second-floor workspace.
“My ideal studio,” she says, “would be in the middle of the Flint Hills.”
But there’s some impracticality to that. First, she lives in southwestern Lawrence, not in the middle of the Flint Hills. Second, she works primarily in encaustics — a medium that involves melting layers of beeswax and pigment onto a canvas — and that requires electricity to connect her equipment. Plein air is not an option.
So she finds herself working in what otherwise might have been a bedroom, a space she picked out when she and her husband bought the house four years ago.
Martin-Wilke has two large tables for storing her encaustic pieces, which must be laid flat to dry. Those tables remind her of her family — one was in her mother’s dining room, and the other was in her father’s office.
Storage is an issue in a space this small. Martin-Wilke has bins of supplies neatly labeled in the closet, with more supplies stored under the tables.
She also stores finished works on the walls. One wall, though, is covered in works in which she tried a new technique — and the bright green chair in the room is positioned to allow her to sit and ponder those new techniques, imagining how she can incorporate them in new works.
While the space works for her, she says she’s always trying to get it just right.
“I rearrange it constantly,” she says. “I’m always searching for a magic layout.”
Studio 3: Custom-built
In the world of artist studios, Diana Dunkley is pretty well-off.
Her East Lawrence studio was built specifically for that purpose by Roger Shimomura, the retired Kansas University art professor and well-known artist. Dunkley bought it from him 14 years ago.
The 2,000-square-foot space has a large workroom, where Dunkley can set up a model stand, teach classes and do her own watercolor pieces. It has a framing station where she can get her works ready to sell. It has an office, a room to sleep in and a a sitting area to entertain guests.
Oh, and a kitchen.
“You have to have the refrigerator for the Corona stash,” she says.
Some artists might kill for the bank of large windows near the ceiling of the studio. But Dunkley says the natural light casts too many shadows, so she often covers the windows and uses incandescent lights instead.
She says preparing for the ArtWalk is about the only time she does a thorough cleaning of the studio.
“I’ve been so busy since I moved in here, I’ve never taken the time to get really organized,” she says. “I probably never will.”
Studio 4: The entire house
Sandy McKenzie’s art covers a lot of ground — acrylic and watercolor painting, magnets, felt sculptures and notecards.
So it might not be surprising that her workspace isn’t confined to one room in her southwestern Lawrence home.
“Basically, the whole house is a studio,” she says.
She usually paints in one bedroom, where she put in commercial lighting so she can see well enough to do the details.
“The couple I bought the house from had it as a boy’s bedroom,” McKenzie says. “It has a border of Jayhawks on red and blue big squares. It’s not necessarily something I would have put there myself.”
But after nine years at the house, it’s obviously not bothering her too much.
But her art supplies have spilled over into other rooms.
“I’ve pretty much taken over the dining room table as a work table,” she says. “I have storage in the dining room, for beads and paper things. It can still function as a dining room if it needed to.”
McKenzie, a professor at the KU School of Law, finds her setup convenient as she tries to fit in art with a busy teaching schedule.
It works for her, mostly — but she’d change one detail about her painting room, which is a problem for a watercolorist.
“There’s no running water,” she says.