My Harlem Haven

My studio is in the heart of Harlem, at 125th Street. The area is a bustling part of New York, but my studio is a reprieve from all the noise and motion of the city, what I refer to as my Harlem Haven. The building is old and charming, and by the time I climb the four flights of stairs, I feel that I have entered a calmer environment. No matter what is going on in my life, I always walk into my studio space feeling relieved to be there.

One of the best things about the space is the Super who is like a “guardian of the studios.” He goes by “Brother” and is simply one of the loveliest humans I have had the pleasure to meet. He always is there to pop in and greet me with a smile and a story about his day. He likes to see my work and asks questions about what I’m making. He takes a lot of pride in keeping the building clean. His energy is so positive that I really think he is one of the reasons the space feels so great to work in.

When I arrive at my space, I feel a little bit like Mr. Rogers because the first thing I do is pause to change my shoes and put on my painting apron. (I wear paint-spattered Dansko clogs in the studio and can’t recommend them enough for people who are on their feet a lot!)

My studio is on the top floor of the building and is one room of a divided space. (I think there are about seven artists who work on the same floor.) I have a great studio mate, Manu Saluja. Usually we are working there at different times, so it’s always nice when our days overlap, and we can catch up and talk about our work. In December we had an Open Studio event and it was interesting to see how well our respective paintings hung together.

The space is small and narrow, but for NYC it feels roomy. I have windows that face north, so the light there is quite lovely and exactly what an artist wants. I also have access to the roof—which I refer to as “my other studio.” I go up there to get some fresh air and take a break with a cup of Earl Grey tea. I also use the roof to photograph paintings as well as to do any sanding and varnishing.

Usually I have several paintings going at a time so I can switch midday if I start to get a little stuck or if I need an area to dry before I continue. My preference is to work quite large. However, lately I have been experimenting with smaller works and different surfaces. I also like to allow a little time for sketching to be thinking about future ideas.

My work is primarily figurative, often with a focus on faces. My inspiration comes from many sources but usually it is people who inspire me. Several pieces from my recent series of large-scale faces were of strangers: people I was struck by and approached and asked if they would be willing to pose for me. It is always interesting to see the work that emerges from these encounters, as well as the relationships.

I have also done a lot of paintings with female artists as my subject matter. I have the good fortune of having a lot of female friends in creative fields who really inspire me.

I also get a lot of energy and inspiration from going to museums. One of my favorite things about living in the city is the museums here. I try to go to a museum once a week, usually the Met. I’m currently working on a project that involves some of my favorite pieces from the Met. I love seeing how different artists interpret their subjects. The more I paint, the more I love looking at paintings.

I paint in oils and always start my studio session with mixing 3-4 big piles of paint. Preparing my palette is very soothing to me. It’s like getting all of your ingredients ready when cooking. Often, I will be coming from teaching workshops at the Art Students League (I also teach adult drawing and painting at The Art Center in the Upper East Side during the school year) so I have to mentally switch gears to focus on my own work. Something about these gradual steps (the commute, the changing of my shoes, the putting out of my colors) gets me in the frame of mind to focus.

Something that is good about my space is that there really isn’t a comfortable spot to relax. So when I’m there, I’m there to work! (Not to say that I haven’t ever laid on the hard, wood floor to take a much needed nap, but it’s not really the most practical place to chill out.) If I need a break, I usually read a little or take a walk. Marcus Garvey Park is nearby and is good place to clear one’s head.

As much as I adore my Harlem Haven, one day I would love to have a huge, open space with skylights. I would like to not be inhibited by a small area—I want to be able to paint numerous enormous paintings. Ideally, I have an image of a decrepit barn somewhere in nature that I could convert to a workspace, much like the space I had the pleasure of working in on my residency at Vytlacil. In the meantime, I am content with my own little, crowded, charming studio in Harlem.

Liz Adams-Jones participated in The League Residency at Vyt.

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