The 'burbs

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The studios of Kellie Romany (l) and Ben Steele (r).
The studios of Kellie Romany (l) and Ben Steele (r).

As a co-organizer of SEEK ATL, a roving crit group for artists that visits a different studio every month, Brendan Carroll has seen a lot of solutions for some artists’ most pressing concerns: Where to find a good, cheap place to make work? In a series of articles called “Spaces,” he is evaluating the pros and cons of the many places and means by which artists make their work, which models are most beneficial to various working styles, and the unique benefits and amenities offered by different working environments.
Atlanta tends to spread out rather than build on top of itself. The downtown high-rises quickly devolve into neighborhoods of homes that roll on and on. Artists Kellie Romany and Ben Steele make their homes in the Atlanta suburbs of Alpharetta and Smyrna, respectively. Both moved to Atlanta after completing graduate school. Each has spent time living in denser cities, such as Chicago, Boston, and Baltimore. However, job prospects for both themselves and their partners have brought them to the Atlanta suburbs and offered them the opportunity to make their art in the most convenient of locations, their suburban basements.
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View of Kellie Romany’s studio in Alpharetta.

Fumes, air quality, and big messes are serious practical concerns when setting up any studio, let alone building one in a subterranean environment. But Romany’s basement studio has full-sized windows that allow for plenty of ventilation, and she freely splashes paint on her unfinished cement floors and walls. Romany’s working process includes pouring high viscosity oil paint, the various hues of human skin, over canvases of stark white and black. The fluids mix and congeal over hours and sometimes days. “I don’t really have to be in the studio for long stretches of time. My process just requires that I check the progress of the work. Is it dry yet? Is it ready yet? It’s that type of thing. So I can come down to the studio for 20 minutes or an hour, and then I don’t really need to be in here for a while. So I can go upstairs, eat dinner, do something else, and just come down to the basement every once in a while to see if the paint is doing what I want.”
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Kellie Romany’s studio in Alpharetta.

Romany used to have a separate studio that she would commute to after her day job. But, given her process, fighting through Atlanta traffic to get to a studio after work seemed like a waste of time. She feels that the Internet has increased the opportunities for exposure for artists, enabling them to move around more freely and choose an environment that favors their lifestyle rather than proximity to an art gallery or publishing industry. “No one has the perfect living/working situation. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to live a life that allows you to keep making, showing, and talking about art,” Romany says.
Ben Steele has also situated his studio practice to maximize freedom and flexibility. Steele and his wife work full time as teachers at the Westminster Schools. Two years ago, they welcomed a baby girl to the family. With family being a top priority and time being a scarce commodity, the convenience of a home studio seemed most advantageous. Similar to Romany, Steele has transformed his unfinished basement into a well-appointed studio. Because the house is perched on a hill, half of the basement is underground and pitch black for lack of windows. But this suits Steele just fine; he often uses video projection as the impetus for his oil paint creations.
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View of Ben Steele’s studio in Smyrna.

Steele’s yard slopes steeply down hill toward the back of the house, allowing the back wall of the basement to open up to a bank of window and doors that overlook the jungle gym where his daughter plays. With ample room to paint, store work, and entertain his daughter, Steele has created a comfortable situation for himself and his family. One could argue that comfort may disable an artist by displacing fierce artistic commitments with social and commercial pacifiers. Yet, Steele points out that a certain amount of economic independence from one’s studio practice may embolden an artist. “The promise of monetary reward for making art never gets in the way of how I approach my work. For me that is really important. I feel free to explore and do what the work is requiring me to do.”
Straight out of art school, not many artists consider the suburbs as their next working environment. Living the quintessential American Dream seems antithetical to the lifestyle of a radical cultural critic. The conventional romantic trajectory for artists has been to scratch out an existence by the labors of pure art and “genius.” Under this paradigm, working a day job seems too square and complacent. We think an artist should steel and harden their contrarian’s temperament against the seduction of settling for the felicities of middle class existence set out by residential and commercial developers.
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Ben Steele’s studio in Smyrna.

Yet, this view of the artist as a disaffected punk rocker has transitioned dramatically over the past 25 years. Artists are now far more likely to seek an MFA than street cred. As graduate programs in art expand all over the country, more young artists are questioning whether putting up with the squalid living conditions in New York or Los Angeles in order to “make it” actually inhibits freedom more than a suburban lifestyle. Anger and irony seem limited and have no appeal.
The increasingly preferred model includes finding steady pay, and reaching for the same lifestyle enjoyed by our neighbors who majored in marketing. And while living in the suburbs may seem quaint or conventional, within the art community this choice is radical. These new suburban radicals may still be working underground, but instead of leaving their studios and stumbling through dirty city streets back to a cramped shared apartment, they take the basement stairs up to a well-appointed three-bedroom house.

Brendan Carroll is a painter living in Atlanta. His show “Decals” is currently on view at {Poem 88}.