The Studio

A dusty light came through the window. The view was of New York. It could have been a false view done with a photo.

I crawled out from beneath the rostra. This was only my preferred means of getting around the studio.

I didn’t need the invisibility. When I appeared I was immediately involved in whatever activity was in progress. The invisibility of getting around sub-rostra was more a game I played with myself.

And in the wooden legs and struts of these raised floors that, since they were the platforms on which the work was made, took up a large of the studio, it was still.

It wasn’t quiet, not with all the machines for cutting and grinding, not with all the shouting of directions and the tramping back and forth, but it was a sanctuary, my private domain.

I had as little need to be out from under foot, while under floor, as I did to be out of sight. I could ‘Hold this,’ ‘Take that,’ and ‘Tell so and so about the revised deadlines for such and such.’ And I could provide the invaluable serve of complimenting the artists on their work.

There were as many as ten projects going on constantly, four main artists and several satellites.

‘Artist’ meant a magician able to transform tangible materials into intangible things, like feelings. Quantities of things, sometimes with their own innate qualities, became new qualities. Parts were made into wholes and vast quantities of things were supplied.

There were diamonds, paper, hessian, silk, marble, iron nails, gold leaf, resin, powdered minerals and natural and artificial kinds of waste, plastic and shells.

They were layered and they were stripped away. They were built up and ground smooth. The soft became rough. The solid softened.

Time was accelerated. Skins wrinkled. Stone wore down. Fabric turned to rags. Iron rusted. Wood rotted.

And the passage of time was halted.

Apples remained bruised forever. Paper, like diamonds, could last forever. Decay was stopped in the middle, where something else was revealed.

Palettes of materials arrived at the loading dock. They passed through the workshops on the first and second floors, then to the loft where final assembly or finishing took place. From there pieces were lowered by hoist down the shaft, back to the loading dock.

Plans travelled in a zig-zag up and down the building, up from the workshops, down from the loft.

Orders followed the same course, to the stock rooms behind the dock.

Notices of the arrival of new stock retraced that path to the loft, to be posted on one of the noticeboards in the drawing room, where plans were made up.

The drawing room was down a corridor from the open part of the loft. This was one of the few places I’d have to break cover if I were going below rostra.

Even in the dock I could crawl behind and below the shelves on either side of it. This was dangerous when materials were being unloaded or when the hoist was in use. But it was exciting to see some of the larger pieces from below as they came down.

There were works like church spires, which barely fitted in the shaft and had to be lowered inch by inch and slowly turned, degree by degree. The more impressive they were, the more dangerous for me.

I might have enjoyed them being moved but these were not the works I felt most for.

Two of the studio’s artists made large-scale works. There were the church spires, like missiles frozen in stone, or prehistoric space-ships, and there were the wooden derricks, the scaffolds, the huge jetty structures, bridges that began and left you suspended, as if expelling you, making you walk the plank part way, halfway across.

Sometimes these were placed in rivers, with one end in the water, the arch left soaring fifty feet or more above the bank. And there was no way to get on.

Sometimes wooden scaffolds went up and you could walk on them but where the building ought to have been there was nothing. They were built around an empty space.

And just occasionally they collaborated, the spire artist and the wooden scaffold artist.

What you got were cranes.

The expected scaffold might take you up to the top of the spire, but it would then take you out from it, on a wooden arm that ended in space.

I admired them but they were not my favourites.

They were big as the artists themselves were big.

I eavesdropped on their arguments in the drawing room. Sheets of paper were screwed up, ripped and even burnt when they could not agree.

The paper artist hated these displays.

He would sit at the great desk and quietly pull a new sheet from its hundreds of shelves, where every kind of paper or card imaginable was kept.

The argument might increase in fury, like a storm. The paper artist would sit at its centre, its eye, working away.

When he’d finished, he might say, ‘Is this what you mean?’

And sooner or later the two others would stop and look.

There on the paper to their astonishment and embarrassment would be the answer.

You might have claimed the paper artist as the author of both their works and therefore as the greater artist.

The bull-headed sculptors would shuffle away, sometimes with a reflexive, ‘I told you so!’ or, ‘That is not quite right,’ about some unimportant detail in the drawing. But they would concede that the paper artist had got it, had captured it.

Of course, they wouldn’t thank him and by the next time it would’ve been forgotten.

The paper artist’s own works were as small and delicate as arrangements of iron filings. But the filings they arranged were built fibre by fibre from the paper itself. Or the works were made of layers of materials, fabrics, paper, slivers of glass and even diamond chip and gold leaf.

The top layers were stripped back, torn and cut. Those underneath were scratched at and scarred. Textures were brought to light and new zones were discovered where they met and joined or flowed into one another, or frayed on top of another, or butted together or interlaced.

Sometimes these shifting, shimmering zones would come to occupy an entire work.

From a distance little could be discerned in the way of landmarks. As you approached mountainous regions would be discovered, diamond screes and copper valleys with snaking green rivers between banks of clotted silk.

I loved watching the paper artist work in his corner of the loft when he was working on his layered pieces. He was a builder of worlds, except in reverse.

When the work was finished, when it had reached the point that nothing more could be added to it, was when creation began. With a rip or a gouge, the textures of what was underneath, the insides, would be revealed.

He didn’t go at this process carefully like a surgeon when he opens up a body. He moved about the work like a boxer, like a dancer, jabbing at it and cutting it and stripping it, with long downwards and sideways strokes.

And he would laugh. And watching him I’d laugh too.

The filament works, those fine arrangements of paper and fabric fibres, were put together in a specially constructed tent.

I could see him, his face distorted by the clear plastic, with tweezers and an eyepiece, like a jeweller.

In a strange way these miniatures were more impressive than the monuments of stone and wood going up elsewhere in the loft.

They didn’t have the excitement of the layered pieces but when they were complete they were like tiny windows onto uninhabited worlds.

They were alive. They held you in a kind of thrall.

However even these were not my favourite.

The fourth artist resident at the studio was the laziest. At least, he was hardly ever in the loft.

His works were often under dust-cloths. And I never saw him make a sketch or plan of what he intended to do.

This was not because he didn’t like paper-work. On the contrary, he kept the whole place supplied with materials.

There were order- or dispatch-forms to be conveyed around the building. These were his. And if there were notices of revisions to deadlines or instructions of any kind with anything to do with the commercial running of the studio, they also tended to be his.

You might have said he was a lazy artist but an active businessman. This was true, in a sense, but it didn’t quite cover his enterprise.

As the loading dock, workshops, drawing room and loft were inside and part of the studio, as the diamond-encrusted layers were revealed by ripping away the outer skin, the fourth artist’s work was somehow the world in which the others might exist. He provided the principle of their co-existence.

And under the dust-cloths in the loft his works were unassuming. Although they seemed to be a sideline, they were at the centre of everything else.

They were not however the centre. They were like gravity.

Sunlight penetrating through the cracks in the raised floor of the rostra sent down bright shafts. They trapped the dust in the air and were narrow and sharp.

Like spotlights they caught a hand or hit a leg as I crawled over and under struts and spars and squeezed between the wooden legs supporting the roof of my domain.

A blood-red block of marble was being raised to the loft.

The fourth artist followed its progress from floor to floor and I was following him, invisible, sometimes under the platform he stood on, sometimes beside him, hidden in the shadows.

When the dust-cloths were removed in preparation to receive the block I was there. I saw the smooth and polished curves of the marble.

The work was made of many different colours and grains. It took up a large square of stage.

It was like a lounge suite but for aliens. No human could have sat on its strange and contorted shapes.

I liked this work most of all.

It was neither too big nor too small. You could look at it all at once and not climb onto it or into it.

You could hold the whole thing in your mind and let your eyes slip down the curves and walk in the deep shadows of its squares, in clefts between the marble faces.

You could glide through and over its passages of black, green, beside its blunt towers and trunks.

It was as private and still as my own domain below the stage.

It was like a mausoleum.

And it held you that way too. As if you were among the spirits of those for whom it had been built, it was your house, your home.

The block of blood-red marble was being slowly manoeuvred into position.

It had been perfectly cut so that between it and its neighbours there was not a crack. It slid in and joined the others as if into a vacuum.

And you could not imagine its ever being removed, or moved again, at all.