Tools of the Trade

A look at the tools we use to make art.

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An easel bequethed to the author by Charles Pfahl, who had inherited it from Robert Brackman.

Each morning when I enter my studio, I see three objects—tools rather—that set the scene, create the mood, and that I love working with. These tools make the day of challenge and solitude easier. The first, and the most honored, is my easel. Prior to the arrival of this special easel about a year and a half ago, my easels were jigsaw puzzles of clamps and bolts, always slipping and sliding. Holding and adjusting panels was a physical and occasionally dangerous contest—and I complained continually. Then, a year and a half ago, my beloved friend, the amazing artist Charles Pfahl died. We had spoken almost every day toward the end of his life, but there was a secret he kept during that time that he never betrayed.

After his passing, his wife informed me that Charles had bequeathed me his easel, but had decided he did not want to burden me with this knowledge while he was alive. He could not have appreciated how much it would mean to me. Part of the magnitude of this gift derived from my respect for his work, as well as our personal bond. The other part was that Charles had inherited this easel as well, from the painter Robert Brackman whom he had studied with. So this easel comes with two generations of art mojo. It is physically magnificent, a sturdy piece of wooden sculpture, first growth oak with beautiful veining, a proud, dignified monument to a past of many great paintings. I humbly center the panels I am working on and pray for the karma to pass into my hands. Many poignant, strong paintings have sat on this easel, and every day I feel the responsibility of its heritage and preserving it for posterity.

In the morning as I start, the easel reminds me of its privileged history and calls me to continue, to be worthy. It is a strong, erect piece of historical furniture—beautiful in its century plus of age, the smooth mechanics of its crank. It speaks to me to steady myself, gather my strength and courage to match its history of audacity. I am honored to have this easel and further intimidated by its near pristine condition: the lives and histories of Pfahl and Brackman have barely left a blemish. I fear I will change that. I try to clean off the paint each night, but I know that with me, paint will have its way.

A lithographers table transformed
A lithographers table transformed

The next object is my lithographers table, which was built to withstand great weight and abuse. But it has served as the perfect model’s stand by providing a large, high surface that receives great light from my skylight and that moves comfortably and stands at my eye level, with room for a model (or two). Its surface is like the old, rough bark of a tree, having been painted so many colors and become weathered with so many marks, notes, wounds, and voices. I can move it around my studio to invite different light scenarios. It is so big that it wouldn’t fit through the inner vestibule door of my house and required the careful removal of two of its legs to get it into the hall and up the stairs to my studio where it was reassembled without any compromise to its strength.

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A collection of fabric slung over oak panels

The third tool I use, and that inspires me daily, is a three-fold antique screen of oaken panels. Over the years, I have covered it with dozens of orphaned bolts of cloth—fabrics I bought from eBay, including a Hmong bib, parts of decorative costumes that are embroidered, batiked, stitched, and lived in. The obvious trace of some unknown individual exists within every square of fabric and together, piled on the panels, form a unique collage. They serve as inspirations of color and pattern, a reminder that there are personal configurations and the mark of a human hand in all our endeavors. All these items make the studio my sanctuary.

Sharon Sprung is an instructor at the Art Students League.

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