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Studio tour! How one artist’s adapted to the wild west of WFH

We’re not embarrassed to admit we love a good sanctioned snoop around someone else’s space. Open house? See you there. Garden tour? Grab your coat. And of course studio visits are no exception. Just take a gander at our archive of In the Studios with all sorts of 20x200 artists. While we keep on keeping inside, working to get our biz back up and running, these virtual tours-plus-interviews are feeding our curiosity and vicariously satisfying our urge to get a break from our quarantine bases. Just over here trying to be flexible and find the light in all this craziness!

It goes without saying (but worth saying anyway) that artists have also faced some major adjustments over the last few weeks. In their typical intrepid fashion, many of the artists we work with have risen to the challenge with creativity and grace. The seemingly simple directive to get to work, for instance, isn’t so simple when your usual studio is off-limits. Take Arlington, VA-based artist Negar Ahkami, who’s had to re-imagine her work space to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions. She graciously allowed us to tour her new set up (all the pics on the blog!) and filled us in on how she’s adapting. Turns out, Ahkami is experienced when it comes to handling hurdles on the way to an ideal art practice, which makes her an especially good guide in this moment. Heck, her insights on making work no matter what are helpful for all the non-artists out there, too. All that and much more in her
In the Studio.    
— Team 20x200

Collect art by Negar Ahkami

Studio Speak
Where's your studio?
My main studio is at Arlington Arts Center, in Arlington, VA. I am four years into a six-year, long term studio residency at AAC (a DC-area nonprofit contemporary art exhibition venue). The residency has been amazing. Because of COVID-19, and school closures through the rest of the school year in Virginia, I am not able to go to my AAC studio. My kids need me around—and also the shared bathroom space in the studios does not feel like a good idea right now. Luckily, I do have a workspace in my house in Arlington. So the short answer to your question: right now, my studio is at home.

How has your studio set up changed since the COVID-crisis and what effect is your new arrangement having on your artmaking?
My home studio is open to the rest of the house, so I can’t really paint in my usual carefree way with my usual glitter and sanding. I am just getting started on new work, and will just have to figure out a more methodical way of dealing with the messier stages of the painting—tarps, going outside, maybe less glitter. The biggest challenge is that I don’t have total alone time. I can always hear the kids—and that is hard for an introvert like me! This new world of homeschooling requires some supervision.

To some extent I have been prepared for the high-level of distraction of this moment. I have already had to learn that life can get in the way, and impose limits on your ideal art practice. While real life has slowed me down in the past, it has never prevented me from making art—making art has been an important constant throughout my entire life, even if at a slower pace. In more recent years, I have been struggling with pretty severe attention issues. I realized that I needed to adjust expectations and be ok with having shorter bursts of work in the studio, which I think is also more realistic for a lot of artists right now.

I think the art world places way too much expectation on scaled-up “production” and can be weirdly judgmental about what a “real” artist is and is not. Committed and serious-minded artists who have any kind of real life issue that gets in the way of the monastic, full-time artist ideal are still very much real artists. Many of us are not factories. From the very outset, I cared about making work that comes from a sense of a need to exist—a passionate place. In some ways, the shorter bursts of working right now, in these intense times, are conducive to this intention. I am finding some comfort from past experience, when some of my biggest breakthroughs and my best work have been made in challenging circumstances.

What's your favorite tool in the studio?
Suddenly noise-cancelling headphones are a necessity, and make all the difference in helping me focus on my work at home! Beyond that, the palette knife is my favorite and most essential tool—for building my tactile surfaces with gesso or thickened acrylic paint.

What do you wear when working in the studio?
In my normal studio routine, I have been wearing baggy, old clothes over my existing outfit. But recently, I was considering asking my dad if he could give me some more hospital scrubs. I used to paint in his scrubs for years—by far the most comfortable in the studio. But right now, with COVID-19, I wouldn’t think of taking anything from a hospital! And yet … I have to be honest and admit that my home studio shoes are nurse shoes (green, not white). They are incredibly comfortable, and they are washable, which is important. Wearing these health professional shoes in the home studio is a great reminder of those who fight for us each day, and what we are doing all of this for in the first place.

What's on your in-studio playlist?
I often listen to R&B dance music and 80s alternative bands like The Cure and The Smiths. I also listen to Prince, Lauryn Hill, Queen, Louis Jordan, Maria Callas, a given contemporary female artist (Fiona Apple, Feist, Cat Power…). Beethoven and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde always fire my neurons. Every Friday at 3 PM I tune into WFMU (NJ/NY area station) for the Sophisticated Boom Boom show. It’s fabulously eclectic and female-centric, and the DJ Sheila B is a total gem. My own playlists are quite eclectic, with some retro campy elements, some blues and R&B, some international elements, some guilty pleasure pop.

What's the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?
I first sit down in my paint-covered rolling office chair, rolling around and looking at the latest work that I am wrestling with. A fresh pair of eyes is key. Getting distance from my work is a really good thing in my process! I always know what to do next, and the needs of the work are always quite clear.

What's your work style? Late nights? Intense creative bursts? Slow and steady wins the race?
Slow and steady for sure—but I will pull later nights and have a more nonstop intensity closer to show deadlines. I am by nature a night owl, but for my family’s sake, I have had to restructure into daytime hours. This used to be a real struggle for me, but I think my natural clock has finally shifted! The beauty of now working from home, working late is once again an option. When I can’t sleep, tiptoeing down to the home studio is wonderfully possible.

Your art taps into Iran's incredibly rich creative and cultural traditions, turning out intricate, maximalist fantasies while touching on issues like Islamophobia, appropriation and erasure. How does this work help you process your own relationship to the changing world around you?
A lot of my older work engaged in world events that I could not control—the nonstop warmongering and two-way hostility between the US and Iran, the disinformation from both sides, and deep-rooted misperceptions that people have of Iran and my own family’s culture based on the news. Addressing my own anxieties about world events and the misperceptions I can’t control has been healing. Finding a visual expression for the neuroses of the world around me reminds me that I am not alone. And when you are constantly fed news that seems either incomplete or that makes you upset, it’s empowering to be able to put forth your own visual interpretation.

There is something existential about embracing the jolie-laide (beautiful and ugly) aspects of one’s existence—the bane of your own existence, as well as the inspiring, joyful aspects. There is something healing in literally examining that which has caused you pain, and letting it through your system by making a playful but intense painting of it. I also wanted to commemorate my response to news reports about Iran for the last 40+ years: by satirizing the cartoonishly simplified portrayals of Iran in the US—and subverting the cartoonishness with symbolic nods to Iran’s maximalist, flamboyantly proud humanity, and to the ways Persian art and culture is part of our everyday world in ways we don’t even appreciate. These little acts of symbolic subversion are not only healing, but they are records of dissent.

What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
My favorite and most productive form of procrastination is working on several things at once. I often am working on several threads with varied materials and symbolic languages. That way of working is natural to me, it is genuinely how my brain works. By jumping around in the studio when it truly feels right to work on something, I can be fully in the moment with each work. It preserves an earnestness in my work—this feeling of working on something because of a true need at a given time.


Whens, Hows & Whys

When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist and how’d you get there?
Very early on, I was an art-nerd and an art superfan as a tween. I felt as if some modernist paintings hanging in museums were talking to me—I felt a weird kinship with certain works, and a feeling of a conversation addressed to me personally, like some kind of a provocation, waiting for me to respond in a painting or drawing. Art was a big part of my identity as a tween and teenager, and I went to art school in Manhattan on weekends. But there were some serious detours in my twenties.

In college at Columbia, I was mostly focused on proving to myself that I was academically smart. But it was during that period that I began to recognize a need in art history for a more expressionistic, individualized and political kind of Persian art. By the end of college, my family expected me to “get serious” and go to law school—which was devastating as it had nothing to do with me. I went through law school bitterly complaining to my family at every step, but not finding the strength to do anything about it. I felt like I had to pretend to be someone I was not.

Throughout my law years in my 20s, I was painting, keeping a studio practice, participating in group shows. I left a big law firm after only 11 months to work as a young “law clerk” for The Museum of Modern Art. But being close to art was not enough. It became clear that I could not continue down this law path. I resigned from that job when I turned 30, and 9/11 happened during my actual last week of work. It was scary to leave behind a secure job, for art, at such an insecure time. I eventually did some residencies that gave me the gift of time, space, and feedback. That lead to Skowhegan and grad school, after which there was no turning back.

How do you get over creative blocks?
I am deeply obsessed with my content and visual sources, so I feel like I have a lifetime supply of material. For me, it’s not a question of not knowing WHAT to make: the issue is my distracted, easily excitable, wandering brain. Imminent deadlines are the best for my brain. (Some group shows, please?!) Recently I have come to realize the necessity of exercise. Yoga has been great. When I am really struggling, I think about the best advice that was given to me long ago by artist Millree Hughes, who told me, “when it’s hard, just do what’s easy right now.”

What do you like best about 20x200?
While prints don’t capture the visually-alive surfaces of my work, it means a lot to me that some older work can have a continued life and be shared with more people. The nature of my career has tended to be that success or attention about specific works would only come well after the work was shown—sometimes more than a decade later.

It’s also just nice to offer contemporary art at reasonable prices. While I wish that more people who are able to spend thousands on cars and clothes would collect contemporary art, I understand that most people can’t afford contemporary art. 20x200 offers such great options. A home with contemporary art, like a home with a lot of books, is a home rich with stories, curiosity, and imagination.

Which artists' 20x200 collections do you most covet (and why)?
I am swooning over the prints by Hilma af Klint. They are beautiful, and would serve as a great reminder of a jaw-droppingly beautiful and mind-blowing exhibition at the Guggenheim. But also she really resonates with me, symbolically, as an artist who worked outside of art world fashions and recognition, and showed an extraordinary commitment and tenacity to her own singular vision. I also think Ann Toebbe’s work lends itself so nicely in prints, and resonates in this inward home-bound time. Two other works that speak to me … Hollis Brown Thornton’s The Last Days of Disco—disco and art always make me happy. Carrie Marill’s The Tortoise would be lovely to look at every day. Also, I relate to it, as a tortoise artist, and very much not a hare.

Why do you think it's important to have a dedicated work space for your art? What advice would you give to artists looking to build a creative work space?
I will offer my own experience in case it is helpful. Even when I had very limited time, I always carved out space to work—a studio when I could afford it, a sublet if I could only manage a few months at a time. When I couldn’t manage that, I would find some other way, like an affordable school that offered a class with no supervision, or an independent study type class, or allowed me to use the space during certain times to work on my own. Sometimes, in between studios, all I had was a table and a little bit of wall in my small apartment. It got to a point where I wore a pink pageboy wig to signal to myself that it was artmaking time in my small apartment. If you don’t have a studio, there’s always a colorful wig! (I might need to try that again, now that I am home!)

The 411 on Negar Ahkami
Negar Ahkami is a painter from Clifton, NJ and New York City. She was born in Baltimore, MD. Ahkami received a B.A. in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and an MFA from School of Visual Arts. She attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and participated in the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Residency and Swing Space Residency on Governors Island. She has had three solo exhibitions, at Leila Heller Gallery in NY (2013, 2009) and LMAK Projects Brooklyn (2007). Her work has also been featured in two-person and group exhibitions at Miki Wick Kim Gallery (Zurich), Princeton University, The Austrian Cultural Forum NY, Longwood Arts Project, Stefan Stux Gallery, Kravets Wehby Gallery, and other galleries and museums. Ahkami’s work is represented in the collections of The New Britain Museum of American Art, the DePaul University Art Museum, the Farjam Collection (UAE), and private and corporate collections. She currently lives and works in the DC and New York areas. She is represented by Leila Heller Gallery in New York.