Maria Calandra

Maria Calandra was born in 1976 in London, England and lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She is the artist and writer behind the project Pencil in the Studio which she started in 2011. In this project she spends the day with artists in their studios while drawing their space and talking to them about their life and work. She holds a BFA from Ohio University and received an MFA from Cornell University in 2006. She has shown in both New York City and across the United States previously exhibiting with Andrew Edlin Gallery, Shrine, Romeo, White Columns, Geoffrey Young Gallery and Sardine.

I draw the studios and artworks of my contemporaries and the places these and other works exist beyond the studio: museums, galleries, artists’ homes, and collectors’ walls. I translate these interior spaces and the art that is in them into my own. The work acts like a portrait and homage to not only my historical influences and the institutes they exist in, but also to the work of my peers who are my constant inspiration and shape this moment in contemporary art. By employing a traditional, conceptual, and personal approach to making graphite drawings from direct observation, I am able to better see and understand what matters to me most: art.

Maria Calandra

Q&A with Maria Calandra

Questions by Emily Burns

Hi Maria! Can you talk about the connection between your work as an artist, and your blog project Pencil in the Studio? 
The drawings and writings I make for Pencil in the Studio are a big part of my practice. But there are other parts too, unrelated to the Pencil in the Studio project, and still rooted in drawing. Both stem from parallel considerations of space, experience, and detail. Lately I have been trying to channel a stream of consciousness — pulling from both the real and imagined. Objects and aspects of life appear in these drawings, from studios visits, frequented bars, art, influential shapes, and travel. Also, with the blog, comes a kind of collaboration. I contemplate whether or not it is performance art. The only catch is that there is no viewer other than myself and the artist — with an occasional assistant. 

The drawings you make of other artists studios are often incredibly detailed. I am thinking specifically of the one of Paul Demuro’s studio, in which the drawing really pays homage to the details in the work. Are translating these intricacies important to you? What kinds of challenges does this create?
I get really into the details and coming up with a way to relate the overall feel of an artwork without drawing out every single mark on its surface. For example, I often think of the stages a painting goes through before drawing it. I can use its process to help with the translation. Once, in Keltie Ferris’ studio, I decided on a composition that only incorporated half of a painting. I couldn’t get my head around drawing the whole thing and was hell bent on depicting more than one of them.

How did you first discover that you enjoyed working in other artists studios vs. your own?
I love working in my own studio, but I remembered being in high school and talking with my best friend Holly for hours while making art together at a communal table. We would go everywhere in our conversations and our drawings would go along with us. When we laughed our art laughed. I wanted that to be a part of my grown-up life. Pencil in the Studio facilitates that.

You had an interview on the podcast, Sound & Vision, where you talked about the realization that you preferred to be with other people in the studio. This was a really powerful lesson for me, because you figured out what worked for you, rather than relying on a predetermined archetype of an ‘artist’. How has that lesson affected your own practice?
It’s hard enough making art. At some point it seemed to me that whatever it takes to make it a little easier is OK to do. The Abstract Expressionists drank a shitload, Bosch was hyper-religious, O’Keefe smartly moved to New Mexico. You get the idea. So I pack a bag with drawing tools and head to different studios because being social and interacting with other artists helps my work along. There aren’t any rules, and as soon as you figure that out, it seems a lot less daunting to make art for the rest of your life.  

Do you have your own studio space or do you prefer to be nomadic?
I have a nice sized space at home. It has lots of windows and is only steps away from the rest of my domestic life. It makes it easier to travel around for Pencil in the Studio when my own studio is so close. And it is an added bonus that I can stir soup in-between drawing sessions.

How many artists have you visited for Pencil in the Studio? How have the visits changed over time?
I have made 88 visits and just reached my 6th year. The drawings have changed over time, but not the visits. The interaction between myself and the artist really differs from one studio to the next. Each visit feels like the first one. I always get a little nervous and excited beforehand. Ilike to imagine drawing their work the day before or on the way to their studio. It’s a good mental warm up.

What keeps you interested in keeping up with Pencil in the Studio?
It gives so much. I learn copious amounts from my peers. It makes me feel positive. It keeps art real, tangible and unpretentious. It reminds me of the generosity of art making. A big takeaway is that it doesn’t matter in what stage of your art career you are or how much clout you have gained along the way. Everyone is essentially in the same boat — trying to make stuff. I aim to make together-ness more accessible to those inside and outside of NYC. That goal keeps me coming back. 

Seeing so many studios for such an extended period of time—what are a few things you have learned about studios or studio practice that have stayed with you?
It takes a long time and a lot of hard work to get somewhere; try not to expect everything all at once. If you are a woman add 10 times to that. Setting up different spaces within your studio, for different kinds of freedoms, is really important. I learned that from EJ Hauser. Never let the size of your space, the time you have in your studio, or the way you make your money get in between you and a fulfilling art life.

You work in graphite on paper but also with graphite on a bare panel. The works on panel become painterly and read much more as objects. Have you always worked on both surfaces? Can you describe the differences between the two, and what draws you to working either way?
It is funny that the panel pieces are perceived painterly, we equate paint with panel and drawing with paper. I think for that reason I like drawing on both surfaces in tandem. I am also attracted to the panel’s object-ness. I always make my Pencil in the Studio drawings on paper. It feels more concise to record my experiences in the studios on an intimate surface.

Have you worked in other media besides graphite during your visits? What is it about graphite that keeps you coming back?
In some ways I feel like drawing artists’ work in color would be too close to recreating their work. I see color in graphite, however. Also, half of the fun is in translating a painting from red, blue or yellow into grayscale value. You have to look long and hard to do that. It gets me to a whole other level of experiencing art. Not to mention that I love pencils the best.

What is a typical day like for you?
Make art when my eyes open to see if something weird comes out. Do a studio visit or work in my own studio. Write on and off throughout the day. On the weekends go for a hike or spend the day going to see art. Then have a beer afterwards.

What do you listen to while you work? Is this affected by being in another artists’ space?
I rely on a good podcast as much as an album. I also adore the playlists artist friends make, or even better, the ones my husband makes for me. In other peoples’ studios we listen to what they would normally listen to while working. We also talk throughout the day. That is another kind of addictive sound. Conversational sound.

Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
All of the 88 artists that I have visited.

Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
I am re-reading a very short Marguerite Duras novel The Malady of Death. She is always lingering in the back of my mind. The simplicity and clarity of her writing works the same way graphite does on paper. It gets to the point with few variables, but is also able to give the reader every bit of intensity they need. I think about, and read, Samuel Beckett for the same reasons.

Any advice to recent grads who are interested in getting their work out there and exhibiting?
Be a part of your art community and support your peers without bias. Work hard on making art almost everyday. Reach out to those you look up to. Don’t be afraid to make whatever you want. Put down your phone in the studio. All the best artists I have visited for Pencil in the Studio keep up their drawing practice regardless of the kind of work they make. Do that.

Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
It is a long haul. Be patient.

What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
I went to the Prado in Madrid a month back. I was changed by the Valezquezes, Goyas and El Grecos. Goya made art on the walls of his house in his later years while mostly deaf. Those walls were eventually transferred to canvas so that we could see them in a museum. They were dark, confusing, and unapologetic. Some of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen.

What is your relationship with social media? Do you have a favorite or least-favorite platform?
Both Facebook and Instagram can be a double edged sword. I appreciate what it can do for the art community. It promotes sharing and encouraging one another. Seeing what everyone is doing at every moment of the day can be too much sometimes. It is important to strike a balance. Mind clutter isn’t good for art making.

How important is it for you to be in New York, since access to artists’ studios is integral to your process? Do you travel to studios outside of the city?
At the moment I want to be here. I might not always. It can be overwhelming and exciting all at once. So much to see and do. And obviously an endless number of studio visits to make. I often do visits when I travel. I have done them in Paris and in L.A. for example. I have a dream of doing a year long travel stint with Pencil in the Studio someday, all over the world. 

Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I am in a performance curated by Jason Andrews for “The Return of the Brooklyn Combine” at The Muse on June 3rd. I will make a live drawing that will be projected behind different performances. I am excited to work with sound artist Maria Chavez and visual artist Mimi Gross. I am also in a group show curated by Jennifer Coates at Freight and Volume this July. I am also spending a month in Maine with my husband and a studio this summer. A prototypical residency.

Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
Thank you, it has been such a pleasure.

To find out more about Maria and her work, check out her website, as well as her project, Pencil in the Studio.