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Work's sounds and silences

There is no question in my mind that Virginia Woolf was right -- each artist needs "a room of one's own." But, Virginia, don't forget you also needed the bloomsbury group. When I put in a hard day at the garret, it's heartening to have a next door garreter rustling about in his room of his own.

As my next door garreter said, "It's nice to be working where nobody asks you how's it going, how much did you get done today, why'd you do that?"

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Duncan's a water colorist. I can hear the boards creak when he steps back to get a better look. I can hear the water in his brush-wash plink and slosh as he prepares to paint. The craft is as delicate in the making as in the finished product. I only wish my typewriter could be so quiet as I ply my own craft. We don't talk at the studios. We have rules about talking during working hours. When I go by his easel on the way to the common kettle, I don't even look at what he's doing. It's enough to know he's at work.

In the office just beyond his, where the kettle blows on its tin whistle, Candy stops her silk-screen printing to share a cuppa with me. While we warm our hands on our mugs, we talk just a bit. Talking is allowed if both parties are voluntarily taking a break. But even then we usually talk at each other -- trying some idea out loud. The breaks don't last long; pretty soon one of us hurries away trying to hold on to her own answer before the other has a chance to reply.

The three of us have gone whole days with no more than a couple of words. The silence itself is a profound communicator. It acknowledges that work is the essence -- the listening and forming goes on with its own essence -- the listening and forming goes on with its own reverent bustle. The silence confirms that each stroke, word, color matters most in the context of the world it creates. They are the speakers; they need no translators.

Working together in our separate rooms, we rely on the peculiar occupational noises of the different crafts to remind us that we are not at this alone. Here Duncan allows silence to become white space. There Candy interrupts with a Stonehenge of shadow. And meanwhile I am trying to leave some things unsaid. We are learning from silence how and when to speak.

In these rooms silences are not alienators nor do they drone with the boredom of the refrigerator motor drumming out sleepless nights. These silences would fray the edges of peace. Don't leave me alone to work in these silences.

But I don't mind being left alone here. I am as at home with their stuff when they are not here as when they are. Sometimes Candy takes a day with her two daughters or Duncan goes out to paint on location. Their works in progress -- the bottles, brushes, screens, familiar old shirt slumped over the chair -- seem to be at work for them. The studios have a memory of a form leaning forward to swipe at the paper and a figure curling legs around the chair as it peers through a sketchbook. The studios remind me, "Get on with it."

Mutual friends who have heard about our adjoining studios and offices have two reactions. "Are you kidding; there's no way that bunch can work so near each other without talking!" Or "But how can you go that long without talking; don't you need to?" I usually don't try to answer. Working there together has given me a humility barometer. Words in the air and not on paper are cheap. I find that if I talk about the great work I am doing, I am letting off the steam needed to finish the work -- great or small. Letting off steam works for kettles; silenc e works better for words.

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