At the end of January, emerging Fort Worth-based artist Michelle Cortez Gonzales moved into her first studio outside of her home. As Carol Ivey was planning her departure from her longtime studio space at Lancaster Lofts, she reached out to Cortez Gonzales about the potential of taking over both the space and the lead artist role at the east Fort Worth property. The timing was ideal for the artist for a variety of reasons, including her new desire for structured time to focus on her practice.
Of the benefits and drawbacks of having a remote versus a home studio, Cortez Gonzales remarked, “The great thing about having a studio at the house is that I can just put on my slippers, roll out of bed, and then get to work, but I think that I need more structure. For me, to have the responsibility to get up, get dressed, and get somewhere outside of my space is important.”
She admitted that over the past few weeks she has been slow to get working in her new studio, but has spent a lot of time familiarizing herself with the space. Often, Cortez Gonzales will come in to unpack, organize, and clean-up. When I visited, the large open space was sparsely decorated, but it was telling to see the items she had on display, such as a small Jesus figure that would typically be placed on an alter, a vial of glass beads, a small portrait Francis Angelico — an early Italian Renaissance painter who in 1984 was named the patron saint of Catholic artists — and a dried plant gifted to her by Ivey.
“Objects are important to me, I collect little tchotchkes. A friend of mine gave me this,” Cortez Gonzales said, pointing to the painting of Francis Angelico. “I keep it as a way to watch over me. I’m such an anxious person. Starting something new or creating is hard. It’s really hard to be an artist, so I like to come in here and remind myself that I’m being watched over. You know? It’s just art, I’ll be okay.”
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cortez Gonzales’ large-scale mixed media works, which often incorporated painting and sewing, mined family history and personal memories. In recent years, she has made a shift to working on a smaller scale and creating pieces that more directly reference the home, both through the use of bedding materials as painting surface, and in the depiction of items from her home as the subject matter.
Because her work goes beyond straightforward painting techniques, there is much for Cortez Gonzales to consider in setting up her studio space. She requires areas for building wooden structures and assembling found objects, as well as spaces for sewing and painting. In this process, she is taking some direction from the studio’s previous owner in regard to utilizing the northern light that streams through the space’s arched windows.
“When I came into Carol’s studio, immediately the first thing I thought was, ‘The light is so great.’ And [Carol] had her easel set up here,” Cortez Gonzales said, pointing to a space near the window. “So I thought, ‘Well, I have to paint in this area.’ Seeing her studio helped me visualize how I can utilize the space.”
Just two months in, Cortez Gonzales is still working to make the space her own and has not yet had the opportunity to engage much with the other artists in the building. However, she is excited about sharing space with and feeding off of the energy of other creatives. Last year, as the pandemic continued on, Cortez Gonzales was fortunate to be involved in active artist communities. From January through December 2021, she was part of the third cohort of the Carter Community Artists initiative at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and in August, she joined 500x Gallery, an artist-run collective in Dallas.
Her experiences with these communities provide inspiration for what Cortez Gonzales hopes will happen at Lancaster Lofts: she sees the potential of the building’s shared space to be a place that showcases the studio artists’ work in small exhibitions, as well as a place that can be activated through workshops and educational programming.
“This space is such a gem and having the opportunity to have artists all together in one space, that’s a privilege,” Cortez Gonzales said.
And, just as Ivey heard hints of the outside world coming in, Cortez Gonzales remarked that she hears the whispers of conversations outside her window, and at times can hear young children nearby. I mentioned that the building next door is Texas Can Academy, a charter high school for teens who have struggled in traditional school settings, and that the young children she hears likely attend the onsite daycare which provides childcare for teen parents and vocational training for future educators. As someone who was a young mother herself, Cortez Gonzales was excited to hear about this support system and is eager about the potential of engaging with the school.
Reflecting on how she might work with the school, Cortez Gonzales remarked, “I’ve been thinking about my presence here and it was kind of a sign that this is where I need to start. As an artist and educator, I feel we have a responsibility to come to the table and plug in to the work being done within the spaces we are in. I’m not sure what that looks like, but I want to make myself available and of service to the possibilities of fostering creativity, confidence, and skill building.”