When building his studio, Christopher Pierce looked nearby for inspiration from an American master.
by Austin R. Williams
Artist Christopher Pierce’s home,
library, and barn on the property
he calls Innisfree, in Shushan,
New York. The studio building is
located to the right of the barn.
When artist Christopher Pierce decided to build a studio in rural New York, he chose to base it upon Norman Rockwell’s studio from the 1940s and 1950s, in which Rockwell painted many of his best-loved illustrations. “It was serendipitous,” Pierce says of the experience. “I was always a fan of Rockwell. When I grew up, he was labeled an ‘illustrator,’ not an artist, but I was always attracted to his work.”
Pierce began creating art after an ear problem made it impossible for him to pursue his work in music. “This was my second career,” he says, “and I really lucked out.” He converted his music room to an art studio, drew from a nude model five days a week, and his art career subsequently took off. “Evan Wilson, George Van Hook, and David Hatfield took me under their wings,” Pierce recalls. “Wilson had a studio at the time that was fashioned after the Norman Rockwell studio, and I took that idea.”
In 1996 and 1997, Pierce built a barnlike studio in Shushan, New York, that is fashioned after Rockwell’s studio in nearby West Arlington, Vermont. Many visitors presume that Pierce’s studio was converted from an existing barn, but Pierce built it from scratch. He gave the building a gambrel roof and other elements traditional to barns. “I wanted it to look as if it fit in the field,” Pierce says. He named his home and studio Innisfree, from a poem by W.B. Yeats about the appeal of quiet country life.
Pierce working on a still
life painting near the
north-facing window in
Perhaps the most striking feature of Pierce’s studio is its large main window, which measures 14' x 11'. The window faces true north (as opposed to magnetic north, which differs by several degrees). Pierce says that this orientation yields ideal light. “I never get sun in the north light, which is great,” he says, noting that he spends much of his time painting by the window. Two large drapes help to control the light, and each section of the window has shades that rise from the bottom. The west wall of the studio has a door and additional windows, which are also controlled by shades. “It’s a lot of light,” says Pierce. The size of the north window has led to a certain problem painting still lifes. “If I’m working from sunflowers, they move,” says Pierce. “They’re heliotropes—they follow the light.”
The studio’s main room measures 24' x 26'. As in Rockwell’s Arlington studio, the interior is constructed from wainscoting and novelty siding, which became popular in the late 19th century. Pierce added a sprung floor, which gives a cushiony effect to the wood and makes walking back and forth during sight-size painting more comfortable. The floor is so accommodating that Pierce regularly exercises in the studio. (“A lot of my time is spent in here,” he says.)
As in Rockwell’s studio, a balcony overlooks the main space, and behind the balcony is another room, which measures 10' x 24'. “That’s my main storage space,” says Pierce. “I’m going to be adding an addition, because that’s not enough.” Pierce’s studio shares several other features with the Arlington studio, such as a hidden closet near the stove that holds a half cord of wood and opens both outside and inside for easy loading.
Despite taking inspiration from Rockwell when building his studio, Pierce does not claim any special connection with the master artist, nor does he emulate Rockwell’s style. “I did a few paintings when I started that reminded people of Rockwell’s feeling of the 30s and 40s,” he says, but he notes that these days his paintings bear little resemblance, if any, to Rockwell’s.
Pierce adapted Rockwell’s
idea of having a workroom
off from the main
Pierce’s studio was not planned as an exact copy of Rockwell’s. “I made it a bit bigger and made a few changes,” he says. “Rockwell’s studio also looks like a barn, and it may have been a barn—I’m not sure. His had a normal pitched roof. He had beams running across it, and I didn’t want that. In my studio the ceiling is 18 feet high, and there is no cross support because of the gambrel roof. Rockwell’s studio had a fireplace. Instead, I have a Vermont Castings wood stove, which is my only source of heat. It is so well insulated that at 20 below, a nude model will be totally warm.”
Another eye-catching feature of Pierce’s studio is the spotless carpet, which in many studios would immediately fall victim to paints and spills. “I had two mentors when I started painting, and they were both fine artists,” says Pierce. “One was messy and exotic, and the other was extremely neat. I started not cleaning off my palette, but then I decided to go the neat way. I’m a very clean painter, and I don’t spill anything on the floor.”
The artist doesn’t hesitate to use his studio as a subject. “I’ve painted in many parts of this room,” he says. “I set it up like a stage.” Pierce has produced views of the studio that range from traditional interiors (for which he rotates four carpets through the studio’s main room) to depictions of the bathroom and the inside of the refrigerator.
Pierce paints on a Hughes Easels Model 3000, produced by the artist Don Andrews. “I never thought I could fall in love with an easel,” he says. “It goes up and down, left and right with a fingertip. I have with it a Pallet Pal, which is the equivalent of a taboret, but you can raise and lower it, and it has wings. The guy’s a genius.”
Pierce considers the most unique facet of his studio to be its ability to switch between “studio mode” and “gallery mode.” “Once or twice a year, I have a studio show,” Pierce says. “I darken the room, close the shades, and push six different buttons.” Within seconds, the gallery lighting comes on, and Pierce’s artwork, which lines the studio walls, is ready to be shown.