I consider myself a creative person, but of all of the jobs I’ve had, I was most content working as an artist’s assistant realizing someone else’s vision.
It was the summer of 2001, which fell between my freshman and sophomore year of college, and I was home in New York City and living with my parents. I had largely avoided looking for a job but, through a former colleague, was offered one as a studio assistant to an artist named Miriam. She did Verre Eglomise, which is the process of gilding precious metals like gold and silver on the reverse side of glass, and etching in a design. My job, basically, was to trace Miriam’s designs by erasing the excess gilding until the pattern she had designed emerged.
The process works like this: Miriam would sketch the design for the piece on one side of the glass in sharpie. We would then flip the glass over and clean it carefully several times using whiting and denatured alcohol (the gilding was done on the opposite side so that we could follow the sharpie pattern, and then wipe it off once the piece was complete). Over a hot plate, I would mix gilder’s liquor – a clear, mild adhesive made of water and gelatin – and paint it onto the glass. Then Miriam would stroke a squirrel-fur brush quickly against her arm to get a tiny amount of oil on it, carefully pick up a tissue-thin piece of hammered gold or silver, and deftly lay it on the glass, the gilder’s liquor sealing it on as it dried. I found the process meditative in its orderliness.
While my job required minimal training or skill, it still felt like I had a part in the creation of something interesting and beautiful. I enjoyed this low-pressure approach to making art. Miriam had many types of projects, and that summer we were mostly working on huge glass panels that were going to become doors for Martha Stewart. Martha’s doors were covered with splendid intricacies, almost Baroque representations of flowers, petals, curlicues, and other shapely flourishes. The designs, which were completely original to Miriam and depicted on a large scale, were artful and almost mathematical in the the way the patterns started in one form and evolved subtly into something new.
I liked both Miriam and Dominie, the other studio assistant, immensely. Miriam was lively, funny, talkative, and just a nice person. She was not in any way what you expect of an “artist type.” Dominie had a big, cheerful personality. She was relaxed and easygoing and liked to jokingly refer to the part of Long Island where she owned a second home as “Sleazy Whores” (real name: Breezy Shores). It was just the three of us in the studio all day, and the atmosphere was easy. Miriam would spend much of her time at her desk among design books, working on new drawings, while Dominie gilded projects Miriam had already drawn. I would follow in Dominie’s wake, erasing the gilding that appeared outside the lines of the design using a wooden stylus whose end I wrapped in cotton.
It could have been boring – I was literally following a pattern, no different from a coloring book in principle – but it wasn’t. The designs were intricate and varied from piece to piece, and I didn’t grow tired of it in the three months that I was there. While the process of making designs and gilding glass certainly required tremendous training, practice, and skill, and no doubt could be frustrating for the artist, my role in it was forgiving. If I accidentally removed a part of the pattern that I wasn’t supposed to, it could be re-gilded so I could do it again correctly. I felt occupied by the work, but not enervated, and the atmosphere of the studio, which was quiet without being church-like, suited me.
I was getting paid to do something that didn’t feel much like work, which by many measures would be reason enough to feel happy. I was also 19 years old, it was summer, and I had almost no responsibilities to speak of. I had a boyfriend, and plenty of friends who were home for the summer. I loved college and, always a future thinker, enjoyed the anticipation of returning while being uncharacteristically content in the present. The studio was in the West 20s on a high enough floor to have a gorgeous view of the Hudson River and downtown Manhattan. The radio was permanently tuned to WNYC, the local NPR member station. (I have never been as up on the current events as I was that summer.) I had incredible latitude in my schedule and little in the way of real responsibilities. I remember feeling very free.
That work could and would become a necessity was still far from my mind, which gave everything a lightness that I didn’t recognize until much later. It didn’t matter to that I would never grow up to be Miriam (or any fine artist, for that matter) and that I wasn’t developing myself or building skills that would help me at my next job for the simple reason that the notion of a future existence as an adult didn’t exist. The work was both enough and also really and truly only work. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that time, or at least that feeling, of not knowing enough to feel like I wanted or needed more. Being around people with a strong sense of purpose was wonderful and completely non-threatening. What was my vision for myself? That was an idea I was only just beginning to understand.
Image: Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt (1907)