project: the attic

all the time i’ve lived in this house i’ve been meaning to organize the attic.  years and years.  it’s not possible to do in the summer because it gets so hot.  it goes above 100 from april to september.  but i can get up there and work during the winter.

it took absolute donkey’s years to get around to starting the job, and i only began two winters ago, cataloging jim’s many hundreds of items of artwork.  but i was distracted last year by my world travels, and never got up there at all.

just last week i went up and started clearing out the central spot, which is where i started clearing last time.  i was planning on taking all winter and cataloging, not cleaning.

but on monday jim got a call from some art people, and now they’re going to make a studio visit at the end of the month.

jim has his own studio downstairs in the basement where he does most of his work, but for all practical purposes, the studio is the whole house.  they may want to see the studio where things are made, and the couple of dozen completed works standing in stacks against the walls.  but there’ll also be stuff they want to see hanging on the walls of the main house upstairs.  and there’ll be work they’ll need to see in the attic.

so i have two weeks to turn the house itself into an unobtrusive thing that supports the art rather than distracting from it.  the perfect frame.  a three story frame.  a three story frame full of dust and dog hair, a frame that the artist just slapped on the painting because the gallery wouldn’t take the painting without a fucking frame.

i’m sorry, i’m too busy making art to clean house.  and if you don’t look down, you don’t notice the dust rabbits.

but the art people will notice.  so i have to scrape the floors and hose down the walls, and get the thick thick gunge off the fan blades.

but first, the attic.

i was tempted to take progress pictures of the attic, but it’s fruitless.  how to stop in the middle and take a photo?  at which point when the middle is clear?

the attic is a full attic, with an older queen anne roof (very steep pitch, very high roof), and it’s the nicest space in the house.  but it’s had cats up there peeing and shitting and tearing up all the rolled-up rugs that are up there because the dogs’d pee on them if they were out on the floors downstairs.  the attic has got boxes piled on stuff pushed over onto things.  it’s got plywood, plank, and old-door floors that bounce and move when you walk on them because they’re just laid down over the rafters.  there’s no larger area than 4’x8′ (the size of a sheet of plywood) that’s on the same level in the entire attic.  it’s deadly if you aren’t paying attention.  you could very easily put a foot wrong and go right thru the pink insulation and right thru century-old lathe and right thru the plaster ceiling into the room below.

so it’s a scary prospect making it okay for visitors.  good thing there are so many rolled up rugs.  the cat scratchings don’t show on the good side…

the first thing i did, last week, was to clear out a space in the middle.  then i set up the little stereo and wrangled an empty filing cabinet and a chair so i could sit and drink my coffee and look around.

the art to organizing a mess is little piles.  you’re constantly sorting things into piles of like objects, always stopping to walk a single item over to its pile.  eventually the piles get smaller and disappear.

in the attic there are several piles:
the art, divided into the paintings, works on paper, and sculptures
art supplies, like etching plates, rolled canvas ends, embossed wallpaper samples
household objects, like kitchen stuff, electric objects, extra lamps, mattresses
boxes of fabrics, pillows, quilts, napkins and tablecloths, towels
office supplies
files and papers
xmas stuff
luggage
camping gear
fish tank and sports equipment
tools for repair and maintenance, including house paint, caulk, rakes etc.

that’s a lot.  it’s a big attic.  the stairs come up from the north side of the house, right into the middle of the attic.  that means the north side is split.  on the northeast side is the furnace with its massive ductwork.  it takes up the whole quarter of the house, followed by the area where there are futons and mattresses and rugs piled up and covered with plastic.  then there’s a short section in front of the east gable, and that runs to a dark southeast corner and takes the queen anne jog along the south side to the front gable, which runs out along`an arm a few feet further to the south.  the west side goes along to the west gable, then is split by a chimney stack, and on the other side is the northwest corner, isolated by the chimney stack and the stairwell.

the first thing i did was to move all the paintings that had been stacked up in the middle of the room.  they’d all collected there in the two years since i’d last cleared the middle out.  they got restacked over by most of the rest of the paintings.

then i cleared out a space over in the northwest corner, where most of the tools are stacked around a table.  i cleared out the low stoopy end of the corner near the eaves, leaving the table in the middle of the space, and made sure to leave a walkway.

then i went over to the east gable and back ten million times.  i’d previously, years before, stacked all of my kitchen and household equipment over by the east gable, in milk crates, and had over the years moved any other kitchen equipment over near it.  now i took it all, box by box, over to the northeast corner and lined it up as close to the eaves as possible, right up next to where the nails poke thru the roof.  and this way i colonized about six feet of attic with nothing but kitchen equipment, leaving a walkway.

at this point i found an extension cord and a lamp and rigged lighting back in the northeast corner.  helped a whole lot.

then, having the area in front of the east gable free, i had to decide what to move next.  that meant i had to see the steps i was going to have to take clearly, so that i didn’t have to make more of a mess and get further blocked up.  like any game of strategy.

so, the luggage and camping equipment, which runs behind the stairwell against the eaves.  this was tricky.  i had to make sure i had enough energy so i wouldn’t wobble, because i had to make several dozen trips over the rafters and past the stairwell gap with large unwieldy bags.

only when there was an orderly pile in the middle of the attic again and bare space along the north side, was i able to put down some flooring (old steps torn out and still with the nails in the boards, bits of plywood, old planks).  the flooring had been neglected in the beginning because empty luggage doesn’t weigh much.  until you stack it three deep and put a lot of other shit on top…

by the end of the first day up there, i guess that was two days ago, i had the luggage and camping equipment in the middle of the attic, which was clear for a couple of hours.  but i had a clear, newly floored area going right up against the back of the furnace, and a 2×12 plank spanning the stairwell so that it wasn’t the abject crouch it used to be crossing the gap.

yesterday morning i was really sore.  but i went up there with my second cup of coffee and started moving things just as soon as i could do it.  first thing, back went the camping equipment and the luggage, but jammed up against the eaves and neatly stacked, and with as wide as possible a walkway because of the nearness of the stairwell gap.

then the middle of the room was clear again, yay.  and then i started moving the stuff off the shelf lining the walkway on the east side of the stairwell.  this was nothing but bare rafters, and i had to hold on to the uprights every time to keep myself from wobbling as i walked along the stairwell gap.  it’s like 20 steps or something, and there’s crap on each one of them.  there’s flooring down on the walkway on the east side of the stairwell now.  and that’s where i’m staging things that have to go downstairs, like all those old tapes.

at this point i had enough different areas of like objects that i could start going deeper into the darkness of the attic back where the paintings are stacked.  the big paintings are currently all lined up along the jog, the part of the main attic room that lines the southeast corner.  and in front of the paintings is years of piled up stuff.  or was.  because i would go grab a box, see what was in it, and move it to where all the others were.

except in the case of fabric.  all the fabrics i found, all the pillows, the sheets and towels, the sewing projects, the comforters.  they all went downstairs into the spare bedroom, where the laundry is.  and so i’ve run back-to-back loads of laundry for the last two days.  and most of it is mildewed, so it’s going to be freecycled as craft supplies.

i had just last week decided i needed more stacking space for the works on paper, so i got the sawhorses and a 4×8 sheet of plywood, and made a table in front of the stuff in front of the paintings.  so yesterday i decided it had to be moved, so i had to move all the works on paper that were on top of it, then disassemble it and move it over to the cleared out east gable.  but i didn’t move the prints back on to it, because i had a good look at the south gable, and noticed all the etching plates and all the other prints.

there was a lot of xmas stuff in front of the paintings.  i gathered all that in the space in front of the piled up mattresses, a staging area.  there were molds for plaster casts, and a plaster statue, which i moved next to where the stereo is set up.  and then i found a lot of boxes of stuff along the way to the south gable.

at the end of yesterday, i had the middle clear again, the xmas stuff was packed on the north side in front of the luggage, the files and papers were back on the northwest side with the kitchen supplies behind the tool table, and i had swept the middle and bagged all the dust and bits of broken lath.

this morning, i went upstairs and decided to clear out the south gable, which has long been a bastion of loose prints and jammed together paintings.  it took all day.

all the paintings had to come out of their slumps into the main room, again blocking the stacks of paintings against the southeast corner.  i piled them up around a huge steamer trunk that had been buried by plaster casts and boxes yesterday.

all the prints had to be taken up and stacked on top of stacks and stacks of prints on all the horizontal table spaces.  and all the etching plates had to be picked up and carried over to the table in the east gable.  12-foot planks that are actually wood blocks for woodblock scrolls had to be moved, there were 3 of them.  parts of plaster statues, bundles of newspaper clippings, boxes of old books, boxes of audio cassette tapes.  boxes of video cassette tapes.  and dust.  and dirt.  and cat shit.

but i finally got it all cleared out, and the flooring shored up some.  in the front gable there were old paintings laid down over the rafters, and cardboard, and it was treacherous to put my foot down because even the planks were laid so that i’d step on one end and the other one would pop up and then slam down again.  and then i swept, and carted the bag of glass and shards of lath and dust and crap down to the bin, and then came back up for a bunch of empty boxes.

and then i cleared off the place where i’d been stacking all the boards and pipes and lengths of this and that, against the chimney stack.  because it was all in front of some sheets of tin roofing, which i need to go down as more floor along the west eaves.

tomorrow i need help to move the roofing tin and a rolled up carpet that has been in the south eave until now.  and help to move the large paintings over to the south eaves.  and i have to clean all the fish tank and sporting goods and photo negatives and family pictures in frames out of the west gable.

but tomorrow i start moving all the framed pictures and canvases out of the southwest corner so i can clean back there and make sure the flooring is adequate.

after that i have to do something with all the tools and maintenance equipment, because it’s still piled up on top of the table in the northwest corner.  but maybe that’ll wait until the end, or i’ll just cover it with a sheet or something and tackle it later.  actually, i’ll get to it like i’ve gotten to everything else up there, one little box at a time.

i’ve put in three days in the attic, and i’m to the point of moving the stacks of paintings around, which was the whole point of the exercise.  as i’m moving them i’ll try to decide what order to arrange them into.

i’ve got several choices there.  i can arrange them by size.  or i can go by period.  or i can do it by subject.  i have to talk to jim about how he’d like to see it organized.  but i’m going to have not only the south wall that has been traditionally the painting stack, but i’ll also have the front gable and west eaves, so twice the space.  which means all the paintings will fit.

once i’m done creating stack space in the attic, the next thing to do is to come down here to the studio and take all the finished paintings up to the attic.  everything but the encaustic paintings, which  might melt.  that means taking everything out of the large storage closet in the front of the studio, the really badly moldy one.  and lots of the finished paintings out of the front studio, and lots of finished paintings out of the middle studio.  the rear studio is my area, and the back gallery is full of my half finished canvases and other art supplies.  but that’s next on the list.  after organizing the attic, organize the studio.  and clean the rest of the house.

so even tho i’ve been breathing dust all day and carting around heavy etching plates and am sore and exhausted, i can’t sleep at night because i’m thinking about everything that has to be done.  and because it’s a full moon but never mind.  i dream about fitting things into place according to shapes, and i’m constantly looking around the house to see what i’m going to have to clean.

this is my spring cleaning, done six months late.  and if i didn’t think it was absolutely necessary, i wouldn’t do it.  i don’t mind living with dog fur and dust.  but i’ve seen certain people’s faces when they catch sight of a dust were-rabbit under the table. and i’d rather that be their expression when they’re looking at jim’s paintings.

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One thought on “project: the attic

  1. Hmm. That expression is shock and awe or fear and disgust?

    Sounds like an amazing lot of work. And a short time to do it in! I hope you get a feeling of accomplishment out of it, since you need to do it. And perhaps a mask if the dust is too bad?

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