Safe Spaces: Ashton Guy and Studiomates Kaitlin Merchant Davison and Christine Vanderkaap
The environments we inhabit and the spaces we create for ourselves inform and shape us just as we go about shaping and decorating them. “Safe Spaces” is a new series meant to explore that relationship, by visiting female and female-identifying creators and doers in the spaces and places nearest and dearest to them.
Follow Berkman Drive long enough, into the upper creases of North Austin, and you’ll find a nondescript shopping strip center. There, in its furthest corner, past the Beall’s and the Domino’s pizza, are the frosted windows and high ceilings of Cement Loop studios. On any given night, visual artist Ashton Guy is likely inside, resplendent in color and cartoon energy, blaring music (if it’s late enough) and painting in the studio space she shares with fellow artists Kaitlin Merchant Davison and Christine Vanderkaap, as well as one-eyed Winky, Christine’s apparent sidekick.
Guy’s corner, on the immediate right of the door, is the launchpad from which her deeply vivid works of art are created. From its center, the space expands outward, like a semi-contained pop-bang of color and texture that feels like a piece of work itself — a kind of exhibit into Guy’s cerebrum that gives off “ancient alien cartoon energy and impoverished but optimistic 1980s school teacher vibes.”
Among the displayed artifacts of what she calls “a tornado of my favorite people, colors, shapes, words, and sounds” are old family photos, artwork by @darbscrash666 and @artbyjet, Father John Misty records, a shark, a rooster, a deer, snakes, antlers, a Chinese wooden mask gifted by her dad, Dr. Seuss books, a map of Rushmore from the Criterion edition DVD, fake sheepskins, her own artwork, and a yellow telephone, gifted from a friend, that she often talks to herself out loud through.
Some of it, like the childhood Six Flags season pass her dad recently sent her or the picture of her grandmother, serve to remind her of where she came from. Other pieces, like her own artwork, are there to prove to herself what she can do. Whatever it is that makes it onto her walls, it’s colorful by design — reds propel her to action while blue calms her down, helping her to “think heavenly thoughts.”
Guy came to set up shop here in December 2015, when she outgrew the desk in her dining room “studio.” Seeking to split the space (and the rent tbh), she made an announcement at a Boss Babes meet and found Merchant Davison. Vanderkaap soon joined.
Guy believes creators can create anywhere (she has), but that having a designated creation space — a lab, as she calls it — is critical for channeling expression into a full-time gig.
“As soon as we got the space that Christine, Kaitlin and I all share at Cement Loop, the way I saw myself as an artist changed,” says Guy. “My distractions are fewer and focus is at an all time high, my work ethic was completely revitalized, I have more workspace, more natural light, other folks to turn to as sounding boards, I feel more understood."
Those other folks include Vanderkaap and Merchant Davison, who occupy the other corners of the Cement Loop space. Despite different working schedules and styles, the three have formed their own community, a little family in which Vanderkaap handles the snacks and Merchant Davison helps with the business side of things.
“We learn from one another’s habits of organization, we all have different professional experiences to relate, we share supplies and end up trying out new colors or mediums we weren’t using before,” says Guy. “We’re all getting stronger together in this space. Everyone’s work has improved since we came together in December, it’s so cool and so obvious.”
The three have even discussed collaborating on a project at some point.
Overall, Guy’s space is an investment in the mission she hopes to accomplish, put forth by a quote she keeps over her desk: “Remember: You are a volunteer. Be a freedom machine.”
“I submit my life’s efforts to the shared pursuit of progressing our conditioned, fractured, man-warped civilization that doesn’t fully love or understand itself to grow a little freer,” she says. “It's heavy and nebulous and it's hard to find collaborators. . .But then you open the door to the studio and notice that your walls are decked out in psychedelic insanity and there are boobs and snakes and roosters and sharks everywhere and you wonder how Texas is letting you get away with this at all. Why is this working?”
And somehow, the clash of color and pattern and texture and medium does work to become a cohesive space that so viscerally evokes the energy of one Ashton Guy.
“It looks like a crazy person’s mind just —” In her studio space, she looks up at the wall and gestures like she’s splatting paint all over it. “But there’s nothing I would take down.”