Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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From Dusty Warehouse to Art Studio, Part 1

Studio Sicilia renovations February/March 2011

When I first saw this three-room "house" (small warehouse) on a Sicilian website, I scrolled through the photos of it for months. It became my phantom home, in a town I'd never seen, in a country I'd been fascinated by since I was a child.

Its facade became my desktop picture, and I'd linger on it every night after closing up my writing/photo work. I looked at the blueprints again and again, and even sent them to my mentor, a sculptor who'd renovated two Renaissance-era homes in Tuscany.

"You can't get a house for that little in Europe!" he scoffed. But still he gave me some ideas for my phantom art studio. And I did get a house at that price, but it wasn't one I could live in – yet.

Somehow I never really thought I'd actually get here, but thanks to a combination of obsession, a minimalist lifestyle, some lucrative projects and unexpected goodwill, I arrived here in mid-February to sign the final papers on this space – in 2011 I will turn it into a one-bedroom studio for creatives who work with paper: designers, artists and writers.

Here is what I saw once I finally came face-to-face with my longed-for art studio:


A lot of work to be done.

A friend here who'd looked at the place with the estate agent confided it'd take twice the purchase price to make the rooms habitable, and she's just about right – because I like quality and don't cut corners. She recommended another house, but I decided to go for this one anyway: I was drawn to its quirky layout – exterior stairs that give it dimension and unusual angles, its downstairs room completely separated from the upstairs and offers maximum privacy.

Renovations began in March after lots of consultations, estimates, measurements and layouts, and tours of the best DIY stores in Sicily – not your average tourist itinerary.

First I examined this rotting wood in the upstairs entranceway
G/F to 1/F Ceiling

which, once I began scraping away the lime-based paints, began to reveal the many colors they had been painted over the past century.

Studio Sicilia: Entrance Old wood

and has since been replaced with fresh wood.

So I decided to take a top-down approach: rooftops first.

For years, dust and silt and seeds have accumulated on old terracotta-tiled roofs like mine, which make a wonderful home for local flora.

"Did you know you've got about a dozen cacti on your roof?" my builder asked.

Studio Sicilia: Rooftop cacti

But they weren't there for long:

Studio Sicilia: cacti from rooftop

Next step: get rid of the atrocious half-finished dropped ceiling in the studio:

1/F (L) Balcony, Stairs, B/Room, etc.

Natural light is crucial for people who make visual work, and to keep the spirits up. Yet on an island with hot Mediterranean summers, you don't want too much direct sunlight into a room, so I compromised with small skylights.

It's amazing what a small square of light can do to a room. Once they put this in, the room was transformed from a dark rustic space into a luminous one. This will be the papermaking studio/kitchen:

Studio Sicilia: Skylight and wood

I used to call the next room the Hobbit room. Its ceiling was so low towards the entrance, the only light came from a small door, and it felt claustrophobic:

1/F (R) Entrance

But once we put in the skylight

Studio Sicilia: View through Skylight

and another door and window into the non-supporting walls:

Studio Sicilia: Facets

the entire room opened up, air and light flowed through, and felt twice its original size. This will be the upstairs bedroom:

Studio Sicilia: Sharon in studio

Here a friend inspects the concrete on the back wall, a photo that looks more like a painting.

The stairway changed from utilitarian white plaster:

1/F (L) Terrazzo Stairway

to a passage with a view. 

Studio Sicilia: View into Studio/Kitchen

The pile of rubble began to build and build….

Studio Sicilia: Skylight and Rubble

and is now twice the height shown here.

These renovations haven't been without their mishaps – to say nothing of the challenges of paying for it all with foreign bank accounts – but that's why I've allocated nearly three months here for 2011. This gives me time to set up water and electrics, and provides enough of a margin for any building delays.

Next month I'll post photos of the final half of renovations for this year, and this is what awaits for 2012:

Vaulted Bedroom

The downstairs bedroom with vaulted ceiling. More renovation photos here, including latest additions.

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