The Epic Studio: Finding a nomad’s utopia in a pandemic

  • Upcycled denim overalls, cut off and made into a dress using a vintage pillowcase.

I have a studio. Which, I guess, makes me a nomad with a little perch. It definitely makes me happy.

It all happened because of the pandemic, when I was going a little stir crazy. Campgrounds, museums, festivals, restaurants, EVERYTHING, shut down, communities didn’t want nomads wandering their stressed-out grocery aisles, and we worried about my 91-year-old mother’s safety.

So we retreated to Mom’s house in Scottsdale, across the street from our old house. We hung out with our family pod, including my sister, Nancy, who lives with Mom, and our son, Nate, who has an apartment nearby. We hunkered down, binge watching TV, had groceries delivered, had happy hour on the front stoop, ate Tom’s cooking, and tried to stay calm.

Usually, when I’m at Mom’s, I go to my friend, Tami’s, to sew for our little business, Periwinkle Polka Dot. But, doom! No visiting allowed.

Periwinkle Polka Dot started when Tami and I were both still working, and would get together at her house on Saturdays to sew and complain about work and life. We bought folding tables from Costco, set up facing sewing machines in Tami’s sunroom and started upcycling denim and vintage fabrics into whimsical clothes for little girls. We combed antiques and thrift stores for materials, and tubs of stuff started stacking up in her garage, and the sun room, and her living room. Finished items started piling up, too, so we signed up for some little craft shows. Eventually, we graduated to the big one: the Tempe Festival of the Arts, which worked great for many years. Then, doom! Canceled, not once, not twice, but three times. March, December and March. We’re planning on December.

I love making things, and I mostly knit and sew. I feel this long-line connection with women who, before modern conveniences, spun their own wool to weave cloth to make clothing and knit socks, not for fun but because they had to, women who, despite the crushing burdens of cooking, cleaning, hauling water and wood, managed to find time to make bed coverings into art, to add beautiful stitches to a hat to let their soul shine through. Looking back from my comfortable chair, I love those women. And I love today’s women taking these “domestic” skills to mind-bending new places. And the men who join us along the way. And I love taking old things, old denim, men’s shirts, cashmere sweaters discarded because they have a couple of moth holes, old tea towels and embroidered dresser scarves and tablecloths, and turning them into new, beautiful, unique things, spinning straw into gold. Well, maybe spinning it into a few bucks.

Using business to describe Periwinkle is a bit of a misnomer, because we don’t really make much money. The first few years, we kept pouring money back into necessary improvements, getting a better tent, making racks to display the clothes, etc. We did have a tiny profit in 2019, and 2020 was set to be a banner year for us, but doom!

So I brought my sewing machine to Mom’s and started working on stuff in “the white room,” a utility area filled with storage cabinets and Mom’s desk. Bins of material sat on the white table, then a second layer magically appeared. It started to get claustrophobic.

And, I wanted to write, and there seemed to be no quiet spot in the house packed to the rafters with four adults and two dogs. And I wanted to do yoga, but it seemed hard to find a quiet corner for that, either. And I wanted to knit, and my yarn was in bins in the closet and the storage area where our other worldly goods were stacked. And it all seemed impossible.

So Tom suggested I rent some studio space. He is, everyone knows, a genius. But I thought the budget couldn’t take on the extra expense. He assured me it could.

Although, when we started looking at space near Mom’s, the costs seemed astronomical. My sister, an artist who draws and paints, among other skills, has a studio just a few miles from the house, in a building owned by a ceramist named Julius. I decided to see if Julius had any other space.

When I asked him, he first said no, but then pointed to an area stacked with barn wood he was storing for a friend. The friend was planning to move the wood in the next month or so, he said. “I’ll take it,” I nearly shouted.

Tom and I were headed out on another short Arizona camping trip, and Julius said he would have the walls built when we returned.

Meanwhile, I talked to Tami, who is much more practical and cautious than me, who really didn’t want to commit any additional spending to my insanity. I totally understood. I mentioned the studio to my friend, Jackie, who jumped at the chance to have a place to build her Architectural-Digest-like doll houses. So, my insanity found another partner.

On our camping trip, I dreamed of the studio. I drew pictures of how we could organize it: racks for the tubs of materials on this wall, cubbies for yarn here, a desk for writing here, another here for the sewing machine, racks and a table for Jackie’s materials here, a shared work table in the middle. It became a magnificent obsession.

When we got home, I practically ran to the studio. The walls were roughed in. The electrician was working. I picked out fan lights for the ceiling and festival lights to go around the edges. I chose the spots for the outlets, at desk height to plug in sewing machines, irons, computers and lights.

Jackie called a plasterer, who finished and painted the walls. I spent hours scraping old varnish, paint and stuff off the floor (it had been used for furniture making and finishing before), and we mopped and polished the floor.

We bought worktables and cubbies and wire racks and chairs and assembled them. Jackie came up with a brilliant idea to install clothing racks along the back wall for all Periwinkle’s finished items. Done!

I rented a U-Haul to bring over bins and bins of stuff from Tami’s garage and started sorting, labeling and putting them on the racks. I got all the bins of yarn from their different resting places and put them in the cubbies. I set up the ironing board, and the child mannequins we bought when Gymboree was going out of business. And last, we had the furniture maker in the shop at the end of the building build an amazing 8-foot-long, work-height, wooden table on wheels for the middle of the room.

When we were finished, I sat in my swiveling chair, turned 360 degrees and surveyed The Epic Studio. It was a miracle. And I smiled. The doom lifted.

Tami, who always finds the most perfect, personalized gifts, brought me a bamboo curtain, with a hula dancer on it for the front door, an homage to my hula-dancing days when I was growing up in Hawaii. The swaying loveliness makes me happy every time I walk in. And Julius frequently pokes his head through the strands to ask, “Is the bar open?”

Now, when we’re “home,” I go there every day. I mean EVERY DAY. I sew, I knit, I listen to music, podcasts, audio books. I get crazy ideas and pull out materials from different bins, make patterns and cut stuff out on the rolling table. And now that we’re all vaxed up, I visit with Nancy and Julius and Lloyd, the woodworker next door, and Sasson, who made the table, and all the friends who wander in. And Tami comes over to do Periwinkle inventory, drop off her finished work and “shop” in the bins.

I haven’t used it for yoga. Yet. I’ve done very little writing, but that’s on me, not The Epic Studio. And now, when we’re on the road, I dream of new ideas to tackle when we return. I order yarn and quilts, and linen and patterns, that will be waiting for me, like Santa dropped them off while we traveled.

And I’ve learned that having a little perch is a nomad’s utopia.

11 Comments

  1. Reply
    Keven August 26, 2021

    Love it! I want a studio tour next time I’m in Phx!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols August 27, 2021

      Absolutely! Any time!

  2. Reply
    Ann Forster August 26, 2021

    So glad you have the epic studio! Can’t wait to visit it again! Love and miss you!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols August 27, 2021

      Thanks, Ann. Love and miss you, too. When are you back at McDowell?

  3. Reply
    Marian Frank August 27, 2021

    Love this, Judy! I just converted my son Brett’s bedroom into my craft/sewing room. It’s my happy place

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols August 27, 2021

      Yea, Marian! What are you crafting?

  4. Reply
    David Stabler August 27, 2021

    So happy for you, Judy. You are on fire. Love the photos, too.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols August 28, 2021

      Thank, David

  5. Reply
    Kirstin Corris August 27, 2021

    I love that you have this little space. Your joy really comes through. I too, want a tour when we next find ourselves together in Phoenix!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols August 28, 2021

      Love to show you!

  6. Reply
    Mary Clark August 30, 2021

    I think pods are the near future. Family pods, friends pods, club pods. You’ve made the best of this situation. Best, Mary

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