For Erin Fong and Tyler McPherron, finding their live/work space was something of a dream—or a beautiful anomaly, as they call it. A nonprofit, limited-equity housing artist cooperative that was founded in the 1970s, it comprises 60 studios that span three buildings in Emeryville, California. Its 70-plus members are creators including visual artists, musicians, choreographers, writers, designers, and craftspeople.
Erin, a letterpress printer and content creator, first worked as an assistant for a bookbinder in the co-op for many years; when a space opened up, the couple jumped on the three-month-long application and interview process. They were selected to join the cooperative and purchased the studio in 2014.
"Every studio in our cooperative is different," explains Tyler. "Our building was built in the 1920s and was originally a warehouse on the train line. A few different industrial companies operated out of it over the years before it was eventually settled by the artists who later formed the artist housing cooperative."
On the ground floor, a roll-up garage door—currently emblazoned with the mantra "Boredom is a privilege"—opens up to Erin’s printshop where she co-headed a letterpress design business for seven years. Above it sits their living space.
"I am so fortunate to have my letterpress studio downstairs," says Erin. "I love that it’s so close but is also entirely separate from our living space so I am able to have that physical separation between home life and work life."
Tyler, a freelance cinematographer who works primarily on commercials, documentaries, and music videos, keeps his office upstairs. It’s in the loft that he conceptualizes projects ranging from ads for major brands to collaborations with artists and musicians like Toro y Moi, Future Islands, FKA Twigs, Moses Sumney, and No Vacation.
The increased time spent at home has allowed the two to collaborate on making content for brands, and for Erin to hone in on her personal practice and create a new series of embossed prints.
While Erin and Tyler didn’t have to do much to develop dedicated workspaces, they’ve continually updated the home as another creative outlet—from painting the dark-stained, plywood walls white to redesigning and remodeling the entire kitchen and laundry room. Up next is their bathroom.
"Our house is constantly changing," says Tyler. "The furniture and decor is completely different from when we moved in, and as our styles change, so does our house. Erin has been lucky to collaborate with some amazing brands and home decor businesses to help keep our space looking fresh."
Unsurprisingly, Erin is also the force behind the infusion of color. Chroma, or the vividness of a color, has played an integral role in her work, and, naturally, it’s made its way into their home.
"The layout of our space can be challenging due to its various elevations, unusual layout, and architectural features that are held over from its warehouse origins," says Tyler. "It’s certainly not a cookie-cutter kind of space. Whoever designed our studio build-out did a great job, though. They worked with unique features, like a loading dock level and support beams spanning through the space."
How are you two coping during COVID-19?
Erin: We are doing as well as can be expected. There is a lot of uncertainty in general being artists and freelancers, and that uncertainty is heightened during this time. We also acknowledge that we have a lot to be grateful for—and having secure, affordable artist housing is at the top of the list for us. We are taking this as an opportunity for self growth and to really work together as a team.
Tyler: It has been a bit of a roller coaster, but I have experienced more ups than downs. It might sound corny, but I’ve been viewing this time as an opportunity to step back and take stock of the abundance and resources we already have at our disposal. In normal times it sort of feels like I’m always pushing forward, trying to get to the next level, get the next job, make more money, or buy the next piece of camera equipment. Now that everything has slowed way down, I can see that system crumbling a bit, both internally and externally. I’m realizing that while I want to be good at my craft, I also need to be good at my life. So this has mainly been a time for me to reflect and build new, healthy habits.
What’s different for you during the pandemic?
Erin: Spending so much time at home isn’t that unusual for me with having my printshop downstairs, but I really struggled with finding motivation to create work for the first eight weeks. In the past, this would have caused me anxiety and [to feel] like I "wasted my day," but I have been able to accept that it’s okay to not always be working, to not always be motivated, and to not always be inspired. Giving myself that time and space has helped ease me back into the printshop, and now I’m feeling really excited about the new work I’m making.
Tyler: Having so much regularity in my schedule is way different for me! By contrast, in non-pandemic times, my work/life schedule varies from week to week. Some weeks, I might have three days in a row where I leave for set at 5 A.M. and not get home until 9 P.M. Other times I might just work from home all week, doing pre-production prep and whatever else comes up. I love my career, but the randomness of my schedule often leaves me stressed, ungrounded, and sleep-deprived. Now that we’re home all the time, I’ve really enjoyed creating a routine and sticking to it! It’s going to be tough going back to a sporadic schedule when I’m able to work on set again.
What is your new normal? What does your day-to-day look like?
Erin: Most of our days consist of filling our time between meals! On sunny days we start with coffee and breakfast outside the studio door (and sometimes pretend that we are at the river in our lawn chairs). Lunch usually happens in our shared backyard, and dinner is the highlight of the day. We have never cooked at home so much and are finding joy in getting creative in the kitchen. We are so grateful that we did a kitchen remodel a few summers ago, as it is really paying off right now!
Between meals, we spend our time on personal projects and growth—that can be journaling/morning pages, meditation, taking a Science of Well-Being online course, exercising, (finally) printing, and doing Dance Church while FaceTiming with friends.
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How have your industries changed?
Erin: So many artists and small business owners are really struggling right now with no clear future or plan in sight. My creative community is really trying to support one another though. Sometimes that looks like sharing information on small business loans and navigating the CARES Act. Other times, it can be purchasing a product or service from them or simply sharing their business with others to bring more awareness.
Tyler: Filmmaking has more or less come to a screeching halt during the pandemic, and I think the whole craft has changed for the foreseeable future. The kind of work I do is inherently a social undertaking, so when we’re working on set, there’s no such thing as social distancing. In normal times, I’m often working in close proximity to multiple crew and talent. The work can be physical and all encompassing. No one is thinking about maintaining six feet of distance, how good the airflow on set is, or if the gear has been sanitized since the last person touched it. Moving forward, I think we’re going to see much smaller crews, new social distancing and sanitization protocols, as well as an overall much slower pace of production.
How have you adapted and dealt with the lack of work and income changes?
Erin: I honestly feel at a loss of how to make an income as an artist right now. I’ve never had a set stream of income, and a lot of what kept me afloat came through brand partnerships and features. I thankfully just had a show come down right before quarantine, which generated some unexpected income, and I finally launched an online shop with prints from The Friendship Project series as well as custom portrait prints that I just started doing.
Tyler: The first thing I did when shelter-in-place started was lay myself off from my payroll and file for unemployment. When the CARES Act was ratified, I was lucky to receive the Paycheck Protection Program, which gave me the ability to hire myself back on payroll for a few months. Around the same time, I built a pitch deck that showcases the skills and resources Erin and I have to offer to production companies during COVID-19. That pitch has already brought in a few jobs that we have been able to execute while maintaining shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines.
How are you two navigating the space together? How do you each find time alone?
Erin: Our space can be challenging because it is so open, but because we both tend to work from home already, it hasn’t felt like a huge change. Both my printshop and Tyler’s office are separate rooms with some of the only doors in our house to close it off from the main living spaces. Good thing we like each other, but it’s nice knowing that we each have our own space! The cooperative also has a shared backyard space where you can usually snag some alone time. Tyler has also miraculously hung up a hammock in his office, so he quite literally hangs out in there a lot more.
Tyler: I feel so grateful that we have so much space to share, yet we’re also quite fortunate to have our own individual work spaces. Since shelter-in-place started, my office has transformed from the place where I work, to a space where I also find solitude and the opportunity to get centered. I’ve started a routine every morning where I get up early and close myself in my office for an hour or two. In that time I’ve created space for myself to get mindful and start the day off on the right foot.
What have been your biggest challenges and concerns during this time?
Erin: Staying home and staying safe are the biggest goals and challenges right now. While we are focusing on gratitude for the things we do have, it is really disheartening to see the inequity of circumstances across the country. It can feel overwhelming to not know how to help on a larger scale, but staying home and being responsible when we do have to go out are small actions that do make a difference.
Tyler: I 100% agree with Erin on this one. Also, lately I’ve been missing the state of flow I get when I’m operating my camera on a shoot. There are few things that bring so many of my senses into awareness at the same time. Moving my camera and body through space while making moving images is an invigorating physical, mental, and emotional exercise that brings me lots of joy and gratification. Yet, the work I do is a luxury that I’m more than willing to put on pause for the sake of keeping myself and others safe from the spread of COVID-19.
Have there been any positive outcomes/learnings?
Erin: These past few months have been a lesson in acceptance of the unknown. I’ve found comfort in the fact that the future has been, is, and will always be uncertain, and that this is no different. All this time at home has reduced distractions and amplified intentions. I hope that post-quarantine there will be a new appreciation for the things we used to take for granted. I, for one, can’t wait to hug a friend and share a meal with them. (Plus, we’ve got to show off all these recipes we’ve been perfecting!)
Tyler: This whole experience has been mentally, physically, and financially taxing for so many people. Sometimes it can be tough to see the silver lining. However, when Erin and I are able to hunker down and focus on what is within our control, we’ve both been managing to find our own appreciation and happiness.
We also recognize that we are privileged to have our health, companionship, and a home to shelter in. I often remind myself that this whole experience would be extremely different if any one of those circumstances were to be altered. As such, we want to recognize that people’s experiences vary drastically, and not everyone has been as fortunate during this time. We are incredibly grateful to the front-line workers, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, and everyone else who has been putting their health on the line to help get us all through this dark time.
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