Artist Tom Judd in his studio.

Artist Tom Judd in his studio.

by Brookes Britcher

To many, the creative process artists routinely embark on is a bit of an enigma. The oft mythical image of a brooding artist at odds with his or her work in a secluded studio, far from the public gaze, comes to mind. Yet while frustration and toil can certainly be an element of the process, it is certainly not the whole story. Simply ask Tom Judd.

Judd, a Northwest Philadelphia artist who has been navigating his own creative journey professionally for more than 35 years, doesn’t think it’s that mysterious.

“It’s just like any other job,” he said. “You have good days and bad days, but you have to keep showing up.”

During his nearly four-decade-long practice, he has exhibited original work in nearly 100 group and solo exhibitions. His work has been purchased by numerous private and public collections, finding homes in places as far as Hong Kong and Cannes. He has produced original murals, billboards and other public arts projects around the United States. During the early lean times, he would paint houses as a local contractor.

Throughout his work, Judd incorporates curious objects, found imagery from antique manuals, and other culturally nostalgic items. He routinely finds himself rooting through stuffy attics, local yard-sale bins and cluttered flea-market tables in search of material to investigate. On a familiar trip to a local Philadelphia architectural salvage yard in 1996, Judd discovered and purchased an unassuming set of three vintage chalkboards.

But impulse and instinct often arrive at different moments than inspiration.

“The chalkboards sat around my studio for months,” he said. “I liked them, but I wasn’t sure what exactly to do with them yet. I would occasionally write things on them and play around with them, but they seemed to want to be part of some sort of group activity, something public.”

And then, as it often does, in a casual moment in the studio, inspiration struck.

The concept was simple: Three vintage chalkboards. Twelve artists. Each artist would have one week to work on a board, using only chalk and any other make-shift prop the artists could easily fabricate. At the end of each week, each board would be erased and a new artist would take their place to start again. Everything would occur live, and be recorded.

With the navigational help of poet and art critic Rafael Rubinstein, Judd connected with Frederieke Taylor, Director of the Chelsea gallery TZ’Art, to propose the idea. Taylor adored the concept, offering the gallery’s street-side window bays on West 22nd Street as a venue for the performance and exhibition. After months of trekking to fickle meetings, courting galleries and making presentations, the concept Judd had imagined in his studio suddenly found validation and a place to materialize and exist.

Judd selected a balanced group of mid-career artists to play along, as well as established “students” in the art world – including the late Spalding Gray, a writer, performer and playwright renowned for his autobiographical monologues.

The result was an imaginative exercise which made public many dilemmas that artists generally confront in the private domain of their studios, well before an audience is engaged. Judd sought to prod the participants outside of this comfort zone.

“It was all about limitations and how the artists deal with that,” Judd said. “I was interested in how that [the limitations] would affect the artists’ perspective. Is the process itself enough or do we need to possess something at the end? Is it about the inquiry itself that captures our imagination, or the making of it?”

With the exhibition, Judd devised his own “Petri dish” for the passing world to view the personal organic growth, division and evolution of the creative process by inviting the public to witness the often identifiable doubts and triumphs artists face on a daily basis.

Nine years after the original project concluded, Judd partnered with NYC-based filmmaker and producer Jeff Wolfe to revisit the project.

“It was always intended to be a film, at some point,” Judd said. “That was always the goal.”

Judd and Wolfe poured through over eight hours of original footage and hundreds of photographs, working to build a structure to translate the project to a short film.”

“I honestly thought we had a little gem with that Spalding [Gray] footage,” Wolfe said. “It really was the rallying point for the film. Of course as we looked through the rest of the material, we realized we had equally compelling footage from the other artists that participated in the project…So that was the beginning of the film itself.”

Over the next nine years, Judd and Wolfe balanced their own hectic personal and professional responsibilities, working to find any time to collaborate, create awareness, raise funds and keep the film moving forward.

“It certainly has become this behemoth that Tom and I need to wrestle to the ground,” Wolfe said. “I know we are both really committed to completing this project, and we’ve both been pleasantly surprised with how well the film is taking shape.”

Recognizing that they were within reach of the “finish-line,” Judd and Wolfe enlisted the help of filmmaker Mel Halbach in 2014, and in 2015 editor Andrew Geller of Woodshop Films (Philadelphia) to help accelerate the resolution of the project.

Over the past two years, Judd, Wolfe and crew have traveled the country interviewing the artists involved in the original “Chalkboard Chronicles” exhibition, revisiting their perspectives on the project and generating ten hours of new original footage in the process. After investing over a year of work and travel on a speculative makeshift budget, the film is approaching its final editing stages.

“It’s an exciting time. We have all put in so much effort and patience,” Judd said.

Judd and Wolfe say that the team plans to enter the roughly 40-minute finished piece into a myriad of film festivals around the country as a short-documentary in 2016 – nearly 20 years after the original footage was created.

As a veteran of the industry and festival circuit, Wolfe is optimistic that the finished product will be received well and have appeal.

“I believe once people hear about the ‘found’ Spalding footage or monologue, there’s bound to be interest,” he said. “He has many fans and people who are familiar with his work. So it’s the main draw to bring people to the film. But once they watch it, they’ll see that it’s really about the artistic process.  It’s about the temporary aspect of art, and ultimately us as people on this Earth. You get to witness creative people ‘doing what they do’…all of the awkwardness, the starts and stops, the experimenting, the breakthroughs.”

While the “Chalkboard Chronicles” may not answer all of the mysteries of the creative process, the film proves to be an enjoyable and illuminating glimpse into the idiosyncratic journey each artist undertakes. Perhaps the most insightful lesson that Judd and Wolfe offer regarding understanding the creative process is not actually found in the film itself, but witnessed in their dedicated and unheralded path to create something that they believe is worth making and sharing.

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