FOR FIVE YEARS,  Sarasota artist and Ringling College instructor Steven Strenk made do. Living in an apartment and raising a family, studio space was relegated to the detached garage out back, or, more precisely, the 20 square feet he could wrangle out of the tangle of kids’ toys, scooters and surfboards. With barely enough space to create, Strenk stored his drawings in the climate-controlled environs of Booker High School, where he also teaches. But today Strenk creates in a very different environment, having built his own slice of Florida paradise down the end of a wooded lane at the last house on the left with a big red barn out back that can be viewed from Google Earth. “That’s a studio,” Strenk’s wife had said. She was right, but it would take a lot of work.

A squat A-frame-type construction with corrugated metal siding and roof that juts out the back on timber beams to a pavilion over cement foundation, the roughly 700-square-foot space brought lots of potential but plenty of obstacles due to years of neglect. “10 years of critters and bugs,” says Strenk. “And super-cluttered.” Clearing out the musty confines and amongst the dusty detritus and dead things, he finds containers of Muzzle Loading Propellant (gunpowder), 5.56mm bullet casings commonly used for AR-15-type assault rifles and unanswered questions. Throwing open the sliding garage door on one end and the great double doors on the other, sunlight and fresh air stream inside for the first time in who knows how long and Strenk lets the soon-to-be-studio breathe and himself acclimate to his new surroundings. Where others might be intimidated, he will thrive. 

Photo 1

An exceedingly energetic man, in less than a month, Strenk transforms the space into the beginnings of a working studio. In the center of the room, soon crowded by sketches, paintings, brushes, pastels and countless more tools of the trade, a broad 8’x4’ table he built with his son from recycled wood. It took about an hour. Next, a small rolling palette table on wheels and shelves to be filled with gizmos and artifacts, found inspirations and works-in-progress—anything that Strenk can use to create or feed his imagination. “I constantly have to move,” Strenk explains. “I like doing everything, to the point that I just like doing.” On one wall he installs a versatile easel from a rigging system of his own design. Boring holes into the wooden struts, he crafts wooden toggles from old broom handles that he can arrange in the holes to hold his canvas and a ledge-like tray, no matter the shape, position or size. To the right of the easel, Strenk lodges an electric blue chalkboard for all visitors to scribble their mark, an invitation as open as the studio doors, which on a typical weekend will not close from Friday to Sunday night.

Standing outside the studio proper, looking over two acres of sunlit greenery and under towering trees, Strenk soaks it all in. “This is all part of the studio,” he says, and evidence of his handiwork abounds, from the freshly built screened-in porch he attached to the back of the house to a refurbished pick-up truck for his son. “That’s part of what I do,” he shrugs. “I like making stuff.” He’ll walk the grounds while he works, studying the light and getting lost in his thoughts before dashing back into the studio structure for a furious spurt of creation. “Light, to me, is everything,” Strenk says. “I breathe light.” While the space he built gives him the means to create, it’s the natural world surrounding that inspires. But he could never install a skylight, he laughs. That would just be too much and maybe he wouldn’t get anything done. Besides, that might disturb the squirrel, a previous tenant nesting in the roof that Strenk couldn’t seem to evict. “I’ve accepted that she’s moved in,” he says. “So I just have conversations with her now.”

Still, the red barn today is decidedly Strenk’s territory, with near every inch devoted in some way to the creative process and the space where he stores his paintings roughly equivalent to the totality of his former studio. Almost complete, Strenk still has to build a storage unit to organize his paintings, but first he’s looking to remove the cold fluorescent lighting and replace it with some warmer track lighting. These are finishing touches, however, and the artist is already well into a pair of series of paintings begun in the new studio. Both are about potential, the clutter and chaos that precede the moment and that Strenk’s studio personifies in all its artistic anarchy. Boats on trailers, surfboards in parking lots—it’s all about what’s to come.