The first time she walked through the door in 2011, Lauren Walling fell in love with the Women’s Studio Workshop. “I said to myself, ‘This is Candyland!’ ” As an artist, costume designer, and printmaker with a background in the high-stakes Manhattan art world, she knew right away what a rare and exciting a place it is. “I’ve had a lot of training,” she says. “I know what a good studio looks like, and this is quality.” By the next year, Walling was a board member, and in July 2014 she came on full-time as the workshop’s deputy director.
The organization — “We’re essentially a studio workspace,” says Walling — was founded in 1974 by four female artists: Ann Kalmbach, Tatana Kellner, Anita Wetzel, and Barbara Leoff Burge. The group’s goal was to create an alternative space where women could explore art and share their skills. “When they first came on the scene, the four founders had a hard time finding work opportunities as women in the field of art,” says Walling. “So they said, ‘We’re just going to do our own thing.’ They started with a National Endowment for the Arts grant for just $2,800 — and never looked back.”
The WSW was launched in a private house in Rosendale. Etching was done in the living room, screen prints were made in the basement, and the attic was designated for papermaking. Exhibitions took place in libraries, local bars — any spot willing to showcase artists’ work. In 1983 the workshop moved to the historic Binnewater Arts Center building, which dates to the 18th century. The group began offering artist grants and residencies, launched a summer art institute, and initiated community programs including ceramics lessons and school events.
Both art education and creating art have always been near and dear to Walling’s heart. “It was clear to me I wanted to be an artist and an academic, so I needed to figure out how to make those two compatible,” she says. She earned a master’s of art in religion degree at Yale Divinity School. “Yale Divinity has two different programs: You can study for a master’s of art and religion, or a master’s of divinity if you want to become an ordained minister,” she explains. “My interest was art studies in a theological context.” Her credentials also include stints at the Art Students League in New York City and the Glassell School of Art in Houston, as well as teaching art classes for 15 years in various facilities. She’s worked, too, in fashion and costume design in New York City. Currently, she’s busy earning a degree in art education at Columbia.
The Women’s Studio Workshop — it has nine staffers — specializes in printmaking, papermaking, ceramics, photography, and artists’ books. “We’ve been the largest publisher of handmade books in America,” Walling says.
Another notable achievement: “We’re the only residency program in the U.S. that exclusively serves women artists.” That program provides housing, a studio, and materials for up to three months for artists working on a specific project. “They submit an application, and if accepted, are typically fully funded by a grant,” says Walling. “We provide stipends.” She’s excited, too, about a new residency grant that offers childcare funding for female artists.
Artists can also rent a studio for just a week or two. “Some are college professors and teachers who come during the summer break,” she says. The workshop also offers eight-week summer sessions in “highly specialized areas, like Japanese papermaking or screen printing on clay; subjects you don’t get access to in traditional art classes.” Walling is eager to see WSW partner with colleges to create a credit-exchange program. “We’re working with several schools, including Columbia, Yale, and Wells College, to expand programs and make it happen.”
Helping women become savvy about the business of art is one of WSW’s key goals. “We’re teaching them what it means to be a professional after they leave here,” Walling says. “Some of our workshops address issues like: What if you have no health insurance? How do you deal with your work being rejected? How do you hire a photographer to shoot your work so you can promote it? How do you apply to a juried exhibition? These are all pragmatic issues.”
One question about WSW continues to pop up, Walling says. “People ask, ‘Why are you still running the workshop just for women? When will you start admitting men?’ We have to defend that all the time. But it’s still true that, for instance, only 10 percent of the artists who’ve ever shown their work at the Whitney Museum are female. Women need a special place to share their voices. The founders of the workshop were committed to that, and we continue to honor that commitment.”