For artist Ebony Thompson, sometimes inspiration strikes in the middle of the night. But instead of heading to the studio in the morning, he can just get out of bed and get to work.
“I can put on a canvas or do a sketch of something I dreamt of, or something that inspired me while sleeping,” he says.
Thompson creates his art in his basement and garage. His Elmont home doubles as his workspace, where he can paint and print as he pleases.
And it’s not just convenient — it’s cost-effective.
“I don’t have to pay my mortgage as well as rent for a working studio,” he says.
Thompson is among many artists who have set up studios in their Long Island homes. Naturally, they got creative with their space: from a basement ballet barre to kitchen recording studio. And these artists say there are plenty of benefits when it comes to honing your craft from home.
Revamp, regrow, record
During Superstorm Sandy, Matt Barba’s childhood home in Baldwin was hit hard. His family had no choice but to rebuild it. That included adding elevation, in case of future flooding.
“The house got reconfigured,” says Barba, now 26. “The main living space moved down a floor, and we had these spare rooms now.”
He saw the new space as an opportunity.
What was once a kitchen is now a control room full of recording equipment and instruments. The place where Barba was raised is now home to Regrown Recordings, a studio where he’s been working with clients since its opening in July 2019.
After graduating from high school, Barba earned a music industry degree at Syracuse University in 2018. He landed internships at recording studios, including Cove City Sound Studios in Glen Cove.
Those experiences “solidified me knowing this is what I want to do,” he says. Although he grew up performing music, he found his passion on the other side of the glass, recording, mixing and producing those sounds as an audio engineer.
So, he built his own studio using recycled or upcycled materials. For instance, to build a wall, he borrowed wood from a friend’s dad who builds a haunted house every Halloween and would ordinarily throw it away afterward.
The glass on the door of the isolation booth, used to record vocals, is from an old coffee table.
Barba even built his own desk using plywood, courtesy of a friend who works at a construction company.
And there’s a couch, salvaged from a neighbor who was throwing it away, in the studio for clients to relax on, but it has a rip in the back. No worries, says Barba — the ripped part is hidden against a wall.
“I was collecting materials and letting their availability inspire what I was going to do with them,” he says.
Barba "ripped out the cabinetry and gutted it completely" to make way for the equipment. The nook where a refrigerator once slid into is now used as a recording booth. Whenever he hit a roadblock due to lack of knowledge or skill, Barba says his friends or his father, who works in construction, helped him out. Since then, he’s welcomed musicians from an array of genres to come into his business and record their work.
“Most of the work I get through here is rap and hip-hop,” he says. “The market is huge and it’s also very easy to record, since it’s a single vocalist and the music comes in digitally.”
He’s also worked with folk, rock and jazz musicians. It was important to Barba that all of his clients feel right at home while recording — but maybe not literally.
While clients like that it's cozy, “It’s not supposed to feel like a home,” he says. “We’re here to work. But maybe because it is a house, it has added benefits like less distractions and being more of a private area in general.”
For a time, Barba, his two siblings and his parents lived in the house while Regrown Recordings was in business. (Barba and his brother have moved out.)
His parents are still there, but with a floor between the studio and the main living space. Barba says they aren’t bothered by the music.
“I guess I’m lucky in the fact that they've always been really supportive,” he says.
Dance like no one’s watching
For as long as she can remember, Gwen Rosenthal has been dancing.
From ballet and lyrical to tap and jazz, the 11-year-old has done it all. Gwen used to spend four to five days a week practicing at The Dance Loft, a studio in Long Beach. It pretty much became her second home.
“My favorite is ballet,” says Gwen. “It’s really graceful and you just move with the music.”
At her family’s home (also in Long Beach) her mother decided to do something special for Gwen with their extra space. With the help of a family friend, they created a home dance studio in the basement, complete with marley vinyl flooring, mirrored walls and equipment such as a Bosu ball, stretch bands and a ballet barre.
Allyson Rosenthal coincidentally finalized the home studio for her daughter right before the coronavirus pandemic began, which led to The Dance Loft temporarily closing.
But when classes resumed on Zoom, she had the perfect setup for it.
“I felt a little nervous that I wouldn't be able to dance,” Gwen says. “But then I realized they were having lots of online classes, so I didn't feel nervous anymore because I knew I’d be dancing every day.”
Gwen also uses an Alexa device and iPad in the studio while practicing on her own, and has even taken private lessons there.
“It's been so beneficial to have the dance studio and for her to be able to practice whenever she wants,” her mom says. “She definitely dances more now that she has the home studio downstairs.”
With a national competition coming up, Gwen has been preparing rigorously in her home studio. It’s her first time having two solo numbers, and access to her own studio allows for much more independent practice, she says.
“It’s different because with my dance studio [The Dance Loft], the barre is on the far wall and you can’t really see yourself close-up,” Gwen says. “But with the home studio, I can move the barre closer to the mirror and I can see my technique.”
Gwen hopes to continue dancing for a long time. Her next goal is to build up enough muscle to try pointe, a ballet technique that requires strength and full body support as the dancer balances on the tips of their toes.
Practice makes perfect, and she’ll get plenty of it on her own stage.
“It’s kind of like her sanctuary,” Rosenthal says.
A change of scene
Over the past two years, Katherine Nunez has taken notice of people altering their career paths — herself included.
So she decided to start capturing it all on film.
Nunez, 33, had considered photography a side job until right before the pandemic. She decided that she wanted to dedicate herself to this passion full time. After living in Queens for six years, she wanted more space to raise her family. So they moved to Dix Hills and Nunez launched herself into the industry.
“Long Island has opened up amazing opportunities to do what I love,” Nunez says. “I’ve found so much support from other women in business.”
Recently, Nunez has been working with up-and-coming entrepreneurs, particularly women, who need photos for their social media or website. She also photographs small events, like birthday parties.
“I’ve called myself, from the beginning, an emotional photographer,” says Nunez. “I don't focus on perfection; I focus on capturing the reality of the moment.”
Nunez lives in a high ranch, with her studio on the lower level. She has lighting, backdrops and her computer in there. The studio can fit between four and five people at a time, and there's a playroom next door for children of clients.
Nunez focuses on work such as headshots, family portraits and baby birthday shoots in her studio. She also does some product shoots, which are convenient for her — if a company mails her something, she can get the shoot done in the same space. Nunez hopes to get more into food photography this year.
“As a photographer during the pandemic, it was a plus to be able to have a private space where people could come in,” Nunez says. “I felt like it made some of my clients more comfortable.”
The pandemic affected her work in other ways, too.
“People love pictures,” she says. “I have a feeling that after the pandemic, people are going to appreciate their time together more. They’re in constant need to collect those memories.”
As a mother of two children, ages 2 and 4, Nunez has found the home studio has its pros and cons. One pro: Being able to work unconventional hours to accommodate her schedule.
But the biggest con, says Nunez: “You need to establish boundaries to yourself so you don't forget that you need to leave work. When you have kids and a family, establish your real life outside of work and respect that.”
Nunez says many of the people she works with have their own home workspaces, as well.
“I can tell you 10 people off the top of my head that have home studios,” she says. “Especially after the pandemic, people decided they don't want to go back to conventional jobs.”
Getting the message across
The work of Ebony Thompson, originally from Sierra Leone in West Africa, draws upon his roots and his realization of systemic issues such as police brutality within the United States.
And he does everything — painting, sketching and screen printing — from his garage and basement in Elmont.
Thompson moved to the United States (New Jersey, initially) at 16 years old.
“I came to realize, this America is not what I thought it was,” says Thompson, now 50. “But how do I talk about it? I can use verbal language, but sometimes my words become too aggressive. A palatable way of expressing that would be using art.”
Thompson was inspired by rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur to express himself through metaphors in his art. For example, he uses nudity to convey vulnerability. He prefers to use oil pastel and earth tones, but says he’s transitioned into a softer palette with vibrant colors in his most recent works.
In warmer months, Thompson paints and draws in his garage. He also turns the space into a gallery during the summer by hanging his paintings and welcoming people to take a look.
In the wintertime, he works in his basement, which is also where he prints his art onto clothing, tote bags and more. He has about five types of printers.
Thompson started creating this merchandise because most of his pieces are 5 feet by 4 feet, and he recognized that his audience may not have the space to display them.
“Now, my audience doesn't have to go to a museum to come see me or my work,” he says. “The work can come to them. Since I also have a tough time getting into galleries and different places I’d like to because of COVID, I wanted my work to still be out there.”
Thompson feels that he and his work benefit a lot from a home studio. He can bring his vision to life right away — if he got an idea and had to commute to a studio elsewhere, his message may get “confused or diluted” by the time he arrives, he says.
“If I’m inspired, I can pull out a canvas right away and begin to work on it,” he adds.
Thompson recently had his work displayed at an exhibit in Roosevelt Public Library, and he continuously collaborates with the Long Island Black Artist Association, a valuable network and resource to him. He’s developing his next body of work now, to be exhibited this summer at his home studio.
Thompson is not sure exactly what his next pieces will look like, but he says: “I’m hopeful. The future seems bright, and some of my work now depicts that.”