Published on June 1, 2019

The garage is probably the last place you’d think to turn into a personal oasis, but it was this often-ignored spot that eventually sold Albuquerque-based artist Tracy Rocca and her husband, Michael, on their home in the Rio Grande Valley. Luckily, Rocca didn’t have to search far for inspiration. The couple borrowed a number of design elements from Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home and transformed their detached, two-car garage into a bona fide art studio.

“The way that her studio made use of the New Mexico light was really inspiring to me—this idea of using basic materials and keeping things as stripped back as possible,” shares Rocca. The garage’s pitched roof was a natural draw for the artist, who wanted to infuse the underutilized space with sunshine via skylights and clerestory windows. “Having consistent, ambient light all day long is really important to me while I’m working,” she adds.

Don’t let the fresh coat of white paint fool you: This garage-to-studio makeover came with its fair share of challenges. “No one had been living in the house for 10 years, much less the garage,” she says. “Things like roof leaks and bugs go unnoticed when it’s an uninhabited space.”

Ahead, Rocca reflects on the clever DIYs and hard renovation decisions that made the under-$10,000 makeover worth it.

Don’t underestimate the cost of natural light…

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photo by Deb Achak

Natural light is crucial for any healthy work space, but it’s especially important when the work you’re creating depends on it. “One of the goals of the studio was to have no direct light on any of the walls, so I really wanted that pitched roof for skylights and clerestory windows,” explains Rocca.

“By painting it white, it didn’t have to be perfect. It obscures so many imperfections.”

Adding a few skylights sounds like a simple feat until you realize it entails a lot more than punching a hole through the ceiling. “We have a tiled roof, so that turned out to be the biggest expense,” she adds. To make up for money lost on the labor and repairs involved with installing the skylights, Rocca kept the existing door that leads out to the backyard but replaced the center with a sheet of glass for transparency. One-quarter of the garage (which is now sealed off and hidden from view) still functions as a parking space as well as a workshop for Michael.

White paint is a cheap way to hide imperfections…

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photo by Deb Achak

Like Rocca’s paintings, the space exudes a zen-like simplicity. The whitewashed surfaces are as smooth as a blank canvas. Let your eyes linger a little longer, though, and you might spot the original seams in the floor. “Really, it isn’t very refined,” admits Rocca. “By painting it white, it didn’t have to be perfect. It obscures so many imperfections.”

Benjamin Moore’s Super White covers the walls, bouncing the natural light from one corner to another. Instead of repouring the concrete floor (an expense that would have sent their budget soaring), Rocca simply rolled over the surface with white epoxy to mask any unwelcome blemishes. “I left all the cracks in it and you never see them,” she explains. “It kind of makes you go white blind a little bit.”

Insulation is nonnegotiable, but how you disguise it is…

Contrary to popular belief, winter is still very much a reality in New Mexico. Insulation is a key part of making any uninhabitable space livable, even if you’re not spending the night. “Most people don’t know it, but it snows here,” says Rocca. “We needed the garage to be warm.”

“[My work] is a way of slowing down, and slowing the viewer down, even just for a minute.”

Insulation now fills the gaps between the rafters. The couple chose to disguise the lining with a white plastic barrier—a cheaper alternative that achieves the same look of drywall.  “It kind of disappears into the space,” says Rocca.

Be your own furniture-maker…

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photo by Deb Achak

While Rocca’s primary workstation is at the easel, her desk also had to be comfortable and functional. It’s crafted from simple plywood, and she drew inspiration from her favorite fellow New Mexico artist once again. “I modeled that piece after O’Keeffe’s dining table,” says Rocca. “She also had this fabric hanging over her storage shelves, and I did that in my space, as well, to obscure the clutter.”

The clever hack allowed Rocca to keep the existing shelves that had been in the garage for more than 80 years. “Wherever I could use what was already there, I did,” she adds.

Close to the West Coast? You can catch Rocca’s “Rockies” exhibition at Winston Watcher in Seattle, on view September 10 to October 30. Like her sun-drenched studio, her canvases have a way of making you rethink spaces that might be taken for granted. “The majority of my work is based on my travels to national parks and public lands,” says Rocca. “It is a way of slowing down, and slowing the viewer down, even just for a minute.”

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