This column is a few days late to the Mother’s Day party, but celebration of motherhood shouldn’t be relegated to one Sunday a year. From this female’s point of view, juggling being a mother and an artist boggles the mind and artists who pull it off are nothing short of heroic and must have the energy of a thousand Red Bulls coursing through their veins at all times. Gala Bent, Kt Shores, Natasha Marin, Klara Glosova and Jennifer Zwick all do exactly that.
I asked each of them to give a peek into their lives as working artists who also raise families. I was especially interested in debunking myths around the mom/artist binary, whether they developed a creative practice before or after motherhood and if motherhood came after art, what did that decision to procreate entail? Photos and captions were provided by the artists.
Creative practice came before motherhood, but I feel like some of my best work has happened since having kids. I was terrified about losing my momentum, especially when I found out I was pregnant with a second son. Out of that terror came a method of working—on paper with pencil and gouache—because it was easy to pull out and put away quickly. In doing so, I realized my deepest love had always been drawing, that I’d been trying to draw with non-drawing materials for years. Is it strange to say that I don’t know what the myths are? The assumption is that it’s super challenging in terms of time and that is absolutely true.
Art and children are both messy, time consuming, expensive, require support networks and sacrifices, and you can’t really control or be sure of how either of them are going to turn out. They both express and allay our fears around life and death and identification with the inconsistent while consistently illuminating our strengths and weaknesses with precious little regard for proper timing or setting, readiness or trepidation. That’s a huge part of why they’re both so golden for me.
I’m not sure exactly what stereotypes or myths there are around artists with kids, but for us it’s an easy mingling of the worlds. My son generously donated 30 or so stuffies for Vanessa DeWolf’s piece at SFDI last summer, spent many nights with me while I was in residency at P:SA this winter and his chalk drawings served as a backdrop for the promotional shot for inner OUT which premiered this Spring at Gay City Arts. On the other hand, the sheer amount of planning and scheduling it takes to get a week’s worth of appointments set between my partner Bo and me is mindboggling. And I can’t even tell you how many times in the span of writing this short paragraph I’ve got up to attend to some family matters.
It works though, since artists and mothers struggle for validity, recognition and support—it’s already somewhat familiar territory, this motherhood thing. After almost 20 years in the arts, and with an incredibly supportive partner at my side and a charming five-year-old in tow, I have days of optimism where I’m not crushed by the economic instability of my reality and days of discontent where I miss the delicate architecture of support and clarity that the merging of these worlds can reveal. Most days it’s a bit of both. I’m writing an opera, DIER, with Angelina Baldoz, in my backyard, peeling off the charred outer skin of a marshmallow on the end of my son’s stick while debating metaphysical architecture, finishing a Rainier and grabbing some antimicrobial solution for a new wound the young one has manifested… C’est la vie. Also, I’m usually pretty fucking tired.
(inner OUT and Leg of Lamb shots by Derek Johnson; shot of Syniva Whitney and myself by my son, all other studio shots by me.)
Mothering itself is a creative act and a timeless human art form that requires one to pay close attention to every gesture, tone,and emotional transaction. In 35 years, I’ve done my fair share of creating—having already manifested books, performances and community art experiences all over the world, including original video, sound, and even ceramic work. But by far the most impressive intentions I have given shape to in the physical world are my own children: Roman (daughter, 10 years old) and Sagan (son, 3 years old).
Yes, a man can make a masterpiece, but a woman already is one. That’s what I discovered about being creative while becoming a mother. And I agree with your suggestion that there are two great eras in any mother’s life—the Before Time and the Forever After Time.
(TIME Magazine mimic. Photo credit: Kelly O’Brien)
For me there was no beginning or end to the creative practice-aspect of my life, but certainly after becoming a mother in 2004 and again in 2011, my practice was honed and re-focused out of necessity.
In my case, the Before Time and Forever After Time are contiguous eras. If there was a decision I made, it was the decision to move against the tidal pull of society’s expectations. My creative impulses didn’t shrivel up and die when I became a mother—I’m still becoming a mother (it doesn’t happen instantly you know!) and I feel like I’m really blossoming now. There is something about bringing a person into the world—the enormity of that potential and significance—that connects you with your own personal power. Ironically, children immediately do their best to chip away at that feeling.
I spoke with my only surviving grandmother for Mother’s Day and listened carefully as my older sister tried to delicately explain why I was not in fact with my children that day, but “escaping” to play with my sister in Vancouver. My grandmother jumped to the conclusion that maybe something was awry. Was I leaving my husband? Where were the kids? Who was looking after them? We reassured her that all was well, but the idea of scheduling in some “me time” hadn’t even occurred to my grandmother, who gave birth to 10 children of whom my mother was the first. The circumstances of my Granny’s life as a mother kept “me time” from being a real possibility. This harsh reality motivates me to refine my expectations of myself as a mother and inspires me to make more time for what I need to be happy and productive.
I heard my sister explain to my Granny (who has Alzheimer’s) that I worked a full-time job at a tech company, managed an international art project called Miko Kuro’s Midnight Tea and invested significant amounts of love, time, and energy in community engagement projects like the Red Lineage Project and SPoCS (Seattle People of Color Salon) in addition to my role as mother of two. This month, my full-length poetry debut, MILK was released on Minor Arcana Press and yes, people do ask me how in the hell I do all this and where in my house are the minions who do my bidding. But the truth is, I come from a long line of women who don’t make excuses because they can’t even imagine life any other way.
Mothers are people too. And like many other people, they can be abbreviated by labels like “artist” and “mother” alike. I think it’s important for little girls to know that they should not be expected to have children (as though it is a foregone conclusion). Society has a bad habit of playing ownership and oppression games with women’s bodies. There are many ways to be in this world. A largely all-consuming, powerful and transcendent experience, motherhood is one lasting way we can create beauty with a lasting impact.
In our family it’s all pretty much eye for an eye. I’m not sure if due to timely workings of karma or because of my offspring’s ingenuity (these little buggers ) I had to drive a soccer carpool to Shoreline in rush hour twice last week. Either way, I know it’s a payback time. Payback for those nights a few years ago I made them sleep with hundreds of hard -oiled eggs and a taxidermy squirrel or photographs of tiny little alien-looking newborn babies in their rooms.
My kids have seen a lot. They have watched a bunch of adults (read artists) play and be silly and and do weird stuff. Like, for example, punching a hole through the wall with a fruitcake or people jumping through another wall, this one made of 500 cement bricks made out of paper. Yes, they had to put up with a lot of weirdness, but they also got to do their homework on a 12-foot teeter-toter in our living room and sell all our freezer-burned ice cream to NEPO 5k participants last year (netting around 60 bucks!).
From my perspective the current score seems uneven (when is it not?) but I’m not giving up. I’m fighting back! Proudly flying my 2014 New Year resolution banner: BE THE BEST PRISONER YOU CAN BE! My new work is a pictorial homage to all those loooong parenting hours standing on the sidelines watching our children play.
(Sidney and Blake clearly bored by my NEPO House shenanigans.)
I had made art before kids and after kids and kind of always. But the kids at some point provided a serious test, a reality check. I was thinking I should give up art and become something more useful, like a teacher. Anyway, I didn’t give it up and in the process learned that I probably never will. Thanks to motherhood, I’ve also learned to work with limits. When the kids were little I developed different strategies—working on a small scale, in short spurts, getting used to being interrupted all the time.
I’m not much of a planner and because our first child wasn’t exactly planned we never had time to give proper consideration to factors of lost time and economic reality involved in rising children—we just rolled with the punches as best as we could. That said, I couldn’t do it all on my own as a single mom—something would’ve had to give. It’s helpful to have a partner with a normal job (i.e. paycheck) and I’m thankful for that. We still have to be really creative as parents. The big creativity test of “how to deal with sky-high college costs” is coming up in a few years.
I’m not sure what myths are circling out there about motherhood. This is my take on it: Art practice and motherhood are the same in that they both require daily, long-term commitment. In both cases doing things over and over imperceptibly changes things and in the process you, your art and your kids grow up.
I’d been actively making art for at least 10 years before motherhood, and I knew to expect a pause after my son was born. I was back in the studio about a year afterward. My method is to take on very specific projects and ensure I can have a fairly clear block of time to do almost nothing but work on art. This hinges on my husband taking over completely when he isn’t working, something I’m fortunate to depend on. In this way I can have a few weeks of between four and six devoted hours a day, scaling up as final deadlines approach. I’m less inclined to go to art events because I need to keep bedtime and naptimes in mind. This past winter I found myself feeling especially cut off so I explored alternate ways of interaction. I came up with a project called “Conversation Partners” where I chose pairs of people from within the Seattle art community and wrote up a conversation for them to have. Each person was mailed a letter with instructions and a laminated, wallet-sized Conversation Card featuring the name of their partner and their half of the conversation (with spaces to pause for the partner’s lines). Ideally, each partner’s conversation doesn’t make much sense until they meet up and get to hear the other half.
I upped the stakes by also starting an “Involuntary Book Club,” mailing a laminated wallet-sized “Involuntary Book Club topics” card and a short story to pairs of people with a letter saying “Congratulations! You are now part of the Involuntary Book Club. Please read the enclosed short story, then fill out the card to keep in your wallet. Your book club partner has been sent the same story. If ever you come across your partner, please use your card to have a book club meeting.”
In this way, I could stay somewhat connected to the outside world while attempting to bring together specific people whom I think would enjoy each other.
I also established “The Lottery Grant.” I selected a writer, a visual artist and a performer to be the inaugural 2014 Lottery Grant Recipients. Every month for a year they are mailed a Washington State Lotto ticket. While the grant might never pay, it’s with the understanding that nonetheless these hardworking and talented individuals fully deserve to get all the money.
These interactions-by-mail are standalone things but they are also messages in a bottle—gestures from someone on a tiny (and loving) island who dearly remembers the wider world and misses a more complex interaction. However: I love being a mother. I would not undo that decision. Yes, there is loneliness; yes, I fear receding from where I want to be, career-wise. But man, I love that little guy, and I love my life, and with or without kids, working towards big things like “ultimate life goals” always involves adjustment. So far he is not very interested in creating art, although we do play music together, which is terrific. We are always writing songs (his rhyming is surprisingly good).
Absolutely the economics are prohibitive. I’m eager to build more set-based constructed photographs, but the reality is that each photograph costs a couple thousand in materials alone—and now I need childcare on top—so those are on hold. However I recently completed an installation for a show at Anchor Art Space in Anacortes that was smaller than the set-based work (those have to be built strong enough to host young children) but just as satisfying. It’s hard for me to adequately express how much I need to make work. Clearly no one gets into the arts for the money; they do it because they are compelled. They just have to. It makes no sense otherwise. For me to have a backlog of large-scale project ideas clogging my brain and my sketchbooks is very frustrating—like holding your breath far beyond a natural moment of release. If there are any economically endowed people out there, may I suggest a $20,000 art-mom grant? I volunteer to be the test case.
(“It’s Montana and Jenny Time” featuring special guest Owen. Also pictured: Montana von Fliss.)
Top image: Jennifer Zwick’s son in the Anchor Art Space installation, 2014