Category Archives: artist mother

Reconsidering the terms “artist” + “mother”

16RMRadiant Monster (detail), 1996

I’m developing a presentation about being an artist-mother for a conference that considers a collaborative dance project by dancer Julie Lebel. Her project opens up a new possibilities for understanding intersubjective, collaborative and creative movement. The ensemble she’s been working with is made up of a community of children and parents who’ve danced together weekly over a four-year period.

My presentation, on a three-person panel following a performance by the ensemble of children and parents, will discuss how becoming an artist mother has empowered me to interrogate stereotypes of both artists and mothers. I’ll talk about what it has meant for me to develop my practice as an artist-mother, when it sometimes felt like those terms were mutually exclusive. Becoming an artist mother has helped me redefine both what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a mother.

Rather than experiencing the role of the artist as one of alienation and selfishness, I understand that it’s possible for an artist to have social responsibilities, participate in a world of relationships and consider others as at the same time as they pursue their own goals.

I’ve also redefined what it means to be a mother, because as much as I love my children, I still need to maintain my sense of autonomy and personal agency. A mother doesn’t have to give up her identity and passion because she has children. I see that my work has an artist inspires my children to pursue their own passion and goals within their lives as young adults.

Here’s a link to this presentation on Vimeo.

Reconciling Art and Mothering

The book Reconciling Art and Mothering, containing an essay I wrote in 2009, just came out.

It’s encouraging to see this important issue taken up by younger artists. When I left art school many, many years ago I wasn’t even sure that artist mothers existed. Although numerous changes have taken place since then, women who combine these two roles continue to face numerous challenges.

The theoretical approaches and narratives of artist mothers’ lived experience collected within Reconciling Art and Mothering will help us re-conceive our understanding of both maternity and art making.

Virtue + terror

In motherhood I have experienced myself as both more virtuous and terrible, and more implicated too in the world’s virtue and terror, than I would from the anonymity of childlessness have thought possible.

—Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother

I resent the pervasive sentimentality often associated with babies and their care. It may the most difficult work I’ve undertaken in my life. The daily minutiae of caring for a baby forcibly reiterates both the power and powerlessness experienced within the maternal role. Elsewhere in her remarkable book Rachel Cusk writes, “…motherhood is a career in conformity from which no amount of subterfuge can liberate the soul without violence.”

Drawing and reality

As I return to my studio work I find myself struggling (once again) with the difference between drawing and reality. Although I make drawings of real people, what I draw is not real.

In his book Playing and Reality psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott discusses the creative possibilities inherent in the interchange between inner and outer realities. The mother (or other caregiver) creates a “holding environment” for the baby’s earliest exploration of these realities. The holding environment (hopefully) provides care and protection as needed. Within this space the child uses play to negotiate the differences and similarities between their perceptions and the external world. The transitional experience of play allows the child, the individual, to discover themselves as they adapt to the world.

Like play, artworks function within this transitional space and represents a link between our inner psychic reality and the outer world. Art making (and looking at art) provides an opportunity to function in the indeterminate zone between the inner world of the psyche and outer reality.

So when we think and talk about art it’s important not to confuse artworks with reality. Artworks are marked by the psyche of the artist and interpreted in and through the perceptions of the viewer. They do not represent reality, they represent the transitional zone between a number of different realities.

I recently encountered an excellent reminder of the difference beween art and reality in an anecdote described by the artist Marlene Dumas: “Someone was interested in these smaller paintings of a naked young girl, and asked, ‘What is the age of the child?’ I said, ‘It’s not a child, it’s a painting.'”*

Can I allow myself to fall into the transitional space of creativity as I produce these drawings based on photographs of my children? As I draw can I relieve myself of the responsibility I feel towards them in real life?

* From the essay “Less Dead” by Richard Schiff, in the catalogue Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave published by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008.