I am five years and two kids into being an artist and a parent, and I still wonder if it is really possible – or advisable – to pursue an art career. Considering the demands on my attention and time, should I really be spending much of either on my art? I was curious about how other mom/artists I know navigate the often-conflicting demands of domestic and artistic life.
I emailed questions about the art/life puzzle to two friends: Jessica Rath, a mother-to-be and LA-based artist with an upcoming exhibition at the Torrance Art Museum, and Beth Dow, parent of a twelve-year-old and a fourteen-year old, who recently had a solo exhibition at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis. Here are some excerpts from our conversations.
Margaret (MPG) Jessica, what are you thinking – will it be possible to combine art & motherhood?
Jessica (JR): I never thought I would have children. I decided in my 20s that first I wanted to make art, then it would be nice to find a partner and then, only if the partner was mature enough and ready to do 50% of child care, would I even consider children. Frankly through my 20s, this seemed like an impossibility. I would say this is very much a team effort between myself and Joe, my husband, who has a low maintenance day job and runs our household. We discuss and adjust our time schedules to make as much room for my studio practice as possible, while I hold down two part time jobs. It will be possible, but I will have to continue to make it a priority and will need reassurance from my partner that this road is something he supports.
MPG: How “ out” are you about being pregnant with curators and dealers (or even other artists)? When I was pregnant, I worried that curators would not consider me for exhibitions.
JR: I think for the first three months of my pregnancy I had some fear about reactions from curators and artists. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that curators are accustomed to such a wide variety of artists that they don’t really even have time to concern themselves with “ your” pregnancy.
Artists on the other hand have been split into two camps. As when I had cancer and 8 months of chemo several years ago, pregnancy can be too steeped in actual mortality for some to handle. [Some friends] were capable of realizing that art is about life; therefore new life just adds to the mix and is exciting, not threatening. As for artist friends, several … lacked any enthusiasm for the pregnancy … Some have reacted with a kind of horror, sputtering out unconscious insults disguised as enthusiasm (“ You’re so fat, fat, fat”) when they see me in public, which I think is more a projection about their own fears about motherhood, pregnancy and change, than about me. I usually stand quiet and let them dig their own public grave.
MPG: Beth, I know you’ve mentioned that you had a very hard time making your work when the kids were small. How was that time for you?
Beth (BD): I was pregnant about a month after my first solo show at a prestigious photography gallery in London. Since I printed all of my own work, I tried to limit my time in the darkroom during pregnancy and only really went in to print photographs to cover gallery sales. Then came nursing, which sort of killed my career. In all, I was pregnant or nursing for a single stretch of longer than you would believe. Way longer. And it was very difficult to get to the darkroom for around 4 years.
The result was an odd state where I could never be truly productive, and I was never a truly attentive parent, because I could never be only one of those two identities at any time. This made me feel guilty for just diving into my work completely, and I have never recovered that self-permission.
MPG: I have to admit that right now, the art & family combination is not working well for me. There’s always conflict between studio and kid time, but the conflict between my art and my paying job is just as prickly. I wonder if I would be so nervous about investing time in art if I didn’t have kids to worry about.
JR: I plan on going back to work part-time 3 months after the baby is born. . . My husband’s work schedule is early morning to early afternoon, allowing me to give the baby to him at 1:30 and then work in the studio or do my day job. We’ll see how this works.
At first my husband called my time in the studio as an “ investment,” believing that it would finally pay off literally in the long run. After seven years together, he has finally realized that the payoff is that I am a whole and happy person when I continue to make work. This feeds our relationship and our future.
MPG: Years ago, someone told me I would never be an artist because I wanted a dining table in my space (I was renting a live-in studio space at the time). The assumption was that a desire for even minimal domesticity was incompatible with the life of art.
BD: Your dining table in the studio story is so odd to me. I’m from the US, and we’ve now lived back here longer than I lived in London, but I still feel my sensibilities are English . . . In Europe, no self-respecting artist with a big-enough studio would ever forego a place to sit with friends or other studio visitors. Sure, the pub is extremely important, but so is a table and a lot of things to drink. The life of art requires sitting around a table every once in a while, doesn’t it?
MPG: Jessica, your studio is at your home. How do you imagine your art/domestic space (and life?) is going to change when the baby arrives?
JR: The studio has already changed! My husband’s office has become the baby room and his desk is now in my office end of the studio, a converted garage behind our house. The invasion has begun!!
I have always wanted my studio to be as close to my day-to-day life as possible. I grew up with two artists, my parents. Our life was constantly filled with making art, from cooking to making cards to spontaneous assemblages tacked to the wall to a weekend of printmaking in the barn, as well as their more solitary practices. As a child I was part of the project, the big art project called life. I imagine this to continue with my baby. I am looking forward to change, which I already see reflected in my proposals for new installations.
MPG: Beth, your studio is at home – how does that physical intersection of home life and art life work? Would you want a studio away from your house?
BD: I still don’t have a studio and it ticks me off. We have a studio/office space, but it’s in our bedroom on the top floor. My ideal situation would be a studio at home, with a private entrance. Maybe a separate little studio building near the house. I would like to have a physically distinct space where people would need to ask permission to enter. I want to be able to work late into the night, or first thing in the morning, and I like being around to let the dogs out.
One thing you didn’t mention is residencies . . .A few years ago a curator gave me information about a few European residencies she thought would be perfect for me, the shortest term being one month and the longest was nine (!). I just thought she must not have heard me say I had two young kids, or maybe it would never have occurred to her that that parenthood would be an obstacle. I just thanked her, wrote down the details, and forgot about it.
MPG: Beth, despite the demands on your time, you don’t make compromises in your work. Do you just have to plow through — despite feeling guilty — to get your work done?
I feel guilty because I don‘t feel guilty. I started to draw when I was a toddler, and drew compulsively all throughout my childhood. It was a pretty fundamental part of my identity . . . My guilt about being an artist/parent comes from knowing that my ideal state would be to lock myself in a studio and have no other responsibilities. . . I read somewhere, a long time ago, that it’s usually only the good parents who think they are bad parents. I am a fantastic (the best!) crisis worker, and excel in the face of a near-impossible deadline. Adrenaline kicks in and overrides anything else. I am at my least productive at times like this, when I have no upcoming shows. It makes me feel like a spinning top – I look solid and static only from a distance!
MPG: So what’s your reward for doing work? Why do you keep making it despite the difficulties?
BD: [I]t is too much a part of me that I can’t imagine not doing it. I have certainly had moments where I felt like throwing in the towel, but that would then be replaced by something else creative, like cooking … I love, more than anything, the actual process of making something. . . I get satisfaction from challenging myself to make something really well that I can really enjoy & savor.
MPG: I bristle when people who don’t have kids say “ My artworks are my children,” because I think the next step in the logic is, “ You have kids, so you don’t need to be making art.” I think I get to have art and kids – or at least I hope I do. Any thoughts?
JR: I remember people saying that exact phrase in my 20s. . . I think people project their own fear of change and history of disappointments. The sentence could be taken a couple different ways —
My artworks are my kids because I have invested all my time and money and I have nothing left to give anyone else.
My art is the only thing I want to be responsible to or feel love for.
My creativity is limited to the production of objects and thoughts.
These are all fine choices, but they are not my choices.
Don’t get me wrong. Having children is not the only way to grow and have adventure . . . I do think that people who express fear or prejudice against pregnancy and children easily mark themselves as limited in their vision of life and creativity.
MPG: As hard as it can be to keep working in the studio, I wouldn’t want my kids to have a mom who gave up making art. More money and more time would be great, but I think in the long run, they’ll be happier with a messy house and a productive mother. We’ll see how it goes. Thanks, Beth & Jessica!