Taking Custody: Owning the Role of Artist AND Mother

Taking Custody: Owning the Role of Artist AND Mother

by Alyssa Pelish, Associate Editor

 In her essay in The Atlantic last June (you know, that little piece called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All?) Anne-Marie Slaughter explains why, at speaking engagements, she insists that the person introducing her mention that she has two sons. “It seems odd to me to list degrees, awards, positions, and interests,” she writes, “and not include the dimension of my life that is most important to me, and takes an enormous amount of my time.” Last Tuesday evening, a similar philosophy was evident at the School of Visual Arts panel discussion called “Taking Custody: The Double Life of the Artist Mother.” On stage, and in the program, the brief bio of each panelist noted both her artistic accomplishments and the names and ages of her children. 

It was a subtle acknowledgment of the essay that had brought them to the SVA Theatre that night. In that essay, Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, calls for a reconsideration of the conventional workplace attitudes and policies that still hinder women from being as successful in their careers as they might be. She asserts that it’s these factors “not a lack of ambition” that are still preventing women from occupying their share of leadership positions. In effect, women are forced to choose between being a fully present mother and being competitive in their careers. Slaughter’s frank observations obviously hit a nerve: within weeks, it became The Atlantic’s most widely accessed article ever published online, where it generated both kudos and some serious blowback.

The School of Visual Arts student who introduced the panel discussion last Tuesday had followed the public discussion of Slaughter’s essay and came to wonder how the question of “having it all” might figure into the life of an artist. Her initial thoughts ultimately led to the full fledged panel: seven working artists who are also mothers gathered on stage; in the audience, the seats filled mostly with women in their 20s and 30s, but older women as well as a handful of men were there, too. The discussion, moderated by visual artist and mother Sharon L. Butler, ranged from pointed responses to open conversation that was thoughtful, increasingly honest, and often irreverent. Laughter and murmurs of recognition bubbled from the audience. 

“The questions have changed in the twenty years since Mira Schor published her essay,” said Butler, referring to the visual artist’s “On Motherhood, Art, and Apple Pie,” major forum published by Schor in the November 1992 issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G with which both panel and audience members were clearly familiar. This 1992 forum, co-edited by Schor with Susan Bee, looked at the often unacknowledged discrimination faced by working artists who are mothers, and included statements on art and motherhood by 29 visual artists. But as Butler pointed out, the question is no longer whether a practicing artist can have a child, but rather, how having a child will affect an artist’s work.

And while there’s little doubt that all women combining motherhood with a career encounter similar challenges, the discussion soon made clear that those in creative fields face a unique set of challenges. Slaughter’s essay identifies workplace flexibility, in terms of scheduling and location, as one of the major factors that will allow more women to excel in their careers without having to sacrifice family time, and vice versa. Yet, if anything, the artists on the panel attested that the arrival of a child in their lives introduced an inflexible element into a creative practice that had little in the way of fixed hours.

“No more twelve hour days in the studio, napping when you need to, taking a break to read and think,” Butler said, and the rest of the panel nodded in recognition.

As these women quickly acknowledged, the real challenge for a working artists is finding the headspace conducive to their creative work once the demands of a child curtail their time, energy, and, often enough, their inspiration.

As one audience member put it, very pointedly: “How do you create on demand?” or, as panelist Suzanne McClelland, a painter and mother of two, phrased it: “How do you keep enough air in the room in order to create?” Another audience member, who confessed she hadn’t worked on her art since her child was born, was finding herself uncertain how to begin anew, now that her children had finally started school.

The panel members had a variety of responses and advice to offer. They ranged from the experience of Danica Phelps, who painted with her newborn in a sling and has outfitted her toddler with a tiny pair of earphones for when she’s working with power tools, to more common adjustments. Most significant was the recognition that an artist’s circumstances, the presence of a child in her life, for instance, inform her work.

“Your work can change after you have kids,” Butler pointed out. “You shouldn’t necessarily try to go back to the same point you were at before you had the child. She recommended a more symbiotic approach: “Don’t think of your art and your life as separate. Each can influence the other.”

And many of these artists agreed, pointing to various projects of their own that had grown out of their experience of motherhood. McClelland, for instance, a painter who incorporates language into her work, found herself drawing from both the legalese that frustrated her during a long custody battle and the sounds and half-words that made up her first child’s use of language. 

British artist Kelly, of course, is known for her 1976 series that incorporates artifacts of new motherhood, including personal diaries, feeding charts, and, most notably, stained diapers. Cox, for whom Kelly served as an early mentor, recounted how she’d taken people aback in the early 90s by showing up eight months pregnant at the Whitney Museum Independent Study program. She says she began taking her first child with her on photo shoots. “Of course, it helps if you’ve got an assistant,” she admitted. Other panel members pointed to artists such as photographer Sally Mann, performance artist Marnie Kotak, and filmmaker Larry Rivers, all of whom have incorporated their experience as mothers (or fathers) into their work. 

Two of these women, however, confessed to being annoyed when people would ask them whether they were going to “make art about their babies.” Butler nodded, clarifying that it’s not that every artist will literally make art about her child, but that, “our lives inform our work. Our practices adapt to our circumstances. In a way,” she said, “kids drag you out of yourself.”

“Your work can change after you have kids.”

It’s a point that Slaughter makes in her Atlantic essay. When discussing that balance between parenting and career that more flexible work-scheduling allows, she cites some of the current literature on creativity, which emphasizes how non-linear thought and unexpected occurrences can lead to new ideas, as can the convergence of people with different perspectives. Being “dragged out of yourself,” as it were. “The books I’ve read with my children, the silly movies I’ve watched, the games I’ve played, the questions I’ve answered, and the people I’ve met while parenting have broadened my world,” Slaughter writes. 

But of course, it’s not all Pixar movies and eureka moments. The question of childcare surfaced more than once during the discussion, and a surprising number of these relatively successful artists still found it out too costly and had to find ways to work without it, given that the U.S. is not exactly France or Finland when it comes to subsidized childcare. As these women offered makeshift solutions like neighborhood co-ops and heading to the studio when their partners came home at night, none of them entirely satisfactory, my mind turned to Slaughter’s emphasis that a society that genuinely works for all women, won’t be developed until there are a sufficient number of women in positions of power. (We’ve got a ways to go: currently, women comprise 17 percent of the United States Congress.) 

The SVA panelists acknowledged how difficult it can be, when exhausted from the demands of parenting, to feel anything like inspired to work. Photographer Rachel Papos spoke very honestly on this topic. She admitted to having trouble at first getting back to work. “I was tired and uninspired,” she said. “Sometimes I didn’t feel like making anything.” Her strategy was to set up a long-term project or goal for herself and add it to it regularly, regardless of her mood.

Cox agreed: “I shoot something everyday,” she said. No matter how small.

Papos also offered another story for the woman in the audience who was having trouble getting back to her art. After her daughter was born, Papos said, she started taking a tiny point-and-shoot camera with her, wherever she went. “I found myself taking pictures of little things,” shadows and reflections, I see every day but never bothered with before. “And some of this stuff,” she said, “led to actual projects.”

“How about this,” Phelps said to the woman. “Don’t worry about making your pictures when you take them. Take a ton of photos, and make them by seeing them, later.”

The advice is simple enough, and it certainly doesn’t apply only to artists who are mothers. But the pocket of discussion those audience questions opened up underscores a major concern of artists who become parents. Yes, the panelists all agreed, having a partner who shares the parenting equally with you is key, as is having a network of support. Reliable childcare would be amazing.

However, the artist who is also a fully present parent needs to find a way to reliably enter into a creative mindset, a challenge different from that of the days crammed with meetings and a never-ending stream of memos, reports, and comments on other people’s drafts that Slaughter recalls from her two years at the State Department. 

It’s also a confidence trick, the panelists’ discussion suggested: finding your way back to and recovering the importance of the kind of work that isn’t motivated by the external pressures of an executive-level job, while facing the very real demands of a child.

Rachel Papos, speaking to the audience question about finding a way to create in the small amount of time parenthood might allot her, put it this way: “I just decided that, if I wanted to continue living, I wanted to continue making art.”

Alyssa Pelish is the new associate editor at On the Issues.