What makes the experience of being an artist different for women? One obvious aspect is the choice, or not, to be a mother. In this blog, I am interviewing several women artists who are also mothers about the choice to be a mother and an artist and what it means to them. I chose to write about this topic as a way to move forward in my own process, as well as because it is something that many women around me wrestle with in one form or another.
I decided to divide the materials I got from the interviews into two parts. Part one, below, addresses what I think of as the “nuts and bolts” of managing such a choice on a day-to-day basis. Part two will look at the issue from a more philosophical angle, addressing topics such as women in art history, artistic influences, and community.
Artist Tricia Cherrington Ratliff’s website states that her main purpose in making art is to create a legacy for future generations. Her realistic work is influenced by contemporary masters as well as renaissance masters Rembrandt, Titian, Vermeer and Caravaggio. Her “peaceful realist still life paintings reflect the joys and complexities of everyday life.” In addition of the idea that her art will be available to her grandchildren, passing a legacy of both beauty and meaning forward, she also stated in an interview with me, “the act of making tough choices to focus on forming something (such as art) that you love is strongly reminiscent of parental instincts.”
Suzanne Lago Arthur is a contemporary realist painter who earned a BFA with honors at the Corcoran College of Art & Design and an MA in Museum Studies from George Washington University. Her subject matter includes still life, landscape, and conceptual figurative work as well as portrait commissions. In an interview about motherhood and art, Lago Arthur stated, “Motherhood was the spark that ignited the rebirth of my art career.” She continues,
My son Alexander was born into this world as a “micro-preemie” at 26 weeks gestation and weighing only 1 lb 2 oz. I have come to think of Alexander’s dramatic arrival as my “phoenix moment” because in the blink of an eye my life and that of my husband’s changed … in many painful, yet ultimately beautiful and transcendent ways. Alexander’s journey to health & growth was a slow but direct path. He stayed in the NICU for 5 months until we were able to bring him home. Due to his fragile immune system he could not be in a daycare or a preschool environment until he was 3 years old. Clearly many things had to change due to these restrictions and the first was that I had to stop working as an exhibit and graphic designer. Many years later, when Alexander had grown into a healthy and “normal” toddler, I began to feel the sirens call of my creative side and started painting again. My decision to rededicate my life as a painter allowed me to also carve out my own identity apart from being a mother & care giver.
Elizabeth Floyd lives in the Washington, DC area. She is a new mother and specializes in still life and landscape paintings in oil. In her 2012 “Bountiful Observations” series, she committed to creating one still life painting per week. In her newsletter, she observes, “Through constant noticing of what was going on outside, my day-to-day life became more full with appreciation of the here and now.” She continued to say that because the practice has been so rewarding for her, she is going to continue the series into 2013.
Having It All
Can women “have it all?” The debate rages, above and below the “ground” of political discourse and post-feminist discourse- how does a modern woman combine career and family? While the feminist movement of the ’70′s changed a lot, there are still real issues for many women in terms of their ability to have a career and a family.
Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, argues it is NOT possible to have it all. However, Slaughter’s personal experience is that of a woman choosing to leave a high-ranking career in politics in order to attend to her family. She explains:
Before my service in government, I’d spent my career in academia: as a law professor and then as the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Both were demanding jobs, but I had the ability to set my own schedule most of the time. I could be with my kids when I needed to be, and still get the work done. I had to travel frequently, but I found I could make up for that with an extended period at home or a family vacation.
After discussing the demands of being a close staff person to Hilary Clinton, whom she describes as “very understanding”, she continues:
…The minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had.
Lago Arthur’s words echo these sentiments; it seems that whether women can have it “all” really depends on what your definition of “all” is:
I think essentially the difference [in being an artist as well as a mother, vs other careers] is the ultimate flexibility that comes along with self employment. My studio is right in my basement. I have 0 commute time and I set my own hours. The flip side of that convenience is that I end up painting around everyone else’s schedule in my household and I usually pull the graveyard shift to get my deadlines accomplished. However I see that as a “good” problem because I am getting paid to do what I love.
Later in the interview, Lago Arthur continues,
I think the feminist movement has both aided me and bound my hands… Thanks to [feminists'] efforts it is now perfectly acceptable for me to hold my own career outside of my household. However, I find I am still left holding all the other loose ends too, domestically speaking–i.e. cleaning, cooking etc. My husband is a wonderfully supportive partner, but still the majority of the domestic responsibilities fall in my lap because he is just not as aware of these things as I am and truth be told my tolerance for clutter is a lot less than his.
Tricia also commented on the feminist movement and the opportunities it has created for her. By saving money, investing, and buying a home when she was in her 20′s, she set herself up to be able to pursue a career as an artist later.
I think there are many factors that make this an ideal time to raise children and pursue one’s dreams. I would attribute my opportunity to create art *and* be a mother in our generation to the economic prosperity of our times coupled with ongoing education about social justice including the women’s movement. The equal opportunity to get an education and great job in order to buy my own home as a single woman in my 20′s granted me a high level of financial security. In addition to that, even in a recession, people here in the U.S. have purchased art which provided funding for childcare, classes, and materials for larger projects. That isn’t possible in every society. I also have never encountered any negative social pressure about hiring someone to care for the kids while we work because my mother’s generation addressed those biases. If anything, the new norm that people choose their own focus on careers and kids has given me great freedom because I don’t have to explain to anyone.
Elizabeth shared her experience of combining a career as an artist with parenting by also speaking about the flexibility of an artistic career.
I think being an artist and a mother are extremely compatible because as an artist you control your destiny. You decide your show schedule and production capacity, and you adapt according to your responsibilities towards caring for your family. I think it would be a lot harder to juggle being a mother and a lawyer, or some other professional that does not afford a flexible schedule.
I am so happy to be self-employed because there have been times when I have had to stop and go get [my daughter] because she has been sick. I am just so relieved that her babysitter is two blocks away and I answer only to myself, not some petty tyrant of a boss (something I experienced more than once when I was working as an architect).
With tongue in cheek, she adds:
I must admit I had some pretty naive visions of my baby playing quietly on her blanket while I painted at my easel. My daughter quickly taught me that these dreams were not likely to occur for a long while and maybe never…
Tricia’s experience echoes Suzanne and Elizabeth’s:
I wrote in early journals that [being an artist and mother] would be a dream come true because they can go hand in hand. After becoming a mother I learned just how intense and energy consuming parenthood was. I chose to focus by giving up daily hobbies like biking, some social outings and other random things in order to give more attention to art, my children and quality time with my husband. Although people in all careers need to make similar tradeoffs, I have to admit it’s hard to imagine working in a less flexible career because working as a fine artist allows me to enjoy the benefits of motherhood.
I did initially try to take care of our first child at home and work full time “on the side” or during naps. That didn’t work for us, to say the least. We arranged childcare at around month 7 when the timing seemed right. With our second child, we ended up doing the same thing because a career in fine art leaves some flexibility. In that case, I worked very hard during the pregnancy to create a backlog of paintings so that I could enjoy an extended break while our second child was young.
An important aspect that all three women commented on was having clear agreements with their partners around child care and the priority of their art careers. Lago Arthur commented:
It is important to have a clear plan in place. Battle lines get drawn easily when you are both giving your all as professionals and as parents. I think the important factor is to try and keep things flexible and to rearrange as needed. Our current schedule is that I am primary care-giver when Alexander is home from part day Kindergarten (11 am – 6 pm). I work in my studio when he is in school or after my husband gets home from work. Two days a week I have arranged extended child care so I get a longer studio day. On the weekends my husband is primary care giver and I get to work as much as I like. Next school year will usher in an era of tremendous productivity for me as Alexander will begin school full time. I am envisioning 5 hours in the studio + getting to the gym every weekday. In a word, heaven!
My husband is very supportive of my art career and also values building a good relationship with our daughter, so one day each weekend he takes her out for a Daddy/Daughter day, so I can stay back and focus on my art career.
We also have a babysitter that is on call to look after Naomi during the week depending on what deadlines and goals I have for my art career. I feel very fortunate to have found someone my daughter enjoys being with and who is equally flexible with regard to schedule.
Tricia chimed in:
My husband and I agree that daytime childcare is necessary for both of us to pursue our life’s work. We talked about this before we married and we revisit logistical arrangements whenever one of us has unusual scheduling needs. For example, he takes his PhD classes multiple afternoons and evenings per week and I must attend art events, travel, teach, and study. We have to work together to find solutions that consider each others’ obligations.
Suzanne added some thoughts on how biology affects the arrangement for her, in terms of the difference between the mother-child bond and the father-child bond:
Even if you have your child in day care so that you can work during the day, it is still usually the mommy who gets up the in the middle of the night for feedings, consoling & sickness. I joke with my husband that he becomes deaf the moment his head hits the pillow. My son could be wailing in the other room and he would never hear it. I however have developed super power hearing from the moment I gave birth. Most definitely biology has something to do with it.
When asked about the trade-offs or compromises involved in being a mother and an artist, Suzanne responded:
I’ll quote my Dad in answering this one as he recently said to me, “I worked in a job once that I was not well suited to, solely because I had to provide for my family. It is what you do when you are a parent”. And I agree with that statement whole heartedly! You put your children first not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because you only have this finite window to get it right. So you do what you have to do to pay the bills, take on extra jobs etc. But you never let go of the time you set aside to create your work. Early on in my career I only had an hour to myself to paint. I did it every day without fail and those hours have added up to the career I have today.
I don’t believe I have made any compromises with mothering—my son has always come first no matter what. The compromise I have made with my art is that I am on a delayed trajectory in terms of accomplishing my career milestones. But I have no doubt that I will reach all of them in due time. Also, I excused myself from the stress of trying to be prolific during the period when my son is still at home with me. I am more interested in the quality of my art right now than the quantity. I know my time will come.
I made the decision to be a mother, so it has always been a goal of mine to never ever make my daughter feel she is the cause or reason why I am not able to accomplish a life or career goal. This being said, I have also realized that some of the art career goals I had before she came into my life were for the time being too demanding to pursue at the moment, so I have made adjustments to my schedule for going after those goals. I have found a way to slow down my pace while still maintaining and growing my career, yet also being available and flexible in the level of care and participation I want to maintain in my daughter’s life.
What advice would these three women have for women considering combining motherhood with a career as an artist?
Take time off and only return to the studio when you feel the pull, because creating art requires thirst and the desire to make something meaningful. If you do not feel the pull, then spend more time caring for your child, and soon the desire to express your creativity will return. Once it is back, set a goal for establishing a project or series that will get you into the studio on a weekly basis, even if it is only for one hour a week. This will keep you limber and ready once you begin to spend more time in the studio.
Also, when you are feeling stressed, try to identify where the tension or frustration is coming from. A lot of stress I experienced in the first nine months of my daughter’s life was just me adjusting to the changes that were taking place in my life. Once I realized this, it became easier to adapt and meet my daughter’s needs while also making the most of my new life.
First, as with any endeavor know your goals and your value system in advance so that when you are faced with trade-off’s you are prepared to make good decisions. Then, get to know other people with similar objectives, passions and challenges with the expectation that we all learn from each other on an on-going basis. If you are single, choose a spouse carefully who is willing to be a full partner in all aspects of your life together. I’ve heard that having a supportive spouse is essential to all entrepreneurs. Stay fearless. You are so lucky to have found one of the rare combinations of occupations (whether art is your career or pastime) that allows you to manage your own schedule and be as involved as a parent as you want to be!
I’ll end with this gem from Suzanne:
My biggest take away learning would be to follow your intuition as both a mother and artist. Only you know what is ultimately best for your child. Likewise, only you know where you need to push your art and your career.
Parents, mothers… what do you think?? Do you have anything to add?