What Would It Mean to Really Make Space for Mother-Artists?

Literature

One friend managed to tile a Moroccan backsplash in her Brooklyn kitchen during her maternity leave; another wrote a book. So when my sister, an artist, asked me how much work was “realistic” to get done with a newborn at her feet, I told her the truth: My 12 weeks of US leave were a fertile time for obsessively logging feed sessions and refreshing Twitter. More often than not, having a baby means disappearing to Mandyville for a year or two or ten. “You’re going to do great!” we say as the pregnant friend walks toward the wobbly sidewalk grate, waving as they are swallowed whole.

For reasons related to a scarcity of time, money, and focus, many artist parents find themselves in a “mother-shaped hole” after baby, artist Kija Benford explains to critic Hettie Judah in Judah’s new treatise How Not To Exclude Artist Mothers (and Other Parents), now available in the US from Lund Humphries.

The project grew out of a report Judah was commissioned to research for the Freelands Foundation, speaking to over 50 artists about structural obstacles to their career development after baby. Institutional biases from art schools to galleries can affect “mothers, fathers, and others,” but less so fathers, per the statistics on artist representation—just 32 percent of 2021 acquisitions by the Tate were of work by female and non-binary artists.

A 2017 review of literary prizes by Nicola Griffith, PhD, likewise found that while men predictably accounted for the majority of winners, books about men and boys accounted for around three-quarters of Pulitzer winners between 2000 and 2015. Broadly, fathers are not tethered to and defined by their children in the same way mothers are.

Benford explains to Judah that the hole “starts in the breast pumping room at the art school: the small room with the metal bed, the empty walls, the window that was glued and taped with opaque plastic and blocked my view of the outside world.”

If you aren’t in a lactation closet, you’re at home. Judah spends a chapter on Lenka Clayton’s “An Artist Residency in Motherhood,” which was self-devised as “a structured, fully-funded artist residency that takes place inside my own home and life as a mother of two young children.”

As quickly as mother-artists find ways to turn parenthood into something generative, of course, the system finds ways to delegitimize or challenge the value of that work.

Residencies are of course quite difficult to attend for caregivers; you typically can’t leave your children, and can’t bring them with you, though some residencies—Emily Flake’s St. Nells humor residency is one, Marble House Project another, while Sustainable Arts Foundation lists more—make space for this. Clayton secured a grant for her residency, and later opened the concept up to anyone else who found it useful. During her residency in her own home, she created works like “63 objects from my son’s mouth” and “All scissors in the house made safer,” in which she spun wool around the points and handles of every pair of scissors she could find.

These works have found gallery space, but the scale of “domestic” art has been a problem in the art world, and in what Jessica Grose terms the “pink” economy of women’s media and publishing—too easy to dismiss by gatekeepers and tastemakers. Work about child-rearing loses the “seductive potency of the artist as a countercultural figure,” Judah points out, “for what is one to rebel against if not domesticity and the conventions of family life?”

That is the establishment view, in other words, though many of the most culturally energetic and bestselling books of recent years have pushed “domesticity” to new places—Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, Angela Garbes’ Essential Labor and Like A Mother, Kate Baer’s poetry, Sandra Newman’s The Men, Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers, Rachel Cusk’s everything.

As quickly as mother-artists find ways to turn parenthood into something generative, of course, the system finds ways to delegitimize or challenge the value of that work. Just in December, a reviewer at Publisher’s Weekly complained that the “histrionics” of the main character in Leah Konen’s forthcoming postpartum mystery novel You Should Have Told Me detracted from the otherwise thrilling plot twists. Author Julia Bartz wrote a public letter of complaint, noting the history of women being pathologized with the term.

Being in “hysterics” implies someone has suffered a loss of psychological control, though on my own read of the book, Konen seems to know exactly what she is doing combining the trappings of a thriller with the destabilizing tilt of the postpartum experience: “it wouldn’t be over. I was a mother now. That meant forever.” Ominous! Part of the horror of new parenthood, beyond the wall-warping effects of sleep deprivation and worry that your child will ossify during the night, is the realization that you have to reassess your read of the clues so far.

Then there is the ongoing ethical problem of using your children as material, even if they are part of the scenery (For part of this essay, I had two children balanced on me while I typed. They have had things to say: Mum, mum, mum, MUUUUUM). Writes Judah:

The reality of working from home as an artist parent is that you share your space with children doing children things, including bumbling around naked. This is your milieu: it is what normal looks like and feels like. What normal looks like and feels like to your growing children is an environment in which art is made, and in which spending time with your parents can mean involvement in that work.

Artists like Sally Mann, whose photography of her children was criticized as exploitative, have had to justify their work. Taryn Simon got around this notion by creating a work, “Sleep,” that was made by taking flash photography of her children sleeping in their black bedrooms. Cusk explained in The Paris Review that “by photographing them in the dark and seeing only afterward what the camera has seen, Simon regains the objectivity of the artist, and puts it into correspondence with the child’s own objectivity.” Simon also manages to capture, in looking at her children’s bodies, “the facts of loss and of nonexistence”; your favorite subjects and mine.

Kathryn Jezer-Morton, who has a PhD in momfluencer culture, has argued that content creators likewise bring a lot of skill to their field, whether or not you are repulsed by the idea of them capitalizing on their lives as parents, or consider it art (and part of the rub is the unspoken question, if it isn’t a creation worth critical consideration, exactly why is that?): “The eye of the needle through which these stories are told ends up being quite tiny. But then, saying things without ruffling feathers is a skill women have been practicing for a great many centuries.”

Do we need to achieve critical distance before putting the thing out there, or is there inherent value in the work emanating from the cramped hole we find ourselves in?

Judah notes another unnamed artist who withheld the works created of her children from the public sphere until they were old enough to consent, a concession I did not extend to the child whose bath turd I wrote about several years ago. Anyhow, waiting until your children are grown is part of the problem given what Judah identifies as the art world’s “cult of youth” and the need to explain resume gaps. There’s a reason all those juicy novels come about in people’s 40s and 50s—the kids are bigger—but the authors need a way back into the conversation, a way to destigmatize the ungainly act of “emerging” in mid- or late-life, a chief goal of author Sari Botton’s “Oldster” newsletter. Another beautiful solution is Galerie asterisk*, the “cheeky” invention of artist Christina Stark. Judah explains:

Galerie asterisk* is not a bricks and mortar space; it exists to fill gaps on an artist’s CV while she gives birth and looks after a young child. Any artist with a child can apply for an exhibition, which can be scheduled as many years in retrospect as required, hence all the shows hosted in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

This is not the same as “putting motherhood on the resume,” as some well-intentioned she-boss initiatives have suggested. Rather, it’s a way of foregrounding the artist-self while motherhood takes place and of subverting the typical dynamic of parenthood gobbling up your professional self. “There is something deeply dehumanizing about constantly being told to erase parts of yourself,” writes Grose in Screaming On The Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood, which looks at the punitive nature of US childcare and maternal policies as well as at the ways that becoming pregnant knocked Grose’s career sideways.

Curiously, because motherhood is next door to childhood, some of the labor women perform takes the form of craft—elaborate cakes; those letterboards; the toilet-roll marble-runs I made early pandemic, thank you Busy Toddler—so it’s not that creativity ends with a baby, more that the shape of that work changes, and you have to recontextualize your output. Is this felt-square-pastiche Art? Is a tone poem of my child stalling at bedtime? Do we need to achieve critical distance before putting the thing out there, or is there inherent value in the work emanating from the cramped hole we find ourselves in?

We need to keep creating, but something fundamental needs to shift. The US feels uniquely fucked when it comes to motherhood—here there is less family leave, a deep culture of workism, a short attention span and an inability to celebrate motherhood unless as some kind of capitalistic exercise. An old boss waited until my exact due date to tell me I wasn’t getting the job I was already doing—incredible not just for the cynical timing, but the fact that I was still schlepping to Midtown Manhattan on the subway and devoting mind power to a corporate blog at 40 weeks pregnant.

In contrast, my first job in Australia as a bright young Master’s grad was at a publishing house that routinely brought on new editors to cover year-long maternity-leave contracts; a fantasy of Maggie Beer cookbooks and mentorship and homemade cakes. Here, it is not the way. When I was laid off mid-pandemic—from a parenting site, no less!—my instinct was to feel deeply ashamed, and to imagine that the last strut holding up my career as someone with two very dependent kids had folded—it never occurred to me to admit publicly how shitty it was, or to make art of that, though it’s kind of funny to get the boot from parenting.

So, how do we get past the “in these times”-ness of motherhood (alas, these are times we live in)? Judah is used to offering a “vague set of suggestions” to those ready to re-emerge as a mother-artist: “Work from a studio complex rather than from home so that you have other artists around you; form a mutually supportive group that promotes out another’s work; collaborate; organize shows; apply for residencies; work like a fury.”

But obviously, she writes, it’s bigger than taking in little huffs of creative oxygen in online spaces and making do with household items. Judah takes inspiration from Toronto artist Darren O’Donnell, who suggests, she paraphrases, that “rather than a society structured by the assumption that the typical human is self-sufficient, autonomous and competent, we might instead position vulnerability as a central idea when considering a ‘typical person.’”

How can we be more inclusive, in other words, as people go flying down the dark part of the slide where they are briefly out of view?




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