Field Guide: From our Education & Community Programs department, an evolving guidebook navigating the expanded terrain of art and creative life.
Picture twenty museum professionals sitting at a board room with their eyes closed, mouths full of chocolate and listening to the mellifluous voice of a French chocolatier telling us how to taste it. How to listen to it and hold it in our mouths. How to warm it, how to feel its character of flowers, [...]
Picture twenty museum professionals sitting at a board room with their eyes closed, mouths full of chocolate and listening to the mellifluous voice of a French chocolatier telling us how to taste it. How to listen to it and hold it in our mouths. How to warm it, how to feel its character of flowers, earth, honey.
While it’s chocolate in particular that we’re tasting, we’re being reminded of what it is to savor.
“Now that we’ve had sensual chocolate experience, I’ll tell you a little about where I work and how we have made what was once a dusty historic house into a hothouse for embodied learning, a site that brings theory to praxis, encourages activism around social justice and once a month, screens radical sex films followed by passionate dialogue.”
And so begins the day at the Walker with Lisa Yun Lee of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.
I invited Lisa to the Walker to help us think about animating our own spaces and collections. We first met last fall, when I saw her present as part of the panel Working with People: Facilitating Critical Engagement and Collaborative Practices in Urban Design and History at Imagining America. I saw her again during Dangerous Ridiculous, a session about risk-taking during the conference in Minneapolis for the American Alliance of Museums. In each case, she gave one of the most compelling presentations from the conference. We had the chance to spend one-on-one time together in Chicago last May over what turned out to be a My Dinner with Andre-kind of meal, talking about gastronomy, basketball and poetry, civic work, the performativity of language, building archives of the commons, and diversity in museums.
Since last spring, our cross-country conversation around museum work has continued and evolved to more deeply address embodiment, pleasure, participation, and issues of language as they play out in cultural institutions. Lisa’s directorship of the historic landmark—the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum—has been recognized as an exemplar in programming and interpretation internationally. Through her prior work at Hull-House and other projects, including as co-founder of The Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council (an organization dedicated to creating spaces for dialogue and dissent and for reinvigorating civil society), Lisa has modeled her research and writing about museums and diversity, cultural and environmental sustainability, and spaces for fostering radically democratic practices. Lisa has recently stepped into the role of Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which includes museum and exhibition studies, Gallery 400, the contemporary art museum on campus, and the Hull-House Museum.
My goal in bringing Lisa to the Walker was for her to share some of the extraordinary work she developed at the Hull-House, namely, the Alternative Labeling project, for us to consider some of the parallels between our work, and to spark our own speculative thinking around interdisciplinarity and interpretation. Beginning with savoring chocolate, her visit was a foray into pleasure, politics and perception in a museum context.
—Susy Bielak, Associate Director of Public and Interpretive Programs
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“Engagement” is a near-universal aspiration in organizational conversations about mission, and no wonder: The term is such an appealing catch-all, hitting a sweet spot for nonprofit and commercial ventures alike, vaguely signifying relevance, public value and participation, the common good. Attractive as it is, though, “engagement” is a slippery notion, one whose finer semantic points and “best practices” are damnably hard to pin down.
Lisa Lee’s recent presentation at the Walker Art Center addressed just this issue as part of a series of internal discussions about the nature and scope of “the interdisciplinary” with the center’s “Interdisciplinary Work Group” (a small group of curators, scholars, educators and programmers).
As Lee makes her presentation to our gathered group about the rich programming and outreach undertaken with the community in and around the Jane Addams Hull-House in Chicago, the way she describes her museum’s approach to cultivating engagement and interpreting their collections for the public is itself telling. Her language is open-ended, centered on arenas of inquiry and collaboration, on process and transformation, rather than the usual issues of historical “fact” or effective display and education, per se.
There’s good reason for that. “There are two conflicting notions of culture and how it operates in society. On the one hand,” she says, “there’s the model of aesthetic supremacy: of determining what is delicious, what is excellent, what is a good and true pursuit to have, and then attempting to make that accessible to the broadest group of people.”
“But we prefer another, broader way of thinking about culture,” she says, “one that rejects a fixed idea of culture for a more dynamic determination that involves constant creation, re-creation and intermingling of ideas. Or, as T.S. Eliot would say, ‘Culture includes all the characteristics of people.’”
“For our work at Hull-House” she explains, “we subscribe to the idea that everyone can determine what is beautiful, for themselves; that culture is a product of mixing, adding, conversing. And so, in that spirit, we try to challenge our own tastes and sensibilities by inviting outside groups to contribute. In fact, most of our programs are community-curated.”
Such a collective ethos seems only fitting for a historic site like the Hull-House. Jane Addams, along with her longtime partner Ellen Gates Starr, founded the “settlement house” in a densely populated, near West-side Chicago neighborhood in 1891. At the Hull-House, a diverse population of educated, reform-minded residents – many of them also immigrants – worked and lived together, developing a wide variety of educational and arts programs, trade union groups, cultural events and employment services geared toward the low-income immigrant populations who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods. In the 1890s, those urban communities included newly arrived Polish Jews, Germans, Italians, Irish, Greeks, Bohemians, and Russians; after the turn of the 20th-century, African-American and Mexican residents joined in at the Hull-House as well.
Part of the task of the site’s museum now, Lee says, involves rethinking past conceptions about Hull-House and, more broadly, about Chicago history. And that involves re-evaluating the ways we create and present to the public stories about things and people we think we already know. We need to go further, she urges, to extend our inquiries outward and tap those community resources for the sake of unearthing those narratives we never even thought to look for.
Lee asks us to consider the question: “What does it mean to be a ‘public’ institution?” We need to think more expansively about the terms involved, she argues: “A ‘public’ is not a homogenous thing but many, always changing heterogeneous things; it’s a social space created by the circulation of discourse and language, always in the process of being called into being.” As an example, Lee says, we need look no further than Fox News. She argues the right-leaning cable news network isn’t so much giving a “public” information it needs; rather, Fox News actively takes a hand in creating a certain kind of public in the stories it finds and chooses to tell. The public is not timeless or a-historical. “You shape a ‘public’ by naming it;” and what’s more, she says, “we need to acknowledge our roles and responsibilities in creating the ‘publics’ all around us.”
* * *
Lee describes herself, as, at essence, a Marxist literary theorist and German studies scholar (her academic work includes a book for Routledge on philosopher Theodor Adorno). As such, she laughs, her work is always informed by a Marxist’s persistent anxiety about commodities. She explains, “Things and objects are so readily commoditized in our society, that their labor and use is masked. Things and objects tend to stop us from becoming fully human; particularly when we objectify our fellow human beings.” So, she says, “I have this theoretical clash working in a museum and dealing with the artifacts of material culture.” For inspiration on resolving that internal conflict, she says she’s turned to philosopher, Bill Brown, of the University of Chicago, and his Sense of Things. Specifically, Brown’s “thing theory” outlines an understanding of objects that includes not just a story of their consumption, but of how we think about ourselves; in this way, our things are understood to be sublimations of our desires and utopian dreams.
Considered in this context, Lee says, museums and the things they hold “become the storehouses of our memories. Our things refuse to let us forget; if we really pay attention to the stories our objects want to tell us, historical amnesia is impossible.”
If we’re willing to interrogate, on an ongoing basis, the objects we as museums hold in public trust, she says, “if we ask different questions of those objects, and ask our surrounding communities questions about them, we’ll find ourselves telling very different stories than the ones we think we already know.”
As an example of such a community-activated investigation, Lee describes a collaborative exhibition at the Hull-House, looking into the story of Vice Lords gang in turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago. For the project, museum curators worked with current-day Vice Lords to excavate their history, to uncover historical documents and in so doing to tell a larger story of the criminalization of gangs in the city.
She cites another such community-curated project on the history of home economics and domestic science. The museum’s investigation into the subject began, she says, with a deceptively simple question raised by some of their community partners from a Latino domestic workers’ union. They asked: “Who cleaned the Hull-House?” And so, the museum looked into it. As they pored through house records, they discovered the site’s housekeeper was one Mary Keyser, an important reformer in her own right who was at Hull-House with Jane Addams from the beginning. “All the evidence of her significance was there in front of us,” Lee says, “but because of her role as a domestic worker in the house, we’d neglected to see it.”
She goes on, “Museums have always been the way that the ‘1%’ have re-inscribed the experiences of culture at large. But how can we use these institutional spaces and leverage that cultural clout to tell more nuanced stories about the other ‘99%’? This sort of work has proven a great way to challenge meaningful interactivity in the museum’s exhibition space.”
In a museum setting, so much of that storytelling happens by way of labels. In fact, Lee describes herself as someone “obsessed” by them, calling labels, “part of the great democratization of museums” by providing public access to information about the objects therein, without the necessity of buying a companion book. The task, Lee argues, is to take a lesson from, say improv performers – to see the museum didactics and interpretive materials we in museums create to accompany and elucidate the objects on public view as prompts, a place from which to begin investigation rather than one which gives the final word.
Lee offers this quote from Susan Buck-Morss: “Facts should inspire imagination rather than tying it down. The less they are subsumed under the fiction of secure knowledge, marshaled as proof of a predetermined and authoritative thesis, the more truth they are capable of revealing.”
To put it a different way: What if museums were to create open-ended, even oblique labels for their objects, reflective of a working assumption that, when presenting materials and objects for display, one can expect the “right” understanding of those objects to be fluid; that the meaning and significance of objects will be transformed by the experiences and perceptions of visitors, as well as the museum staff members who’ve framed those objects for public exhibit.
Lee says: “I think it’s wrong to assume that we, in museums, don’t have opinions about the objects we hold; but it’s also wrong to pretend there’s an omniscient mind, rather than a person, behind the label we use to describe those objects. We don’t want to shut the interpretive process down [with our ‘educational and interpretive materials], we want to open it up.”
Exercise: What if we re-imagine labels as something other than didactic statements? Cy Twombly insisted captions for his “Peony Blossom” paintings be rendered in haiku. Let’s try that: Go into the galleries and find a piece of artwork on display; write a label for the work in haiku form. Like Emily Dickinson, try “telling it slant.” Leave the description open-ended; try giving just 50% of the information – just enough to prompt the reader further into the piece.
Seen that way, truly meaningful public participation and engagement with a museum’s objects, artifacts and cultural collections center on a question Lee raises at the conclusion of our talk. “It comes down to this,” she says. “How do we enable people to decide what is true and beautiful for themselves? How do we, as museums, allow for multiple truths, plural cultural experiences?”
And what kinds of new opportunities might arise – for our civic institutions, our historic sites and our art museums, for how we knit together our evolving communities – if our understandings of where we’ve been and to where we might be headed could be opened up in this way? What if our consistent focus shifted to facilitation of such dynamic, transformative, cross-sector conversations?
Editor’s note: For this installment of our series on the marriage of art and daily life, poet Kathryn Kysar writes eloquently about the 21st century juggle of creative work and motherhood. Specifically, she talks about running away from home, the need for peeling away the responsibilities of domesticity, layer by layer, to reveal the artist within.
A recalcitrant, cupboard-slamming teenager sulks in my kitchen, blasting hard rock into his ear buds while eating his third snack of the afternoon, tortilla chip crumbs flying around the table. His exuberant younger sister shares her every action—“and now I am folding the paper crane’s neck!”– from the coffee-table-turned-art-studio as I sit at the dining room table, trying to write.
Before I had children, I lived in a large third-floor apartment overlooking the trees and lights on Hennepin Avenue. When I needed to work on a project, I simply changed the message on the answering machine and gave up cooking and cleaning for a week. But now, in my charming St. Paul bungalow, something is always in disrepair, in need of my attention — the garden, the laundry, the mismatched Tupperware, the outgrown winter clothes, as well as the two kids.
I have always been a creative writing sprinter, a poetry manuscript-binger. Some people can slowly and steadily put in a few hours a day, but I work best with a deadline and a few empty days alone with my laptop. My brain cannot easily follow a complex creative thread with multiple interruptions. I need to be able to let my mind amble, freed from worry about what to make for dinner in 45 minutes or that email I should send to my child’s teacher sometime today. I write best when I can be still, thoroughly immersed in my thoughts. This doesn’t easily happen at home.
I tried renting an office, a room of my own. I shared the space with a wonderful woman, but the office was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and spooky at night. The packing up, parking, and unpacking consumed so much of my precious writing time. When I was finally seated at the writing studio’s desk, my teaching and household to-do lists persistently nattered away in my mind, hard to silence.
When my children were little, I feared I would never write again. I asked successful women writers how they wrote when their children were small; often the answer was “I don’t remember,” or, worse yet, “After my partner went to work, the kids got on the school bus, and the day stretched before me…” It was a local poet/novelist/professor who said the magic words: “Run away from home.” She told me she would get a hotel room a few miles away from her house, or go to a local bed and breakfast for 48 hours and write in binges. She said this was how she completed several novels.
I received a month-long residency at the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Red Wing, which meant working out an elaborate child care schedule. I went home about every five days, but when I was at the Anderson Center, I lived by myself in a glorious room with two walls of sunny windows overlooking the road and surrounding lawns. A chef cooked dinner for the residents every night, and if we wanted something from the grocery store, we could just tell her, and she would pick it up for us. It took the first week to silence my mental nattering; I thought deeply about my life the second week. And then, by weeks three and four, I found could write, really write, easily and with focus and skill. It was as if my domestic life had to be peeled from me to reveal the writer.
Most of my female visual artist friends chose not to have children; they said it would be impossible to make art and care for kids. But women writers seem to fool themselves into thinking they can easily create both art and people. Perhaps that’s because we think we do not need studios to do our work. Before we have children, it is easy to entertain the fantasy that we will simply write at home, industrious while our future children take long daily naps. There is a picture of me at my baby shower, pretending to type on computer while wearing a wraparound pillow, demonstrating how I could write and nurse at the same time. That baby cried every night from 5 to 11 p.m., and I never slept more than two hours at a time for seven months. My brain was slow and foggy throughout her infancy. Creating good writing was just not possible.
One smart woman writer friend wrote very slowly for many years after she became a parent, patiently spending a decade to write a novel. But then, once her children were grown, she spent her summers in rented offices where she would binge-write 12 hours a day, while her husband graciously handled the cooking and household chores. Finally, now that long-deserved success has found her, she has built a shed in her back yard, desk and day bed side-by-side, a nod to the need to let her mind rest and wander, as well as work. Now, she can run away from home by crossing her yard.
I have, at last, found a wonderful place where I can be alone, letting my mind to wind around poems rather than grocery lists. It is a “spirituality farm” run by some very hip Franciscan sisters at an affordable retreat center an hour outside of the Twin Cities. The sisters provide meals and occasional conversation, and I stay in a small cabin where I can read, drink tea, spread my poems on the floor, and write. Relieved of caring for others or preparing my meals, I am able to focus totally on my writing. When lacking inspiration, I am free to wander the forest and meadow on the grounds.
On the morning after I returned home from my most recent writing retreat: I washed the dishes, served breakfast, washed the dishes again, drove the kids to the fencing club, attended a coach/parent meeting, drove home, cooked lunch, washed the dishes, put in a load of laundry, and then it was 2 p.m. — half the day already over, and I was still wearing the clothes I had slept in. Had I written a poem, drafted an essay, or sent something off for publication? Those tasks would just need to wait until the next time I could run away from home.
About the author: Kathryn Kysar is the author of two books of poetry, Pretend the World and Dark Lake, and the editor of Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers. She teaches creative writing, composition, and literature at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and lives with her family in St. Paul.
About THE FAMILY BUSINESS column: In partnership with the Walker Art Center’s Education and Community Programs department, mnartists.org publishes an almost-monthly series of personal essays, interviews and exchanges with and by local artists — “The Family Business.” We hope these dispatches from the intersection of art and real life will offer a window on the lived experience of Minnesota’s working artists, in their own voices, and on the day-by-day juggle of art-making with the rest of their responsibilities: kids & family, day-jobs and other everyday obligations. From grocery shopping to daycare, caring for older relatives to community activism, we aim to offer snapshots of what a life in the arts really looks like, as seen through the eyes of the creative people living it every day.
For this month’s “Family Business” column, acclaimed writer Alison McGhee reflects on what it means to build a life in art. She’s not talking about pat advice — no easy bromides extolling the virtues of daily practice or tips about “process.” Rather, her subject is about that unmistakable combination of fear and exhilaration that comes [...]
For this month’s “Family Business” column, acclaimed writer Alison McGhee reflects on what it means to build a life in art. She’s not talking about pat advice — no easy bromides extolling the virtues of daily practice or tips about “process.” Rather, her subject is about that unmistakable combination of fear and exhilaration that comes from working without a net: what it is to pursue one’s chosen path without reservation or contingency plan, when there is no Plan B to fall back on if it doesn’t work out.
An acquaintance asks you if you have any words of of wisdom to contribute for a talk she’s giving on the topic of “Building a Writing Life.”
You start to tap out a bunch of little bromides along the lines of a) make a practice of writing regularly, b) look at writing as a process rather than a series of finished projects, c) develop a good critical eye for your own work.
How dull. If you were an aspiring writer you would be, at best, unmoved and, at most, insulted by the boringness of these words of wisdom. You hit ‘delete’ and abandon ship and go for a long walk with your dog. But the frustration with your own words remains. Annie Dillard, in an essay that you’ve memorized because you love it so much (except for that one paragraph you hate and choose to ignore), says, “What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” You are enraging yourself — not too strong a word — by the triviality of your advice. This seems ridiculous; it’s only a simple talk to aspiring writers on building a writing life, for God’s sake.
But the anger remains.
Now, you’re thinking about a workshop you taught last fall, in which the writers were talking about this very thing: How to become a writer; how to make a life as an artist, whatever that art form — painting, writing, music, acting — might be; the difficulty of making a living, even a small living, as an artist. You listened to them talking. Everything they said was true. There was nothing to disagree with. The conversation shifted to Plan B, the backup plan for when things don’t go the way you want them to.
“Screw Plan B!” one of them said. “It seems to me that if you have a Plan B you’re going to end up following Plan B and be guaranteed failure. Why not go for Plan A and at least know you tried?”
You looked at this writer. He is a person of strong opinions and enormous talent, and behind that talent is a ferocious determination. He was laughing, as he often is, but you knew he was dead serious.
“I never had a Plan B,” you heard yourself say, and you realized only then that it was true. This was a weird thing for you to say, because you don’t much like to talk in class, or anywhere for that matter, about your own writing. But you felt as if little puzzle pieces were all falling into place. Was it possible that you hadn’t realized until that moment that you were a Plan A-only type of person?
Yes. It was possible. You knew that from early on you wanted only to write a book, a beautiful book, but the fact that this was and remains your only goal felt like new information.
In that same moment, sitting there in class listening to your students, you realized that life is easier if you only have a Plan A. It makes prioritizing easy. Whatever you want to be, to do — whether it’s write a beautiful book or paint an astonishing painting — means that the book or the painting will always be the highest priority.
First comes the Plan A, then comes everything else. Whatever job you take to support the plan will be secondary to the plan. If you have children, you’ll figure out how to keep writing when you have them. Maybe you’ll get up at 4, maybe you’ll stay up until 4; somehow you’ll figure it out.
Even if you’re not a good writer — and you yourself weren’t — that won’t stop you. You’ll keep at it until you slowly get better. Because what other choice do you have? There’s nothing to fall back on, if you have no Plan B.
“Easy for you to say,” someone once said to you, after you told her you were pretty sure you would be writing even if you never published anything, “because you have published things.”
That kind of remark makes you go instantly quiet. It seems so rude to respond to it, to repeat that no, you’re pretty sure you’d be writing anyway. And the further truth, which is that you never think about the things you’ve published, also seems rude. But it’s the truth. Anything published is behind you, and you only look ahead.
All you want is to write that beautiful book, and it’s still out there. You haven’t done it yet. That book is waiting for you. This — the fact that you have not yet accomplished your goal — also makes life easier. You don’t have to look around and think, now what? You don’t have to try to come up with a new plan, because the first plan is still operational. It’s a dream that’s still being realized.
It’s a dream that might never be realized. This, too, is something that hadn’t occurred to you. You’ve been like a shark, always swimming forward. All this time you thought there was an end goal, didn’t you? That beautiful book — out there, shimmering in the distance, waiting for you to write it. But what if the beautiful book is a mirage?
It comes to you now, finally, that the beautiful book is a mirage.
That this doesn’t bother you must mean something, but you’ll have to think on it for a while.
About the author: Alison McGhee writes for all ages in all forms, from poetry to novels to picture books. Among many books, she wrote the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Shadow Baby, a novel, and the #1 New York Times-bestseller Someday. She’s currently working on two novels simultaneously, one for children and one for adults.
This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog and is republished here with permission.
About THE FAMILY BUSINESS column: In partnership with the Walker Art Center’s Education and Community Programs department, mnartists.org is launching a monthly series of personal essays, interviews and exchanges with and by local artists — “The Family Business.” We hope these dispatches from the intersection of art and real life will offer a window on the lived experience of Minnesota’s working artists, in their own voices, and on the day-by-day juggle of art-making with the rest of their responsibilities: kids & family, day-jobs and other everyday obligations. From grocery shopping to daycare, caring for older relatives to community activism, we aim to offer snapshots of what a life in the arts really looks like, as seen through the eyes of the creative people living it every day.
What follows is the third and final installment in our featured “Family Business” column this month, an email exchange, moderated by artist Carrie Thompson, between a number of acclaimed photographers, all of whom are also mothers with children ranging in age from babyhood to adolescence. They talk about the tensions of balancing parenthood with a [...]
What follows is the third and final installment in our featured “Family Business” column this month, an email exchange, moderated by artist Carrie Thompson, between a number of acclaimed photographers, all of whom are also mothers with children ranging in age from babyhood to adolescence. They talk about the tensions of balancing parenthood with a demanding career, freedom (or lack thereof), and the potent lure of a good night’s sleep.
Paula McCartney: At 37, I was very used to my adult life and the freedom I had when my son was born, so there’s a lot I miss, actually — but NOTHING enough to trade back! I am certain that Oliver is the most amazing thing that has happened or ever will happen to me. I mentioned the loss of our social lives earlier; I guess the thing that I miss the most is the ability to go out in the evenings. My husband Lex and I always used to go to openings and lectures, and I thought of that as my continuing education, as well as a way to stay connected in the community. Without family in town, honestly, we can very rarely afford a sitter, so we hardly ever go out at night. And that feels isolating at times. Going out to dinner together for a date and paying for a sitter is basically out of the question. I am lucky that Oliver goes to — and loves — preschool several days a week, so I do have studio time. I didn’t have that for his first year and didn’t make much work; and I realize that I make as much work now, on average, as I did before he was born.
I love my son more than anything, but my work is still very important to me. I will admit I do still worry about my career, but I am able NOT to worry about it when I am spending time with him and can be really present. I worry while driving to work or at night, when I should be sleeping!
Greta Pratt: My kids are now 17 and 19, so it is hard to remember my life without them and what I gave up when I became a mother. But in thinking about it, what I would like to have back is time with my partner, where the conversation is not related to the kids. I also miss the freedom to pursue an artistic idea, without having to think about what a houseful of teenagers is doing back at home. It is tough to find balance and, as Paula pointed out before, it is impossible to be the best at everything all the time. There are just not enough hours in the day.
When I was first getting started, a male museum curator counseled me not to have kids. He said I would never be successful if I had them. I was incensed at the time. But if you define “success” as a race to the top, he was right. Nurturing children, making a living, and being an artist comprises three full-time jobs — and that is impossible to pull off.
However, life is richer when we look at it from many angles. If we want a world comprised of diversity of thought and ideas, maybe we need to understand that the old path to success does not work for all types of people. We need to seek out and value the contributions of a variety of individuals.
Amy Stein: Well, as mother of a baby, for me, sleep would be high up there on a list of things I sorely miss. Also, the freedom to plan my own day and unstructured time are already distant memories. Now, every moment and activity’s value is weighed against spending time with Sam, or the cost of hiring a sitter. So, a lot of things I used love to do, I just can’t make time for: going to openings, attending talks, walking in the park, showering.
Sometimes I feel like every moment of my day is consumed by mothering duties, and to break free for even a minute, I need to negotiate with someone to take over and spell me. (Having said that, I have an attentive and loving part-time sitter, and my husband is amazing, and shares many duties, especially in the evenings.)
Carrie — thanks so much for initiating this conversation and pushing it forward. I’ve come to really look forward to reading everyone’s responses, especially because the other moms are more experienced and have a broader perspective to share. Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that Sam will leave babyhood behind, that he won’t always be seven months old, with the intense needs of an infant. He will, of course, grow and go through many stages of development, increasingly becoming more independent, needing new and different things from me.
Linda Rossi: Amy mentioned the need for sleep; I have to say, that has been an enormous issue for me over the years, as my boys were not good sleepers in the early years, and then I waited up all night once they were teenagers.
One evening I remember in particular: my oldest son, Skye, who was two at the time, would never stay in his bed, and around midnight one night, my husband and I pretended to be asleep (while waiting for him to go to bed — he, apparently, was in charge). I remember him coming into our room and standing next to me. I could sense his closed fist holding a toy right above my face. He wanted me to read what it said on the bottom of the toy car. With great delight he said, “Oh, they are sleeping and they are dreaming about me!” I was so sleep deprived, that the fact that he assumed when I did get a wink, I would be dreaming about him was both funny and excruciating.
If I could change one thing about those years, it really would be to get more sleep. I would encourage younger mothers to get as much rest as possible. I would often use the late evening hours to “make art,” and as a result, it has actually compromised my health. I now try to get more sleep, and dream about new work when I go to bed, as the often random connections in a dream state lead to new ideas.
Carrie Thompson: Like Beth, I was thinking a lot about freedom when I wrote the question, “Since becoming a mother what is the one thing you gave up that you wish you had back?”
For me: I would love to have the freedom to really plunge into a project without guilt. I dream of taking off and exploring the world slowly and completely. I think this is a dream for many artists, not just women. I think there are probably a lot of women – and mothers – who share the escape fantasies of Lester B. Morrison. One of Beth’s observations has stuck with me — it almost perfectly sums up my own conflicts: “I often feel like I should apologize to my kids for having a career, and to my career for having a life.”
This conversation originally appeared on Little Brown Mushroom, a blog published by photographer Alec Soth, and is reproduced here with permission. If you missed them, you can read the first two installments in this conversation about art, work and motherhood here.
What’s your story? Please join in and share your own experiences in the comments below.
What follows is the second part of our featured “Family Business” piece this month, an email exchange, moderated by artist Carrie Thompson, between a group of acclaimed photographers, all of whom are also mothers with children ranging in age from babyhood to adolescence. They talk about strategies for work/life balance and how their family lives [...]
What follows is the second part of our featured “Family Business” piece this month, an email exchange, moderated by artist Carrie Thompson, between a group of acclaimed photographers, all of whom are also mothers with children ranging in age from babyhood to adolescence. They talk about strategies for work/life balance and how their family lives alternately fuel and drain their creative drive, and share what from their old lives, out of all the things they’ve left by the wayside in the juggle of motherhood and career, they’d like to have back if they could.
Linda Rossi: This is a wonderful opportunity to write about our adventures, as mothers and artists. I so appreciate these reflections. I have three sons who, unfortunately, due to crazy circumstances, I raised by myself from a young age. My first son was born the day after my grad school exhibition. As I still had to finish the written part of my thesis, I was nursing him and writing at the same time. I found the experience completely changed my interpretation of time and space — there was a blending and compression. I needed to accept quickly the chaos and the unexpected.
As the years went on, all three of my children helped me make works of art. Their skills and aesthetic knowledge grew, and I was able to trust them (at a young age) for new insight into the work I was making. It has continued to be a provocative and powerful exchange. During those years, balancing it all came down to a matter of finding bits of time that I could create work. So, a lot of the time, I was just dreaming about pieces — not actually making them; I would actually try to schedule time to make art in my head. For example, while washing the dishes, I would focus intensely on the work I wanted to do in the future.
At the same time, in our house there were always domestic and artistic tools side by side on the kitchen counter: the loaf of bread and peanut butter were spread out with saws, wood, etc. Probably not the most sanitary situation, but it was a way not to separate our lives. I look back now, on years that were filled with pain, beauty, terror, humor, profound baby- and teenage boy-smells, and yelling, and fear, and laughing. And it still continues.
The intensity of our home fueled the work I created. During one time period, I created an elaborate installation about Russian poets whose voices were suppressed by Stalin. I became interested in the power of art during a time of danger; the strongest work, I found, was less political, and addressed freedom and beauty. Often the wives of the poets would memorize their husbands’ words, keep them in their minds for decades until the work was safe to reveal. I suppose I was feeling my own small entrapment at the time; as a result, I wandered into a professional area of study based on a mix of home-based emotion. It was the double edged sword: there were days I didn’t think I would survive, and yet with all that was going on, it was such a complex and rich environment to be within. I am profoundly grateful for what my sons continue to teach me, even if the lessons can amount to a tough reflection on myself.
Carrie Thompson: Like Linda, I am raising my son (Goma) in a non-traditional home. I won’t get into details, but the word I’d use to describe our lives is “complicated.” And like Amy, I struggle with the amount of time Goma spends in daycare. I am Alec Soth’s studio manager; my job is full-time and demanding. Since I work for an artist, most nights, after Goma falls asleep, the idea of working on my own art makes my head spin. My issue is that I, like many of you, need time to create, think, and explore. I can’t just turn my ideas on and off.
I am 31; Goma is 15 months old. Before Goma was born, I got my job with Alec, won a few grants, made two bodies of work that I am proud of, had many shows, traveled, and applied for every grant and show for which I was eligible. Now, since I have a child, I do less than half of these things. This is why I think younger artists without children rise to the top more quickly. Artists with children continue to create, but maybe not as much or as fast as they did before parenthood. As many of you have mentioned, the idea of success shifts when you become a mother. I would love to hear any other thoughts you might have on the discussion to this point, and I would like to add one more question: Since becoming a mother what is the one thing you gave up that you wish you could have back?
Danielle Mericle: I, too, work a full-time job, although I’ve managed to get it down to four days a week instead of five (and it does help). While I don’t pursue many aspects of my work nearly like I used to, my professional life is definitely starting to come back, however slowly. My sense is that it gets easier all the time. The difference between 15 months and three years old (which is Charley’s age now) cannot be underestimated. I’m guessing that three to six will be another huge leap, and so on and so on. That said, the challenges are still very real. I’m incredibly fortunate, in that I convinced my mother to move to our home in Ithaca to provide childcare for us. (We pay her well, but my guilt is gone.) When I was sending him to daycare it was pretty agonizing…
Anyway, more soon — I will contemplate what I wish I had back. (But I have to admit: It’s finally happening; I’ve reached a point where I really can’t remember my old life much anymore. So, I may have to ponder that question for a while).
Beth Dow: Our kids were born in London, and I was pregnant shortly after my first solo exhibition. I continued to shoot film, but it was difficult to work in the darkroom, and doing so became basically impossible after our son, Miles, was born. Our daughter, Maisie, was born less than two years later. Then, we moved to the USA not long after that. The film I shot back then amounted to roll after roll of unfinished thoughts, and it was deeply frustrating not to be able to print. To make things harder, I didn’t have my own darkroom, so I had to use my husband’s when he wasn’t in it, which was only nights or weekends. I had wanted to apply for grad school at that time, too, but it became impossible. I was still able to get my work in some group shows, but I didn’t regain any kind of real creative focus for several years.
All that had to do with more than motherhood, though; the international move likely played a big part in that loss of focus. My London gallery completely changed its business model and became a picture library at the same time we moved; so, in addition to all the changes of parenthood, I also no longer had gallery representation. Looking back, I don’t know if I would really change anything even if I could, but I do wish I had had more bodies of work under my belt before I grew a baby there (ha!).
When you asked about the one thing I gave up that I wish I had back, I really had to think about that. Life is all about giving things up and getting things in return. Sometimes, we get things we don’t want, and other times we get things we didn’t know we wanted. I wish I could regain the freedom to completely throw my full attention into one thing at a time, and to do that without any guilt. When I’m doing family stuff, whatever that may be, part of my mind is on my photographs; when I’m working, part of my mind is on who needs to be where, what’s for supper, and what is that goddamned dog barking about now.
I suspect this is a gender thing — whether it’s the divided focus or the guilt about that division. I do know, however, that it really does get easier. After a huge gap in my resume, things picked up for me as the kids went to school and became more autonomous. When the kids were small, I would fantasize about what it must have been like for Ward Cleaver to return home to a clean house and a cooked dinner. There were also a few dangerous occasions I can remember — after long and stressful days spent with toddlers — where a full tank of gas, some loud music, and a bit of cash in my bag were calling out all kinds of temptation to just keep on driving. I bet a lot of mothers with young children have felt like that, and I’m suspicious of those who would deny it.
Here’s my answer: I wish I could regain the facility to compartmentalize my attention easily, and I wish I could do so without feeling any shred of guilt.
Greta Pratt: I have raised two children in a traditional/nontraditional home. We’re traditional, in the sense I am married, but also non-traditional, because my husband and I live in different states, eight hours apart. I have a tenure-track job in Virginia, and he needs to be close to New York City. It is complicated. I always knew I wanted to have children, but I don’t think I gave a whole lot of thought to all the practical issues involved with parenthood. Instead, I proceeded as I do with most things — by just winging it. Sometimes it’s worked out better than others.
When the kids were little, I was home with them, and my work time always involved towing them with me unless I could find a mom willing to trade a few hours of kid-watching. I didn’t have the money to hire a sitter. My husband, who is a freelance editorial photographer, travels non-stop and without much advance warning, so he was not available for any kind of consistent help. I learned to shed things, so I could continue to photograph and take care of my kids. No time for a social life, reading the paper, or books; no watching TV, keeping up with current events, or talking to friends. I did however manage to keep my focus and keep working towards a goal, however slowly. At that time, I was working on what would turn into my second book of photographs, Using History. It took me eight years to finish that project. Part of the reason it took so long was the time it took to figure out and understand what I was trying to say; another part of the reason had to do with the travel involved; and another huge reason for the long production time was figuring out how to fit the work in with the kids.
I did a lot of driving in those days. When Axel was eight and Rose was six, I went back to school and got my MFA; that led to my current full-time job. I do feel like my life went completely out of control from that point on. The demands of graduate school and then a job in academia, along with creating art and raising my kids have been intense. And then I moved to a different state, and my husband stayed behind. What was I thinking? As I stated earlier, sometimes it has worked out better than others.
This conversation originally appeared on Little Brown Mushroom, a blog published by photographer Alec Soth, and is reproduced here with permission. If you missed it, read the first installment in this conversation about art, work and motherhood here. The third and final part of this conversation will be posted here later this week.
What’s your story? Please join in and share your own experiences in the comments below.
In partnership with mnartists.org, the Walker’s Education and Community Programs department is launching a monthly series of personal essays, interviews and exchanges with and by local artists — “The Family Business.” We hope these dispatches from the intersection of art and real life will offer a window on the lived experience of Minnesota’s working artists, [...]
In partnership with mnartists.org, the Walker’s Education and Community Programs department is launching a monthly series of personal essays, interviews and exchanges with and by local artists — “The Family Business.” We hope these dispatches from the intersection of art and real life will offer a window on the lived experience of Minnesota’s working artists, in their own voices, and on the day-by-day juggle of art-making with the rest of their responsibilities: kids & family, day-jobs and other everyday obligations. From grocery shopping to daycare, caring for older relatives to community activism, we aim to offer snapshots of what a life in the arts really looks like, as seen through the eyes of the creative people living it every day.
Our first installment in this series is an email exchange, led by artist Carrie Thompson, between a group of acclaimed photographers — all mothers with children of varying ages — about the struggles and hard-won insights that come with parenthood, from the unexpected epiphanies and self-discovery to the frustrations of watching one’s productivity take a back seat to the necessity of caring for small kids and the slow process of integrating family with a vibrant career. What follows is the first of three posts; the remaining two will appear next week.
This conversation originally appeared on Little Brown Mushroom, a blog published by photographer Alec Soth, and is reproduced here with permission. We hope you’ll join in and share your own experiences in the comments below. (Speaking of which, the comments at the base of the original post on LBM make for a really wonderful conversation in their own right and are also well worth a read.)
Carrie Thompson: When I was pregnant, I had a studio visit with Lorna Simpson. She is a mother, so I asked her for advice. Specifically, I wanted to know: What should I be sure to do before having my baby? What might be some of the challenges I face when I become a mother? Her advice to me, since I had recently been working on two projects dealing with family history (including a trip to Japan that directly preceded my son’s birth), was that I should write down the narratives of all those photos. She said I had to do this before my child was born. She actually repeated that advice a few times.
I didn’t listen. I didn’t write the stories. I should have. When my son was born, everything changed: my extra time disappeared, making work slowed way down.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenges of balancing motherhood with a career as an artist. So, I decided to get some other photographers/mothers engaged in a conversation on the subject. There are a few things that I want to address in this exchange: I want us to talk about being women, mothers, and artists —how do we find balance among those roles? How do we continue to make work, raise children, and continue/find success with both?
For example, Alec Soth is obsessed with age on this blog (see here), but I think something important is missing from that discussion. No one seems to address the fact that many people over 35 have children, families, and other responsibilities.
So, here’s my first question: Do you, as mothers, think that having children makes it harder to be successful?
Greta Pratt: To this first question, I have to say that it completely depends on how you define “success.” If success is defined as a mad dash to the top of the ladder, and whoever gets there first is “successful” – then, yes, having children definitely interferes. But if “success” is defined in terms of quality of life — as in being loved and showing love and having deep, long term relationships that cause you to question the meaning of life and love and art, and that help you to look at the world through different eyes – well, then I would say that having children helps you to be successful.
Beth Dow: I can’t lay claim to the word “successful,” but I’ll substitute “productive.” I envy people who can switch on their focused mind in an instant. Focus for me comes much more inconsistently, and if I’m really engrossed in something, the worst thing that can happen is having real life
get in the way. If I suddenly need to get someone from school, for example, if I’m in the middle of a project, it’s like a million little bubbles popping, and it’s difficult for me to regain that focus later. This is especially true when I’m writing. When the kids were little and I had a tight deadline, I warned them that they could only interrupt me if they were bleeding especially badly (black humor fuels our household).
Now, to address the “harder” part of your question, “Is it harder to be successful?”: I often feel like I should apologize to my kids for having a career, and to my career for having a life.
Paula McCartney: I just read Beth’s comment after listening to my two-and-a-half-year-old yell from his bedroom, both in joy and in despair, for two hours in an attempt to not got to sleep. The whole time, I was sitting in the living room, trying to prepare tomorrow’s photo history lecture. I can definitely relate to what Beth is saying about finding it difficult to focus. When Oliver is talking — whether he’s in the same room with me or not — I find it extremely hard to concentrate on anything else.
Having a child and an art career, as well as teaching – it’s a lot to juggle. I always wonder about how to manage it all and I’ve asked other women how they do it. The most helpful response I’ve gotten was from a photographer who I greatly admire; she said, “Sometimes you are a not-so-great artist, sometimes a not-so-great mother, and sometimes a not-so-great teacher.” Hearing that made me feel not-so-bad about being not-so-great all the time at everything I am trying to do.
Since grad school, I’ve made the decision to define “success” as continually moving forward in some way, even if very slowly. And while I continue to ask artists with children how they do it, always hoping for some bit of wisdom that will make my own juggle easier, I realize that I already am doing it. For me, finding some balance (though that word makes life seem a little more stress-free than it is) happened when my son started going to day care two days a week. I had those days as studio days, which meant I could focus on my work during that time, teach a few mornings each week, and then be genuinely present when I was with him.
The thing that I have seemed to sacrifice to being an artist and the mother of a young child and teaching is having a social life. In the whirlwind of the first two years, I didn’t pay that much attention to it, but I’ve recently made much more of an attempt to make dates with my friends (mostly other women artists, many with children).
When I think of all the women I am friends with who are artists, the ones who would be considered the more “successful” are the ones with children. So, I guess I’m saying: No, having a child doesn’t make you less successful — just more tired. And while, for me, life is definitely more difficult with a child, it is also definitely more amazing.
Danielle Mericle: I, like everyone, am so busy most the time I forget how useful camaraderie can be. That said, I’ve been surprised at the positive impact motherhood has had on me, both in a general sense and artistically. I was one of those who had little or no interest in having kids, so when I found myself pregnant, I was pretty terrified at what it might mean in my life. Much to my relief, I’ve found that it has made me less anxious about “career,” more genuinely invested in the process of creating, and happier, in general. I think this is for a few reasons: First, I simply don’t have the time to be anxious anymore. After the full-time job, and Charley (and house, food, exercise, etc.), I get, on average, a half-day per week to focus on my work. So, when I’m in my studio, I’m working, and it feels so nice, so necessary, to have that space to work, however little the time.
I also have experienced a major shift in my priorities (a cliché, I know); I’m not sure that I can entirely articulate the change, but I know that my definition of “success” is different, and that it has much less to do with the notion you have in art school — of art-stardom. Rather, the kind of “success” I think of now is a better match for what I really want to do in life — which, fundamentally speaking, is to have an interesting and fulfilling life.
This is not to say that my experience has been totally rosy and without issues. My darker moments have come over battles for time. My husband is a working artist, too, and our struggles for an hour here or there have been a constant throughout our tenure as parents (almost three years now). For whatever reason, I’ve had a tendency to relinquish my time more than I would like; it has been a really terrible habit that I’ve had to consciously break. If I had any advice to a new mother/artist, it would be to guard what little time you have; it may not feel like much to give up an afternoon, but considered from the perspective of protecting your sanity, it’s huge. Other things: I, too, have little or no social life, which is fine for now. I worry that we’ve alienated a few people around here since we had kids, but there’s not much to do about it. (And, really, I don’t know that we actually have.) And I don’t read anymore — this drives me crazy, and I’m really looking forward to time for books coming back into my life.
Amy Stein: Danielle’s comments really resonate for me – many of them are spot-on descriptions of my recent experiences as a mother. I, too, feel less anxious about career concerns than I did before Sam came along. I used to be very consumed by my work and career. Now, I feel I’m much more relaxed about it, like I have more perspective on my professional trajectory, as well as many other aspects of my life. The clichés we often hear — that motherhood is “transformative” and “puts things into perspective — are uttered so frequently because they are true. And yet even those clichés don’t go far enough toward describing the awesome, overwhelming changes that motherhood brings. In the past six months since I’ve become a mother, these changes have overwhelmed me and thrown everything I knew before out the window. I am still adjusting to the countless large and small impacts motherhood has had on my life. But as a 41-year-old first-time mom, I welcome those changes.
Before, I think I was getting used to the idea that the major positive changes of life were over for me. I switched careers at 32, and then built a new career in the arts that was satisfying and rewarding. Sure, I still had a long way to go, but I was happy to plug away at it everyday, grateful I could spend my days making, thinking about, and teaching photography. We tried for a long time to get pregnant, and went through a lot to have a child. Just before I got the good news, I had resigned myself to the fact that it just wasn’t going to happen for us. Then along came Sam.
Of course, there’s joy and the deep sense of connection that comes with having a child — which has made my life immeasurably fuller and more meaningful. As Danielle says, there’s also just less time to worry about yourself — which, for me, is a good thing, because I was spending about 90% of my time before motherhood fretting over work, career, and where to find meaning in my life. And now, there’s so much meaning that those demons are crowded out, swept away.
I think we, as artists and mothers, struggle with the same issues most working moms struggle with: limited time filled with overwhelming demands. We want to do well outside the home, with our careers, and also with our personal and home lives. Often, it’s just not possible to do it all well. And as Danielle mentions, the constant negotiations with one’s partner — about who will care for your child and when — are wearing. Then, there are the financial concerns: how to pay for childcare, etc. Finding the right balance is so hard — figuring out how much childcare you need to do your work and, for me, fighting guilt over watching someone else spend large amounts of time with my son, as I answer emails and Photoshop image files at my desk ten feet away. I feel incredibly relieved when the work gets done, but I am missing my son at the same time. It’s a cocktail of joy, resentment, and guilt.
Look for the remaining two installments in this conversation next week. Meanwhile, what’s your story? Join this ongoing conversation in the comments below by sharing your own experiences and insights about juggling a creative career and the evolving demands of parenthood.