How To Be An Artist AND A Mother

Systemic bias is far reaching. The malicious web of patriarchal control has made it hard or in some cases impossible to achieve professional success in the arts while being a mother.

Palmer Earl, Helping Hand; Image courtesy of the artist

How To Be An Artist AND A Mother

By Sydney Walters
The belief that motherhood is career suicide for artists is a lingering bias in the art world. This sticky presumption stems from centuries of gender, race, and class discrimination that pits domesticity and artistic endeavors against one another. In truth, motherhood has been deemed a factor in female under-employment in all creative industries. Yet despite the fact that many of the most successful female artists living today are mothers: Jenny Saville, Phyllida Barlow, Amy Sherald, and Cecily Brown to name a few, the research clearly exposes the diminished presence of women, let alone mothers, in the art exhibition arena. The reasons for this are complex and nuanced. But broadly speaking, two interconnected elements shape our beliefs on this issue of visibility: realistic shifts and systematic bias.

Let’s first look at realistic or practical shifts. It is a transparent fact that when you become a mom, things change. Time is segmented into different tasks, the noise level in your home rises, your sleep pattern diminishes, etc. For many mothers, professional practice goals ebb down the priority laddar in order to adequately care for the human you just brought into the world. These anxieties have pervaded the female psyche for centuries. In the book At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America by Laura R. Prieto, she cites part of a letter written in the late 1800s from artist Jessie Hamilton to her cousin Agnes:

I really ought not to paint. If I paint I can do nothing else-I cannot live – I cannot keep my clothes tidy, my room in order, write letters, buy Christmas presents, wash my hair, put things away, do things in the house, go to missionary societies, take walks, teach Sunday School lessons…or do anything-I just do one or the other. I have not the physical strength for both, or else I imagine I have not. It is a pity to be forty-three and not have decided the trend of one’s life and I shall go to the other world still between the two with neither done…

You see? This has been going on for a while so don’t feel alone. You’ll hear more on this topic later from two mother/artists I interviewed.

Systemic bias is far reaching. The malicious web of patriarchal control has made it hard or in some cases impossible to achieve professional success in the arts while being a mother. And some female artists have drunk the Kool Aid, most famously Tracey Emin and Marina Abamović.

In 2019, the Freelands Foundation published their five year research project analyzing the inequality of female artists in Britain. They cited that access to affordable childcare, the guilt mothers feel when spending time in the studio away from their child, and limited ability to travel are just a few of the ways systemic bias places the responsibility of child rearing into mothers and away from their partners and the art community.

Despite the challenges, many women feel that their children have not only enriched their practice, but their wellbeing in many ways. This is elucidated further in my interview with two California women about their experience as a mother and artist. Rather than cherry picking sentences from their responses and weaving them into an essay, I wanted to leave their responses whole because they are packed with honest insight. Thank you Palmer Earl and Jacqueline Bell Johnson for sharing your stories.

Briefly describe what the experience was like for you as you became a mother while being a practicing artist.

Palmer: For me, becoming a mother and my studio life were very much intertwined. My husband and I had been trying to have a baby for almost three years. For inexplicable reasons, I was not getting pregnant so I eventually had to undergo IVF treatment. While I was injecting myself with hormones and suffering through the resulting mood swings and pain, I started thinking about how the only option available to ancient women in my position was to pray to fertility Goddesses for help. I found it oddly comforting to learn about their myths and started imagining that the Goddesses were helping me like so many women before me. Soon, I began doing extensive research on fertility Goddesses and their totem animals and started painting portraits of these Goddesses in animal/human hybrid form. Focusing on those paintings helped me endure the treatments and the excruciating waiting periods and I like to think the Goddesses helped me because as I was working on Artemis (part deer part human) I didn’t just get pregnant, I got extra pregnant, with twins!

Jacqueline: A lot of my work was big… monumental and a bit taxing physically. I definitely felt the limitations of a pregnant body while trying to meet deadlines and executing projects. I had no choice but to ask for help, leniency, special treatment in order to meet my obligations and to get the work ready to show. At the same time, while pregnant, I was still climbing ladders, doing some lifting, and using machinery and I just felt like this walking talking “feminist icon” for a minute.

The notion that “you need to choose between your career and being a mother,” is an idea that still runs in many art communities. What is your response to this?

P: That is a ridiculous and offensive statement that is never subjected to fathers nor should it be to mothers. All of the artists/mothers I know are not only handling careers and child rearing but are doing both beautifully and successfully. Making art is a necessity for a fulfilled life if you are an artist and being a mother does not change that.

J: It’s true in a lot of ways, there are so many things that are just not feasible for artist parents especially, artist moms. I’ve had to pull back from participating in the art scene in person, which absolutely impacts your career. Talking with other artist moms, there is a consensus: you become invisible.

For me, I live in the IE, so attending shows in LA means an hour plus driving, and another back, plus food, parking, time to network, gallery hop, etc. (The two-kids-close-in-age dynamic is a big part of it.) If I take the kids, they will act out in boredom pretty quickly (mine are five and three right now). If I leave them home, I’m paying [for a] babysitter which is very costly for two kids for that time. If my partner stays home with the kids, that’s time I’m trading to go out that could be studio time. Kids are often welcome at the events, which is nice, but with young children, the parents spend most of their time protecting the art from the children. Residencies are out of the question and many opportunities simply do not offer enough funding to cover all the expenses associated with family obligations.

Some of this I didn’t realize until going through it. The pandemic has brought most things into the virtual realm, online exhibitions and zoom artist talks… These things have made the art scene so much more accessible. I try to stay active in the art scene by also participating in shows and writing occasionally for publications or catalog essays. I go to the city when I can. As my kids get older these circumstances will change too.

How has your child/children directly or indirectly grown your professional practice?

P: Having kids has definitely made me better at time management. The hours that I have in my studio are so much more precious to me now and I make so much use of every minute that I barely even stop for lunch. I also do my research reading before bed instead of wasting paint time in the studio.

My seven-year-olds, George and Edie, love to draw and paint, thank goodness! I think it helps me to casually draw with them and to remind myself of the simple joy of putting colors on paper without worrying about composition or detail. They also have surprisingly good eyes and give helpful comments about whatever I’m painting… aside from when they say: “Oh, Mom, not another naked lady!”

J: I make work at home and what I do has had to adapt to kids. It means smaller projects, things that I can step into and out of at a moment’s notice. I am interrupted constantly which is mentally exhausting to constantly switch back and forth between art making and mom stuff. Lately I have been making a lot of works on paper. I must have gotten up and stepped away from the computer to deal with kid stuff (snacks, potty stuff, bad behavior, etc.) at least 30 times while typing these answers. I am constantly inspired by their sense of wonder, and I find myself giddy to share everything with them, which has made me go on a lot of tangents in my own research. They ask questions about my work and my process, so we have conversations about making art, which have made me think about that stuff in different ways. I have also caught my kids mimicking me-making their own work and conducting their own projects. It’s a rather surreal validation of what I do as an artist. I have made some work in collaboration with my children, too. The children are a part of your life, so they become a part of the art too, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Nearly every major life decision has an element of sacrifice and gain. What have you sacrificed and/or gained as a mother and artist? 

P: Having kids has taken away a lot of things I enjoy like being able to go on a romantic trip with my husband on a whim or have broccoli and ice-cream for dinner. At the same time, it has also made me better at prioritizing which people and activities are most important to me. I have less time and bandwidth now for people and activities I don’t truly enjoy or that are not beneficial to me.
Additionally, my constant struggle to be a decent role model has made me a better person and a more ambitious artist. I want them to find what they are passionate about, work hard to pursue it and ultimately find a way to make a living doing it so that they can have fulfilling lives.

Above all I have gained two funny, insightful, creative kids that I enjoy spending time with and I consider myself very lucky to have them plus a career I love.

What practical advice can you offer for women artists if they become mothers?

P: Give up on having a rigid schedule. There will be sick days, doctor’s appointments, school vacations etc. so you’ve got to roll with the punches painting whenever you can and using your studio time effectively. Also, try not to feel guilty for spending a large chunk of your time on art. Often being an artist isn’t always the most lucrative career so it is easy to feel pressure to give up and focus solely on raising your kids but don’t! It is important for your children, especially daughters, to see that you value yourself and your career so that one day if they become mothers, they will continue to follow their passion and not set it aside to raise kids. Of course, some women’s priorities drastically change when they have kids and they may no longer want to make art full time and that is fine but just don’t drown in Momland and forget your passion for creating.

J: I feel like this question puts all the weight on the moms. This question should be what can the art world do to be more inclusive to mothers?

  • Grants that cover or allow childcare as a line item on the budget.
  • Space and room for mothers to nurse.
  • Children inclusive spaces and daytime events (this doesn’t solve every mother’s problem, but it helps).
  • Flexible timelines and understanding…it’s not flakiness. Moms have unplanned things come up all the time: Kid gets sick, school stuff, partner work stuff, pet stuff, babysitters cancel, emergencies. These things demand priority.
  • Physical and proactive help. If you see a parent carrying their child at an event, offer to get them refreshments or help them find a seat, show them where they can park the stroller.
  • If your opportunity does not provide funding (a stipend, an honorarium, W.A.G.E. etc.) then don’t be surprised if an artist mother has to say no. Saying yes to an opportunity like that means I have to cover a lot of additional costs at home to make the opportunity fit my schedule and work around my other obligations, money and time I may not have without financial support.
  • Understand that moms have routines at home that are often sacred and cannot be interrupted, such as the trio of dinner, bath, & bed. Most young children (mine included) will have a melt down if these routines are interrupted.
  • Be understanding of gaps on the artist’s CV

Find other mom artists. They will get it. I have built several support structures for myself: group texts and chats, a crit group, a few artists that I exchange emails with. We talk politics, art theory, artwork, in addition to all the parenting conversations. Most of my interactions are digital and not in person, but that can be more accommodating to everyone’s schedule. There are groups out there working to create visibility and support networks: artist/mother podcast, 44.4_mothers_artists, spilt milk, sustainable arts foundation, artist-parent-academic to name a few.

Visit palmerearl.com and jacquelinebelljohnson.com to view more of their work.

Citations:
Joan Acker, ‘Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations. Gender & Society,’ 1990.
Dr. Kate McMillan, “Representation of Female Artists in Britain During 2018,’ Freelands Foundation, 2019.
Laura R. Prieto, At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America,’ Harvard University Press, Dec. 2001.
Marina Cashdan, ‘You Can Be a Mother and Still Be a Successful Artist,’ Artsy, Aug. 2016.

3 comments

  1. Wonderful, sensible article. I’m not a mom, but probably because I acceded to those pressures on women artists you articulated so clearly. Thanks!

  2. So proud of my daughter, so wish I had followed in her foot steps and spent more time on y passion!!

  3. Great article. I’m a writer / mom and just reading the words of fellow mom-artists is balm to the soul.

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