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Features / January 7, 2016

6 Questions About Art & Parenthood

When will the artworld finally be okay with parents making work about one of their primary life-changing experiences?
An installation by the Bum Family—a collective of parents and their children—at Calgary's Wreck City project / photo Caitlind R.C. Brown An installation by the Bum Family—a collective of parents and their children—at Calgary's Wreck City project / photo Caitlind R.C. Brown

Becoming a parent is a transition that often upends people’s lives. And if that parent is part of the art world, it often means upending their art routines as well—whether viewing, writing about, or making art.

Perhaps this transition could be made more successfully in the art realm if the notion of the individual, seemingly child-free artist wasn’t so dominant. (Need an example of the consequences of this type of ideal? Check out Les Enfants de Refus Global, a film by Marcel Barbeau’s daughter that argues top Automatistes neglected their children for artistic success.)

One door that can open with parenthood, however, is a kind of back-channel communication—both online and elsewhere—about the creative challenges and opportunities of this big life change. Links, advice and fellow feeling is traded freely in innumerable email exchanges, Facebook threads, text chats, and coffee-break conversations.

Thankfully, such conversations are now becoming more public, with an increasing number of blog posts, organizations, outlets and resources springing up to address experiences of artist parents. Here are a just a few of the many questions they have raised.

1. When will the art world finally be okay with parents making work about parenthood?

One phenomenon that many artist-parents come up against is the explicit advice that they not make artwork about this radical transformation in their lives and experiences—especially if they are mothers. Toronto artist Annie Macdonnell discusses this in a blog post for Gallery TPW, prompted by Elisa Julia Gilmour’s artwork Over Their Own: Projected Mothers. As Macdonell writes,

“By far the most repeated and perplexing strain of advice I received upon becoming pregnant a few years back was the advice that came from my art friends. Everyone took turns warning me not to make work about motherhood. At the time, I smiled and nodded knowingly as if I was, of course, in agreement. At the time, maybe I was. But I’ve been thinking about it for the last three years and have changed my ideas on this. In a discipline so intent on dissecting and charting the human experience on all levels, why is this one particular human experience too broad or boring or vulgar to warrant our attention? And isn’t the urge to dismiss it just (to paraphrase the amazing Maggie Nelson) another disqualification of anything tied too closely to the female animal?”

2. What would an art residency for parents look like?

Art residency programs are often geared toward individual and itinerant artists who are bringing only themselves to the residency site. The result has been that such programs have implicitly catered to childless artists, artists whose children have grown, or artists who can afford to leave their children for an extended period of time.

But as Cultural Reproducers (“an evolving group of active cultural workers who are also parents”) reports, in recent years, a few residency programs have sprung up specifically for families. Among them is one at the Santa Fe Art Institute. As artist Dylan Miner wrote of his SFAI experience,

“During our month long family residency there were four residents who brought 1-2 children each. Two of us also had our partners stay with us for parts of the residencies. Importantly, SFAI conducts arts education camps during the summer and allowed the residents’ children to attend for free. This decision was doubly meaningful. It meant that artists could work for 6-8 hours while their children were also working on arts projects. This established long-term relationships between the children, who still stay in contact via social media. The children would hang out in the evenings, using the Institute’s computers or walking to the gym facilities on the university campus where SFAI is located. All said, this left lots of time in the evening for exploration and family time, as well as time for the children to play together and the residents to develop projects relationships. Meals were often communal, which felt open and not a requirement. I have been in residencies where this felt like a burden more than a privilege. During the family residency, it was definitely time well spent.”

3. How would scheduling in the art world need to change to accommodate parents?

Babies can demolish the set routines of their parents—including the parents’ art routines. Rather than scheduling art activities in the early evenings, when many children are winding down for bed, the manifesto of Cultural Reproducers suggests shifting them to the morning:

Naptime for small children often doubles as critical studio time for parents. Sleep schedules also make it more complicated to leave the house. During the first few years of a child’s life these factors tend to isolate parents from the art community. Whenever possible we will create opportunities for cultural exchange between 9:30am – 11:30am, when many toddlers and younger children are active.

4. What new art movements could come out of parenting paradigms and practices?

One of the most intriguing directions of conversation is around what new movements or theories could come out of investigating art and parenthood.

Edmonton-based artist, curator and art historian Natalie Loveless used the term “New Maternalisms” as the title for two exhibitions she organized on this theme. Her term intentionally references the “New Materialism” frame of seeing the world as being made up of matter in relationship, rather than matter in siloed categories. As Loveless wrote in the exhibition catalogue,

What might we gain by taking seriously the remaking of selves and practices demanded by motherhood? According to a new materialist worldview, knowledge is never simply disseminated or applied, but is rather always made by its subjects as it is in turn remaking them. Alongside social activist practices that work towards wage labour for mothers, adequate day care, shared parenting, and parental leave, we can also look to contemporary maternal work in the arts to remind us that it is not only the balancing of work and motherhood that are at stake but also the remaking of how we do and think these and other categories. While we may continue to value the capacity to be self-sufficient, autonomous, and independent, a vision of care—even and especially care-for-interruption, care that is not convenient—can become an alternative ethical and political practice, a practice that I am calling New Maternalisms.

“The Mothernists” is another term used as the title of an exhibition and conference that took place in the Netherlands in June 2015. As the project’s website states,

“A three-day-long transatlantic conference, bringing together the work and thought of practicing international artists, art historians, educators, curators and writers on the topic of caring labour and cultural re-production. The Mothernists attempts to open up philosophical, political, aesthetic and social questions made visible through the co-existing practices of mothering and cultural re-production, bringing these into the diverse discourses that the participants professionally as artists, writers, philosophers, curators, historians and educators are part of.”

Deirdre M. Donoghue, a driving force behind the Mothernists conference, also describes her m/other voices foundation as follows:

By considering the maternal as an attitude towards our being in the world, and as a practice held together by an ethos of ultimate hospitality towards ‘the other’, the m/other voices foundation explores relations between maternal work and -experience, -thinking and -time and the production of knowledge within arts and beyond.

Artist Lise Haller Baggesen Ross has also created a travelling installation entitled “Mothernism.” As she writes,

Mothernism is a nomadic tent camp audio installation and a book, dedicated to staking out and making speakable the “mother-shaped hole in contemporary art discourse.”

5. How does parenthood challenge the workaholism many find necessary for succeeding in the art world and related realms?

Succeeding in the art world often means doing a lot of unpaid work during the evenings or weekends—attending openings, reading the latest critical texts, and attending social events.

Critic and Texte zur Kunst editor Isabelle Graw, in an interview with Spike, reflected on how becoming a parent reduced the time available for this work-centred life:

Initially, the idea of becoming a mother, and consequently no longer being able to operate in the very front ranks, was certainly frightening. When you have a child, you can no longer participate in all the events, which reduces your presence and visibility.

In return, the cliché goes, life with a child is said to be better organized and structured. I certainly experienced that myself in that the limited number of hours you spend at your desk force you to produce text straightaway. Goodbye, procrastination! Since the birth of my daughter in 2006, I have tried to concentrate on the essential, only accepting tasks that are in line with my research. My own books now have absolute priority, and I accept other projects only in exceptional cases.

Along with the fear of disappearing, this setting of priorities goes hand in hand with preferring to have less work pressure, so that you feel psychologically and physically better. One no longer runs the risk of dancing at every wedding and frittering away one’s time in the process.

I do, however, perceive it as a disadvantage that I am no longer able to read aimlessly for hours or take in the whole spectrum of new publications. On the other hand, it feels good and right not to feel the need to “check up on” all of the feuilletons every morning, as typically done in my circles. I really enjoy having given up the presumptuous claim to be able to participate in every conversation in favor of another aspect of my life.

6. How on earth can one keep making art or engaging in creative practice as a parent?

Here is the big question that likely gets the most discussion going on social media and one-to-one conversation. In her book A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, author Rachel Cusk describes the difficulty of encountering this question:

“Full-time paid childcare was what I, with the blithe unsentimentality of the childless, once believed to be the solution to the conundrum of work and motherhood. In those days fairness seemed to me to be everything. I did not understand what a challenge to the concept of sexual equality the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is. Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed. Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that you life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.”

In her case, Cusk found time to write her book when her partner left his job and they moved out of London. There, he took over childcare so that she could write. However, this decision was regarded with some shock by outsiders:

“People began to enquire about him as if he were very ill, or dead. What’s he going to do? They would ask me avidly, and then, getting no answer, him. Look after the children while Rachel writes her book about looking after the children, was his reply. Nobody else seemed to find this particularly funny.”

There are other books that likely address these questions. Artist Moyra Davey’s anthology Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood is one. But no matter how much is written, or is said, it’s clear these conversations are far from over.

Thanks to Caroline Chan for sharing many of these links and resources.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via