At its best, art is an expression of the human experience, of life as it’s lived in a multiplicity of ways. Yet, it seems there is still a not unfounded fear that becoming a mother will hinder one’s artistic career.
Artist, curator and professor Micol Hebron has said in an interview with “Artbound” for its documentary "Artist and Mother," “I have numerous friends in the art world who have horror stories about what happened when or even before they became parents, the kind of bias they received when their dealers or collectors saw they were pregnant. Their exhibitions were postponed or canceled because people made the choice for those artists. They assumed they couldn’t continue their work or they wouldn’t be as focused, their creativity would change, they wouldn’t be as reliable, their work might be different.”
Hebron goes on to say, “There are many problems with that. I think one of the biggest problems for me is the assumption that that change would be a negative one. Why don’t we assume that when a person becomes a parent, that their levels of human experience become so much more complex and expanded, that their work should be valued more, not less. Galleries and curators and collectors and dealers should be even more excited about what’s going to happen to their work as a result of being a parent and being engaged in that kind of a relationship with another human being.”
In fact, there have been powerful images created using the lens of motherhood. Catherine Opie created “Self-Portrait/Nursing,” in which she a queer-identifying artist is carrying her infant son in a classic breastfeeding pose, all while the word “pervert,” a scar from her history is faintly visible. Photographer Renée Cox’s “Yo Mama” shows the photographer naked, wearing only black high heels, holding her young son in a strong warrior woman pose.
Though Hebron expresses this belief and other high-caliber artists have found ways to prove that motherhood can be a fertile ground for inspiration, there is still the prevalent notion that motherhood can hold one’s career back. Multimedia performance artist Marina Abramović said, “People ask why there are so few female artists who succeed. It’s because women are not ready to sacrifice as much as men. Women want a man, they want a family, they want to have children, they want to be loved, and to be an artist. And they can’t; it’s impossible.”
In this episode of “Artbound,” the artistic journey of Rebecca Campbell, Andrea Chung, Tanya Aguiñiga and Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle reveal how they have forged their path in the art world. Time and time again, they find inspiration in their children and content for thought-provoking challenging work in the day-to-day lives they live with their families.
Their life experience and interactions with the children and family have enhanced their creativity and artistic expression, not to mention time management skills. Not all of the work they create portrays aspects or themes of motherhood, but the strength they possess as a parent has also enhanced their creative lives.
They are not the only artists who have experienced this expansion because of the additional role of mother to their lives. Alison Saar, Lili Bernard and Cheri Gaulke have also created work that is richer because of their experience raising kids in artistic homes. Kristy Lovich and Kaitlynn Redell have found creative community connections to spend productive time with other artists and their young children.
All of these women share their experiences in how being a mother and being an artist can not only coexist, but how bringing life into the world teaches invaluable lessons.
“Being a mom turned me into an octopus,” says artist Lili Bernard who is the mother of five boys and one girl ranging in age from nine years old though college. “I am known for having my kids with me at my art shows.”
Bernard’s work is colorful and deeply emotional. It reflects the many themes she explores in her art and life from motherhood to racism and sexism. She is the founder of BAILA (Black Artists in Los Angeles, an organized group that she formed to advocate to advance the careers of black artists.
Bernard believes all six of her children inherited art making abilities from her, as she feels she did from her dad and grandfather. Her son Isaiah Ferguson is an animator had been getting attention for his animated films including being invited to meet President Obama at the White House Student Film Festival. “His work is so beautiful. I am so proud of him. All of my children are my best teachers. They are mirrors. My kids’ art is so pure and whole,” says Bernard.
Visions of pregnant women are a frequent motif in Bernard’s work. “What I am trying to show in my paintings of pregnant women is that being pregnant is not a handicap, it is just a different state of being where you can be just as prolific and powerful and industrious. I have known many women who work right up to giving birth,” says Bernard.
Bernard’s kids are also known to help in the studio and inspire their prolific mother. “My kids help me make my art. Help me glue things down when I am making mixed media pieces,” says Bernard. “They are also my best critics. They have a great eye and give me honest straight from the hip responses.”
At her recent exhibition, "Antebellum Appropriations" at MoAD in San Francisco, Bernard showed her detailed muralistic visions that re-imagined classical European paintings into slave narratives. “I believe that part of the reason why I am such a prolific artist is because of my children,” says Bernard. “They inspire me towards creativity. I also want to leave a legacy behind so that when I pass, they will have a good collection of my work to make some money.”
Giving birth six times has deepened Bernard’s commitment to living life with a feminist perspective. “I have always viewed pregnancy and childbirth as one of the most feminist expressions,” says Bernard. “You are bringing into this world, life. You have the opportunity through the rearing of your children to raise feminists, even a greater accomplishment when your child is a male.”
Alison Saar currently has a solo show, “Topsy Turvy,” on view at LA Louver as well as sculptures in two group shows in New York at the American Academy of Arts and Letters and her “Strange Fruit” (1995), the carved victim of a lynching is on view at the Met Breuer in the show “Like Life.”
Daughter of sculptor Betye Saar and sister of painter Lezley Saar, Alison now has an empty nest, which in some ways has helped her become more prolific. Saar’s focus has shifted to reflect current political and racial tensions. Images of children still capture her imagination. Saar fills “Topsy Turvy” with depictions of young girls. “Their personalities and their sassiness are inspired by my daughter when she was five years old.”
When her kids were in school, spending time on campus helped Saar become more familiar with how larger groups of children function. “I became more interested in children in general,” she says. “Being perplexed into the origins of these little people and their spirit.”
The influence of motherhood can be seen throughout themes she has explored since she gave birth to her first child. “Once my son and daughter were born I became interested in the female body with nursing. That set a course for the next twenty years of my work.”
Saar looks at her body of work and sees a progression every few years. “You can really map my relationship as a mother to my children through my work. If you look at like every two years, you will see these different themes emerging,” she says. Saar appreciates how much raising children combined with her in-depth exploration of the African diaspora continues to inspire her.
Known for her photo books and public art installations, artist Cheri Gaulke gave birth to twins at age 40. While pregnant she interviewed for a commission to design a public art piece for the Avenue 26 the Lincoln Heights Cyprus Park metro station.
That project idea became “Water Street: River of Dreams” a bronze sculpture of a female water bearer inspired by the Los Angels River and the Arroyo Seco evoking images of the indigenous Tongva people.
“I remember going into the interview thinking, ‘If they know I am pregnant they are not going to give me this job,’” says Gaulke. The design for the station was due in May the same time as the due date for her twins. “Ironically the whole thing went into hold mode after I designed it and ten years later we dedicated that station.” Her twin ten-year-old daughters attended the celebration.
Before having children, Gaulke and her wife Sue Maberry had begun to create photo projects about the gay and lesbian couples. “I have always believed in being out, but there was a time in the art world when it was really scary to be out. It was not cool to be queer like it is now,” says Gaulke.
Gaulke and Maberry initiated “Marriage Matters” asking gay and lesbian couples to go to Sears to take portraits. “It was appropriating this middle American tradition and kind of queering it.”
When their girls were born, they continued the idea with “Families Next Door.” “We got gay and lesbian families to go into Sears and have their portraits taken.” For the installation, they hung the portraits next to TV families like the Cleavers and the Cosbys.
As their daughters grew, they became activists in their own right, attending protests and being part of building inclusive communities. The summer that gay marriage became legal in California, Gaulke and Maberry decided to get married. “Many couples got married that summer. We called it the summer of love,” remembers Gaulke. Their daughters were 14 years old at the time.
The colorful ceremony was witnessed by hundreds of their family, friends and congregants from the Unitarian church they attend in Pasadena. For the wedding instead of carrying flowers, their daughters held flip cameras to film the ceremony.
A year later when their daughter Xochi was applying to a junior abroad program — she wrote an essay about their wedding and her perspective being a child of lesbians for the application. That text became the voice over for a video project collaboration by the whole family, which was invited to several film festivals.
Now Xochi, an MFA graduate student at Otis is making collaborative intergenerational feminist art with Gaulke. Twin sister Marka works in television.
When asked how motherhood has influenced her life and work Gaulke replies, “There is a depth to experience and understanding and the feeling of love that you never ever experience until you have kids.”
Mothers of young children at the beginning of their parenting journeys also find emotional resonance in their experience with their family and a new emotional depth to their work.
Adjusting to the new schedule of being a mother can be a teaching moment, “The extreme time crunch you are in as a parent,” says artist Kristy Lovich who has been juggling her art practice with the schedule of raising her young son. “When I do have time, I am extremely efficient. In terms of concept and also in practical and the way time moves and the way I can plan things out. Your priorities become very apparent.”
Lovich finds that she focuses on the most critical questions. “Prior to having children, when I had an open-ended amount of time to work, I could get lost in the weeds. Now I am boiling it down to a point that is concise and direct,” she says.
Finding common ground with other parents helps build community. When her son was born, Lovich found “Hey Baby: A Feminist Parenting Group” formed at the Women’s Center for Creative Work. Most of the parents in the group are artists, art historians and curators.
Lovich finds the community supportive of both parenting and creative endeavors. She describes how they all are dealing with everything from toddler moments to big ideas in the same safe space with the common language that creative artistic people speak.
The mothers have started reading and discussion groups for thinking about the home as a place for political resistance and parenting as protest. Lovich is committed to the idea that art is not the thing that is apart from her daily life. Lovich knows her work will shift to meet her son’s needs.
Lovich has created Mountain House at Human Resources. A recent collaboration project with Hey Baby founded by Gilda Davidian titled Co/Work/Play was an exploration of culture work and care meet ups of children, babies, and their caretakers in an open art studio space to create an installation. The mission of this exhibit states, “We assert that those people that act as primary stewards of relationship: mothers, parents, grandparents, caretakers are in a significant position to build political, social, cultural power.”
“And I think for women and marginalized communities we are forced to produce our work in the margins,” Lovich adds. “So I am interested in thinking of the margins and a site of power rather than lack and scarcity, through invisibility and wily nimble ways of moving through the world where we transform hardship and valuable ways of seeing the world.”
Having a child has also forced artist Kaitlynn Redell to become even more diligent and active in her use of my time. “Even though I was already a multitasker, I had to step it up a notch after my daughter was born,” she says.
Redell’s work has recently been seen at Nous Tous gallery in Chinatown and as part of the MGLC Biennial in Slovenia.
Redell made a whole series of photographs with her daughter about the challenges of motherhood. These images called "not her(e)" are based on the Victorian photographs known as hidden mothers. “At the time when portrait photography became more accessible to the masses, families wanted to have portraits of their children taken, but not with other family members,” she explains.
Redell’s research led her to learn more about how Victorian children had to sit still for long periods due to the long exposure time. Looking closely at these photographs, the fabric cloaked figures were often the mothers used as props to hold the kids still.
“I was thinking about the physicality of parenthood,” says Redell. You can become a piece of the background or the furniture. There is a duality between care and love and in a way losing a part of yourself.”
For "not her(e)," inside the colorful fabric draped pieces of furniture and objects in Redell’s home, she would hide inside and have the photo taken by her partner when her daughter tried to find her.
One of her "not her(e)" images is currently part of the exhibition Labors: An Exhibition Exploring the Complexities of Motherhood at the Pearl Conard Art Gallery at Ohio State University. Redell feels that there have been more shows that center around motherhood, but the topic can be oversimplified. She finds inspiration in her community also being part of the Hey Baby with Lovich. She also has found resources and community through ARIM An Artists Residency in Motherhood and the Cultural Reproducers artist residencies with funding for parent artists.
After years of studying art and working in their respective mediums, these artists have learned that some of life great lessons are learned from giving life and living it. These stories of imagination and community paint a vivid picture of the potential of the creative life and making their voices heard and art more visible.
Artist Judy Chicago told Rachel Cooke in The Guardian in 2012, "Children. There was no way on this earth I could have had children and the career I've had. But you know what? I don't care how much I had to give up. This was what I wanted. You have to make choices. You can't have everything in life.” It's worth noting, however, that Chicago's "Birth Project" was a masterful work that celebrated the birth process in collaboration with 150 needleworkers. Though she isn't a mother, perhaps it was because she understood its outsized demands. There are still artists, however, who believe that being a mother and an artist can be integral to their creative success at home and in the studio.
For both life paths, the ones with children and the ones without, women continue to strive to find equal access to career opportunities. When Gaulke hears the assertion that it is not possible for motherhood and artistic success to coexist, she has another idea. “It would be nice if we lived in a world in which being a mother was considered an asset rather than a liability,” she says. “That if you put that on your resume, you would have an advantage over the male candidates. People would say, ‘Oh you have experience with motherhood, you are extra qualified’.”
Top Image: Lili Bernard, "Blessed Mother and the Dragon," Oil on Canvas, 48”x36" © 2011 | Courtesy of the artist