Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Artist and Mother

Lately, I have had extended conversations with several young aspiring women artists who are most interested in how I manage motherhood with my career. I suppose it’s a valid question, although in my own naiveté, it was not one I thought to consider when I was deciding to pursue a career as an artist. I’m not sure where to start on this one though as it is such a big topic with much potential for controversy. I do have fears of being pegged as one thing or another but, I feel this is an important enough topic to bring up, that my fears are less consequential than the potential benefit this post may have.
As a student, there were several professional women artists teaching at LCAD. Most (if not all?) of them had chosen, long before I became their student, to decidedly NOT have a family. I think this was, at least partially, due to the stigma of not being seen as a professional artist. Betty Shelton, Sharon Allicotti, and Darlene Campbell were all wonderful role models for me on how to become a strong, intelligent, sensitive, and successful woman in a career path that at the time, (and I’ll let other’s decide about the current scene) seemed dominated by male egos. Yet none of these working professional women were raising a family. I was too naïve to see this deficiency.
Now, I am the mother of two young children (5yrs and 3yrs) for whom I choose to stay home with, while maintaining my career as a painter. It is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. It sometimes feels that everything is happening at once. But, I’m not sure I wouldn’t feel the juggling act of life any less without children. It’s just that my concerns are different than they would be without a family. We all have busy lives, with too little time in the day. Right? I also believe that by continuing my painting career, I am a better parent, because I am showing my children how to be a whole, complete and happy adult.
I think it’s very important for me to point out here, that I am not the type of person who thinks everyone should have children. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. For me though, I knew it was right. I have always loved children. I very much enjoy seeing their worlds open wide with every minor discovery. I knew I would raise a family and I feel I’m doing a good job in that role. Being an artist has made parenting that much easier because we always have creative outlets to fall back on. What kid doesn’t like making a mess on the dining room table with paint, glue and of course glitter?
I’m not going to lie though. These last, especially, three years have been the hardest of my life. Our little family has had to deal with a series of unfortunate medical and financial issues that has both tested and strengthened us as family. Finding balance has been the key for our survival as a family, as parents and as artists. I am very fortunate to have my husband, who happens to also be an artist. He understands how profoundly important it is for us both to continue our chosen career paths. We often swap family roles so the other parent can get to the studio to work. I don’t think I could be as good an artist, mother or person if I didn’t have the overflowing love and support of my husband. Andrew Wyeth said, “One's art goes as far and as deep as one's love goes.” I think that ‘love’ Wyeth is talking about is as much the love the artist has for her subject and process as well as the love that’s put into the artist from those around her.
I really believe there is nothing in life that should limit your art, and your art shouldn’t limit your life. Meaning, if you WANT to have kids and a career you can. There will be times when there seems to be an imbalance, with one needing more time. But, with hard work, dedication and a clear heart open to both, your life will be full for having both. Your life experiences no matter your choice of family or not, will inform your work. For me, my children have really benefited my work, by giving me a clear vision, optimism and a reason to make this world a bit better.
I hope my words will be comforting to some young artists out there who struggle with the desire for both family and career. It is possible, with patience, balance, love and support. Please feel free to share your stories or comments on the subject.


  1. Amazing.....these sentiments show in your art and I am sure in your family.

  2. Alia,

    I think I hear you clearly in your wish to explain how it is possible. After all, women have been having babies and running the farmhouse since the beginning of time, and especially given their gift for "managing" can also fit in a many working women out there, also with families! I think that when a woman, who finds work an essential mission and element in their life, wants to also have children, they know going in how they are going to try to manage it all; they seem more determined to make it work. I myself have yet to start a family, which I would like to do (crossing fingers, I am getting older, and it will be harder physically!), and it is in the planning. I know that I will find a way, with the help also of my partner, to make it all work out. I think it might seem more complicated than it appears. At least, this is just my opinion. I know also the opinion of my partner, who sees me distracted with my art and sometimes asks what I would do when I want to paint, but the child is sick at home. Easy answer, I would be with my child, knowing that time for painting I will also find. It is like trying to describe both as sacrifices of some sort, but I believe they are life's greatest gifts, worth living for. Like also having a husband or family supporting your efforts. The important thing is to want to do, and in wanting, to do your best effort; if you have that, everything else has a way of sorting itself out, through the hard and good. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I always love to hear your point of view! Great article :)

  4. Thanks for writting about this issue...even though I'm not sure about having kids, it's really nice to hear someone with such a nice attitude towards creating and nurturing.

    that is a beautiful photo by the I'm sure will be treasured years to come.


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  6. Alia,

    Thanks for taking the time to write that. You know I have Henry (a year old now) and we have another on the way.

    When CaryAnn was first pregnant (and I was anticipating a kid among our art lifes) this interview (kid advice starts at minute 5) was the best I had heard...and it was all I needed to hear.COPY AND PASTE THIS LINK TO SEE INTERVIEW:

    My personal art journey needed a family atmosphere. It's done nothing but increase the productivity and complexity of my work. I recently realized that my absolute favorite artists were and are parents.

    Thanks again for writing that.

  7. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I had a Facebook friend ask how exactly my work has changed since having kids. Here's how I replied:

    "While I was a student, I was 'into' showing the psychological tension of my sitters. As my mom said, I brought the ugly out... In my youth (and in the postmodern blah, blah, blah era) I thought showing that ugliness was actually 'saying' something. But it really was the easy way out. It's much more challenging to get people to pause and think about the beauty around us, than to shock them with nagative images. Having children has made me want to be a better person, and share the better parts of this world with them (and others). They have totally changed my perspective, for the better."

    Also, I should add that I don't dilly dally my time away. Studio time is sacred to me. My family members know this as do I. I don't allow the computer or cell phone to enter. I just get right to work with much less futzing around. What a gift!

  8. I've always correlated having children with the blossoming of all me, in them, in seeing. My paths during their early years seem, in retrospect, to have been fearless, daring and focused, mirroring what I saw in them. I'm trying now to pick up many of those pieces and build on them.

  9. Hi Alia,

    I loved this post. I have 2 little kids also, ages 7 and 9 now. This has been as huge a topic for me as could be, and so nice to hear your thoughtful expression of it. I waited until I was 38 to get pregnant, didn't know if it would ever happen but like you, just worked at my craft almost naively also with several women around me who didn't have kids. (But I mainly did work with men, I will say). I was almost accepting of it going either way, maybe I'd have kids, maybe not...when suddenly, whammo. The rest is history!

    I would like to add that along with the help of a supportive partner who values what you do, there is this way in which the schedule of children has really helped me focus. My time is so much more clarified and condensed. I go to my studio and PAINT, not read the paper, not get into long inner monologues about how my work sucks...just paint (or draw). This has been a boon to my mental health! And time I see less movies, less of the other stuff. But no less painting. Sure, when the kid is sick, I stay home - and I am happy that I am so fortunate that being an artist, as opposed to another career, gives me the freedom to choose that.

    On love: that love that seeps into your work after having children, there's just more of it. It's amazing.

    On perfection: this is the main thing that I would say you need to not have so much of if you want to be an artist with children. You have to be OK being what you are, a great (but not perfect) mom, and definitely having a not-perfectly tidy house. I have friends who can't stand a messy living space, and they spend a lot of time cleaning....and I have dear friends who spend a lot of time worrying about their jobs as a parent, and I think you need to be free to be beautifully imperfect, to let a lot of that go....and that could be a really good thing. I always think of that expression, not sure who said it, of being a "good enough mother" and not a perfect mother. I say that to myself a lot. And allow those guilty feelings to just stay packed away where they belong - maybe the gift of being an artist mom is so valuable to children, with all that comes with it.

    Thanks again for this post - it was a pleasure to read! Apologies for my lengthy reply.

  10. Kelly and Karen, Thank you for your lovely thoughts here. I think the more we can openly share our love for both aspects of our lifes as artist/ mother, the less fear there will be for future artists.

  11. Very thoughtful, and a topic close to home. I'll be sharing this with other artist friends wrangling the same issues of art vs. parenting. I'm in your corner: art + parenting can cohabitate if you change the rules instead of following others.

  12. Thank you for this post. It gives me hope to know that there are other artist/mothers out there making it work. Although it's a juggling act everyday, I think it is teaching our children a very valuable lesson- to do what you love.

  13. Rose and Kate, I apologize for taking so long to see your comments. I'm so glad that I could share my perspective with so many people and that you've taken away a bit of optimism from my words. Finding that balance of life and art is a worthy challenge and as you've said a valuable lesson for our children. Happy Art Making!

  14. Hi Alia. My husband and I are artists, too, and we have been making a living and raising our children for the past 31 years. We had 5 children in 9 years, and we both continued to paint. It was/is never easy. But, you can figure out how to keep juggling. Where there's a will, there's a way! In our family, I took full advantage of frontbacks, backpacks, swings and playpens. When the kids outgrew these, I allowed some of the kids in the studio to work on their own "projects", or Jack and I took turns painting. During the years when they were all small, I did mostly still life paintings, or if I did plein air was right in the backyard. The kids wound up in a lot of paintings, portraits or as models in painting with kids doing things (playing on the swings, playing with blocks, etc.).

    My painting time was very focused and I learned to paint fast...really fast. Because I alway work from life, most of my paintings were done alla prima and were small. We now have 5 grandchildren, who are often in the studio, so this way of working continues today. If you go to the beginning of my blog (June 2007) with the photo of me painting an alla prima head study of my daughter Priscilla and holding my granddaughter Violet, then work your way forward to 2010, there are several photos of how I did it that might help other mom/artists who might find these ideas useful.

    Paint a good one!!