The tension of being both a mother and an artist

While still a student in the late 1960s, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, pregnant with her first child, met the famous sculptor. He remembers saying, when he saw her round belly, “Well, I guess you can’t be an artist right now.” He wasn’t, she realized later, completely wrong; after having a child, Ukeles found herself trapped in a kind of mindless automated work that defines early motherhood – bottle, diaper, stones, repetition. “I was literally split in two,” she said later. “Half of my week I was a mother and the other half an artist. But I thought to myself, ‘This is ridiculous; I’m the one. ‘”

It is the creation that is gaining fame, she announced in the manifesto, although the maintenance “lasts all the fucking time”. In the exhibition she proposed, she would do her homework in museums — cook, clean, change diapers, put on new light bulbs — and elevate those repetitions, an equal part of her life, into art. It may come as no surprise that no curator was willing to entertain this idea.

Among the artists in a new study by biographer Julie Phillips about several great “mother artists” from the mid to late 20th century, Baby on the fire ladder: creativity, motherhood and the problem of the mind and baby, Ukeles is one of the few, if not the only, whose creative work is so practically aligned with her maternal work. Ukeles’s intention was to merge the two halves, to undermine each other: “My work will be work.” But the kingdoms are in conflict. A baby can’t take care of itself, art can’t create on its own, and rarely can the two be done in tandem. The old adage “sleep when your baby sleeps” doesn’t work when you’re waiting for your baby to start his next chapter or new sketch so you can work on your own. According to Doris Lessing, “I can’t think which is better, have a baby or write a novel. Unfortunately, they are quite incompatible. “

When a new child arrives, it’s as if two strangers have moved into your house. He is the first child. You are second as a mother. She is a person whose previous preoccupations have now been annulled as less urgent. Phillips quotes psychoanalytic theorist Lisa Baraitser, who writes that her mother’s own self-narration was “broken at the level of constant interruptions in thinking, thinking, sleeping, moving, and completing tasks.” What is left is a series of unrelated experiences that basically cannot be connected. ”

In her one ridiculed (too dumb, too brave, too willing to admit what others just think) memoirs, Lifework, Rachel Cusk wrote: “To be a mother, I have to leave the phone unanswered, work unfinished, agreements unfulfilled. To be my own, I have to let the baby cry, I have to prevent her hunger or leave her for evening outings, I have to forget her to think about other things. To be able to be one means to fail to be another. ” Here, Cusk reveals the basic secret of what creative mothers need to do their job – they have to forget about their children, occasionally. They need a temporary restoration of an inner state that is only the artist, not the mother.

The women in the Phillips documents all felt split in two. Alice Neel famously placed one of her children with her family in Cuba so she could move to the Village and take pictures. Lessing also committed “unforgivable” (her own words) and left two of her children with her father in what was then Rhodesia. Ursula K. Le Guin, who was “grateful” for the ordinary household chores that tied her to the real world, wrote to her agent: “I walk a rather narrow path, between the needs of my family and my own psychological wastelands.” More contented mothers in the group, such as Angela Carter, who gave birth to a son in her early 40s, have developed workarounds or new equipment for their concentration to get involved and get out. (Even then, Carter worried that her narratives crossed streams, that her work, which she described as “gothic stories, cruel stories, miracle stories,” “harms the baby in some way.”) Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

If the first shift of a mother is money-making work and the second shift, à la Arlie Hochschild, is rubbing and soothing, the less mentioned third shift for a mother who is also an artist is a dream state, thinking, meditation – whatever you want to call it or whatever you want. practice – which creates space for ideas. It is a place where the artist communicates with herself, in what Phillips calls “imaginative distance”. Even if creative work seems active – sliding a brush or rattling fingers – dreaming is important to him.

In an early draft of her 1931 speech, “Professions for Women,” Virginia Woolf (an unorthodox aunt but vocal without children) wrote that when she imagined a woman writing, she didn’t think; she did not reason; she did not build a plot; she let her imagination run wild as she sat above clinging to a thin but absolutely necessary thread of reason. ” This is the third shift: pure attention.

Some mothers of artists have devised methods for walking. Audre Lorde, like Emily Dickinson before her, wrote poetry on all the pieces of paper at hand. (The main difference is that Lorde then packed the papers in a diaper bag and returned to her children, while Dickinson, who had no children, watched her dough rise.) Shirley Jackson planned the Lottery as she put away her groceries and she wrote as her daughter dozed off. Writer Naomi Mitchison leaned against a pram to take notes as they walked the streets of London. When their own room was not available, some writers built it from the literal material of motherhood.

But to get into long intervals of lasting concentration (or daydreaming) – what productivity experts would call “flow” – requires us to get our children out of our working minds. Completely. The implications become moral, not practical: what kind of mother forgets her children, not only to bring home money to finance their education and appetite, but to do so in such an intellectually enriching way, through a portrait or a novel, a self-satisfying product of creativity?

In some cases, the mothers of the artists Phillips is examining were looking for air pockets for themselves – small spaces where they could take a sip and dive back. Barbara Hepworth, a mother of four, insisted that all artists should have 30 minutes a day for work “to make images grow in someone’s mind”. Tony Morrison performed a classic literary move of working on her novels before her children woke up in the morning. But Phillips calls this work “temporary, unforeseen, susceptible to disturbances.” Imagine more mothers-artists with salaries, like Neel, whose work in the WPA Federal Art Project gave her free space to enter the third shift and led to her first solo exhibition, 1938. Imagine them without a sharp childish cry from down the hall, no view across the room to report, without a half-strained brain, who could be mistaken for a hint of maternal guilt. The third shift, which eludes most mothers for most of their careers, is the art field. (I’m writing this with my foot on the bouncer, my hand on the monitor, my intellect somewhere in the children’s sea.)

Phillips named her book because of the (probably apocryphal) story of Neel as a young mother. Her mothers-in-law claimed she once put the baby on the fire escape – a place that is public, possibly dangerous, out of sight, but still tangential to home – while she was painting. Phillips calls it “an uncertain situation in which the child is far enough out of sight and mind that the mother can talk to her husband.”

At the age of 80, in 1980, Neel completed a well-known nude self-portrait. In it, she is facing the viewer directly, with one foot planted in the yellow part of the floor, the other in the green triangle. Right in the center of the canvas, in a place you can’t look away from, is her belly, softened over the years but rounded as it must have been in the last months of her pregnancy. Celebrated and adored late in life, she still looks like a mother, split in two, with a brush in her hand. Yet she is completely in control of her identity. The last few decades she had only for herself.

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