Sunday, February 09, 2014

Art and Motherhood – The Ugly Truth (and Why it Doesn’t Matter)

My first solo show - look at the cheeks on that girl!
A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about juggling life as an artist with motherhood. To this day, it remains one of the most viewed posts on this blog, and I’m still getting emails and messages from female artists who want advice on how to handle it all. I think I still believe everything I had to say on the subject back then, but I've been thinking about it a bit more lately, and wanted to share a few more ideas (a few ideas, which, incidentally, have resulted in the longest blog post ever – oops!).

Everyone out there has probably taken enough workshops or classes to know that it seems like 90% of art students are female. Why then are the top tiers of the art world so male-dominated? The 2013 Prix de West show boasted 101 of the top Western artists in the United States – only 10 of them were women. Oil Painters of America has 47 master signature members listed in the current directory, of which only 6 are women. This is not atypical. It seems that the higher you go, the lower the percentage of female participants (I'm not complaining, just observing - I look at these numbers and see opportunity, for the record).

Why? I think a lot of it has to do with a few complicated issues that surround motherhood. Many of the women I’ve spoken to who are top tier painters in the Western US either don’t have children, or set painting aside while they had children and started again when they were older. I can’t even count the number of women I know who gave up painting when their kids were young.

I realize this happens in the corporate world too, but it seems more pronounced in art. There’s something about art that makes it seem like a hobby to those around us, and lacking a real office and paycheck and benefits, many women let their art take the back seat to the demands of motherhood and family.

Me? No way! I love my job more than I can tell you, and I intend to stick it out. I think about this stuff a lot, because I think being aware of the issues that face females in the arts is the first step in making sure I can overcome them. That said, I’m going to share a few of the ugly truths I've found about juggling art and motherhood, and try to address how we can handle some of them. In the next few weeks, I plan to follow up with a super positive post about why being an artist is the best job in the world if you’re a mom.

So, here goes, the ugly truth:

UGLY TRUTH #1 - Some people won't take you seriously

It’s taken me a long time to admit that this is true, but experience has shown me that it is indeed – there are people in the art world who will discount your ability because you are a mom.

When I worked in engineering, it was not uncommon for me to sit in a meeting and be the only female in a room of 30 men. The profession was wildly male-dominated, but in the end, I NEVER felt like anyone discounted my ability because I was a woman. Why? Because engineering is mostly objective. It’s numbers and solutions, and if you do the job right, you do the job right. I came into art expecting the same and finding myself disappointed, because in the end, it’s subjective. It’s a different animal.

I have worked with gallery owners and show coordinators who didn't think I could perform because I have young children. I have worked with people who flat out told me that they didn't think I could paint enough because I have kids. It was really tough to hear at first, and in my initial shock, I tried my best to prove them wrong.

My response now is the opposite and I urge you to do the same – I will NOT allow myself to work with anyone who thinks I can’t perform because of my children.

My favorite person to paint with.
Here’s the deal – I have two children but I’m very prolific. I paint just as much as most of my male friends who are painters. I’m committed, and I'm confident in my ability to produce. I work with five galleries who KNOW I’m committed, and know I will give them what they need. They are supportive and wonderful, and I enjoy working with each and every one of them.

I learned the hard way that trying to prove yourself to someone who has an incorrect assumption is a waste of time. The negativity is a major energy suck, and you don’t need that when you step up to the easel. So, the takeaway? Recognize when someone is not taking you seriously, and move on. The art world is also full of wonderful people who WILL take you seriously, and that’s where you want your energy to go. Work with those people!

UGLY TRUTH #2 - Plans? What plans!? Ha!

When you have kids, be prepared for your best-laid plans to fly out the window. They’re going to get sick or injured the day before that big deadline, and you’re going to tear your hair out about the fact that you can’t seem to keep a reliable studio schedule. It happens – be prepared for it.

Here’s an example of how NOT to do things (learn from my mistakes!)… I usually try to set aside a couple of my best paintings to enter in the OPA national show every January, since I know better than to think I’m going to paint a masterpiece when I have a deadline looming. This year, I made the mistake of agreeing to sell my two favorite paintings a couple of weeks ago. Checks were basically in the mail and I figured, “well, might as well sell them, I have two weeks to come up with a couple of new ones – I can do that easy!” Then my 4 year old got the crud and I spent five days taking care of a sick kid and husband and feeling ill myself, and suddenly, I had nothing to enter and was once again trying to fight the losing battle of painting a masterpiece up against a deadline (while exhausted, nonetheless).

Trying desperately to paint with a sick kid in the studio.
So, recognize that your schedule will not always behave the way you think it will, and prepare for that. If you have a show entry due, make sure you have those paintings set aside weeks in advance. If you need to supply paintings for a gallery, make sure you give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to produce. And when in doubt, always paint more than you think you need to. Every once in a while someone will come down into my studio and exclaim that I have a lot of painting inventory, and ask if I’m going to take some time off. The answer is always NO, because it never fails – the minute I get that inventory built up, a gallery will need new work, or I’ll get invited to a show, or someone will want to see a grouping of paintings. I know better than to think I’m in control of the hours I spend in the studio, so I always err on the side of overproducing, and somehow things always end up just right.

UGLY TRUTH #3 - You will feel inadequate

This is more emotional than anything, but the reality is this – when you’re trying to juggle an art career (maybe ANY career) and motherhood, you will have moments when you feel hopelessly inadequate. I try my best to prioritize my life such that I feel like I’m giving my all to my kids and my art, but every once in a while I have a major meltdown about my failure to do both. I feel like I’d be a better mom if I wasn't working so hard. I feel like I’d be a better artist if I weren't constantly taking care of my two little ones.

That’s not necessarily reality – the fact that I do something I love makes me a better mom, and the fact that I have two hilarious fun-loving kids in my life makes my art better. But sometimes in those dark middle-of-the-night moments, I feel like I’m failing at everything.

Sometimes, I look around at my art friends tearing it up on the show circuit and think to myself, “if only I had that much time to travel!” Sometimes, I look around my not-so-clean house and think to myself, “if only I could have a couple of days to catch up on cleaning up around here!” And sometimes, I have to say no to the zillionth volunteer opportunity at my daughter’s school, and I think to myself, “oh my gosh she’s going to grow up and wonder why I wasn't the mom who was always helping out at school!”

But everyone can think of “if onlys” if they try hard enough, and giving into these thoughts is giving into negativity. The minute I find myself thinking an “if only” type of thought, I acknowledge that it exists and it sucks and then I choose to move on. Usually, this means taking action. Instead of moping around, I get painting, or I do some business work, or I write a blog post, or I clean the kitchen, or I play with my kids. I get moving, and I usually get positive. And when the little stuff doesn't work, I get outside and leave it behind on a mountain bike ride or run. It never helps to focus on what if.

And know that you can’t do it all, and that you will have to allow certain areas to slide. I would love to have a spotless house and a home-cooked meal three times a day – it’s not going to happen if I want to spend the right amount of time on my kids and my art. Right now, I should probably be taking down the Christmas tree (in February!!) instead of writing this blog post. That’s reality and that’s okay, as long as I’m focusing on the things that matter most.

The little guy, showing me how it's done.
In my doubtful moments I have to remind myself, logically, that there’s a reason I’m doing this. I’m choosing to be an artist for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is my conviction that being a good mom to my daughter includes modeling how to chase what you love. I remind myself that while I may not be at the school every day, I DO spend time every day laughing with my kids, and talking to them, and appreciating them for who they are right now, and those moments are worth more than anything to me.

UGLY TRUTH #4 - You will not be able to do it alone

I don’t care how good you are - if you want to make it as an artist and be a mom, you’re going to have to get some help along the way. I used to think that since I work “part-time” and my job is fairly flexible, it was reasonable to assume that I would be mostly responsible for childcare and keeping our household running. It’s taken me a long time to realize that I can’t do it all. This is NOT a part-time job, and I can’t handle it all without some help. I’d say that this year more than any other year, I finally learned that if this was going to work, I was going to need to ask for more help from my husband, and from others, and that I had to be okay with accepting that help.

I owe every minute I get to paint to a supportive husband, awesome helpful family members and friends, and the fact that my kids both go to a school where I know they’re learning and thriving every minute that they’re out of my sight.

I get four days a week to paint for 5-6 hours while my kids are at school, but art is a full-time job – do the math, and you know I’m going to be behind. Sometimes my husband steps in and hangs with the kids for an afternoon while I catch up. Sometimes my in-laws spend the day with Owen and I sneak into my studio. Every once in a while I meet up to plein air paint with friends, and depend on a supportive friend to get my kids from school to swim lessons since I won’t be home in time. I attend most openings by recruiting my mom to babysit. I managed a painting trip to Telluride this winter thanks to my sister, who took on my two energetic kids for an entire weekend. I love these people and owe them so much. I know my kids thrive in their presence, which allows me to do my job without worrying – and that whole not worrying thing is HUGE when you’re a mom.

Chances are, you won’t get much painting done when your kids are in the house (if you do, can you tell me your secret??). Find people you trust, and places you’re confident your kids will thrive, so that you can find the space to do your job without worry. And if you have a partner, make sure you’re really allowing them to be a partner – don’t try to handle everything on your own. (If you want to read more on that subject, pick up the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg - it's an excellent read.)

I love these guys!
So, there you have it, some of the truth as I see it, and some suggestions on how to handle things. My intent here wasn't to be a downer, but to be honest and forthcoming about my experiences, with hope that it might encourage someone who might be struggling through a similar issue. For what it’s worth, I think most of these issues are universal, and my advice probably applies to ANY artist, male or female, kids or no kids. If you have any of your own suggestions, or advice, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

The good news is that it’s a great life - I wake up thankful every day. Sometimes it’s chaos, but it’s beautiful chaos, and I wouldn't trade any of it for the world.