Last weekend I travelled to Stroud with Julie McCalden and Jess Young, to attend a one day symposium ‘It Takes A Village - Models for Mother Artists’, hosted by WAAS at Atelier, as part of SVA’s Site Festival. The event aimed to ‘explore how artists who are mothers can be sustained in their practice’. This blog explores; some reflections on the ‘It Takes A Village’ seminar, alongside a little about the history of feminist art activism, recent conversations I have been having with other artists and some personal reflections about my experiences as a mother working in the arts. At this point I want to acknowledge the vital role men play in parenting, however this blog focuses on the experiences of women. Becoming a mother, by either giving birth or adoption, can involve a transformative process that can be shocking, even traumatic but is always life changing. Miranda July wrote about this process in her recent novel The First Bad Man,
“I began to understand that the sleeplessness and vigilance and constant feedings were a form of brainwashing, a process by which my old self was being moulded, slowly but with a steady force, into a new shape: a mother."
Miranda July, 2015
I hope to explore how women going through this process can find ways of continuing to shape culture, in ways that are meaningful, both to them and the wider communities they inhabit.
The very simple question of ‘how I can maintain my creative practice as a mother’ becomes deeply politically loaded the deeper you delve into art history and feminist practice. After booking my ticket for ‘It Takes A Village’ I dusted off my undergraduate dissertation "How did Judeo Christianity effect Patriarchal Art Practice and then in turn effect and inform Feminist Art Practice?".
I rediscovered my research about women from feminist art collectives in the 60’s and 70’s, who were grappling with ideas and strategies that are relevant to current debates about art and motherhood including;
disrupting art world systems and structures
reclaiming and rehabilitating language
creating alternative approaches to producing and making women’s work visible characterised by collaboration, exchange and a DIY culture,
situating art practices in the context of motherhood.
I remember visiting the Women’s Art Library in Putney (now at Goldsmiths) and discovering artists, writers and academics including Philippa Goodall, Kate Walker, Deborah Cameron and Sally Gollop. Suggestions for further reading:
Review of Feministo Exhibition, Cindy Harris, 1976 - from Women's Art Library Archive
Whilst re-reading my dissertation I was reminded that historically, within feminist movements there were lively debates and fractions; so too, the event in Stroud included moments of tension, differing opinions and unanswered questions. In the morning, there were two presentations; the first was from Amy Dignam and Dyana Gravina from ProCreate, who introduced The Mother House, in the second presentation Sharon Bennett and Sarah Dixon from WAAS, who discussed their involvement in Lenka Clayton’s Artist Residency in Mother Hood (ARiM).
The Mother House comprises of two interconnected studios; one where children are welcome to work alongside Mother Artists (Dyana and Amy deliberately use this term) and a second space that offers facilitated activities for children. The Mother House aims to tackle issues Mother Artists often face including isolation, lack of space, time and finances, through enabling them to continue working flexibly whilst not being separated from their child. Each mother is responsible for all the children, including their own. There was discussion about how The Mother House was an inspiring and creative learning experience for children. Another important aspect of ProCreate and The Mother House is that it acts as a platform, promoting the work of Mother Artists. The website houses an online gallery, blog and a international publication M.A.M.A. The Mother House studio is a community and in a way promotes a particular approach to mothering and being present with your child or children; the title itself echoes that of female only religious orders or institutes. Dyana is evangelical in her desire to open up new chapters of The Mother House across the UK and beyond.
I am left with many unanswered questions about how critical The Mother House community is and how differences in parenting styles are accommodated and negotiated. Does the women only criteria only serve to perpetuate traditional childcare patterns rather than enabling women to practice? I can identify with exploring experimental and open ended art making with my children at home. I can also imagine projects that I would like to test out in an environment like The Mother House; however, I still have a fundamental need for time away from my children, to step out of my identity as a mother and reflect. The Mother House offers a creative and compelling solution to childcare costs (flexible membership for one month is £120). There are other artists campaigning, lobbying and engaging communities in questions about how we facilitate childcare and parents working the arts. For example Invisible Spaces of Parenting by Andrea Franke and Kim Dhillon is an open-research platform involving parents, childcare providers and arts organisations. Please also follow this link for further reading.
Lenka Clayton’s Artist Residency in Motherhood (ARiM) grew out of her own experiences of becoming a mother and finding herself unable to access residencies that previously enabled her practice. Lenka made the decision to reframe her new reality of motherhood as a residency, by creating; a manifesto (see below), a list of everything a perfect residency would include, a website with a studio diary and accountability to peers.
“As an Artist-in-Residence-in-Motherhood the most important thing for me was understanding that I was not making work about motherhood, but out of it. The residency was simply a framework around things that were happening anyway.”
Lenka Clayton, ARiM website
As Lenkas’s residency evolved she received correspondence from women in similar situations wanting to start their own residencies; as a result she establish a dedicated ARiM website, that includes a free, downloadable Residency set-up kit. Subsequently over 300 mothers from around the world are currently in artists in residence; each residency is pinned on a map on the ARIM website with links to more information about each artist. Individual ARIM artists have formed their own networks and international crit groups.
Sharon Bennett and Sarah Dixon both spoke about the impact being involved in ARIM had on their practice in terms of providing motivation, validation and connection with other artists sharing their experience. They were also very clear about how there isn’t a screening or application process for ARiM. Although Lenka is active on the Facebook group, responds to emails and offers a fee paying bespoke mentoring programme, she doesn’t actively promote the artists taking up an ARiM residency. Dyana Gravina from ProCreate/The Mother House was very vocal in questioning Lenka’s approach, saying she had a responsibility not only to provide a platform for Mother Artists but to use her profile to actively promote their work. Sharon and Sarah responded by saying that Lenka exchanged emails with them about their presentation at the symposium and is active on an ARIM Facebook group, but this was a piece of work that Clayton made four years ago, she has since moved on to other projects and perhaps should not be held accountable for engaging with all the artists taking up ARiM residencies and promoting their work.
The two approaches of the The Mother House and ARiM both aim to support women in making and producing art work, as mothers. They both have characteristics of early feminist art activism that I outlined previously. They are both inventive, entrepreneurial, inclusive and energising. However, the projects take very different forms; The Mother House comprises of two physical, interconnected studio spaces and Lenka Clayton’s project is a conceptual digital art work. The Mother House operates more as a producer and production space, whereas ARiM has echos of early feminist postal art projects, but has evolved, through the internet to operate as a catalyst, triggering participation on a global scale.
The solutions to the question of how mothers can create the conditions for their practice to thrive are diverse and complex. As mothers we have differing needs. For example the women I travelled to the symposium with were at very different stages in their mothering journeys. One was pregnant, another had a baby coming up to one years old whilst I have a 3 and 6 years old.
These stages of motherhood throw up quite specific situations, questions and challenges – which continue changing and evolving as children grow and develop over time. Each mother’s social and economic circumstances are unique too. Artists who are mothers may only have this fact in common. Their work and the ideas and processes they explore maybe utterly distinct from another mother. So too, it is impossible to create a one size fits all solution, as to how we meet the needs of artists who are mothers. I am also aware that as a woman who is white, British, married and heterosexual, I am already operating from a privileged position; I am totally secluded from a world of discrimination, domination and repression faced by some mothers.
Right top: Me with my eldest child aged about two months old.
Right below: Me taking selfies with both my children aged 3 and 6 years old.
“In this short piece; part monologue, part confessional, part crèche Clarke invites the audience to consider the rights of the very young and the acceptable (or not) faces of motherhood.”
Liz Clarke, Artist's Website
“I'm Bitter About Glitter is a partly scripted, partly improvised exchange between a mother and her son about gender, sexuality, living as an art-making, sometimes unconventional family ……We are working towards holding a symposium in 2018 around making queer performance work for and with children.
Liz Clarke, Artist's Website
I Tattooed My Baby, Liz Clarke, Image credit Joseph Turp Photography
Liz's practice is searingly honest and very funny, tender and vulnerable; her approach to making work is characterised by a generous reciprocity with her audiences and those who participate in her projects. On her website she describes her performance work as:
"mostly Body based, placed somewhere in the murky boundaries between theatre, live art and cabaret, between gender, between reality & dreamscapes......strongly connected with representing the Female through alienation, intimacy and construction of mythical & impossible Hyperfeminine archetypes."
Liz Clarke, Artist's Website
I Tatooed My Baby and I'm Bitter About Glitter appropriate strategies that resonate with the work of The Mother House and ARiM, whilst making connections with a wealth of other research. Liz has introduced me to The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home and Eilidh MacAskill. The Institute and Eilidh's practice propose subtly different models or platforms for engaging children, families and homelife, as both the site and subject of practice. Liz is also currently working on projects which do not involve her own children. The focus of Cannonballista, is celebrating everyday triumphs and difficulties of ordinary women's lives. My role is as Participant Liasion, is to identify and support women taking part in the associated workshops and to evaluate the project. Everyone managing, facilitating, producing and delivering the project, including Liz, is a mother. We talk about our families and all understand the boundaries that imposes on us in terms of our time and availability. It is inspiring being a part of Liz creating her own practice, built out of her own ambition, curiosities, needs and circumstances.
Liz Clarke setting up a studio at The Riverfront, Newport for a Cannonballista workshop.
Lucy Pedlar is another artist I regularly meet with. We have a history of collaboration through articulate. We started our families within months of each other and have kept in touch throughout our pregnancies, baby-hoods, and are now anticipating another shift when our youngest children both start school this September. We haven't collaborated in an organised or overtly political sense since becoming mothers, but in a haphazard way through the haze of parenthood. Lenka Clayton describes a similar process whilst writing about the development of ARiM:
"It is important to note that this all sounds much clearer in hindsight than it did at the time as I tried to work out what I was doing and why I was doing it while a baby screamed in my ear...."
Lenka Clayton, ARiM website
With the power of hindsight I can track how Lucy and I have become mutually supportive critical friends, both enabling and encouraging our practices. I've watched as Lucy has made abstract collages alongside her children at their dining table. In turn Lucy has snatched a few minutes whilst our children play, to critique the development of my website and feed back on my writing practice. We have talked about how the litter patrol she started at her son's school could function as an art work. We are operating within the world that Lenka describes as "not-just mothering, and not-yet art" (ARiM website). Researching and writing this blog has reaffirmed the importance of my relationship with Lucy, and references artists and projects that I wished I had been aware of around the time I was having my first baby. This awareness has given me a new criticality or lens, through which to move my practice forward.
As mothers in 2017, we have more opportunities to participate in and contribute to mainstream culture than ever before. I have the world quite literally in the palm of my hand. My blog gives me a voice, connections and a platform, that women involved in Feministo (a postal art projects of the 70's), could only have dreamt of. Labour saving devices mean I am not tied to kitchen sink anymore, but a basic truth is that the time and space I have beyond my children and my home is contingent on, mainstream school hours, what additional childcare I can afford and my partner's support. As a mother, I am not free to go where and when I choose. Practically everything I do outside the home involves a negotiation and compromise with my husband who works full time. WAAS pointed out in their programme information for 'It Takes A Village' "women are still heavily underrepresented in the art world, despite being the majority of art graduates, and having children is a significant factor in this exclusion". We need to look at the systems and structures of culture with fresh eyes and subtly change them in order to weave new possibilities. For example Jane Porter's Bring Your Baby exhibition tours or pod casting lectures and events, so a parent who can't afford a baby sitter or leave the house until bedtime is finished can still attend.
Above: WAAS Facebook post about 'It Takes A Village'.
My own experience of feeling excluded from working the art world as a mother, was when I proposed returning to work after having my first baby. Prior to my maternity leave I was working full time in the Learning Department, at a contemporary arts institution. My application for part time working was turned down on the grounds that 'I would not be able to meet audiences needs'. I was given what felt like an ultimatum to work full time or leave. My personal choice not to return meant that the organisation not only missed out on my experience, but there was one less member of staff who had an active knowledge and understanding of the needs of parents with young families, which turn impacts on not only programming but a work/life balance, or to put it more bluntly the art world's ingrained work ethic. Talent must be at best compromised or at worst haemorrhaged, from arts organisations and the freelance world, with mothers who are Curators, Producers, Marketing Managers and Directors stepping to one side whilst their families are young. Our culture is poorer for it.
In response to the under-representation of mothers across the arts, and my original question of how mothers can continue contributing the culture: we need to be; agile, entrepreneurial, generous, mutually supportive, opportunistic, confident, imaginative and daring. This involves a combination of being informed about the history of feminist art politics and activism, developing a ballsy DIY culture, alongside lobbying for institutional change. Rather than worry about the gap the early stages of mothering can leave in our CV’s, we need to value it and be upfront about the reality of becoming a parent. We need to give each other a break and respect differences of opinion. We need to exploit technologies and social media. Alongside supporting artists we need to consider how we enable mothers who head up institutions, curators, writers and producers too.
As a first step begin to network; if you are on Facebook join groups such as Mother Stories, Mothers Who Make and Women's Art Activism System. Sign up for The Mother House newsletter. Start researching. Find out about events and meet ups like It Takes A Village.
In Bristol on 17th May 2017, 10.30 - 11.30am there will be a Mothers Who Make session at Bristol Old Vic; it is for mothers who are artists, working in any discipline and at any stage in their career. The morning will be led by Matilda Leyser who started the network in London, 2014. You are welcome to bring your children with you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to attend or look out for more information on the Theatre Bristol website.
On June 8th 2017, 12 - 4pm at The Brunswick Club, Bristol, I will be contributing to Proposal for a Guide for Mothers, a-n Assembly. This event has been produced by Julie McAlden, with other contributions from Jane Porter and Liz Clarke. Creche, coffee and cake provided.
Ultimately we need to keep researching, making things, critiquing what we do and presenting that work publicly.