With the impending birth of my first child I asked all my colleagues “How does one practice art as a mother?” I received a lot of answers but in summary the answer was mostly that one doesn’t. The mothers among them all the more vehement in their persistence that one simply does not.
For me insisting on an art practice has always meant relative poverty, compromises in health and lifestyle, travel and endurance, great practice for parenthood. I have not only had a baby, I have also had to move away from my network in London to a sleepy ambition-free zone in The Netherlands. While pregnant I dutifully paid for a studio I never used except to teach in. There is no choice in what kind of pregnancy or baby you get, mine was 9 months of illness, then a horrific birth experience and now a child that refuses to sleep unless she is on top of me, breastfeeds every hour and has reflux. If mummy brain or “pregnancy dementia” as they more accurately call it in The Netherlands doesn’t wipe out your tiny brain cel allowance after becoming a mother, fatigue surely does... I live alone with my baby, efectively I am a single mother in a studio flat. I feel lucky on the days I can both shower and brush my teeth. Covered in baby vomit I receive the pizza delivery guy with one breast hanging out. He looks at me the way people look at victims of war on television, a combination of pity and relief, relief at being a 16 year old boy and not in these trenches...such a female war, so far from reality unless you are right in there with your muddy boots.
So now you want me to make art!?
Forgetting the practical impossibility of it there is another more important issue. My ego has been exploded into a million pieces. Nothing will ever be the same. I will never make art the way I used to ever again because that person no longer exists.
And that is a good thing...
Without going on a yoga retreat, mindfulness training or following a guru I was given a spiritual growth spurt free of charge as part of the motherhood experience. Should I ever come out of the bodily fluids phase of parenting and still want to make art, this will be a key factor in it’s content. It’s exciting to think how much better an arts practice could be without the juvenile narcissism we often think of as necessary to being an artist.
Having a child has changed the way I experience the world. I no longer see individuals but one big interconnected world. We are all each other, nothing exists in the vacuum of individualism. It was all a myth. Suddenly I am not just fascinated by epigenetics, I am living it. I feel connected to all the generations that have gone before me and all the generations that will come after me. Centre stage is not in the middle, nor where I am, centre stage doesn’t exist. There is just a thin line traveling through time, a line that will always exist and has nothing to do with status.
The tone of this article might have changed a little, that’s because between paragraphs I have fed another human being with my body and cleaned miniature genitals so many times that everything has turned a little fragmented. A CAT-scan of my brain would show a kaleidoscopic image of many thoughts started and very few ended instead of perfect slices of cerebral matter.
I miss my intellect but being a more emotive and simple creature is quite a wonderful experience also. With my current mental ability I would only be able to do projects requiring a short attention span and a minimal amount of time. I’m not sure if the work of a sentimental amnesiac would be of any interest even to myself let alone an audience.
So far creativity has been a considerable part of parenting and pregnancy for me. I have knitted endles blankets, made toys, sung home-made songs, solved safety issues, fitted an entire life plus one into a 25m flat like an interior design Ninja, sewn bibs, nappies, monsters etc. each item a labour of love and creativity, but not art as I define it. Hoever, in doing things with my hands I keep contact.
The need for this contact is overwhelming and at times feels like a long abstract training schedule for a far away project, Karate Kid mopping floors to become a master. Perhaps there is a small slither of hope that these domestic crafts will guide me towards a real project. Wether or not this will lead to producing pieces worthy of being hung in a museum or a gallery again is not the issue just yet. The point of gravity in my person has shifted. An enormous personal metamorphosis, to give birth in this sense is also to be re-born. It’s a personal and open ended process.
My little human is only 5 months old. We don’t need conclusions yet... We need a few hours sleep and for the world not to shut us out. We need to be invited to the conversation and be taken seriously, and that might mean changing the format to fit us in. The insights of parents are valuable. We have seen the edge of things. We have been turned inside out body and mind and have managed to put little teeny tiny arms into little teeny tiny sleeves while being kicked in the stitches. We are veterans.
The participation of women in art requires modification to the art world and to our idea of what great art is about. Allowing women to participate in serious education is patronising if having babies renders them irrelevant. One does not complete a master at the Royal College of Art in order make pom pom’s for toddlers. So if art wants to continue patting itself on the back for intelligently talking about the human condition it needs to acknowledge that having children is the human condition.