Today is Mother’s Day. Media tells me that I’m supposed to still be in bed now—my husband and children will be bringing me flowers and breakfast and I plan a day of doing absolutely nothing. Nope. Not my reality. I got up this morning thinking about art and writing. Laundry is left unfolded. Dishes are unwashed. I tell my husband to go back to bed so he could stay out of my mental space, and I give each of the children a juice box and pop in a DVD. Breakfast can wait. No one will starve. Though they all did come in wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day and asking what I wanted for breakfast. Without verbally exclaiming that I wanted to be left alone for a bit, I gave everyone stay-out-of-my-way tasks.
Last night was the real treat when I went to see the wonderful documentary, “Who Does She Think She Is?” at Brooklyn Museum. The movie, which was co-produced and directed by mother-of-three Pamela Tanner Boll, follows five women artists who are also mothers. I was teary-eyed at every point that showed how much of a sacrifice these women made in order to answer the call to create. What I do and who I am was validated in each of their stories.
I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity portrayed in this documentary. This is not uncommon in documentaries—but here, the women of color were not used as a statement on racial disparity. There’s Maye Torres, a Latin American illustrator and mother of three; African American singer, actress, and mother of two Angela Williams; mother-of-five sculptor and Mormon Janis Mars Wunderlich; former Japanese activist and painter, Mayumi Oda is a mother of two older boys; and Caribbean immigrant painter and mother-of-two, Camille Musser.
Not all the women had been artists before marriage and children. Angela and Camille, the two black women in the movie, discovered musical theatre and painting, respectively, only after having lived what they thought were fulfilling lives as mothers and wives. After that magical creative spark was ignited, they went full throttle in pursuing their passions—and in Angela’s case, risking their marriage because of this.
“My husband told me he wants the wife…and I remember saying to him, ‘I want the wife, too!” says Mayumi Oda who shared how her commitment to painting every free moment she could find ultimately took its toll on her marriage. Of the five women portrayed, three were divorced from their husbands. And each used their art to heal and transform their lives.
Facts about the gender disparities in the art were interspersed throughout. 80% of artwork in galleries are by male artists. One fine arts professor noted that at the School of Visual Arts, 80% of the students are women, but this is not reflected in the real world in terms of successful artists. The most intriguing bit of information came from a brief clip of PBS’ Bill Moyers listing a number of great women artists and then stating that they all did not have any children. The implication being that to achieve any level of success in the art world, a woman must choose between family and craft. This is not news, of course. Going back to Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, this has been the case for quite some time.
But everyday there are new girls being born and new mothers who are birthing them. And we’re certainly not creating less artists. The conversations about art and women and culture and our society’s role in supporting them is a never ending one. There is no salary for mothering and housework and if a women chooses to create art as well, there is also little or no income in this.
So for Mother’s Day, in lieu of flowers and breakfast in bed or an expensive brunch and pearls or whatever, here’s a practical list of how to help in supporting mothering artists.
● Art supplies: clay, paint, paintbrushes, a ream of paper, printer ink, a leotard, a tutu.
● Time: offer to babysit; take us out to a movie, play, reading, or dance performance that may inspire our work; money for classes or a workshop; don’t get all sensitive when we stare out into space during conversations and don’t return phone calls, e-mails, or texts; offer some of your precious time to read, critique, make any suggestions of how the work can be better—if you are privileged enough to be in the inner circle of a mothering artist, know that your opinion is valued; buy the work and tell everyone about it–the money will allow us more time to create more work.
● Space: if you’re single and childless, offer up your quiet apartment for a few hours; stay out of our way when we’re walking around looking as if we’re stark, raving mad—we’re just trying to work through a complex artistic idea.
● Understanding: The creation of art does not end at 5pm—it informs every second of our day, awake and asleep. Artists are always political and passionate and vocal (either in their work or in their opinions or both). In another place and time, art would’ve been essential to our existence and used for praise and worship of our nature spirits. But here it is marginalized and there are gatekeepers who must determine whether it is valuable and resonant and only then can we be compensated for it. So for now, it is work. Understand that when we unabashedly bring attention to ourselves, announce every small victory, share every bit of the process of our art making, we are working.
To answer the question: Who Do I Think I am? or Who Does She Think She Is? I dunno. Mothering artists don’t think, we just do. We just try to live our best lives. Entreprenuers, working mothers, mothering mothers are all artists if they have the courage to create their own truths and not marginalize their dreams.
Photo credit: Untitled by Joseph Zoboi (my husband, the feminist fathering artist).