A mother and an artist?

I keep hearing this same thing.

The very best part about having an art gallery is all the people I’ve been privileged to meet. This tiny space in this tiny town has hosted some great conversations, and there’s one that keeps happening. On several occasions, women I’ve been chatting with have told me that they used to make art but then gave it up to raise their children. 

I started making art seriously after I became a mom, so my first impulse is always to be frustrated at the suggestion that art-making and mothering are mutually exclusive. 

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was not motherhood that launched me into art, it was divorce.

Let me explain…

I had so long worshiped an idol someone else had carved. It was shaped with firm expectations and unforgiving lines around what a family should look like. When the idol shattered, the creative forces in me longed to make something out of the shards and from the dust. What would I worship instead of “should”? What would bless me if not my own ability to match what I’d idealized? I was saved from such smallness by a God who taught me that love, the true ideal, is bigger than the structures into which we think it ought to exclusively fit. In large part, making art was my way of re-understanding the world without the safety of my idols, all my “oughts,” my richness of “shoulds”. Blessed are the poor. 

It is typically a fruitless game to play what would have happened if, but I think had I not gone through a divorce and everything that followed, I would be the kind of woman to happen upon an art gallery and in the midst of conversation mention that I once painted but gave it up to raise my children. So my frustration then is not that the story is so absurd; it is too familiar. It hits too close to home. It so very easily could have been. And to think of my life without the art that enlivens it retroactively terrifies me.

Bigger, Truer Stories

Here’s what I want to say to that all-too-real version of me and, not to all the women who’ve talked to me about this, but to the ones with palpable regret in their voices: what if we lived in a world where you could make things– beautiful, messy things, expressive, holy things, things that require your full attention and focus, your whole self–  without being or feeling any less to those you love? 

When the demands of others are greatest, is that not when we most need to tap into our own strength and creativity so as not to get irrevocably lost in a world that has already so sharply defined us? What if we lived in communities and in families whose visions of us were broad enough to include a variety of important roles? What if being a good mother meant not only nurturing our children but also our own most precious longings?

I’m trying to envision a world where catastrophe wasn’t the only possible catalyst for my creativity, and I’m finding it difficult. But what if it weren’t?

My husband and I have been talking a lot lately about the limiting stories we tell ourselves. “I need a new story,” is our current refrain when work or life or schedules feel most frustrating. What we mean, I think, is that we need a truer, bigger story. What if I’ve been seeing this too small? What if I need to expand? 

What about now?

What I really long to say at the end of these conversations at the gallery is what about now? Will you return to your art-making now? Is there a story that keeps it at bay even now that the kids are grown? Has the I-don’t-make-art-anymore story been so ingrained in you that to challenge it feels blasphemous? What new, truer, story is big enough to hold you, all of you?

As always, I’m eager to hear your thoughts. 

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Places.

I named this painting “The Places We Will Go” because I was thinking of my youngest and our early bike rides together. The countless ones with him in the seat or trailer attached to my bike, then his own shaky, training wheels ones, the even shakier sans training wheels ones that eventually dissolved into long, effortless, look-before-you-cross-the-street ones through the neighborhood or on the way to school. The ones were I rollerbladed and he pedaled. Ones where he got red-faced, sweaty, and painfully slow. Ones where he flew, a little blur of life and boundless energy I realized I’d never be able to contain or fully protect.

We’ve lived in several different literal and not-so-literal places. We’ve traveled through dark times and discovered family waiting for us on the other side. 

I don’t have many vivid memories from my own early childhood, but I do remember learning to ride a bike, the driveway that seemed a mile long, my dad utterly convinced for some insane reason that I could do the impossible– balance on just two wheels. The joy of actually doing it. 

If I had to pick just one symbol for childhood, I’d pick a bicycle. It speaks to me of where we’ve been, where we’re going, and the unknown places we might hope to go. It says yesterday and tomorrow in the same breath.

When I decided to do a print of the month, I knew “The Places We Will Go” had to be the first in what I hope is an ongoing practice. For the entire month of October, all “The Places We Will Go” prints will be 15% off when you enter “places” at checkout. 

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A whole decade of loving you.

It wasn’t easy, the way you came into the world. I started labor on a Saturday afternoon. You were born at 8:03pm that Monday. Your dark, straight black hair covered your entire head and even came over your ears a little. They put you on my chest and I wept. The truth is, I didn’t really believe in you, that my pregnancy would end in me holding a living, breathing, human child on my chest until that very moment. 

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You asked me once why I became an artist, and I told you it was because of you, to which you said, “you’re welcome.” On the edge of so many uncertain paths, your little face made me want to try, even if it meant failing miserably. Never particularly brave or prone to take risks, I decided to attempt to design a life I could love; for you, yes, but looking back now I think it was mostly for me. I needed to navigate the world not just as a victim of circumstance but as a force who not only responds to but creates the world in which she lives. I needed to show you how to care for yourself, how to fail again and again and still believe in your worth instead of never risking anything except your own sense of self. 

In the beginning most of my art taught me how imperfect I was– as a painter and as a mother. Most of my early blog posts are about how hard it was, how much you cried, how deeply I loved you.  But my worst days always ended, gave way to new chances to begin, to right my wrongs, and if not that, then at least work towards something new. 

An entire decade of knowing you, and I’m still learning so much about how to care for you, how to be your mother and still an entirely separate person from you. My first impulse is to make every sandwich, fold every shirt, correct every misstep even though I know you are strong, capable, resilient, and whole. 

You’ve taught me that control is an illusion. That love is deeper than I ever could have imagined. The difference between a white and speckled trout. That hugs cover a multitude of sins. That ice cream is very often a good idea. You’ve taught me that being a mom isn’t marveling at a mini-me but learning who someone else really is and loving them without a single condition. 

Ten years ago I was so scared. Today I’m grateful that I get to do life with you, learning from you, rooting for you, making art you inspire, and, if I’m really lucky, holding your hand when no one else is looking.

 

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I wrote about how I got the title for this painting on instagram back in October. I told the story of how when I was a kid, okay not just a kid, a young adult too, my Dad used to say quite often, “Oh that Denise, she always leaves a trail behind her.” In other words, I was a mess. I’d open a granola bar and leave the wrapper on the counter, inches away from the trash. I’d use a pen and leave it out, the cap resting somewhere nearish but not easily discoverable. My clothes were rarely in drawers. In college, my roommates used to joke about how I’d sleep on the tiniest sliver of my bed, the rest taken up by books and whatever other materials I’d used that day. 

My kids do all these things now and probably to a lesser degree, and it drives me batshit crazy. What’s life without at least a dash of hypocrisy? Or maybe retribution. 

In my post, I said I like to think that all those trails led me somewhere. I think what I meant is that I think I may have learned, eventually, how to leave better trails– how to take up space with my voice and my art rather than all my trash, my discarded projects, my oblivion to who might come behind me. 

I may remember this the next time I pick up yet another ramen wrapper from the counter. I may, as I wipe the dust of the flavor packet remnants into the trash, think about what kind of other trails they will leave behind them, how we are not really so different at all. I might. 

I started thinking about this because someone purchased a print of “Leaves a Trail Behind Her” this morning and inquired about whether or not there had been a blog post about it. I sent her a screenshot of the original instagram post. She responded by telling me that she’d picked this piece because there were peacocks that lived in the rehab center where her dad resided a couple days before he passed away. She said he was very confused and sick at the time, but made her laugh when he said, “I got lost looking at the peacocks.”

I loved that. Maybe it’s okay to be messy and lost sometimes. Maybe the child becomes the parent before she’s ready or before she even realizes it.  Maybe the trails we leave are littered and overrun but take us somewhere worth going anyway.

 

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The Curse of Parenting No One Tells You About

School is in session. Well, not exactly. I’ve got a meet the teacher Wednesday and the first day of kindergarten is officially Friday.

I have spent the last two months at the snowball stand, zoo, swimming pool, beach, theme park, often lamenting my freedom. I have somehow created paintings during episodes of PBS’s Wild Kratts or when my now (suddenly and without warning) non-napper became enthralled with legos. Enthralled: not asking every two seconds for me to pull stuck bricks apart or which vehicle I like better only to disagree with me when I answer. Don’t ask me what I like more if you are just going to tell me what I like more

But here is the curse of parenting I never would have imagined and no one ever warned me about and the first thing I will tell my son should karma ever deliver him children of his own:

As much as your child exhausts you, as much as all you need is a little space to get some things done, the moment he or she is gone for an extended period of time and often in the care of strangers, the anxiety is tenfold.

I know it by now. I know that very anxiety will subside when routine takes over– when the great unknown of his teacher and friends and schedules bows down to soothing ritual. I will again, one day soon, paint in my studio without worrying what he’s doing and if he’s okay. I will look up to find it is already after three and rush to pick him up. But until then, Friday will be filled with clock watching and nail biting. I will try to paint and not be able to. I will have my phone constantly at my side just in case the school calls. I will hug him twice as hard when I pick him up.

At a writer’s workshop once, I was given index cards with single words on them and asked to make a poem. Each round there was a new challenge: use only these words, dismiss up to two, add up to three of your own. The parameters were so tight, so limited, I thought there was no way anyone’s poem would be worth anything.

But they were. Without all the excess, the poems seemed to open right to the heart of things. They were beautiful. To say summer limited my work time is an understatement. I was trying to keep up my routine and host camp mom. I dare say what I accomplished with those stringent limitations, if not thoroughly beautiful, is a great start to what is to come this school year when, for seven or so hours a day my job is to create. 

I hope you’ll follow along.

But You Love What You Do: The War of Art

I recently had the pleasure of attending a classical guitar concert after which a few musicians chatted about their art: did playing guitar ever feel like work? The consensus was a resounding yes. One guitarists suggested that he is happiest on a beach somewhere, miles and miles away from his instrument. I get that.

We tend to glamorize art careers. How amazing it is to be able to do the thing you love every day. True. But sometimes the thing you love wears you out, beats you up; it sometimes spits you out.

Once again, my repeated claim seems to ring true: painting is an awful lot like parenting. Immense, other-worldly joy paired with a big scoop of fear, heartache, and frustration.

I struggled in my studio yesterday. The colors weren’t working, the strokes of the palette knife looked muddled rather than intentional. The more I worked, the worse it seemed to get. But, just like parenting, I find the best way to win the war of art is to keep showing up to it– the way we have to when we parent. We don’t walk away from our children after a particularly unimpressive day of parenting. We stay in it. We keep going. We try again.

I needed a break from my painting yesterday. And even though I’d rather be on a beach somewhere miles and miles away from my palette knives, today I’m going to get back to it. It’s routine and ritual that save me from myself. It’s the frustration and the pained strokes that build toward those rare magical painting days where every stroke feels divinely inspired. Hoping that by showing up today, I’ll get one of those soon. And if I do, I’ll definitely be letting you know.

But for now, I’m off to the battlefield.