The simple question of ‘How can I maintain my creative practice as a mother’ becomes deeply politically loaded the more you delve into art history and feminist practice.
I was thinking about this following the recent one-day symposium, It Takes A Village – Models for Mother Artists, which explored ‘how artists who are mothers can be sustained in their practice’. After booking my ticket, I dusted off my undergraduate dissertation, rediscovering my own research into feminist art collectives in the 1960s and 1970s.
These women were grappling with ideas and strategies that are still relevant to current debates about art and motherhood. These include: 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.
While rereading my dissertation I was reminded that within feminist movements there were always lively debates and differences. So too with It Takes A Village – there were moments of tension, differing opinions, unanswered questions.
The morning consisted of two presentations. First, Amy Dignam and Dyana Gravina from ProCreate introduced The Mother House. Next, Sharon Bennett and Sarah Dixon from event organisers Women’s Art Activation System (WAAS) discussed their involvement in Lenka Clayton’s Artist Residency in Motherhood (ARiM).
The Mother House comprises two interconnected studios; one where children are welcome to work alongside ‘mother artists’ (Gravina and Dignam deliberately use this term) and a second space that offers facilitated activities for children.
The project aims to tackle issues mothers often face – isolation, lack of space, time and finances – through enabling them to continue working flexibly without being separated from their child. ProCreate and The Mother House also acts as a platform, promoting the work of the artists.
The Mother House studio promotes a particular approach to mothering and being present with your child or children; the name itself echoes that of female-only religious orders or institutes. Gravina is evangelical in her desire to open up new chapters of The Mother House across the UK and beyond.
While it does offer a creative and compelling solution to childcare costs (flexible membership for one month is £120), does the women-only criteria of The Mother House only serve to perpetuate traditional childcare patterns rather than enabling women to practice?
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. And I still have a fundamental need for time away from my children – to step out of my identity as a mother.
The Artist Residency in Motherhood (ARiM) grew out of Pittsburgh-based artist Lenka Clayton’s own experiences of becoming a mother and finding herself unable to access residencies that previously enabled her practice. Clayton decided to reframe her new reality of motherhood as a residency.
She wrote a manifesto/artist’s statement along with a list of everything a perfect residency would include. Then she created a website with a studio diary and accountability to peers.
She states on the ARiM site: “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.”
As the residency evolved she received correspondence from women in similar situations wanting to start their own residencies. As a result, she established a dedicated ARiM website – open to all mothers; there is no screening or application process – that includes a free, downloadable residency set-up kit.
Over 300 mothers from around the world are currently artists in residence, with individual ARiM artists forming their own networks and international crit groups.
Both The Mother House and ARiM aim to support mothers in making and producing work. They both have characteristics of early feminist art activism and are inventive, entrepreneurial, inclusive and energising. However, the projects take very different forms.
The Mother House comprises of two physical, interconnected studio spaces while Clayton’s project is a conceptual digital art work; The Mother House operates more as a producer and production space, whereas ARiM has echoes of early feminist postal art projects, but has evolved 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. The different stages of motherhood throw up specific situations, questions and challenges which continue to change and evolve as children grow up. Each mother’s social and economic circumstances are unique, too. Artists who are mothers may only have this one fact in common.
It is impossible to create a one-size fits all solution when considering how to 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.
As mothers in 2017, we have more opportunities to participate in and contribute to mainstream culture than ever before. My blog gives me a voice, connections and a platform; labour saving devices mean I am not tied to the kitchen sink anymore.
But a basic truth is that the time and space I have beyond my children and 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.
WAAS pointed out in its programme information for It Takes A Village that 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.
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, and lobbying for institutional change. Rather than worry about the gap the early stages of mothering can leave in our CVs, 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, and who are 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. And find out about events and meet-ups like ‘It Takes A Village’.
This article is an edited version of a piece originally published on Frances Bossom’s blog, where you will also find recommendations for further reading on the subject.
Podcasts from all the day’s sessions can be found here.
1. It Takes a Village: Models for Mother Artists event at Atelier Stroud, 23 April 2017, from ‘Mother House’ session with Dyana Gravina and Amy Dignam from ProCreate project. Photo: the Women’s Art Activation System (WAAS)
2. It Takes a Village: Models for Mother Artists event at Atelier Stroud, 23 April 2017, film viewing during ‘Mother House’ session with Dyana Gravina and Amy Dignam from ProCreate project. Photo: the Women’s Art Activation System (WAAS)
3. Poster advertising It Takes a Village: Models for Mother Artists event at Atelier Stroud, 23 April 2017
Frances Bossom at Assembly Bristol
Frances Bossom will lead a workshop exploring what a guide for art parents could be as part of a-n’s Assembly Bristol event taking place 8-9 June 2017.
‘Proposal for a Guide for Art Parents – strategies to continue thinking and making’ will also include a presentation from independent producer and horticulturist Jane Porter, discussing her Bring Your Baby project.
For the full programme of events and to book your place, see: www.a-n.co.uk/assembly/bristol