It is perhaps no coincidence that so many of the words we use to describe our working lives find parallel usage in descriptions of motherhood. ‘Labour’, ‘reproduction’, and ‘creation’ take on new resonance for first time mothers as they navigate the juggle of a work/life balance. For artists with the impulse to make, there is the added complexity of an itchy-fingered need to be producing, coupled with a desire for the required mental space to work through ideas. To produce and to be productive do not sound like concepts which can be mutually exclusive, yet often women artists continue to navigate a fraught social segregation of their children and their work. This builds on an historical web of assumptions which have told us that artists who are mothers cannot sustain the same serious, passionate engagement with their work as childless artists, and that a woman must be childless to be a successful artist. Do these perspectives ring true today? What are the expectations and lived experiences of the Double Producers?
Most women’s art practices are at very interesting points at the time they have children. There are these wrought tensions and pursuits… things which are pushing women outside their boundaries, which is an opportunity men don’t get to have
― Louisa Chircop when asked about her experience.
Chircop is one of three artists interviewed for this story. Louisa Chircop, Zoe Young, and Sara Roberts are all painters working in the NSW arts scene, each at different stages in the mothering process and each with parallel and divergent experiences of the shift from an autonomous self-definition felt when childless to the multitudinous role of mother–artist/artist–mother.
Roberts’ baby is due in January. I ask her about her expectations for her practice and if she is thinking about how she will balance her workload. She laughs, ‘I think that is what I think about every single day!’. She is worried about the toxicity of her oil paints, the practicalities of breast-feeding and about how she will juggle it all, but she says, ‘I don’t make art because I want to; I make art because I have a need for it… I want to keep on making as much work as possible’.
The task of child-bearing and rearing, like arts practice, is consuming and demanding. There is no getting around the realities of this. One does not preclude the other, but as all three artists note, you have to be practical and make the time constrictions on your day work for you. Chircop, whose daughter is now twelve, and Young, who has a three year old and one-and-a-half year old, both emphasise this as one of the biggest shifts they experienced. ‘I was able to work out systems which assisted me to produce stable bodies of work’, Young says, adding that this was something she had struggled with prior to having children, ‘So maybe motherhood gives you a kick up the arse to do things which you previously put on the list of things you couldn’t do’. The cost of childcare is an added factor here, metering out making time at an hourly rate, so it can’t be wasted with inactivity. Young’s children go to childcare four days per week while she works in the studio and Chircop paints in her studio while her daughter is at school.
Young and Chircop had markedly different experiences of life in the months after giving birth. Chircop endured post-natal depression and found she began making art ‘to survive’. Her surrealist work has always been highly psychologically charged, but she began making ‘self-portraits which were depleted’ and using photography and anything at hand to document her experience of daily life. In contrast, Young experienced a clarity of purpose after surviving a traumatic first labour which gave her ‘a sense of my mortality… because before that I was pretty immortal’. Young and her partner moved from Bondi to Bowral just before her first pregnancy and since giving birth she feels a great sense of fulfilment and finds less of a need for her subjects to be ‘cool’ anymore. Instead she is passionate about capturing the countryside, the objects in her life and the stories they contain; such as her still life An Afternoon with Elizabeth David. Chircop’s work returned to her characteristic practice as her daughter became more independent and she worked through her experiences in her paintings and collage. Mother Dreaming ― Right:Wrong plays out her feelings of being split between the demands of motherhood and artistic practice. Both women feel divided by their roles ― Chircop describes herself as ‘a quartered orange: I’m four different people in one!’.
All three women have supportive partners, which makes some out-of-hours work in the studio and artists’ residencies possible. However, it is clear that a number of grants and residencies in Australia favour artists who don’t have children and chiefly those who do not have the gap of childbirth on their CVs. Young consciously includes a proviso at the top of her CV, stating ‘…although this has not compromised the quality of my work, it has restricted my efforts to enter competitions and exhibitions afar…’, having been told in the past that taking time off to have children ‘was not relevant’. All three women have felt supported in the arts community by fellow artists, gallerists and supervisors. Yet, even with championing voices such as Elvis Richardson’s recently released Countess Report enumerating the lived differences between men and women in the arts, the realities of being both a practising artist and a mother have been largely sidelined in favour of a discussion of gender. British-American artist Lenka Clayton’s pioneering Artist-Residency-In-Motherhood global program offers a glimpse of what can be achieved and an alternative to the standard residency structure. Perhaps it is time to bring the complex subject of motherhood back into the discussion.
After needing a studio away from her home, Young now wants to integrate her studio and family life, and build a studio next to her house. She has swapped a painting for an Aga cooker, and plans to heat the studio and cook while working ― following John Olsen’s example. Here she hopes to bring her creativity home and foster an integrated life. Instagram shots of her kids in the studio illustrate this desire for balance; for shared experience, as well as time alone.
All three of the artists interviewed are successful and driven by their need to paint. Chircop has won the Fisher’s Ghost Prize (2013) for her surrealist painting and is the Artist-in-Residence at PLC. Young has been a finalist in the Archibald Prize (2016, 2014), is currently working towards a solo-exhibition at Piermarq in April 2017 and a large commission for Barangaroo, to be unveiled late October. Roberts is completing her MFA in time for the baby, has a group show at Gaffa Gallery in December and has been named one of “Ten Emerging Artists to Buy Now” by Saatchi Art.
As many women agonise over the appropriate time to begin their families, questions form at the forefront of others’ experiences. In a century where careers are no longer fixed we should also consider shifting our frames of reference when it comes to artists? Rather than seeing what is lost by motherhood, we should not only be asking, ‘why do we need to consider women artists in terms of their children,’ but also more importantly, ‘what does the experience of motherhood add to the practice of being an artist?’.
Susannah Smith is a freelance writer, curator and arts guide, based in Sydney. She studied Art History and Theory at the University of Sydney and...