Who Gives a Shit? On motherhood and the arts

by Felicity Castagna


I went into labour with my first child while I was hunched over the final manuscript for my last book. I was thirty pages away from completing all the edits that needed to be done before it was sent to the printer the following week. It was my husband who convinced me I was in labour. I wasn’t really sure despite the feeling of my entire body contracting every few minutes. I had a manuscript before me and a deadline and how could this baby be arriving two weeks early, so inconveniently, before I had finished? A few hours later I gave birth and few hours after that, I finished my manuscript with the most beautiful, complex and wondrous thing I had ever created sleeping beside me. I emailed my publisher to say that it was completed and, by the way, I’d just had a baby. In retrospect, I’m sure, given the circumstances, I could have asked for an extension but at that moment in which my life had changed so profoundly and so permanently I needed to prove to myself, if not to everyone else, that I was still a serious writer.

One of my best friends told me when I was pregnant that motherhood is a state in which you constantly feel lonely and yet you just want to be left by yourself. She was right. For the working artist her words seem doubly true. Motherhood is not only lonesome at times but also a state in which you feel isolated from the artistic community and you also constantly crave being left alone to make art the way you did before you had a child, when your time was your own. The arts world is not friendly to mothers. It does not understand that deadlines always come at the moment when your child is sick or that all those exciting speaking invitations now come with the added dread of finding a babysitter. You cannot put off a radio interview because you were up all night with a child and your brain has melted. There are no writers’ festivals with a crèche. There is a great amount of writing on how to balance the demands of motherhood with the demands of being an artist, much of which I have taken great solace in. In particular there is a fascinating series of interviews with writing mothers on Kirsten Krauth’s blog, which I would highly recommend to anyone.

But today I want to get past the sometimes overwhelming practicalities of arts practice and motherhood to discuss how motherhood can actually feed creative work. There is not much writing in this area and I have to wonder why. There is, I think, a solid argument to be made that motherhood can in some ways make you a better artist. If art exists, as so many practitioners claim, in the space of daydreaming, if making art is about learning to observe, to empathise, to articulate something in both simple and complex ways about the world that we live in, if art is about expressing the issues that galvanise you, if being a good practitioner means learning to shut out a lot of what isn’t important and to make strategic use of the little time you have then it seems to me that artist mothers have a bit of an edge.

My son Zain was born with the kind of reflux and colic that no doctor seemed able to cure. He screamed for up to eight or nine hours a day for the first twelve months of his life. There was nothing I could do but push him up and down the streets of my neighbourhood at all hours of the night and day. So much of those long hours of walking are in my next book, which doesn’t really focus on motherhood at all but rather, on a close and intimate portrayal of all those people and places I observed while walking. It wasn’t just that it was the first time in my life in which I had given myself permission to sit on a bench on the river or to hang out in a park all day and really look at those everyday things I had never taken the time to notice before, it was also that everything had so much more emotional intensity and significance than it had previously had. It doesn’t last forever but there is this crazed state you exist in, in those early months, that is something right out The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I remember, distinctly, standing on the Parramatta River, looking at Jamie Eastwood’s mural on the footpath which depicts the local Indigenous population trying to fight off the boats in that same place where the ferries were now coming in to dock at Parramatta Pier. The whole place seemed so heart-breakingly gorgeous and tragic in a way that I think I could never understand if I wasn’t in such a heightened emotional state. That space is now the central image that my next book revolves around. It was feeling that space in such a different way that made me realise I needed to write a book about it.  I wrote a lot during that first year of being a mother. It wasn’t the kind of long concentrated writing I had done before but I came out of it with a lot of lines scrawled on bits of paper that turned into great things some time later.

I’m very lucky at the moment because I’m a resident at The Parramatta Artists Studios.  The space in my apartment where my desk once was is now where my son sleeps. It is hard for non-mothers to understand how hard it becomes to work from home when the space you live in is not really your own anymore; even when you get those rare moments of quiet there is the distraction of handprints on the walls you should be cleaning and the spaghetti bolognaise stained shirts piling up in the laundry.  The studios are not specifically set up to cater for mothers but it has a lot of features that make it much more accessible than other working spaces.  I don’t have to travel to the city or to live somewhere else for a period of time like most other residencies require. It’s open 24 hours a day so I can work the odd hours that artist mothers have to work in and it has something else I didn’t know I needed which is the company of other arts practitioners who are also mothers.

Marian Abboud by Alex WisserFor two of these studio residents, Marian Abboud and Linda Brescia motherhood feeds into their arts practice in very different ways. For Marian, mother to three young boys, motherhood has lent her multi-channel video and performative installation work a complexity she doesn’t believe it had before motherhood made her feel as though she had to censor her work more: ‘I pulled out other work I did ten years ago before I had kids and it was a lot of out there nudity work and now it’s so different the way that the body and art work together.’ But for Marian this has led to more subtle and complex work. It is easier after all to make art that is provocative because its messages are explicit and obvious and that easiness can allow art to slip into the world of the banal and the cliché. Prior to motherhood Marian’s work just involved a solo practice. ‘The medium I worked with was primarily photography and video, but now motherhood has seen my practice embrace collaboration in an experimental cross cultural process … dance and performance feature heavily in my work now.’

In our talks on motherhood and art, Marian points out to me that making art is a lot like mothering. ‘They both involve ritual and repetition.’ The artwork that I do and the mothering that I do, they’re both lengthy processes. I’m always thinking about my arts practice as I’m mothering, they’re two parallel worlds that feed each other. So at the moment I’m thinking a lot about what I let my kids watch on TV and how much control I should take over that. How I navigate those issues and a lot of that is feeding back into what I’m creating in my work.’

HR Linda Brescia God Knows 2013Unlike Marian, Linda was not a practising artist before she had her four children. For Linda it was motherhood that drove her need to become a painter, printmaker and performance artist. What I love about Linda’s work is that she takes subjects like mothering and domestic work and turns them into some of the most powerful and provocative work I have seen in art. Linda didn’t start studying art until she was forty. She never thought art was a possibility before that but once she was raising her family she realised that she needed ‘something else.’ She believes in Rosalie Gascoigne’s assertion that art has to come out of your life experience. ‘If my life experience includes motherhood it is naturally going to be part of my art.’ Linda started making art because she wanted to ‘scream out how hard it is to be a woman and a mother. I say I’m a feminist but I’m the one who cleans the toilets at home. For me it’s about the nitty gritty of life. It is about chux cloths and the wiping and the washing and the fact that you can’t get away from that. A lot of my work is a response to that.’

Linda’s art literally turns her into a spectacle. Part of her art practice is to make costumes by screen printing on a stocking like fabric which covers her face and body and these are sometimes even accompanied by headdresses made from washing sponges. She often goes out in public in these costumes holding placards or she asks strangers to wear her costumes too, so that they can also understand what it’s like to feel entrapped. ‘How else am I to get any recognition? I think that’s what it’s about…It’s like any work. Some people get it and some people don’t. The mother has to be this nurturing person, you go from being a child, you develop and become this sexual object and then you’re a mother and you fade into the background. Maybe I’m screaming about that. You’re still a person all the way through but you’re only really noticed when you’re that sexual being.’

One of the questions I really wanted to ask Marian and Linda is if they were ‘out’ as mothers in the art world. ‘Never’, Marian responds and I have to laugh because I have been to so many arts functions where Marian’s three boys stick out like a sore thumb, being the only non-adults in the room. But Marian still insists that she tries to ‘downplay being a mum. It’s the whole idea of professionalism. You don’t talk about them. You don’t put them on Facebook and Instagram. Marian Abboud the mum is the personal thing. Marian Abboud the artist is what I want the rest of the world to see.’ Linda does not talk about her kids in the arts world either, ‘Who gives a shit? No one cares in that world. I’m very interested in artist mothers. People talk about it but unless they’re mothers I really don’t think they get it. It all comes back to who cleans the toilet.’

I don’t talk about being a mother when I’m in the arts world either. This is the first time I’ve ever written anything about it and it makes me feel more nervous and vulnerable than anything else I’ve ever published. Like Marian I’m frightened that people won’t see me as a professional and like Linda I have to question if anyone ‘gives a shit.’ Perhaps if we spent more time talking about the ways in which motherhood matters to art and the ways in which it can intensify, feed, shape and provoke good work then mothers might not have to pretend that art is the only thing that occupies their worlds.

Persona and Performance in Everyday Life

Photo credits: Images 1, 3 & 4: Linda Brescia. Image 2: Alex Wisser

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