A few weeks ago I had the intense desire to wear denim and dress in “style”. I wanted to wear heals and tight fitting denim with a flamboyant blouse in bright colors. After wearing the same white work coveralls, that have grown quite dingy with dirt from 4 months of daily wear and no washing, the change would be significant. The moment I put on something new, other than this uniform, there will be a spark of noticeable difference. I will feel the impact of that moment, how long the awareness of it will last is what I do not know.
The serious contemplation of prematurely removing my uniform came to me after a studio visit with Christina Seely, an artist and professor at Dartmouth College. I spoke with her about my “Artist Working” project and about the battle for visibility of artist mothers. I explained that wherever we are and whatever we are doing; we cannot divorce ourselves from the ongoing process of artmaking. Art making is not divisible from the lived experiences of the artist. My voice quaked and eyes welled when I spoke about my current paintings, speaking of the residue that builds up to become the monuments of who we are, and grow to become. The evolution of our psychological state is a malleable process of experience and reflection. I at some point, must have disclosed that I am hard myself, because she later agreed that I was. Seely’s verbal response to my visible emotional state and disclosures, was permission to end the project when I felt that I had gained what I need to from the investigation. She stated that ‘I am doing this work for myself’ and therefore, I am only accountable to myself. I can decide that I have done enough, afterall, 4 months is a long time.’
I contemplated ending the project, questioning my intentions again- asking myself ‘why am I doing this?’ I answered myself, and reminded myself that I cannot give-in to the minds interrogation and second guessing. Deconstruction is permitted and inherent to the project, this is art as well as artistic research, and I don’t know for certain where I am going to end up. The mind is a powerful tool. It can both strengthen as well as disempower you. So often we reason with the self, and the rational and reasonable self will attempt to preserve the status and order. I want to unearth and tap into the abject and the suppressed to permit the filth to rise and be evident. Endurance and commitment are all concepts that have resulted in taking on this artistic challenge. I am psychologically contracted to endure this each day and see it through till the end. To abandon this mental agreement that I have made with myself would be to fail.
I know now what I have done-I am testing myself.
On Friday, April 22, 2016 I attended the visitation of Mrs. Deborah Piper. She died recently after a battle of breast cancer. She was the mother of Eric Piper, a longtime friend I grew up with in Princeton, Illinois. I wore my uniform, like I wear every day. I was nervous, because I was fearful that I would offend someone-that my attire was not sanctioned or suitable for grieving. We dress-up to show our respect to the living, so they know we acknowledge and respect the magnitude of the condition of death in which we are witness to. I realized after the visitation on that Friday that this was a transitional moment; I was witness to an event that would have lasting implications for those who were touched by her life. This event and the awareness that resulted, was one of the primary residues that will mark this year.
Motherhood is the oldest profession-not prostitution. We blame mothers for all our defeats, mothers are our shortfalls. They hold this blame-guilty or not. Father’s remain somehow in the shadows. The standard and margin of error with fathers is not equal to the accountability we hold for our mothers. It’s not a competition, but it feels that way, and if it was, I wouldn’t win any mothering awards. I feel shameful, believing this to be true of my own mother. At any moment, we all just do the best we can. She survived, and raised us, loves us best she could, wants us to have the world while she toils through it. Her mother did the same. She toiled through a broken marriage, a daughter dying of asphyxiation, my grandfather’s perversions and loss of memory.
Being a mother alienates you like a pillar. You are instantly responsible to prop up, hold firm. It automatically puts you in a special class of people. Where you become secondary to the structure you support. In the outside spaces, there is no way of being helped. You cannot prepare for the breaking away that happens.
Becoming a mother is a death. The process of mothering while your children are young is like managing a chronic illness, you are never the same and require total overhaul of the way you relate and engage with the world. As an artist, this is a particularly painful process. You become split and no longer who you once were. As a young woman in college I was autonomous, second class as a woman, but free to choose. My artistic practice was my lived experience and a deconstruction of those events. It was angst filled, socially engaged. I was critical of capitalism, main stream culture, and power structures that prey on women and children. My voice was subversive and uncensored calling out a culture that looks away at sexual violence and abuse. After all, this is the value of a work of art: to challenge and call out what we see as in need of repair. These attributes and the process of inquiry required to think about them is not a “safe” endeavor while attempting to parent. This is a dirty business, which leaks and spills over, like noxious gas. To ignore the creative practice, through subjugating these concerns, causes a slow suffocating death. To cut off the creative supply completely would certainly kill me. There needs to be an exhaust vent.
I need a synonym for sacrifice that does not carry with it the connotations of martyrdom. Motherhood is not Holy or God like. Artists who attempt to mother, do they serve their children well, or just well-enough? Can they be “good” mothers; protect and foster resilient, emotionally stable people? It is awfully hard. It is hard work for anyone to be sure. However, I think non-artists have better results, but then again, maybe we are too hard on mothers? Expect more from them than anyone else? I am guilty of this as I mentioned before. It’s a shame to be pulled into this mass cultural phenomenon that expects more from woman while not supplying her with the same incentives.
I yell, I yell a lot.