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May 11, 2006

Art Beat

Mother's Art

story and photos by KATHERINE ALMY

My son is a very painterly artist. When we sit down to paint, we squeeze out a ribbon of four different colors into four separate cups. He then loads his brush with a gob from each cup and proceeds to smush paint all over his paper. Indeed, he calls his beginner set of acrylics his "ooshy mooshy" paints, and they are, in his opinion, far superior to the kiddie Crayola watercolor set that he has. Painting with him can be an exercise in frustration if I look at it one way, but it can also be a Zen lesson in letting go of control. Any ideas I have about what I should paint, let alone what he should paint, are struck down by his demands of, "Do it this way, Mom!" Or he simply paints over what I've done. I wonder if he's learning anything about art during these exercises. I wonder if I'm learning anything about art. It did get me thinking about other mothers' experience with art and their children. And with Mother's Day coming up, it seemed like just the thing to talk with some women who happen to be mothers as well as artists and find out how they combine the two careers.

I chose four artists, not quite at random. Frances Boettcher has three grown children and has been painting and doing ceramics for most of her life. She is on the board of the Ink People and teaches workshops at the Ink People and at the Fire Arts Center. Cynthia Hooper, who teaches art at the College of the Redwoods, has one son. Her artwork includes paintings, video and interdisciplinary projects. Joy Dellas manages her art career as a single mother, which presents its own set of challenges. She is a member of Arcata Artisans and also sells a lot of her work online. Laurel Skye has had four children, mostly grown and out of the house. She still has one at home who is 19. If you're not familiar with the name, she is "The Tile Lady," and her mosaic work is generously scattered around the area. Because of her, the Arcata Plaza has the most fabulous trash cans on the planet.

Photo of Laurel Skye and her daughter KiahI got these four women together at Laurel Skye's place on a warm sunny Saturday. Laurel doesn't have a very large front yard, but she's made the most of every inch she has with beautiful landscaping and a small stream. You cross over a little bridge to get to her front door. The intricately tiled porch prepares you for the inside of the house, practically every inch of which is covered with her mosaics. We talked on the deck in her backyard while my son drew, tugged at my hair, climbed on my shoulders or splashed in the pond.

Left: Laurel Skye and her daughter Kiah.

The first thing on my mind was time management. I have one child and a wonderful, supportive husband, and I'm still amazed at how much time I don't have now. How did these artist mothers find the large chunks of uninterrupted concentration that art demands? Children's bedtimes and naps are important. Cindy works from 9 p.m., when her son goes to bed, to midnight. She also swaps studio time with her artist husband. Not an option for Joy, the single mom, or Frances, whose husband showed little interest in art. Frances depended on nap times, which were vital when her three children were young.

There was a clear consensus about one thing: Housework was a very low priority. I also liked one of Joy's strategies: "I avoid meetings like the plague." She points out that they are typically unnecessary, but she gets a lot done via the computer. She says that a large part of her socializing and her business happens online. Cindy Hooper agreed, bringing up the importance of a website for showing your work and e-mail for contacting galleries and collectors as well as far-flung friends. Even Frances, who doesn't use a computer much herself, has her work online via the Arcata Artisans, of which she is a member. Clearly, computers are a boon to artists on many levels.

photo of Joy Dellas and her son DemetriAnother time management strategy is one that any mother must master: multitasking. Joy says, "I've learned to do many things at once. However, sometimes I forget that I'm cooking." I can relate. We often have Cajun Blackened whatever at our house for dinner. And keep in mind that Joy doesn't have the option of saying, "Honey, can you watch the kid for a minute while I check the rice?"

Right: Joy Dellas and her son Demitri

These women all agreed and emphasized the fact that while children need an enormous amount of time and attention, neglecting our own lives is to our children's detriment. Laurel relates that, to this day, her children's fondest memories are of her playing guitar and singing. I like the way she said it: "My kids really loved it when I did my art and I didn't do them. That's when they saw who I was."

On her website, Joy writes, "In my own life I have found being a single mother to be somewhat of a Hero's Journey. I focus attention on everyday miracles and acts of courage that make the tapestry of our lives so much more endurable and extraordinary." It occurs to me that artist-mothers are bringing a whole new voice to the art world. Even though children are not always a direct influence on an artist's work, every artist is creating from their own life experience, and the experience of motherhood provides a rich and varied perspective. Not that male artists haven't ever taken an intimate look at domestic themes, but their perspective has been almost that of an outsider. Men's art is changing too, as more and more men are taking a more active part in child-rearing, but they still have a way to go to catch up to women, who have been almost exclusively the caregivers.

Even the more cerebral work of Cindy Hooper is affected by her role as a mother. Her art examines areas like landfills, toxic waste sites and, as she states on her website, "the rapidly growing working-class communities of Tijuana, Mexico. People living in these communities must build their own dwellings with the available materials at hand, and the infrastructure for these neighborhoods — including water and electrical — are mostly constructed by hand as well." While she maintains that her son was not the influence for these works, I can't imagine that having a young son doesn't fuel her imperative for calling attention to these human-made marks on our planet and the living conditions we create for ourselves.

Frances brought with her a quote from Picasso, who said, "It's taken all my life to learn to paint like a child." She keeps this posted in her studio. Maybe I really am learning something from my son when he's smooshing paint around on his paper. Maybe we have more to learn from our children than we realize. Maybe it wouldn't have taken Picasso all of his life if he'd spent most of everyday with his children as they were growing up. But then if he did, he wouldn't have had as much time to devote to his painting.

Many thanks to the remarkable mothers I talked to, who took time out of the ridiculously busy lives to spend an afternoon in the sun talking with me. You can learn more about them at their respective websites:

Cindy Hooper —
Frances Boettcher —
Joy Dellas —
Laurel Skye —
(Links open in a new browser window.)

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