4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
[I’ve been away. And honestly, I’ve missed you. And this. And feedback (jazz handsssss.) But I had some art to make and a birthday party for the twins and so on and so forth. Stuff has been happening.
And so I went away. And then I actually went away to Bryn Mawr, PA, just outside of Philadelphia, where I hung that art. And while I was there, I spoke to about 400 students and whichever faculty members crawled out of the faculty room and came to assembly like they’re supposed to. They mostly stood in the back like I used to when I taught there six years ago.
I have to tell you, you could have heard a pin drop. Which was unexpected. And yes, I got the chokey voice, which goes without saying. Come along and read what I shared with those 400 students. You can even pretend you made it to the opening and pour yourself a glass of champagne. Cheers!]
This Woman’s Work
Someone once said something along the lines of, “You spend the first 18 years of your life surviving your childhood and the rest of your life recovering from it.”* I wrote it down somewhere in a book of important quotes that I’ve long since lost, but I haven’t forgotten it.
And to understand anything about my art and what it all means, I guess it helps to understand that.
Thinking about talking to you all and remembering that it was November, I couldn’t help but think of my college applications. (I used to work in the college counseling office as well as the diversity committee and art department here) and I was remembering my college essays. I wrote about a life-changing trip to work in an orphange in Santo Domingo my freshman year which I literally ended with the line, “But in the end, they helped me more than I ever could have helped them.” Seriously. Don’t do it. It’s the most obvious, overused essay ever. Like ever. You’re welcome for that.
I also wrote a Why Penn essay in Suessian rhyme that began, “I was to visit Penn one day. What a mighty bother. My mom said, “But it has art, chemistry, and it’s your sister’s alma mater!” I included a puzzle I painted that featured paintbrushes, field hockey sticks, William Penn and… wait for it, a puzzle piece that was me in a separate envelope. Get it? I was the missing piece? I couldn’t make this up.
The thing is in all that there was almost nothing at all about who I was or why I was or what I was.
I should have written this… I am the average sibling in a family full of disabilities. I am not blind or deaf like my sister, I am not mentally retarded or physically handicapped and I do not throw food or pull hair or sleep in an adult-sized hospital crib like my older brother.
I do not get fed through a tube or handfuls of medicine every day or have seizures or take insulin shots twice a day like my father, I do not take pills to get my brain to quiet down enough for me to get through a school day like my other brother. But I am intimately acquainted with all these things.
And with all that knowledge comes great responsibility. I was an average sibling in a family of disabilities, people who I love and carry with me wherever I go.
See how much more you know about me already?
And I think we all have these stories: stories of loved ones who died or feeling like an outsider or knowing too little or too much, of hating ourselves or our bodies, of needing to take pills to get our brains to do what we want, of parents divorcing or feeling like an outsider because of our family or our color or gender or religion or sexual identity or gender identity.
So my art follows this arc of trying to figure things out, picking at pieces of my identity or that of my family and inspecting them, holding it up to other pieces for comparison.
The Early Years
I knew I had a thing for art at a very young age. When I was 5 I told my father I wanted to be an artist. He said I’d starve, which apparently is inaccurate, as it turns out. I was what my mother called the family diddler, always latch hooking or making books or drawing from lesson books that teach you how to use charcoal or draw a Great Dane. Really.
High School and College
In high school my art was what I call good-girl art. I was a class officer, a lacrosse captain, in all APs. They let me take art as an independent study because I couldn’t fit it in my schedule, which worked for me because I was too scared of navigating the social challenges of lunch in a public school cafeteria anyway. I did pen and ink drawings of vegetables, drawings of flowers and shoes and yes, even dresses. And my drawings always looked pretty much exactly like what I was copying from. Then I went to Yale to study engineering and to please my father.
By then I was painting portraits of people, beginning my fascination with identity. These were looser, hurried, out of focus. I painted a self-portrait of myself nude in a white men’s undershirt standing in front of a urinal. I painted myself as Frida Kahlo in the style of Alice Neel. I changed my major to art. A famous artist came and critiqued our art and she told me not to quit my day job. Which was nonsensical because I didn’t have a job. But I got her point.
When I began teaching I continued to paint self-portraits and also huge fruit paintings… Pears specifically. And let me tell you, fruit sells.
I got into grad school at Maryland Institute College of Art anyway. My father died that spring before I began, and so I painted all the toys I insisted that my mother give to Goodwill when she cleaned out our house. I wanted him back.
And then I officially began to make kooky art school art. I used old family photos and created a cartoon character based on me wearing the dirndl dress I had when I was five.
I was searching outright and unabashedly. How did we get here? How did I get here, to me?
And each year that passes I get closer to where my parents were when I was a kid. Last year I turned 42, the age my father was when the doctors made a mistake so huge, it would cost him his life after 18 more years of suffering. My oldest son is 7. I was 8 when my father got irrevocably sick. I was 9 when I realized that most families didn’t have a retarded child screaming in his chair watching television, who wore leg braces that squealed when he walked.
I am a mother now. How did my mother do this?
So the dresses and the photos and the toys you see in my show? They are the evidence of my childhood, and the minutia of my motherhood. And it’s amazing how they intersect. Inexplicable, really.
I sort through these things that seem to be keys and I choose symbols to represent things- the dresses that speak to me of my mothers mending, the Halloween costumes that tell of innocence on the verge of changing, images from photos reminding me of times and places, objects from my life, things that resonate and I mix and match them with patterns and textures.
I used to paint, but when you have four children in three years, it’s hard to make painting work. Too toxic, too time-consuming and so on. During the chaos of the early years of motherhood I went back to collage and works on paper trying to capture small moments during the stolen minutes between feeding one and changing another.
Four years ago, right after my fourth was born, I taught an evening course of printmaking and painting. It had been 15 years since I’d done woodcuts and I did a demo of a child’s jacket for the class. I was hooked. Woodcuts and linocuts are something I can put on the counter and literally chip away at during the day.
I’ve called poison control to tell them that my four-year-old used my red water-based ink as a fruit squeezer only to find out that not only is Dick Blick water-based red relief ink non-toxic, it’s gluten-free! And wood shavings in their oatmeal I just consider roughage.
And just to explain, woodcuts are similar to those linoleum prints everyone does freshman year. You carve chunks out of wood with a gouge, which is really a u-shaped knife. You roll ink across what hasn’t been carved out and then you press a piece of paper on top. My larger pieces take maybe 10 to 20 hours to carve, an hour to prepare any collage paper and about two hours to physically print by hand.
Let me tell you, you don’t stop making art… or playing music… or writing poems… or whatever creative outlet sets your spirit free. Even if your dad tells you you’ll starve or you’re supposed to be an engineer or they tell you not to quit your day job or you’re too busy teaching other people or you have a newborn, two 18-month-olds and a three-year-old. You do it. Do it in the carpool line or at the kitchen counter. Whatever. You just do it.
The Lederhosen Story (It Gets Me Every Time)
Here’s a story. My father, before he got sick, traveled to Germany for his job. At that point my parents had maybe 4 children and very little money. My father brought back gifts for us, a dirndl dress for my mother, a dirndl dress for my older sisters (featured here on me) and for his son, his firstborn and namesake, a pair of leather lederhosen. My mother saved these, plus many of my childhood dresses in boxes and bins in the basement. When I started having children she gave them to me.
Now most of you probably have some of these boxes filled with evidence of your adolescence in your basement, things you would probably find annoying right now, then maybe later, angering, this evidence of how badly your parents screwed up, then later, possibly much after, you’ll find it poignant, maybe even tragic (and tragically funny, if you allow it.)
My father bought leather lederhosen for his seven-year-old son, who wasn’t toilet trained by the way and who probably didn’t even walk at that point. Leather lederhosen!! Get it? That’s funny! Awkward, but funny.
But then, can you imagine that? [And here’s where I always get the chokey voice…] This man who knows his oldest child and namesake may never walk, or be toilet trained, will likely never talk, and certainly never have a family of his own, well he bought him leather lederhosen. Because that’s what you buy your son when you travel to Germany apparently. I can’t figure that out. The hope, the naïveté, the longing, a parent’s enduring love.
My show is called This Woman’s Work because it’s about being a mother and a daughter and a woman, about buying, washing, mending those dresses, collecting those toys, taking that photo on the first day of school or Halloween or on a brilliant summer’s day, being that child yourself. Also, that Kate Bush song just kills me.
In summary, I thought I was just going to commiserate with you by saying that childhood is what you spend your adulthood recovering from. But really, I think what I mean to say is that you each need to figure out what matters to you, figure out why you are who you are, hold it up to the light, hold it fast, and then persevere, just keep going.
That’s this woman’s work.
*Fun fact: I actually did a search for that childhood quote and the closest I could find was in Hope Floats, a movie so ridiculously sappy that my husband refers to every cheezy romance-type movie I ever watch as “Hope Floats”, as in, “What garbage is this? Hope Floats? Is that Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks again? Haven’t you seen this 200 times?” And for the record, the movie is pretty bad and it features Sandra Bullock, not Meg Ryan. I’m just sayin’…