Thursday, May 7, 2015

Interview: Judith Brotman

Judith and Marcia Brotman, 2014
This Mother's Day we're putting a twist on the theme of artmaking and family life. Judith Brotman is not a parent herself. Since her mother's health issues took hold more than fifteen years ago, Judith has overseen her care on many levels. This deep and often challenging commitment has played a profound role in Judith's creative and career choices ever since.

Judith Brotman is an artist and educator from Chicago. Her work includes mixed media installations and theatrical immersive environments which occupy a space between sculpture and drawing. More recent work incorporates language/text-based conceptual projects which are also meditations on the possibility of transformation. She has exhibited extensively in Chicago & throughout the US, including exhibitions at Threewalls, Chicago Cultural Center, Hyde Park Art Center, Gallery 400, Illinois State Museum, The Bike Room, INOVA, the DeVos Art Museum, Hampshire College, The Smart Museum of Art, SOFA Chicago, The Society of Arts & Crafts, Boston, & The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We are honored to share this conversation with her here.

CR: First, tell us a little bit about your mother.

Judith: My mother’s name is Marcia Brotman.  She is 94 and lives in an assisted living facility.  She grew up in Brooklyn, and graduated as a Spanish major from Brooklyn College.  She worked as a translator in an export company until she married and moved to Chicago. My mother was the youngest of seven children, growing up in a family of very little means; her most prized possession was a complete set of Dickens bought for her when she was a teenager by one of her brothers. My mother is a tougher cookie than she ever admitted in her younger years; she’s also very smart and has an astonishing sense of humor. 

studio shot, work-in-progress, 2015
CR: How has your involvement in your mother's care impacted your career choices and your relationship to the art community?

Judith: Although I don’t have children, I suspect that there are parallels in barriers encountered by parents in the arts and by those of us caring for adult family members.  A great deal of what has troubled me has been attitude. I have been taking care of my mother for close to 16 years, and the first thing I want to mention is that the art community is considerably kinder and gentler than it once was.  There was a time when I felt that any mention of my taking care of my mother was not welcome in the conversation.  It was very painful, but also made me quite angry that I was expected to compartmentalize this portion of my life and separate it out from the rest.  I felt things starting to shift, and for the better, about five years ago.  I applaud Cultural ReProducers for all their efforts to educate the art community.  I think it’s the same “education”:  recognizing that artists’ lives are complex.  Since we tend to ruminate on life’s toughest questions, it seems obvious that we would be living full, complex, and complicated lives. 

CR: What has your process been like in negotiating a balance between studio practice, day job, and caring for your mother? How has this system evolved as her/your situations have changed?

Judith: Illness and issues of aging do not necessarily progress in a straight line; actually the opposite is true.  There have been times when my mother’s care has occupied virtually all of my time and other times where it has been much more manageable.  It’s been an enormous challenge that has required continual recalibration.  I have told myself that I can juggle studio, teaching, and caregiving, and I have.   However, I know there’s statistical evidence that being a caregiver for someone who is ill has a 50% increased mortality rate regardless of age.  The stress component isn’t small.   I’ve never missed a class, postponed an exhibition, or neglected my mother’s healthcare, but I’ve sometimes felt overwhelmed from juggling so many eggs.

'Golems, Flying Machines, and Transformations' (detail),  2012
CR: How has this ongoing relationship with your mother and institutional care shaped your approach to your studio practice, or the work itself?

My studio work has always been a reflection of my interest in relationships (typically complicated ones) and in how we come know another person.   This interest preceded being a caregiver for my mother.  My sculpture/installation work has never been a direct response to my time with her, but every once in a while I can sense the impact.  I had been a pre-med student before going to art school, and that interest (in things medical and in the body) had always been an influence.  I do believe that this fast forwarded since participating in my mother’s health care.  There were a couple of years during which I accompanied her to endless medical tests.  For a time, I looked more at medical imaging than at artwork.  I’ve been repeatedly awed by how fragile and resilient the human body, even an elderly one, can be; as a result, in the past decade my work seems to have grown increasingly more “fragile-but-still-standing.”   The use of stitching in my work, which has been present for many years, has taken on more and more of a surgical feel.  I doubt any of this is a coincidence although it was only in hindsight that I made these connections.
For the past two years, I’ve been taking pictures of my mother and me almost every time I visit.  Typically these are a reflection of us in her bureau mirror.  What started as a way to give us a shared activity has not only enriched our time together but has also turned into documentation of our relationship.  Claudine Isé and I are planning an exhibition around this work to be shown at Woman Made Gallery; this is predicated on funding to make it happen.   It has been a lovely discovery to realize that my studio interest in oddball love stories and moments of potential transformation are really at the heart of these images.

Untitled, (altered book page), 2014
CR: If you could imagine a fantasy scenario, what sorts of alternative structures might make that world more inclusive or supportive for artists who find themselves in a similar situation?

I think the ideal scenario here might be even more complicated than for parents in the arts.   The medical emergencies and crises come randomly and at any time of the day or night.  Compassion from others helps a lot.  I can’t begin to say how much I appreciate it when people ask me directly about how I and/or my mom are doing.  This happens far more now than in years past. On the other hand, much of the advice/commentary I’ve received has been extremely unwelcome.  This isn’t an art community complaint, it’s global.  I remember someone recommending I let my mother die when she was still very much alive, and I’ve also received my share of New Age commentary indicating that what I’m experiencing is a result of unaddressed childhood issues.  I’m hard pressed to say how unhelpful these (and other) comments have been during the most difficult times.

My fantasy scenario involves how the elderly are treated.  From the time my mother began to lose her hearing, long before she had dementia, she was no longer taken seriously.  At this point, virtually every change in her is assumed to be her dementia progressing.  As a result, I often feel as if I need to watch her closely as medical issues are often missed and overlooked.   I have also caught (what feels like) 1,039,038 medical mistakes in the past fifteen years--everything from pharmacy to physician to hospital errors.   Many of them have been serious in nature. It is a fact of life that people need advocates when they are elderly and/or require a great deal of medical care.  In my fantasy world, I could blink (often) and it wouldn’t matter.  As it stands, I can’t ever fall asleep at the job.

Marcia and Judith Brotman, circa 1960
I want to end with something that will likely be unexpected even (especially?) to my closest
friends.  These years of caregiving, admittedly very tough, have also impacted me in ways I wouldn’t change.  I committed to something I truly wanted to do, and I think our commitments are always life affirming.   Given a re-do opportunity, I would likely do most of what I’ve done all over again---give or take a tweak here and there.  I’ve heard many parents talk about a shift in world-view once they’ve had their first child.  I suspect it is, in part, related to putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own. For me a greater sense of conviction, strength, and self-awareness have resulted.  I do not refer to self-sacrifice, but rather to a heartfelt commitment.  It certainly wasn’t why I’ve done this, but the internal changes have been a lovely (and unexpected) perk.  There have also been many astonishing conversations and shared experiences with my mother.  Admittedly some have been as tough as any I’ve ever encountered, but others have been filled with grace.  Even now, with my mother’s dementia fairly advanced, we share some incredibly intimate conversations.  At this point, we know each other so well that our conversations have the capacity to transcend all the perceived obstacles.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A little Mother's Day Mothernism, anyone?

Sure, mothers appreciate flowers and breakfast in bed, but do you know any who'd also love the chance to get together with other talented mamas for a free, all-ages multimedia Mothernism event?

This Mother's Day from 5-7pm, Chicago's feminist book club TRACERS teams up with the Nightingale Cinema for an evening of Mothernism: readings, screenings, and performances by Emily Lansana, Lise Haller Baggesen, Christa Donner, Lori M. Barett, Selina Trepp, and Rebirth Youth Poetry Ensemble, featuring Maya Dru and Simone Allen.

This event kicks off a monthly media series WHATHAVEYOUDONEFORMELATELY?, organized by TRACERS + the Nightingale and featuring readings, scholars, films, moving pictures, music, meditation, performance, and lively discussion around topics of contemporary feminism. You can find them there every 2nd Sunday of the month from 5-7PM. 

Unless otherwise noted, these events are family friendly and FREE. The Nightingale Cinema is located at 1084 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago.

How to Be an Artist and a Parent: Boston weighs in.


We love the new Boston, Massachusetts group How to be an Artist and a Parent, not least because of the the down-to-earth response you'll find on their website: "Who knows? Lets figure it out." The project is run by multimedia artists, writers and fathers Greg Cook and Tim Devin, who also run the online forum Boston-area Creative Parents. This month they're connecting the community with two free panel discussions exploring creative work-life balance, one in Malden and another in Somerville. Know any artists near Boston who are working it out as parents? Please pass along the news. Here's more information on this month's events:

How to Be an Artist and a Parent?
Being a parent is pretty challenging. And raising a kid while trying to be an artist/writer/you-name-it can feel pretty overwhelming– especially when you throw in Boston’s insanely high cost of living. But we’re creative people. Maybe if we get together and talk and listen, we can find ways to support each other.

Malden Edition: Tuesday, May 12th, from 7 to 8:00pm. Three creative parents (Paige Wallis, James Montford and Stacy Thomas-Vickory) will share how they balance their lives, and then we'll discuss it all as a group. And hopefully find some solutions.

Somerville Edition: Saturday, May 30th, from 2 to 4:00pm. Three creative parents (Jef Czekaj, Jennifer Johnson and Trudi Cohen) will share how they balance their lives, and then we'll discuss it all as a group. And hopefully find some solutions.

These events are free and open to the public.

Friday, April 17, 2015

CR Event Series Report: Making it What We Need

For the final installment in our Childcare-Supported Event Series, Cultural ReProducers teamed up with Glass Curtain Gallery to host Making it What We Need, a generative workshop that brought together a great mix of artists, art students, critics, and arts administrators from galleries, residencies, and museums across the city.

The event was presented in conjunction with the exhibition Division of Labor: Chicago Artist Parents, at Glass Curtain Gallery, exploring the intersections of contemporary art, career, and family life.  GC was wonderful to work with, and the exhibition offered a perfect context for brainstorming sustainable and supportive systems for cultural producers raising kids. Our childcare team transformed a nearby meeting room into a dynamic playspace with colorful tape shapes and a cozy reading corner stacked with quilts and books. We learned from past experience to
allow more time for sign-in and transition, and thanks to the gallery's flexible morning schedule we were able to start that process sooner. While the adults hatched plans outside, our kids worked with the fantastic Ash, Craig, Marieke and Andrew to construct their own visions for the future using colored sensory dough, rubber stamps, and poster-sized paper.

CR organizers Christa Donner and Selina Trepp started things off with a slideshow and discussion of the goals and Challenges of the Cultural ReProducers Event Series, from living-room meetups to childcare-supported museum events. Then the whole group got down to business. Participants were invited to fill out worksheets identifying our own needs in the art community as well as key barriers to achieving those goals. After taking some time to reflect on our own, we split into small groups to take on these challenges together. Since the groups were randomized many had the chance to work with cultural producers we'd never met before, making for new connections and great brainstorming.

Working around the time constraints of certain hungry, nap-ready kids in the next room, we wrapped up the whole event in a little under two hours. Sure, it was a bit quick to realize all our hopes and dreams … but as everyone packed up their things, we overheard several people exclaim “we could totally do this!” as they exchanged information to get in touch later. The ideas generated when we put our heads together were amazing, and it turns out, pretty possible with a little teamwork: studio co-ops with childcare, a CR certification program for institutions, reading groups, listservs, and a guerrilla campaign challenging assumptions and expectations about mamas in the arts. 

Want to get involved? We’re now in the process of connecting participants and other interested creative people through project-specific groups. Even if you couldn't make it to this event, feel free to download a copy of the MIWWN Event Report. Then take our quick  Survey to let us know which projects you're most interested in. You're welcome to join the conversation even if you live outside Chicago.

Our goal is twofold: to give parents and their kids the chance to participate as critical members of the arts community, and to inspire cultural institutions to better serve artists and audiences, providing positive models for future programming. The childcare-supported series may be over, but have no fear – there will be plenty more chances to connect, organized by amazing cultural (re)producers throughout the city. More information on our Artist-Run Events coming soon!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Artist-Run Events: Erin M. Chlaghmo + EPAC

Cultural ReProducers is working on a whole calendar of upcoming all-ages events organized by artists in conjunction with exhibitions, residencies, and other great projects throughout the city. We're calling it the Artist-Run Event Series, and you'll find a full list on our events page with more details coming soon.

The very first launches this weekend, organized by Erin M. Chlaghmo with the Ed Paschke Center Art Center:

All-Ages Studio Visit and Workshop with Erin M. Chlaghmo
Sunday, April 26th
 10am – 12pm

Ed Paschke Art Center
5415 W. Higgins Ave., Chicago, IL 60630

Join Ed Paschke Art Center (EPAC) Resident Artist Erin M. Chlaghmo as she remixes the construction of traditional Moroccan rag rug weaving on a giant frame loom. During her time in residence, Chlaghmo has focused on creating dialogues between herself and other women artists, linking global craft traditions to the challenges of making ends meet as an artist and member of society. Light refreshments will be served, and children will be invited to create miniature rugs to take home.

Parents, non-parents and children of all ages are welcome to this FREE event.

Presented in collaboration with the artist and Cultural ReProducers. Sponsored by the Ed Paschke Art Center.

Erin M. Chlaghmo is an artist who uses fabric and felt to construct tapestries and other patterned surfaces. Pattern has embedded cultural references which allow her to address ideas of belonging and identity construction. She worked with other emerging artists to construct a collaborative weaving as well as several wall hangings while in residence at EPAC.

Ed Paschke Art Center’s inaugural Artist Residency also features work by John Metido, an oil painter who gives the centuries old trompe l’oeil technique a contemporary twist by depicting pop subject matter. Their joint exhibition is presented in partnership with the Luminarts Cultural Foundation.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


On a chilly Saturday we drove out to a low, mostly windowless brick building and followed paper signs in kid-scrawl around to a narrow side door. Stepping inside, we found ourselves in a kitchen adjoining a stage area lit by Christmas lights. The space thrummed with the sonic energy of a live dance party.

The music was fantastic. This was no surprise: the musicians performing included supertalented composers and multi-instrumentalists LeRoy Bach, Mikel AveryDan Bitney, Khari Lemuel, & Matthew Lux, known for their roles in bands like Wilco, EveryPeople Ensemble,Tortoise, Isotope 217 and others, and they were clearly having a great time playing together. The unusual thing about this show was that it started in the middle of the day, and in addition to familiar faces from the city's art and music scenes it was co-populated by a small mob of young children ranging in age from about 9 months to 9 years old. They bounced on parents' laps, rolled around on giant cardboard tubes of the type usually used for cement-pouring, and giddily ran back and forth to the kitchen area, where there were crockpots of homemade rice and beans, jugs of juice, and a big bowl of peanuts to keep everyone satisfied between sets.

This is LowJam, a series of impromptu underground dance parties for adults and kids organized by LeRoy Bach in collaboration with a bunch of amazing musicians, many of whom are parents themselves or have other close connections to parents / kids. Attending a Low Jam event is like discovering your favorite band playing a secret show in somebody's basement, with the added pleasure of sharing that magic with your own children.

After two sets and a short snack break, Mikel Avery equipped the kids in attendance with small instruments and schooled them into an impromptu marching band that kicked off the Open Jam part of the show, leading everyone back into the stage area. Children excitedly piled around the professional drum kit, piano, mics, and organ and started banging away. After letting them have at it for a few minutes, Bach stepped up and helped them structure their soundmaking into a loose composition, directing spaces for groups of kids to play solos on each instrument. As he laid down a solid beat on the drums, a surprisingly cohesive intergenerational performance began to come together, fronted by two young girls who alternated crooning and rapping, "I dunno / I dunno / because it's crazy like whoah." The adults in attendance grinned and shook their heads in wonder: it sounded great. The aesthetic strengths of the Open Jam were no doubt enhanced by the musical upbringings of many kids there, but the unpredictable impulses that children naturally bring to such a situation only added to the improvisational energy.

Letting the sound vibrate through me, I realized that I hadn't enjoyed a really good live show since I became a parent. What a shame, and what a crime never to have shared such an experience with my own daughter before. It should not be all that transgressive, but such an event requires letting go of some fundamental assumptions: that a good dance party should start after 10pm, that kids will only enjoy certain types of music, that all family events should be highly-sanitized, safeguarded and sanctioned, that art created by/for adults can't also be thoroughly enjoyable for children, and vice versa. Most 'family' programming is created for children with parents along for the ride. LowJam taps into the energy of everyone present to create a rich musical experience. Period.

The next LowJam is Saturday, March 28th. Band starts at 1:30pm and will play for 30 minutes. Open Jam led by Mikel Avery starts at 2pm. A donation of $5 per guest or what you can offer is requested. Email us at culturalreproducers (at) for location and other information.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Parenting isn't hard. Being in a community with non-parents is: a reflection on my first year of motherhood

For many artists the hardest thing about new parenthood can be the sudden isolation from creative community that often accompanies it. On her blog, filmmaker, educator, and activist Sara Zia Ebrahimi Hughes writes honestly and provocatively on her blog about the frustration she found in navigating her own first year as a mother, and allowed us to share it here.

I’m not someone who ever dreamed of having a child. My daughter, now almost one year old, was a delightful surprise. When my partner and I discovered I was pregnant, one of our many conversations amidst the flurry of panic and excitement was about our commitment to our art practices. No matter how hard it was, we would not stop being artists. One of our main priorities, in addition to the health and wellness of our child, would be to support each other in being able to have creative time. We were determined to not to become parents whose lives only centered around their children, not as judgement against those people, but because we knew we wouldn’t be happy.

And I have to say, we did a pretty good job all things considered. He taught himself how to do VJing–live time video projection–and video projection mapping and performed several shows in 2014 at venues like the Trocadero and Underground Arts. I wrote and directed the first two episode of a high production value web series when our daughter was 6 months old, pumping on set and waking up three times a night after 15 hour days on set to breast feed. I also was on the screening committee and volunteered at the BlackStar Film Festival (where childcare for filmmakers and committee members was offered).

I was so worried that the lack of sleep, breastfeeding, enduring crying sessions and all the craziness that comes with living with an infant would be too hard for me. Don’t get me wrong, there were absolutely difficult moments. Surprisingly though, overall it wasn’t that bad. What has been devastating and unexpectedly difficult, however, has been trying to stay connected with communities I used to share with non-parent friends.

I describe my cultural background as “kebab, grits and kale.” I am an Iranian-American, raised by hippies in the U.S. south. I grew up in communities–both amidst the (mostly white) hippies and the Persians–where intergenerational connections were strong. When someone threw a party, all the kids were thrown into one room and the older kids took care of the younger ones. If anyone got hurt, you went and got an adult. I grew up with visions of adults who were whole people, fun and a little crazy. There was always space for children of all ages. I guess I (wrongly) assumed that would be my experience as a parent in arts and activism circles here in Philadelphia as well.

After having a kid in 2014, my social options were suddenly minimal. I receive dozens of invitations from friends, well intentioned and in the spirit of inclusion, and over and over again have to ask them: is there childcare at this event? Is there a space set up for kids? It’s exhausting. And, depressing.

After a year it’s finally becoming clear what’s been so difficult about my first year of motherhood: segregation from my non-parent friends.

I no longer can go to workshops on filmmaking, discussions on cultural representation, literary salons and poetry readings, board game night at a friend’s – because there is no childcare or or space for children made. I can’t pursue my interests and dreams of learning to DJ better, join a writing group, or tear up someone’s living room floor dancing–because there is no childcare or  space for children made.

I can go to mommy groups and talk about breastfeeding, poop or how tired we all are. But that doesn’t feed me. I don’t feel whole or alive in those spaces. They are segregated spaces for parents only. My vision of the world and the communities I existed in have never been monolithic in any way.

When you don’t offer childcare or make space for children, you exclude people from your community and deny them their humanness. Same as when you don’t offer accessibility options at your events. What you communicate by making these decisions is that parents and disabled people are not welcome in your community. It is particularly hurtful and problematic when that message comes from people who claim to be committed to social justice.

Before my daughter was born, I wasn’t great about inclusion myself. I admit. This isn’t finger pointing, but awareness-raising.

My commitment in 2015 is to challenge every invitation I get with the question: will there be childcare or a space for kids to play/sleep? I encourage you to make yours to figure out a way to say yes.