Thursday, October 30, 2014

Interview: Melissa Potter

Melissa Potter is an outspoken feminist and multimedia artist whose award-winning work investigates womens’ rites of passage from marriage to motherhood through a unique combination of social practice, printmedia, papermaking, sculpture and film. Melissa has exhibited at venues including the Bronx Museum of the Arts, White Columns, the VideoDumbo Festival, and Galerija Zvono in Belgrade, Serbia. She is founder of the NY-based feminist art collective, Art364B, and her critical writing has appeared in numerous publications including BOMB, Art Papers, AfterImage, and Flash Art. She has also become an advocate for open adoption, and generously shared with us her experiences with artmaking, travel, gender roles, and new parenthood. 

CR: For starters, tell us a little bit about your son. 

Melissa: Landon Aranzamendez Potter, age 5.5 months. His temperament is extroverted and affectionate. His giggle fits are popular with pretty much everyone. He’s really a delightful baby and is usually described by his admirers as mellow.

CR: What has your process been like for returning to a studio practice as a new parent? Any surprises or strategies for work-life balance you'd share with other artists?

Melissa: Actually, I didn’t put my practice on hold during our adoption process. Landon’s birth mother chose us two weeks before she was due, and he was born weeks before my one-year sabbatical at Columbia College Chicago. The timing was exquisite.

I also have a partner with whom I share 50% of all domestic and financial responsibilities, and so I was able to keep work and art plans pretty much in place. He took the initial leave for the first three months of Landon’s life.  The leave was unpaid (another issue altogether), but I was the summer chair of my department, which helped us make ends meet.

working with Maggie Puckett in the Papermaker's Garden
Maggie Puckett, Melissa & Landon in the Papermaker's Garden
I went to Taiwan for a week when Landon was about six weeks old, and my parents came to help out, as have other dear friends and family members (they are all out East where we used to live.) In the spring, I’ll be doing a three-month Fulbright in Sarajevo. It will be an interesting challenge bringing Landon for some of that time. My husband’s job doesn’t allow him to join me for more than a couple of weeks, so we are cobbling it together with friends and my former student, Jillian Bruschera, founder of The Mobile Mill, who is coming to help with art production.

My friends in less privileged countries taught me it is possible to raise a family in a one-bedroom apartment. We try to keep life as simple and inexpensive as possible. I spent a lot of my career making art in faraway places, but I now realize how important it is to invest in the community where you live full time, too. My former student, Maggie Puckett, and I spent the summer working on our Seeds In Service project in the Papermaker’s Garden, and Landon came along a lot of days. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

CR:  You have experienced some dissonance between parents and non-parents in the art community. How have your own perspectives shifted now that you’re raising a child? What conversations or alternative structures do you think could be useful in bridging that gap?

Melissa: I was in the “no kids” tribe for half my life, and then I was a switch hitter. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but there has been some puzzlement and even an indirect question or two about what will happen to my career (which I don’t think would be asked of my male colleagues).  I made it through 12 years in NYC on less than 30K a year in a basement apartment with a broken toilet; I'm pretty sure I can do this! We define ourselves by our life choices, and I think artists are particularly this way. Basically, I think the binary distinctions between “kids” vs. “no-kids”;  “mother” vs. “childless” are distinctions of power, privilege, and social control that negatively impact women's financial and social well-being.

We have a long way to go to help women make choices instead of compromises. Something as simple as Walter Mondale’s plan for universal childcare would have created a world we couldn’t even imagine today. Non-biological parenting gave me a lot of choices with my career in our broken social system, and for that I’m really grateful. I’m equally grateful that even though the academic system is not particularly family-friendly, my former colleague worked hard to create provisions in the tenure document to accommodate family choices and responsibilities. But there is still so much more work to do so that a woman dropping out of the workplace isn’t a practical default. We need the ERA ratified!

CR: Until Landon’s adoption is finalized in November you’ve understandably decided not to write or make work about parenthood. How do you think parenthood will impact your creative work?

Melissa: Adoptions are very stressful legally. In domestic adoptions, the time from
banners from the project Feminist Felt,
with women in the Republic of Georgia
placement to legal finalization is six months. Unknown birth fathers can be located through public announcements and databases by certain states. There are endless meetings, updates, police reports, DCFS visits, and a million other fairly invasive investigations into adoptive parents’ lives, homes, employment and families. I can’t wait for the process to be done so that I don’t feel the need to censor myself. It’s probably paranoid, but the process can trigger that fear.

As an artist whose work revolves around questions of gender, I realize that open adoption is one of the biggest gender experiments possible. Adoption forces us to reconsider everything we know about the nuclear family and conventional motherhood, from patriarchal naming conventions, to the role of two families - adoptive and biological - in a child’s life. We are also a society obsessed with self-actualization, and I think adoption challenges these notions as well. We are at an exciting moment in parenting history. There are new movements to raise compassionate children, boys in particular. Gender norms are being called into question through news and writing outlets like The Good Men Project. Victim blaming and shaming is being replaced by calls for personal responsibility through organizations like White Ribbon Campaign, a coalition of men working to end violence against women.

I’m sure there will be many challenges when culture takes its hold, but as a feminist I have to believe that we can change the system with our individual choices. I believe in the axiom, “the personal is political.” The personal is also the source for a lot of my work, most recently through my blog, Gender Assignment, where I write about my life and engage others in conversation about gender roles and rituals. I can’t wait to start writing about the adoption experience in this context.

I feel like this process has made me a much more experimental and flexible person even in this short time. As well, it has really helped me renew my commitment to questioning the status quo. In regard to my art practice, I am reminded and humbled by the fact that one of the things Landon’s birth mother liked is that I am a professor of art, and that I travel a lot. It is great to be recognized for what I can bring to the table through my art career, especially since the process of adoption tends to favor more traditional lifestyles. Landon’s birth family is a whole new and active part of our community - a challenge, but a really great one. I think about them all the time and we are in contact regularly. It’s a big job, but it is satisfying and artistically inspiring in ways that I still don’t quite have language for.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

60 WRD/MIN ART CRITIC // Walter Peter and Anna Yema Ditzel


photo © Nils_Klinger
The following was announced on the windows of a small blue house at
dOCUMENTA (13), the summer 2012 installment of the international art exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany: The “60 wrd/min art critic” is available. Reviews are free of charge, and are written here on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays between the hours of 1 and 6 p.m. Lori Waxman will spend 25 minutes looking at submitted work and writing a 200-word review. Thoughtful responses are guaranteed. Completed reviews will be published in the Hessische/NiedersächsischeAllgemeine (HNA) weekly, and will remain on view here throughout dOCUMENTA (13).

Lori Waxman is an art critic and historian who lives in Chicago. For d13 she decamped to Kassel for three-and-a-half months, together with her husband Michael Rakowitz, an artist also included in the exhibition, and their daughter Renée, who at the time was two-and-a-half years old. Lori wrote a total of 241 reviews during the course of the project. A few of them were for artists whose work revealed their existence as parents; some were even for children.  A book of the entire project was published by Onestar Press, with an afterword by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13). It can be purchased in print or downloaded as a free PDF.  Over the next few weeks Cultural ReProducers will share a series of reviews excerpted from the project, which recognizes children and parents as relevant participants in cultural dialogue.

Walter Peter
60 WRD/MIN ART CRITIC // KASSEL // 186

Walter Peter
Children live in another, parallel universe that sometimes overlaps but mostly conflicts with the adult world. In a series of large colorful paintings and high contrast pencil drawings made using digitally altered photographs of his two young daughters, Walter Peter envisions this realm of endless curiosity, rampant play and unmetered time. On this planet, when balls are dropped and roll, cause and effect is learned. When swings go higher and higher, excitement and risk are tested. How does this work? What does that do? How does it feel, taste, smell? The world is fascinating to children, and children are fascinating to adults. That’s partly why we have them. But children are also mischievous and careless. Any honest parent knows this, though few admit it. Peter does, in drawings whose unforgivingly dark pencils and blown-out details sketch the edge between children having fun and children being impish trolls.

—Lori Waxman 8/15/12 2:47 PM

60 WRD/MIN ART CRITIC  //  KASSEL  //  237

Anna Yema Ditzel

I love rainbows. Who doesn’t? But most of us, myself included, would be too unsentimental, or too afraid of appearing sentimental, or naïve, or guileless, to actually paint a picture of
Anna Yema Ditzel
one. For this, as for many other images and acts of the simplest joy and beauty, we need a child. And here we have one: Anna Yema Ditzel, age five, who loves to paint not just the large canvas she presents here but also playthings, tables and walls. Apart from the general loveliness of rainbows, which Ditzel certainly captures, and the accompanying pleasantness of a big green field and a bright blue sky dappled with plump white clouds, what distinguishes her painting from other similar representations is three-fold. Ditzel gives the rainbow in question more than the usual number of colors and arranges them in a novel order. She portrays the sun with not just yellow rays but also green ones. Finally, she signs her name without any restraint, using half the hues on her palette to write the letters A-N-N-A out twice, tall and energetic, as if they were horses running free across the grassy field of her imagination.

—Lori Waxman 9/15/12 3:15 PM

Monday, September 29, 2014

CR Event Series Report: Kids in the Studio

On September 13th, Cultural ReProducers teamed up with the DePaul Art Museum to present Kids in the Studio: Art, Labor, and Everyday Life, led by Copenhagen-based artists Bonnie Fortune and Brett Bloom.

The event took place in conjunction with Fires Will Burn and Ink, Paper, Politics, two exhibitions of political printmedia that provided the perfect context for a conversation about the work that both artists and parents do. Brett and Bonnie kicked things off by sharing their own approach to combining politics, creative practice and family, and discussed other projects that run counter to an art world that increasingly cuts artists off from their everyday lives. Manifestos and models presented included Palle Nielsen’s kid-centered installation “The Model: A Model for a Qualitative Society” at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, Andrea Francke’s “Invisible Spaces of Parenthood” working daycare center as art installation, and Nils Norman’s adventure playground research and sculptural projects. After several people started taking cell phone pictures of the screen, Brett and Bonnie generously offered to share their slideshow and resources with everyone (if you’d like a copy, let us know). They opened the event into a lively group discussion that nobody wanted to leave, which spilled over into the all-ages reception afterwards.

In a sunny lecture room upstairs, kids were invited to express their own agendas with colored paper, rubber stamps, and markers. By the time the adults headed up for the all-ages reception, the room was festooned with exquisite corpse drawings, a plastic cup tower, and an amazing paper rocket designed with the help of our brilliant childcare workers Ash, Macon and Craig.

We seemed to hit just the right mix of timing and people for this one, and the scene a looked a lot like the early proposal drawings we used to apply for funding for this event series: exuberant kids mobbed the refreshment and activity tables while adults connected over ideas raised in the lecture and scribbled down each other’s contact information for future conversations. Bonus: everyone went home with an experimental risograph zine designed by 3-year old Ada, created while Brett was working on Temporary Services' latest project.

On Saturday, December 6th we look forward to expanding this dialogue through the final installment in our series:  Making It What We Need,  a workshop and conversation generating concrete ideas about how institutions can support the work of cultural producers who are working it out as parents. Among other things, this event will help shape the future of what Cultural ReProducers is and does. We’d love to include your voice. This event will be presented by Cultural ReProducers organizers Christa Donner and Selina Trepp  in conjunction with the exhibition Division of Labor: Chicago Artist Parents, on view at the Glass Curtain Gallery from November 20th, 2014 - February 14th, 2015. Mark your calendars, and stay tuned for more information!

The Cultural ReProducers Event Series is a roaming series of lectures, performances, and other events designed to allow parents with small children participate more actively in the art community. These curated weekend morning events include free on-site childcare and intergenerational receptions.

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. This project is made possible through support from the Propeller Fund.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

60 WRD/MIN ART CRITIC  // Julie Bernattz and Sofia Frank de Morais Barreira

photo © Nils_Klinger
The following was announced on the windows of a small blue house at dOCUMENTA (13), the summer 2012 installment of the international art exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany: The “60 wrd/min art critic” is available. Reviews are free of charge, and are written here on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays between the hours of 1 and 6 p.m. Lori Waxman will spend 25 minutes looking at submitted work and writing a 200-word review. Thoughtful responses are guaranteed. Completed reviews will be published in the Hessische/NiedersächsischeAllgemeine (HNA) weekly, and will remain on view here throughout dOCUMENTA (13).

Lori Waxman is an art critic and historian who lives in Chicago. For d13 she decamped to Kassel for three-and-a-half months, together with her husband Michael Rakowitz, an artist also included in the exhibition, and their daughter Renée, who at the time was two-and-a-half years old. Lori wrote a total of 241 reviews during the course of the project. A few of them were for artists whose work revealed their existence as parents; some were even for children.
 

A book of the entire project was published by Onestar Press, with an afterword by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13). It can be purchased in print or downloaded as a free PDFOver the next few weeks Cultural ReProducers will share a series of reviews excerpted from the project, which recognizes children and parents as relevant participants in cultural dialogue.


Julie Bernattz
60 WRD/MIN ART CRITIC  //  KASSEL  //  029

Julie Bernattz
Give a child a gift and watch what happens. Most prefer the packaging to the toy wrapped inside. It isn’t that dolls and blocks aren’t fun, but that boxes and wrapping are there to be torn, open and closed, balled up and thrown. No one is going to tell you not to destroy a piece of die-cut cardboard. Julie Bernattz, an artist who trained as a printmaker, works with the materials she has at hand. As the mother of a young girl, she has an endless supply of My Little Pony and Lalaloopsy containers that have been ripped open by eager hands. Arranged against a hot pink ground, some of these scraps reveal totally unexpected interest. Simple cardboard shapes prove most compelling. The printed sides are faerie lands empty of their inhabitants, like when Cory Arcangel removed Mario from the Super Mario Bros. video game. The backsides are raw abstractions, recalling Robert Rauschenberg’s cardboard reliefs. It’s trash but it also isn’t. In a land increasingly filled with garbage that we can just barely manage to recycle, Bernattz’s approach may become a necessary one, practically and ethically, as well as aesthetically. If you can’t toss it, look at it again, rethink it, and see if you can’t find something worthwhile there.

—Lori Waxman 6/16/12 2:37 PM

60 WRD/MIN ART CRITIC  //  KASSEL  //  040
Sofia Frank de Morais Barreira


Sofia Frank de Morais Barreira

The art of children has long been prized among the avant-garde for its supposedly radical freedom and beautiful naiveté, because children are believed to be unfettered by the tradition of representational accuracy, by the fact that an apple must be round and red, that a face must have two eyes, two ears, one mouth and one nose, and all in the right space. This is hogwash. Consider the artwork of Sofia Frank de Morais Barreira, the four-year-old daughter of a conceptual performance artist. In one vibrant crayon sketch, palm trees sway in the breeze, an orange hut in their shade, a lush hilly landscape in the background. In another, a bright yellow fish swims in the wet blue sea. An odd composition of horizontal black lines and a little red house turns out to be a reproduction of a taxi receipt. A stunning pencil sketch gathers together a mass of dark scribbles that change direction and intensity to form a bird and cloud. One of Sofia’s most abstract pictures, of wavy red and blue stripes, is the result of a firm task given to her mother, to fill in the lines with precise coloring. None of these pieces are the product of wild imagination unbound by the reality of the world. They are the result of a young person continuously figuring out the world as she encounters it, tries it on and tests it out. With, admittedly, great color sense, sweet composition and a very willing maternal collaborator.

—Lori Waxman 6/18/12 5:40 PM

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Kids in the Studio: Art, Labour, and Everyday Life - Cultural ReProducers + DPAM

How can artists feed their creative work while balancing the messy realities of life? On Saturday, September 13th at 10:30 am, Cultural ReProducers is pleased to join forces with The DePaul Art Museum to present Kids in the Studio: Art, Labour, and Everyday Life led by Copenhagen-based artists Brett Bloom and Bonnie Fortune. Challenging a cultural economy that expects artists to be a mobile, accessible micro-industry, Fortune and Bloom lead a workshop at the intersection of artistic practice and family life, offering alternative models for creative work and inviting participants to share and develop their own. The workshop focuses on cultural labor, but has relevance to workers, parents and non-parents alike.


Kids in the Studio is presented at the DePaul Art Museum, located at 935 Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL directly next to the Fullerton Red Line stop. The event is presented amidst the exhibition Ink, Paper, Politics: WPA-era Printmaking from the Belverd and Marian Needles Collection, a powerful context from which to explore the relationships between art, politics, life and labor.  

During the event, kids in our on-site childcare area will express their own creative agendas using foam stamps, washable ink and poster-sized paper. Cultural ReProducers events are free, but childcare is available through pre-registration only.

Space is limited. Sign up here to secure your spot:


Eventbrite - Kids in the Studio: Art, Labour, and Everyday Life

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The Cultural ReProducers Event Series is a roaming series of lectures, performances, and other events curated by artists Christa Donner and Selina Trepp, designed to allow parents with small children participate more actively in the art community. Events take place on weekend mornings and feature free on-site childcare and all-ages receptions. 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.

Bonnie Fortune and  Brett Bloom are multimedia artists working across writing, curatorial projects, and social practice. Fortune’s work explores issues of social and environmental ecology, appearing in publications such as AREA magazine and venues like the Roskilde Museum for Contemporary Art, Frist Center for the Arts, and the Center for Book Arts. Bloom focuses on the use of urban space, and is a founding member of the long-running artist collective Temporary Services, who as part of their work run the publishing imprint Half Letter Press. As parents they have actively taken up issues around parenthood and creative collaboration. You can find more of their work at Let’s ReMake and The Mythological Quarter.

FAQs:
I’m not a parent. Can I come? Absolutely, and bring your friends. We hope these events will be of interest to anyone engaged in the arts - not just families. One of our goals is to include parents in the context of the broader art community, which means it’s vital to have non-parents there as part of the conversation too. Be sure to pre-register if you'd like a voucher for free museum admission.

I am a parent. Does my kid have to be in child care, or can I keep them with me? Parents who'd rather keep their children with them during the lecture are welcome to do so. We're just offering the option to participate without the distraction of wrangling small children.

Why do I need to pre-register for child care? For safety and legal reasons, space is limited to 18 children per event, and we expect it to fill quickly. Registration is first-come, first-served.

What time should I arrive if I have children? Sign-in starts at 9:30am. The event itself starts at 10:30 and will last a little over an hour. Of course, timing with children is often a bit unpredictable. You’re welcome to sign in and quietly join us at any time during the event.

Who will be watching my kids? We’ve hand-picked a great selection of experienced babysitters and playgroup facilitators who will lead hands-on activities linked to the events that parents will be attending. These are people we know and trust with our own kids regularly. Keep in mind that this is a grassroots, artist-run childcare project, not a licensed daycare facility. You will be asked to read and sign a waiver before registering your child. 


What about parking and public transportation? The DePaul Art Museum is conveniently located adjacent to the “Fullerton” CTA Brown/Red line stations. The Fullerton Bus (#74) and the Lincoln Avenue Bus (#11) both stop in front of the museum.

Street parking is available in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Validated parking rates are also available for the Sheffield garage located around the corner from the museum at 2331 N Sheffield, a half block south on Sheffield Avenue. Validated rates are $8 before 4pm and $6 after 4pm.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Leaving the Kids at Home

Residency Report is an ongoing series of posts from artists who've undertaken creative residencies with their families. As important as it is to have options that include young children, sometimes it just makes more sense to go without them. On her website, writer Debbie Urbanski describes her process for pursuing a residency while leaving her young children home with family.  She graciously allowed us to share this excerpt:

Heading off to my first writing residency at Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts in Ithaca, NY a few months ago, I was terrified. I was leaving my kids for the first time ever, having never spent even a night away from them. I felt guilty and wondered what had I gotten my family and myself into. It helped to read some firsthand accounts of other writing residencies online, but I couldn’t really find anything written by a parent of relatively young children (mine are 4 and 7 years old).  In brief, despite the nervousness, anxiety, and guilt, my first writer’s residency was one of the best milestones in my writing life so far. My family survived and so did I.


There are a few rare residencies that allow your family to stay with you. Part of me thinks 'awesome!' But part of me thinks 'no!' That would slip the writer back into the role of caregiver and make it difficult, yet again, to focus on one’s work.

Why leave the family behind to pursue a residency program?
* To have uninterrupted time to focus on one’s writing / creative work.
* To meet other artists and have sustained adult conversations about art.
* To remember what it’s like to be a writer first (versus being a parent first).
* To take the next step in one’s career.

In my case at least, being a mother is a constant buzzing distraction, one that bangs its fists against my writing room door begging for attention. I always think that being a mom makes me a better writer, but being a writer makes me a worse mom. A lot of times in the day, I’ll be honest, I want to be writing (or reading). My weekday schedule means I wake up ridiculously early to walk and then make breakfast for the family, and get the kids up, and get my husband up, and coordinate making lunches, and make sure the kids are stable enough for the day. I’m lucky enough to have time to write in the morning, but that time ends when the alarm on my phone goes off, which means I have exactly 11 minutes to get to school to pick them up. It’s a jarring transition. Fragments of my stories are always hovering around me, fighting for my attention. I haven’t been able to write on the weekends for about 7 years.

Choosing the right program
There are some great resources out there to find the right residency for you. In my case I figured I could escape for 2 weeks maximum. My ideal criteria was that residents would be fed, since cooking occupies way too much time in my ordinary life, and ideally I wouldn’t have to pay to go. If this is your first residency, I’d also recommend trying to find one close to home. It was a great comfort to me that I might be only an hour away in case my kids needed me. Or I wimped out.

I wish more residencies offered two weeks. I wish more residencies offered stipends to help with childcare costs. A mentorship program would be nice, where they pair you up with another artist mother so you can ask questions (like, am I insane?) before you go. Saltonstall allowed visitors on Sundays which was great, so the kids got to see where I worked (though these visits were not uncomplicated). Not all places allow that.

Preparing the kids
My kids were 4-½ and 7 years old when I went. I don’t think I could have left them any
 Dad Camp
sooner. Even at 4 ½ years, Stella’s conception of time is fuzzy, and she would ask heartbreaking questions like, “Will you be home for my birthday?” (which was 3 months away), but it’s probably different for every family. I just felt like I couldn’t wait any longer. That said, it’s true, when Saltonstall called to offer me the residency part of me wanted to say,”actually I’m not ready for this.”

We called my residency “Mom’s writing camp” -- and my husband added that Mom had won an award to go there. So my kids were excited. We were also talking about summer camps for them, and they found the idea that I had my own camp to be kind of wacky. Our school generously allowed Stella (age 4) to move to full day pre-school with after care for 2 weeks, so the kids were taken care of weekdays until 5:30. Friends generously offered to help out with rides if we needed it or invited Harold and the kids over to dinner. And we have a great babysitter who was able to help Harold out a few nights too when he needed to work late or take a break. Grandparents who lived locally would have come in helpful, but no such luck for us.

We called the kids hanging out with Dad during those two weeks “Dad Camp” — and the talk of ice cream trips, mac & cheese, and lots of PB&J got the kids pretty excited.

Re-Entry
Re-entry was challenging on a lot of levels. The kids missed Dad Camp in a lot of ways (no chores! no making lunches! ice cream!) My husband had enjoyed being a single parent in a
catching up post-residency
lot of ways too (no negotiation! less clean up in the kitchen! more eating out!). I missed having adult conversation every night for dinner (it’s true, I cried the first family dinner I had, where the conversation was mainly about why Stella was kicking me under the table about every minute). I missed having entire days for writing and I felt dragged down by the amount of housework that my life requires.

Because the residency ended on Mother’s Day weekend, we decided to stay for a few more days down in Ithaca and hike. Perhaps we were too ambitious -- there were some spectacularly unhappy scenes. But there were some nice moments too, like getting to read with my kids again. I think it would have been equally as shocking for me to suddenly appear and be thrust back into the everyday schedule of chores and tending to the kids. It took maybe three weeks for us to work out the kinks, maybe longer.

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 Debbie Urbanski is a writer living in Syracuse, New York. Her work focuses on aliens, marriage, cults, belief, and family, or some combination of those themes. Her fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Southern Review, The Sun, Alaska Quarterly Review, Tin House’s Open Bar, and the UK science fiction magazines Interzone and Arc. You can find more of her work at http://debbieurbanski.com

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Interview: Candida Alvarez

black cherry pit, 2009, 7 x 6 feet, acrylic on canvas
photo by Tom Van Eynde
Cándida Alvarez is a painter known for vibrantly layered abstractions that dismantle and remix an array of influences that cut across pop culture, modern art, world news and personal memory. Her work is shown in museums and galleries around the world and is represented in numerous public and private collections, including The Addison Gallery of American Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and El Museo del Barrio. Cándida is a tenured Professor in the Painting and Drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she has taught since 1998. She has been parenting nearly as long as she’s been making a career for herself as an artist, and her passion for both is clear.

CR: To start, tell us a little bit about you and your son.

Candida: Ramon Alvarez Smikle was born 23 years ago in New York City. He was the perfect baby, slept through the night, and loved to pick flowers to give to his mama. He spent his first seven months in Brooklyn, and then we all moved to Connecticut so his dad (Dawoud Bey) could pursue an MFA at Yale in Photography.  Two years later, since we were still in New Haven, I also applied and was accepted into the MFA program in Painting.  It was the 90’s and the stock market had crashed, and as a new mom, I saw [grad school] as an invaluable opportunity for some time out to work and engage in critical thinking and discourse about the work. I studied with Mel Bochner, Catherine Murphy, Frances Barth, David Reed, David Pease, Howardena Pindell, Rochelle Fienstein, Dick Lytle, and Sylvia Mangold.

We all moved to Chicago in Fall of 1998, after I accepted a full time teaching position at SAIC in the Painting department. Ramon started second grade at the Lab school, so we moved to Hyde Park. In 2006, his dad and I divorced, and I moved to the south loop so Ramon could be close to his new high school. Four years later, Ramon decided to apply to Columbia College, where his dad taught, and Ramon graduated with a BA degree in Music Business Management. He excelled in his passion, and today he lives in Santa Monica, working full time for Shazam as their Music Partnerships Coordinator!

CR:  What was it like for you to become an artist-mother? What kinds of support or lack of support did you encounter?

Candida with Ramon, 1991
photo by Dawoud Bey
Candida: I remember never giving it much thought until the day I found myself pregnant. It was a conversation I really was not that invested in. I was married for 10 years and was 36 years old.  I was living the life of the artist, working in a home studio, making ends meet. When I realized I was carrying a child I felt like I was ready… but to be honest I had no idea what to expect. Most of my friends had already grown children, or they were just beginning new partnerships.

It was not very popular for artists to have children, but I was steadfast in my decision. I remember thinking I may not be taken seriously as an artist after this. It was odd to see my belly stretch out in front of me, and to feel the pulsations of life growing inside of me.

Ramon was born during the winter. A few weeks later, I remember fretting about going to an art opening, as it seemed odd to bring a baby with me. I was trying to get used to this new part, which was like walking with a new limb, so to speak.  As fate would have it, the phone rang. My dear friend, poet / mother Hettie Jones was calling  to check up on the recent mom and new baby.  I told her about the opening, and she convinced me that I had to go. I went, despite my fears that I’d lost my identity as the artist to this new reality called mother. In fact it was powerful: I became both things simultaneously. Baby Ramon was bundled up in his shower gifts and he and I together walked in. As I held him in my arms he sooo became the object of desire, not the art on the walls. He intoxicated everyone around him. It was lovely.

Learning to juggle the “we-ness” of those years, when your child is totally dependent on you is daunting and doubt invariably clings like a nasty cold. Fortunately, I did know and was friendly with artists who had children, so that helped tremendously. These women were also successful: Elizabeth Murray, Allison Saar, Laura Letinsky, Hettie Jones. They all seemed so comfortable around their kids, and they made it seem easy, although they had to become better at multi-tasking. They were my role models and gave me confidence and joy in sharing a well of knowing that you just cant really explain, but need to live through. 


Candida's studio, Fine Arts Building, Chicago
CR:  Do you feel that parenthood had an impact on your creative practice?

Candida: Yes, parenting had an impact on my creative practice. I learned to multi-task, as time and exhaustion competed for prominent roles. At the end of the day, there was not a lot of time to catch up or socialize. Unfortunately, friends who were childless we saw less and less. Bright color appeared everywhere and slowly it became important to the paintings. We left New York, so my son’s dad could get his MFA from Yale in Photography. It was as traumatic as it was exciting.

At first the hardest thing was dropping him off at the baby sitter. You worry about the care no matter what. We both cried. But soon I rented a studio and got to work. My days were not as long, but the time was precious. It was a constant juggling act. I remember having to leave him after the first 6 months of nursing. It was painful but also liberating. I was in Ecuador, showing my paintings, talking about art. I walked around like a zombie, missing this bundle of life that was so close to me. It was difficult, not sure yet how this experience had affected me.

All in all, I would say motherhood was the best thing that happened to the artist that lives inside of me. It pushed all doubt to the background as love, confidence, intuition, patience, moved to the foreground. Ramon is a constant reminder that we are still always becoming
Ramon and Candida, 2014 (selfie by Ramon)
ourselves.

CR:  You have raised your son through the newborn stage into adulthood. How have you negotiated the demands of your creative work, day job, and parenthood? What advice would you share with artists struggling to make it work?

Candida:
As a tenured professor and a former interim graduate dean I’ve had the chance to put my multi-tasking skills to work, and they paid off! I am grateful for that relationship. It has given me the space for criticality and engagement close to home, especially when travel or networking was challenged by my commitment to my son. I wanted to be a good mother, attentive when it mattered. 


I would say: Hang in there, it’s worth it. Aim to be present, not perfect. Be kind, considerate and respectful.