Monday, July 13, 2015


artist's rendering of 'the Getaway Van,' part of a new project by artists Jill Miller and Marianna Taylor.. a
Jill Miller is a visual artist who creates socially engaged art works centered on maternal practices and creativity. She has searched for Bigfoot in the Sierra Nevada, inserted herself into the art historical work of John Baldessari, engaged homeschooling as a lens for artistic production, and launched The Milk Truck, an eye-popping emergency vehicle for breastfeeding mothers, in Pittsburgh, PA. This year the Milk Truck gets a makeover as part of ArtReach Studios, a reinvention of the artist residency program created in collaboration with writer Marianna Taylor.

ArtReach is a radical revision of the artist residency that supports the creative work work of families, who are often excluded from typical residency opportunities. The project is fully mobile, incorporating both a vintage camper and the former Milk Truck, both fully outfitted with custom cabinetry, workspace, tools and materials. The project offers two innovative programs: a Family-in-Residence initiative fostering projects by artist-families working collaboratively with local neighborhoods, and the Getaway Van, offering 3-5 day micro-residencies for artists who are primary caregivers. ArtReach offers a level of support previously unheard-of, working with each artist to coordinate meals and childcare or eldercare so that residents can focus on their creative work. Needless to say, we’re pretty excited about this new project, and had plenty of questions for Jill about ArtReach, her life and work.

Body Configurations from the "Homeschooled" series
Cultural ReProducers: First off, could you briefly describe your kids in your own words?

Jill Miller:
Paxton, age 9, intense, brilliant, a better artist than I! Argo, age 5, incredible sense of humor and obsessed with sharks and other water animals. We gave him the right name.

CR: Your work has playfully engaged family life since your kids were very young. Who have been your role models for artist-parenting/parent artisting, or more broadly the intersection of art and everyday life?

I have been most influenced by feminist artists, especially groups like Mother Art, who made art about motherhood when that was not popular in the feminist art circles. I’m also influenced by Mary Kelly, who was my mentor in graduate school. And of course Mierle Ukeles, who was engaging in social practices before we had a name for it.

The Milk Truck mobile breastfeeding unit (top image)
in-progress view of its transformation for ArtReach residency (bottom)
CR: The Milk Truck tackled issues of harassment and access for nursing mothers. Your newest project, ArtReach, reframes the format of the traditional artist residency – something artists often feel is out of their grasp once they become parents - to create a program supporting the work of artists who are also caregivers. How did this project come about?

The true germination happened when my first child was born, just two years after I finished my MFA. I was exhibiting regularly until he was born. He was such an intense little human that I had to say no to a lot of opportunities that came up, and it became clear to me that the traditional model for an art career (travel, residencies) wasn’t going to work. Years later, when I met Marianna Taylor, who is my collaborator on this project, we started having conversations about motherhood and creative practices. She has an MFA in creative writing and an intense first child, so we connected over that. We talked for years about wanting other mothers to have a space for their work in a way that we didn’t.

CR: What's your own relationship to artist residencies, before and after having kids?

I never did the residency circuit the way some of my friends did. I always worked in the summers between the academic years, and then right after I graduated I had a faculty position lined up at the San Francisco Art Institute. I did a residency at Stanford when Paxton was about 9 months old, and it was nontraditional in the sense that I had access to the facilities and got to go to campus as many times as I wanted. It wasn’t immersive, but it was what I needed at the time.

Jill nursing in Pittsburgh's City Capitol building during
a proclamation of "Milk Truck Day" by the City Council
CR: Like a lot of artists raising kids, you wear many hats. How do you find a balance between parenting, teaching, and an art practice that now includes running a nonprofit?

It’s taken years to align family life with my creative practice and teaching. When I’m teaching, my classes cover social sculpture or critical, participatory artmaking, which is aligned with my own practice. They feed each other. When we do community events with the Family in Residence program at ArtReach, I can bring my kids and they can participate. My eldest son has some special needs, so my artwork has to be flexible to work with my family. It seems like right now things are coming together in this very wonderful way. But ask me next month and things may have completely fallen apart!

CR: Right now ArtReach focuses on artists based in the Bay Area. I know lots of artists will want to know: are there any plans to make it available to artists from outside of the region? Or is this a creative model you’d like to see other institutions expand upon?

We hope to bring the truck across the US next year after we’ve piloted the program in the SF East Bay. This will require additional fundraising, and we are looking for partner institutions. I’d love to see The Getaway Van take a Transamerican tour.

We'd love to see that happen, too! To learn more about the project visit the ArtReach residency website, donate to help support what they're doing, and if you’re near the Bay Area, be sure to apply.
inside the new ArtReach residency truck, with workspace, storage, and chalkboard walls.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Artist-Run Events: Mather Seerlo's Hair Fair at the Smart Museum of Art

Saturday, August 1st, 1-4pm
Mather Seerlo’s Hair Fair

The Smart Museum of Art

5550 S. Greenwood Ave, Chicago

Join Chicago’s Official Ambassador for Hair Affairs, Mather Seerlo, for an intergenerational event exploring hair and art in the courtyard of the Smart Museum of Art. Wearing a triangular wig of hair from his ancestors alongside hair-like materials found along the streets of Chicago, Mather Seerlo is the creative alter-ego of artist M.T. Searle. Let him be your guide during an afternoon of wonderfully surreal hair-art projects including hair-mop monoprints and giant collaborative wig helmets, free haircuts by local artists (first come first served), a hairdo contest (you bring the style, we'll bring the prizes), an artist-run photo booth, the sweet harmonies of a barbershop quartet wafting over the museum's courtyard, and so much more. At this festival, the first of its kind, (EVER) you’ll have the chance to create surprising new images and objects using real hair, wigs, and magazine clippings while enjoying the hairlike Greek treat kataifi.

The Smart Museum and Cultural ReProducers will also provide an outdoor play area for small children, complete with grass, blankets, and shade.

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This event is the final event of this summer's Cultural ReProducers Artist-Run Series: free, intergenerational happenings designed with artists throughout the city of Chicago, organized in conjunction with exhibitions, residencies, and other projects. These family friendly events aren’t just for kids. Parents, non-parents, and participants of all ages are welcome.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Artist-Run Events: Sonja Thomsen at DPAM

Saturday, July 18th
, 10 - 11:30am
Sonja Thomsen All-Ages Gallery Talk

the DePaul Museum of Art

935 W. Fullerton Ave, Chicago

In conjunction with the solo exhibition ‘Glowing Wavelengths in Between,’  Milwaukee-based multimedia artist and mother Sonja Thomsen leads a family friendly gallery tour of her multifaceted photographs, sculpture and installation. Thomsen draws upon extensive experimentation and research into optical phenomena to create a layered body of work engaging “the very physicality of seeing.”  Thomsen’s studio processes, the optical qualities of her work, and the Saturday morning timing of this event (the museum opening its doors earlier than usual) will appeal to all ages.

You're also invited to join us for an informal artist reception with light refreshments will follow the talk. Space will be available for nursing mothers and families who need a break at any time during the event.

This event is part of the Cultural ReProducers Artist-Run Series: free, intergenerational happenings designed with artists throughout the city of Chicago, organized in conjunction with exhibitions, residencies, and other projects. These family friendly events aren’t just for kids. Parents, non-parents, and participants of all ages are welcome.

installation view, Sonja Thomsen: Glowing Wavelengths In Between,  image credit: Kendall McCaugherty

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Motherhood and Creative Practice, London

the inimitable Griselda Pollock addresses the audience at the Motherhood and Creative Practice Conference.

This June, Cultural ReProducers took part in not one but two international gatherings exploring the role of motherhood in creative work. Here's our rundown of Part I:  the Motherhood and Creative Practice Conference in London.
Stay tuned for more about some of the great people and projects we encountered, and for Part II: the Mothernists, a three-day event in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

For anyone still harboring doubts that great artistic and scholarly work can go hand in hand with the labor of raising a child, this year's Motherhood and Creative Practice Conference, presented from June 1-2 at London South Bank University, offered a resounding affirmation of critical maternal thought.

Rachel Epp Buller presents on lactivist art intervention
During the past five years there has been a groundswell in work exploring the intersections of artmaking and parenthood. As soon as the call for abstracts was announced online, news of the  Motherhood and Creative Practice Conference spread rapidly despite its modest online presence. Organizers Dr. Elena Marchevska and Valerie Walkerdine had expected interest from a small group of local scholars, but soon found their inbox filled with more than 100 proposals from around the world. Being the skilled improvisers that mothers often are, they rose to the occasion and organized two jam-packed days of multimedia presentations by more than 60 leading feminist scholars, psychoanalysts, curators and artists, complemented by a rich program of film screenings, performances, and small exhibitions.

With so many presenters on the schedule, three panels ran simultaneously every hour in different parts of a labyrinthine LSBU building. Unlike more broadly-themed conferences in which deciding which panel to attend depends on your area of specialty, here it was often painfully difficult to choose. To get a sense of the options you can check out the full program online. Philosopher, artist, and psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger opened the event with a heady discussion on carriance and the matrixial gaze accompanied by a projection of her hypnotic video work (I have since decided that all future lectures involving dense theoretical language should be presented this way). Faith Wilding and Irina Aristarkhova launched the second day with their riveting exploration of the real and speculative ramifications of surrogacy, IVF tourism, exogenesis, and the global market for
Christa introducing Cultural ReProducers
human tissue and egg donation. And prominent art historian and cultural scholar Griselda Pollock miraculously wove everything together into two smart and thoughtful session summaries.

Efforts were made to offer on-site childcare during the conference, albeit for a fee, but unfortunately - whether due to cost, ambivalence, or lack of information - not enough participants signed up to make this option viable in the end. A few mothers bounced, rocked, and fed their babies through sessions, while others worked out arrangements with family members. Several had to rush off before the day was done to collect their kids from local creches or schools.

Those of us visiting from out of town fit in time to visit some of London's great cultural institutions, and parental art seemed to be everywhere, from the abundance of 19th century maternal imagery at the Victoria and Albert Museum to Jaan Toomik's "Dancing with Dad" (2003) at Whitechapel Gallery to the Tate Modern's remarkable Sonia Delaunay retrospective, which highlighted Delaunay's first work of abstraction: a blanket created for her newborn son in 1911.

Mary Kelly was there in spirit, and on video
Like any really good party, not everyone could make it. One notable absence was Mary Kelly, matron saint of mother-artists and a scheduled keynote speaker, who had to cancel at the last minute due to a scheduling conflict. A video was screened of her lecture earlier that week (though technical difficulties made it hard to decipher), followed by a response by scholar and MaMSIE co-founder Dr. Lisa Baraitser. There were noticeably few women of color present, a reflection of another imbalance in academia and the art world that will be important to consider as this conversation continues to evolve. On the intergenerational spectrum of things, though, the conference was incredible. Nursing mothers in the midst of their graduate studies exchanged experiences with seasoned feminist grandmothers. The discussion was also enriched by the voices of artists without children, including Miriam Schaer, who spoke eloquently about cultural bias against childless women and the challenges of “reverse mothering,” or caring for an aging parent.

processing some serious maternal thought over drinks
Beyond the formal presentations, this gathering brought together an incredible number of like-minded artists, curators, and scholars to meet in person for the first time. Catching a quick bite to eat between sessions we connected with members of Dublin’s Mothership Project, Rotterdam's m/other voices, London’s Enemies of Good Art and Invisible Spaces of Parenthood. Informal convoys took over nearby hotel lounges and restaurants to talk late into the night. After closing remarks on Tuesday, LSBU’s Edric Theater buzzed with women exchanging contact information, taking group photographs, and planning future projects. It seems clear that these conversations are just getting started, and we look forward to seeing what’s to come.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Interview: Courtney Kessel

In Balance With.
We are thoroughly pleased to feature an interview with artist, mother, academic and arts administrator Courtney Kessel, who strives to make visible the quiet, understated, and often unseen love and labor of motherhood. Employing sculpture, performance, video, and sound, her work transcends the local binary of public/ private and extends into the repositioning of the ongoing, non-narrative, excessive dialogic flow that occurs within the domestic space. 

Born in 1974 in Pittsburgh, PA, Kessel has exhibited her work internationally, including New Maternalisms at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago Chile, FAMILY MATTERS: Living and Representing Today’s Family, Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy, the Tampa Museum of Art, Exit Art, New York, NY, St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Art and with the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition. She was included in Renegades: 25 Years of Performance at Exit Art (2007). Kessel is the Exhibitions & Events Coordinator for The Dairy Barn Arts Center, and teaches in the School of Art at Ohio University. Find more of her work at

Interview by Christina LaMaster for Cultural ReProducers
Cultural ReProducers:  Courtney, I would assume that most people familiar with your work know that you have a daughter.  Can you tell us a little bit about her?

Courtney Kessel:  My daughter, Chloé Cash Clevenger, is 10 years old. She is named for the fresh blade of grass in the spring and after Johnny Cash, who died earlier that year.  She is a confident person who will try different foods (at least once), listen to a variety of music, talk to people without discrimination of age, sex, or race, and is super creative in her play.  Right now, she is making a sidewalk chalk obstacle course with objects along the two streets that border our house.

CR: How do you find a balance between parenthood, artmaking, and making ends meet? How has parenthood impacted your creative practice?

Courtney: I think it is apparent in my work that I have made a definitive choice to be transparent about my maternity.  In fact, I use it as a vehicle for discussion.  Placing the private and domestic in the gallery performs a maternal visibility that has not often been seen, let alone been permitted.  The strangest thing of all is the fact that we all have mothers.  There is this weird unwritten thing of invisibility of motherhood, like it’s supposed to just happen and not be talked about, especially not in the gallery. While it is the most common experience among women, it is the least represented BY women.  Most of the maternal artwork done has been that of amazing, talented painters USING the maternal as a point of departure to represent woman and child, not speaking FROM it.

Achieving balance is a constant struggle that has its roots in adjustment.  When I was in grad school (2009-2012), I made my day 9-5 except when classes met in the evenings and I hired a sitter. Many days, Chloe would be in the studio with me and sometimes had to come with me to class.  Naturally, I would take my work home.  Then the work started to come from ‘home’.  I began to take the domestic space and put it in the gallery.  Now, I work full time at a non-profit art gallery and am still trying to figure out how to come home at 5 or 6pm, sometimes go to violin or soccer, make dinner, get her to bed and still have enough energy to get into the small bedroom that I call my studio.  In 2011, I did the performance piece, In Balance With, as a way to illustrate the absurdity of that balance!  We have performed that piece almost once a year since then.  It has become a portrait or still of us at that moment which reflects the ‘current’ balance structure. It is constantly changing. 

CR: Can you share a little about your experience returning to a studio practice after having a newborn? Any strategies or tips you’d recommend (or recommend avoiding!) to other artist-parents for getting through that phase?  

Courtney:  I had uprooted from NYC to Morehead, Kentucky, six months pregnant, so everything was new to me then.  As I spent my days breastfeeding and changing diapers, that experience began to inform my practice.  I made breast milk drawings and used it as a mixing medium, but that felt like a stepping-stone.  It felt natural to be using these materials, as they were what I was around all the time.  Later, my practice shifted to be less about the newness and bodiliness of maternity and more about how I felt as a mother.  The specificity of being a mother is something that not all women have.  That is the distinct difference between the Feminist work being done in the 70s during the second wave.  A lot of work was being done ABOUT women and women’s experience, but not a lot was about motherhood. Thanks to those artists working in the second wave, we can continue the conversation and open it up to include a dialog with maternity.  Then it was (and is still) frowned upon to be a (female) artist AND be a mother, not even to consider MAKING art about that experience.  I think I just got on a soap box…

CR:  Who have been your models for artist-parenting / parent-artisting?

Courtney:  I feel like at the time I became a parent (2004) I didn’t really have any! I was going on the fact that if I didn’t make, I would die.  Based on that, I applied to proposal-based things and if I got it, I’d make it.  Like assignments, these things just kept me going. Eventually, my practice evolved into a sort of protest where my Feminist foremothers (Mary Kelly and Mierle Laderman Ukeles) paved the way for me to make the work that I make now.  Like I said before, there weren’t that many (known) mothers in the gallery.  Now, I have so many peers working along themes of the maternal!  So many that I’m afraid to list them, but I’ll try because they deserve acknowledgement: Lise Haller Baggesen, Lenka Clayton, Natalie Loveless, Alejandra Herrera Silva, Jill Miller, Christen Clifford, Marni Kotak, just to name a few! Then there are the scholars writing about the maternal: Rachel Epp Buller, Natalie and Lise (above), Jennie Klein, Lisa Baraitser not to mention the heavy hitters: Mary Kelly, Griselda Pollock, Bracha Ettinger, Sarah Ruddick, Andrea Liss, Patricia DiQuinzio… I should stop because there are so many and this list is by no means comprehensive.

The point is that that very specific experience of being a mother, while different for everyone, is still all about an Other person!  No matter when or where we go, that Other is always a part of our lives.  I think this could be part of the "maternal gaze" that you speak about in your work, Chrissy. I address this in my work as the “stuff” in our lives.  If you are a mother (and I can only speak to being a mother, not a father), you have this stuff in your life that someone who does not have children will not have.  You know what I’m talking about: strollers, car seats, clothing, toys, books, bikes, skates, dolls, diapers, bottles, baby slings/carriers...that’s just the physical stuff.  There is also the mental stuff.  If you are a mother, you are always a mother.  From the mountain of “stuff” that goes onto the seesaw (In Balance With) to the free standing sculptures of ‘stuff’ (Mother Lode), I am addressing this fact of life with child as opposed to without.

CR:  Has having children affected your relationship with the art world? What would
you like to see change to make that community more inclusive and accessible for artists with families?

Courtney:  The thing is, I am not all for making everything available to children.  As a feminist and a woman in general, I am for equality in the gallery, as with other aspects of life.  If it is fine and maybe even lucrative for a male artist to be a father and be successful in the gallery, then it should also be for a female artist...though we all know it’s not. I mean, who cares if this or that artist is a mother?!? Let her make the work and judge the work accordingly!  Critically.  Theoretically, in the context of the contemporary dialogue.  The above scholars are making the maternal a definitive part of the discourse.

CR:  What about attending openings, lectures or other events as a mother/artist?  Do you sometimes wish there were or feel there is a need for more venues that provide child care or a kid friendly room where parents could nurse or take a break with children they bring to the event? Would that have been beneficial to you earlier in your career?

Courtney:  When Chloé was 10 months old, I had a sculpture installation in an outdoor exhibition in Dumbo. It was an 8’ in diameter nest made out of saplings, fabric, plastic, and other found materials.  It was human scaled and during the opening, which was outside, Chloé was hungry and tired, so I started to nurse her in the nest.  She fell asleep and I laid her down and covered her up.  So many comments were made as to ‘where the mother is’ (scolding) and ‘what a realistic sculpture’ (it couldn’t be about maternity) and ‘where is the artist’ (disbelief)? I feel that those three comments really speak to the state of lack that mothers have in terms of merging family and career.  Later during our visit to NYC, we went to a party for Diesel, the clothing company. It was a posh rooftop pool party in the city.  What was AMAZING to me then (2005) was that on the first floor, they had a child-watching play space.  There were people there to watch your children while you went upstairs to have some time sans children.  I didn’t leave her because she was so young (I felt - new mother…), but it did make me feel like having the baby around was acceptable.  We even got in the pool for awhile!

CR:  Wow, now I'm curious if having children around is more acceptable in the music world, or the fashion world — I hadn’t really considered that before.   

Speaking of your daughter, Chloé is a frequent collaborator of yours, and you have spoken about allowing her to make decisions regarding her contributions to the work; I’m thinking specifically of In Balance With, where Chloe decides the performance is over.  Do you have a feeling for how long Chloé will want to be a collaborator, or be referenced in your work, and how do you think your work and practice might change if/when she decides she is no longer interested?  Later this month photographer Sally Mann’s memoir will be released, and in it she discusses some of the many issues she has dealt with as a result of her monograph Immediate Family.  Have you ever felt conflicted about working with Chloe or referencing her in your work?

Courtney:  I absolutely have felt conflicted about having Chloé participate in my work.  At the beginning, she was very innocent about understanding the work, but the more we talked about it, the more she kind of understood it.  The video piece, Sharing Space, originated from being in a restaurant with freezing cold A.C.  She was cold and put her arms into my cardigan while I was wearing it.  She said that would be a cool performance and I agreed.  I planned to record this action in a variety of scenarios in the studio one day, which led to the edited video work.  As she gets older, her level of participation grows and changes.  The first time we performed In Balance With, I had NO idea how it would end!  It wasn’t until we had reached a balance that I asked if she wanted to come down.  She said no.  It was then that I realized the piece would be over when she was ‘finished’ with it.  It became a direct reference about me and my work.  I could not do my work unless she was occupied and content. When she is done with something or needs something, I am interrupted with the unknown timeframe as to when I will be able to return to my work.  That is how she came to determine the end.  It wasn’t really a collaboration.

The fact remains that while she is an integral role to some works, the majority of my work is speaking from the voice of a mother: my voice.  I know, as with most children, that she will grow “out of” hanging with and doing things with her mother.  I think that my work is in direct relationship to us, like a portrait or a film still.  While we are so intricately involved (less now than when breastfeeding and learning to walk, etc.), my work reflects that.  Who knows what will happen later? What remains is that I am still a mother and will always be. So where my work may directly involve my daughter now, it may respond to only my experience later.  I just think that every day is so different with children as they grow and change and we constantly adjust…. One day she said to me, “Mom, your artwork is all about me” and I said, “No, actually it is not ABOUT you, it is BECAUSE of you”...

CR (Christina LaMaster):  A lot of my own recent work deals with motherhood, mothering and the maternal gaze.  Many artists, gallery directors and graduate school professors have warned against this content  because the work will not be taken seriously, and that only other mothers will be interested.  I have also been accused of being exclusive: I’m a white, middle class, hetero-normative mother and my work is mainly about the experiences of others with similar backgrounds.  Have you ever encountered these types of critiques?

Courtney: I personally have not had that kind of criticism of only mothers being interested or about being exclusive.  I think it’s so interesting that people feel the need to include everyone!  How would I know how it feels to father?  How could I understand the dynamics of being a lesbian mother? An African American mother? I just hope that by offering my own personal story, others will bring their experiences to the discussion. Young children relate to the work because they recognize their own mothers mothering similarly.  College students understand it because they remember it or have younger siblings who they see their mother taking care of.  Fathers recognize it. Grandparents remember it.  Like I said earlier, in a sense I feel that by putting my maternal experience in the gallery, it is a protest for all those artists, gallery directors, and grad school professors who STILL feel that the experience of
being a mother is not valid enough, critical enough, or fertile enough to be in the critical/economical/theoretical discourse of the gallery.

CR:  Would you be willing to share a little bit about what you are working on

Courtney: Yes, some of the current work deals with the domestic space and the "stuff" of having a child mentioned earlier. I've been photographing spaces in my home then taking the prints and cutting out everything that is about Chloé, by Chloé, or of Chloé. The series is called "Without Chloé". It's very haunting and kind of sculptural. I'm still in the very early stages of it and need to think about how it will live.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Artist-Run Events: All-Ages Breakdancing and Doing it All

We’re excited to share not just one, but two great events coming up this June as part of the Cultural ReProducers Artist-Run Series: intergenerational happenings designed by artists throughout the city in conjunction with exhibitions, residencies, and other projects. Participants of all ages are welcome. Hope you can join us!

Saturday, June 13th , 1-4pm 
Shandy Break
Cultural ReProducers + SHoP

Hyde Park Free Theater

1448 E 57th Street, Hyde Park

Interdisciplinary artist and SHoP organizer Laura Shaeffer  teams up  with Jonathan St. Clair and the Stick and Move Youth Crew to host this  all-ages event at the Hyde Park Free Theater, the newest art space on Chicago’s South side. Enjoy some great music, an ice-cold shandy (or a lemonade) and the chance to learn how to breakdance through an interactive all-ages workshop. Whether you’re five or fifty-five, enjoy learning and teaching one another new moves followed by a performance by the Youth Crew. This event is open to the public, with a suggested donation of $5 per person, or whatever you can contribute.

Learn more about the group and the Summer Intensive Dance Camp at

Saturday, June 27th, 3-4pm
The Art of Doing it All (well, sort of...)

Printer’s Ball at Spudnik Press
1821 W. Hubbard, Suite 302, Chicago

Cultural ReProducers hosts a roundtable discussion with artists Christa Donner, Fred Sasaki, and Selina Trepp exploring creative strategies to manage the push and pull of cultural work, paying the bills, and parenthood. Presented in conjunction with the zine "Propositions, Manifestos, and Experiments," this conversation will be relevant to anyone working toward a more sustainable creative practice, non-parents included.

If you'll have kids along, let us know: we'll provide some simple art supplies to keep them busy during the conversation.

Now in its 11th year, Printers Ball is an annual celebration of literary culture and printmaking brings together printers, writers, publishers, artists, readers, collectors, students, teachers, makers, and consumers to embrace the push and pull that is integral to a dynamic community. The festival features live printmaking demonstrations, roundtable discussions, collaborative art-making projects, a marketplace, music, food, drinks and live performances.

To help keep Printers Ball accessible to artists and writers raising kids, space will be available throughout the day for nursing mothers and families who need to get away from the action for a bit.

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.