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.

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