Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Residency Report: Marble House, Dorset, Vermont

Residency Report is an ongoing series of posts from artists who've undertaken creative residencies with their families. Find out about programs that support artists with kids, and see how other artist-parents balance the residency experience.

We've been curious about Marble House ever since they first announced their 17-day family residency program, not only for its interdisciplinary approach but also because it's one of very few that includes an on-site day camp to keep artists' children engaged and exploring while their parents get down to their creative work. We were thrilled when artist and activist Sheryl Oring agreed to share her experience there.

Imagine a Tuscan villa with an ornate eight-bedroom marble mansion complete with fountain-filled grounds and an ample garden. This one is in Vermont, though, on the site of an old marble quarry. And each summer it offers its bounty to a group of artists and their families as part of the family-friendly residency program at Marble House Project.

The house itself, built around 1820 and expanded on in 1908, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The grand expansion to the house and addition of the gardens, designed by Charles Downing Lay, was commissioned by Edwin Lefevre Sr., an author, entrepreneur, and son of a Central American diplomat. In 1909, he was appointed ambassador to Spain and Italy by his native country, Panama.

The gardens provided plenty of fresh produce for our dinners.
 This historical home and the surrounding 48 acres was turned into Marble House Project by founder Danielle Epstein, who launched the artist residency program together with Dina Schapiro in the summer of 2014 after acquiring the property and doing renovations. Each year, Marble House Project hosts one 17-day summer residency session exclusively for artists and their families. Artist groups are multidisciplinary including artists working in film and video, literature, visual arts, music and composition, dance and performance and culinary arts. Besides the family residency session, Marble House Project also runs a series of three-week residencies (no children allowed) from mid-April through the end of October.

When I applied to Marble House Project, I had not done a residency for nearly two decades. My 10-year-old daughter Shira was just as excited as I was, and the Marble House experience lives on as a true highlight of our summer adventures. As it happened, Shira was one of the older kids at Marble House. At first I was worried she wouldn’t integrate into the groups of younger kids that seemed to form immediately upon arrival. But by the second day, she stepped up to the task and soon started playing with the younger kids and also taking on bedtime story duty for several of them. That made the other parents very happy.

Marble House Project is organized “around a responsibilities-sharing system, highlighting sustainability and fostering community.” What that means in practicality is that Marble House Project provides the shelter, workspace, weekday childcare (from 9 am to 3:30 pm) a tremendous garden and chickens that lay a prodigious amount of eggs – and the residents are responsible for cooking and basic household maintenance. In such a large group of artists, mostly with “only” children, this could get harried at times. But when spirits got high, there was always the swimming hole to dive into or the firepit to roast marshmallows by and then most of our cares faded under the light of the moon.

Agitype drawing series started at Marble House and feature quotes
from the #MeToo movement.
Then, after the morning breakfast rush and the kids went off camp, we got some precious time in the studio or for a walk through the forest or to chat with one of the other artist-parents gathered in this special place.   The time at Marble House Project allowed me to create a series of prints based on my  I Wish to Say performance project in which I invite people to dictate postcards to the U.S. President. The prints I made at Marble House Project were shown at Art Prize in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this fall. I also made the first of a new series of drawings called Agitype that features quotes from the #MeToo movement drawn with stencils in a format that resembles newspaper headlines. I also used two days of the residency to work with Emily Larned, my graphic design collaborator, who drove up from Connecticut, stayed in a nearby Airbnb, and joined me in my studio to work together on a catalog for a mid career survey show. The work we did on the catalog for Agitype: Changing the World One Letter at a Time at the Lois and David Stulberg Gallery at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota was critical for getting it done on a short deadline. The quiet at Marble House Project allowed the work to happen.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the stay at Marble House Project fostered friendships with the other artists, and shared experiences as artist parents. My daughter noted as we drove home that the children of artists are just a bit different from her other friends. And hanging out with a whole group of them for two weeks was something she’ll never forget. Beyond that, it was a place where she had the freedom to roam, to swim, to run, to play… and to collect eggs each day.

Cooking in the culinary studio with chef Angel Torres and
writer Amanda Rea.
Residents are responsible for cooking group meals 5 days a week and also for doing the dishes and kitchen clean-up. In my group, we had 14 adults and 9 children, and sometimes more if the staff or guests joined. Cooking for such a large group is not everybody’s thing and so this is something to be aware of. We figured it out and ate some amazing meals with the help of resident chef Angel Torres.

Cell phone reception is dependent on which carrier you have. I have T-mobile and had zero service. Others with Verizon and AT&T were better off. The internet in the main house was unreliable. I ultimately gave up trying to use the wifi there; luckily the wifi worked better in my studio. Others had better luck with wifi in the main house. My room was one of two rooms on the top floor of the house and this might have been the cause.

At the end of each session, artists are asked to present their work at an event called Art Seed. This takes the form of talks, performances and open studios. Participation is optional.

Kids going off to camp in the morning;
childcare is provided on weekdays from 9-3:30.
Marble House Project provides a daycamp for children ages 4-14 on weekdays from 9 am to 3:30 pm. The programming involves nature, art, playing, swimming, farming and cooking. Lunch is provided. Marble House Project co-founder Dina Schapiro, who creates the camp, has been working with kids for over 22 years as an art therapist and educator, and brings graduate Art Therapy students from Pratt to work with your kids as well. Kids outside this age group are welcome but there is no childcare provided so bringing a partner along to share with the care would allow the artist more worktime.

Application fee is $32. The residency is free to the artist and their child or children ages 17 and under. There is a $100 deposit that is refundable at the end of the residency. If you bring a partner or spouse who is not an accepted artist, there is a $200 fee to help defray the additional food costs.  

Music studio: Main space is 19'4 by 16' and also contains a kitchenette and stone fireplace; there are two additional rooms and a bathroom. Includes: Baby grand piano, drum set, organ, various small instruments, writing desk, amp, studio speakers.

Dance and performance studio: A former swimming pool converted to dance studio with a sprung dance floor, track lighting and marble-lined walls. High windows flank the entire space providing abundant natural light. Studio is 26' by 40' with 11' ceilings.

One of the art studios in the garage.
Artist studios in the garage: Studio spaces are given to each resident based on their studio needs and their projects. There are three studios in this building, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Studios have white walls and range in size. Studio sizes are: 24'10" by 14'4''; 10'4"  by 13'6”; 8' 8"  by 15'

Artist/writer studios in the Ice House:
There are two artist studios, an ADA compliant half bathroom, sink and electric stove in the Ice House. One of the studios is wood paneled, the other has white walls. Studio sizes are: 19'1" by 19'9'' and 12' by 15'3"

The Quarry office studio: This building has two wood-paneled rooms with a screened in porch overlooking the marsh. Writing desks, lamps. chairs, and easy access to exterior space. This is a summer cabin with no heat or internet.  Often used for writers or sculptors needing outdoor space with easy access to a studio. The bathroom and kitchen is next door in the Ice House. One room is 12' by 12'; additional smaller room is 12' by 7'8"; screened in porch 8' by 20'6".

Culinary arts studio: There is a fully outfitted prep kitchen that is 15' by 22'.

Collecting eggs was a favorite activity for many of the kids.
By far the easiest way to Marble House Project is by car. Other options include:

-    The Greyhound Bus from New York City to Manchester, VT, is 2 hours and 50 minutes.

-    Amtrak train (Empire Service and Ethan Allen Express) from Penn Station to Albany is 2 hours  and 25 minutes. When you arrive in Albany you will need to take a bus to Manchester, VT. The Amtrak station is a twenty minute walk from the bus terminal in Albany or you can take a taxi service which you can find at the train station. Marble House Project is a ten minute cab ride from Manchester or you can make arrangements with a taxi service from Albany or other locations. 

Northshire Bookstore:
Less than 10 minutes away in Manchester, VT, this bookstore has a large children’s section with books and toys.

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass Moca):
This art museum has a number of galleries that are certain to have exhibits appropriate for children and it also has Kidspace, a child-centered art gallery and hands-on studio presenting exhibitions and educational experiences in collaboration with leading artists. The program focuses on contemporary social issues and expanding notions of art and art materials. Mass MOCA is about an hour away by car in North Adams, Massachusetts.

Dorset quarry:
One of Vermont’s most beloved swimming holes is just five minutes down the road and offers natural diving platforms of varied levels.

Kids went swimming in the quarry nearly every day.

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Sheryl Oring has typed thousands of postcards to the President from locations across the U.S. since launching her I Wish to Say project in 2004. Oring had received public art commissions at airports in San Diego and Tampa and has shown her work at Bryant Park in New York; the Jewish Museum Berlin; the Berlin Wall Memorial; at Art in Odd Places in New York; the Art Prospect festival in St. Petersburg, Russia; and Encuentro in Sao Paolo, Brazil. An Associate Professor of Art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Oring has received the North Carolina Arts Fellowship and grants from Franklin Furnace Fund, Creative Capital Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her book, Activating Democracy: The I Wish to Say Project, was published by University of Chicago Press. A mid career survey of her work, Agitype: Changing the World One Letter at a Time, is on display at the Lois and David Stulberg Gallery at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, through December 8, 2018.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Interview: Kelly O'Brien

the O'Brien Family, 2018

Kelly O’Brien is a Toronto-based independent filmmaker and a mother of three whose autobiographical work often features her children. In 2007 she left behind her career as a TV producer to care for her second child, Teddy, who was born with cerebral palsy. Three years later she returned to independent film, pursuing an MFA in Film Production and eventually creating the documentary Softening, about her family’s experience having a child with a severe disability. The film won the grand jury prize in the shorts competition at the 2013 DOC NYC festival. Two of her shorts were presented as Op-Docs by The New York Times online, where she wrote, "Having children has transformed my creative life in ways that constantly surprise me. Sometimes I wish I could approach the world from a less personal perspective, but I can’t. Instead I try to make work that captures the poetry of the everyday and finds universal themes through my family’s experiences.” 

Kelly O’Brien’s films resonate with many, and have been especially important to Allison Ellingson, an artist finding her footing while raising two young children, one of whom also has cerebral palsy. She interviewed Kelly for Cultural ReProducers, and their conversation explores systems of support, grief and joy, and the choice to share all this through artmaking. 

Note: italicized photo captions below represent text O'Brien used when sharing on social media.

Here's another failed attempt at a family portrait. I'm starting
a collection. I listened to an interview with Anne Carson
recently and she said, "That’s what you discover when you look
at your old family photographs — a lot of them are pictures of
nothing, very evocative pictures of nothing."

That slight difference between nothing and something is why,
I guess, I keep trying.

Allison Ellingson / Cultural ReProducers: Briefly describe your kids - and how parenthood has changed your creative practice.

Kelly O'Brien: I live in Toronto with my husband Terence and our three kids: Emma (14), Teddy (11) and Willow (7). If I had to reduce their temperaments to a few adjectives I would describe Emma as intense, curious, creative and moody; Teddy as joyful, mysterious, sweet and challenging; and Willow as fun, defiant, warm and imaginative.

It’s not like I wasn’t creative before motherhood, but I would have to say that the experience of having children has enriched my artistic life in ways that constantly inspire me. If I wasn’t a documentary filmmaker interested in personal storytelling I think it would be much harder to find that motherhood/career balance. I’m glad those stars aligned.

Whether mothers can make “good” art about their children and whether or not it’s even valued by the culture at large seems like a hot topic these days, evidenced by a slew of recent articles on the subject. The truth is I don't spend enough time in any professional art world context to know how difficult it really is for other artist mothers. At this point in my life, I’m grateful for one creative burst a day!

During our emails back and forth for this interview you wrote something about your life that resonated so deeply with mine. “Some days,” you wrote, "I feel like I am falling through an abyss and nothing makes sense or matters, while other times I have total clarity that making something beautiful is all I need to do in life.”  I feel like we're kindred spirits.

Allison: That's how I felt when I first saw Softening. I'm so glad to talk with you about the beauty and heartbreak of our family lives. My son, Hans, has cortical visual impairment and as a result, can’t see patterns, which makes the textile artist in me so sad. How does Teddy experience your work?

Kelly: That’s a tough question. If you asked me a few years ago, I wouldn’t be able to answer without crying. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be able to answer at all. Teddy has cerebral palsy of the “severely disabled” kind, both physically and developmentally. He’s also legally blind and deaf, although he can see and hear a little – more than the medical tests account for. All this to say I don’t think he experiences my work as a viewer. But sometimes he has fun with the process, which really is the most important part. Because I make work about my kids, our family and everyday life, Teddy is often one of the subjects, and there’s nothing he likes more than being with his two sisters. I’ve found, at first quite unexpectedly, that making films or taking photographs opens up different opportunities for us to spend time together and Teddy loves that.

Allison: I love this picture! It reminds me of Hans, whose favorite place to be is sitting with one of us on the couch. He also has severe cerebral palsy, of his own variety, and my question to you today is: how do you make sense out of the caregiving role of "special needs" motherhood, and how do you find time to make work given its demands (appointments, therapy etcetera)? 

Kelly: For the first few years of my life with Teddy, I made zero work. I actually didn’t think I would make anything again. It was enough to make it through a day with Teddy and his various appointments without sinking into sadness and worry. If someone had told me then that I would go on to make a film about the experience and that a short version of it would end up on the NYTimes website, I never would’ve believed them.

By the time Teddy was around three years old, I started to feel a little less overwhelmed and a little more restless. I couldn’t go back to my old job as a TV producer because the hours were too long, so I applied to do an MFA in film production. I knew that if I could find the strength to make a film about my experience, I might be able to reach other parents and siblings in a similar situation. Most days it was too hard to make that film – it took a certain distance that grief doesn’t give you – but eventually, over time, little bits of recorded life turned into a diary film about our story. (I must point out here that I couldn’t have done this without the emotional and financial support of my husband Terence. His jobs as a teacher and art writer have kept us afloat – although with very little subsidized government help for kids with special needs, it hasn’t been easy.)

My Brother, Teddy, a short Op-Doc version of Softening, from The New York Times

The film I made, called Softening, took a long time, almost five years, and then Willow was born so I was back to full-on childcare, with even less time to make films. But back in 2009 I reluctantly joined Facebook. We were having a benefit to help with Teddy’s therapy and care costs. It was a way to get the word out about the event. I didn’t have much to do with Facebook again for the next few years until I somewhat spontaneously started posting pictures and stories about my kids. I’ve always been interested in trying to capture the everyday, the poetry of it, and Facebook became an unexpected way for me to do that. I didn’t have the time, energy, money or patience to make a film, and I wasn’t into social media at all (I still don’t know how to tweet!), but looking back I must have been desperate to make something, anything. I liked the immediacy of Facebook. I never saw what I was doing as “art” per se. I never referred to it as an art project. It was more of a daily experiment, a way to make sense of what was happening around me. In an interview with Marguerite Anderson about her memoir, La Mauvaise Mère, she said, “The relationship between a woman and her children is I think the most intimate relationship one can have in life. I really believe that, very deeply, so it's important that we write about it and truthfully.” I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I used Facebook as a way to do just that.

For the past two years, all three kids have been in school during the day so I’ve had more time for my work. Last fall I started a PhD in Environmental Studies, with the hope of turning my dissertation into a personal essay film that tries to find some beauty in this time of environmental crisis.

The truth is though, even before Teddy, I never had the confidence in what I did as a filmmaker to think that I could turn it into a full-fledged career, and over the years I’ve become less ambitious — my priorities naturally shifted after Teddy was born. But slowly, but surely, I just kept making small things.

After having a kid with disabilities, and coming to terms with the painful truth that life doesn’t always work out the way you thought it would, you don’t take as much for granted, at least I try not to. There are still long stretches of time when I make nothing, or when I feel like whatever I make is terrible, and who cares about me and my family and what I think anyway?! But mostly, I’m just so grateful I have a way to express how I feel. It’s less lonely.

"What are inside trees?" she asks.

I think she wanted an anatomy lesson but it made me think that maybe if we thought more about the insides of things we would care more.

Allison: What drew you to environmental studies?

Kelly: I grew up on the West Coast just outside Vancouver, near the ocean, a forest and mountains.  When I moved to Toronto over 20 years ago I thought it was the ugliest place on Earth. I’ve come to love many things about it, like my friends and the cosmopolitan-ness of the place — everything but the landscape — which, if you’re from beautiful British Columbia (the province’s license plate slogan), is pretty significant!

Anyway, when I had kids I felt like they were missing out on the idyllic childhood that I had in proximity to nature. They got traffic, pollution and urban density instead. But when Emma was about six she attended an elementary school downtown that was beside a street endlessly under construction. I’ll never forget this one cold November afternoon after picking her up. We got to the crosswalk and she cried, ”Look mom!” She was pointing to a tiny tomato plant growing up through the cracks in the cement. In the middle of the city, in the ground beneath our feet, I was reminded that there’s resilience and beauty. That moment was kind of a turning point for me, and since then, whenever I can, I try to expose my kids to nature in the city. Turns out it’s not that hard to find once you start looking for it.

So my interest in environmental studies extends backwards to where I grew up, but also forwards, because like all parents, I’m worried about the world we’re leaving behind for our children.

Allison: Beyond your husband, where did you draw emotional support as you began to make work about your experience with Teddy?

Kelly: When I went back to graduate school I was the oldest student by decades and the only mother, but because I’d been part of the art community in Toronto for a long time, many of the professors in the film department knew me a little. If it wasn’t for their unanimous, unwavering support I never would’ve been able to finish Softening. They pushed me along in the most gentle way. There are so few personal films about kids like Teddy, especially ones outside of mainstream portrayals like movie-of-the-week happy-ever-after narratives, so I think my professors knew the value of what I was doing and did everything they could to facilitate it, both emotionally and creatively. 

It took me so long to finish the film that when I was done, I needed a break from making work about that experience. Every image of Teddy carries such weight and I constantly wrestle with how to transcend the burden of representation so he isn’t just seen as a disabled child but as the happy-go-lucky and challenging kid that he is. It was a lot to take on, especially as his mother. I was also spending more time with my youngest, Willow, because Teddy and Emma were at school during the day, so I became immersed in her world and ended up photographing and writing about her. The short NYTimes Op-Docs film, How Does Life Live? was inspired by all the questions that Willow asked me. Recently though, I’ve been approached by a film producer to make a follow-up film to Softening, so I’ve been thinking more about that. I don’t think the process will be as intense. Life is lighter now. I mean, not always, but the sadness is bearable and there is more joy.

Emma paints Willow. Willow paints Emma. Emma and Willow paint Teddy.

Summer’s rare moment of sibling togetherness.

Allison: What is your relationship like with the disability justice movement and culture?

Kelly: When Teddy was born, people always wanted me to meet their friend, or their friend of a friend, who had a child like Teddy. I also heard a lot of miracle stories — you should meet so and so because they did this with their child and now he or she can walk, talk, hear or see …. The gesture to connect me with others was kind and well-intentioned — the hope always being that introducing me to the right person would make me feel better, less alone — but the truth is, it rarely did.

Early on, a social worker suggested that Terence and I go to a play group for parents with special needs babies. We went once, but no baby there had as many needs as Teddy and we left feeling even worse. And then Teddy’s physiotherapist put me in touch with another mom with a special needs kid. I’ll never forget meeting her for the first time and telling her how lost and grief-stricken I felt. When I asked if she felt the same way, she basically told me that wallowing in sorrow was no way to move forward. “I just willed myself to move on,” she explained. But I was falling apart. I had no idea how to will myself into any place other than the one I was in, and no amount of practical advice from a stranger, no matter how much we had in common, was going to help.

Years later I was screening Softening at a hospital event and I told the story about that woman, more as a way to talk about my own slow process. I wanted to reassure other parents in the audience that some of us need time, possibly years, to make sense of their new life as a parent raising a child with disabilities. Coincidentally, the woman was at the event. She came up to me afterwards and apologized. “I’m so sorry I made you feel worse,” she said. “I should’ve known better.”

Those early encounters definitely made me less interested in reaching out to others like me, but I was also so overwhelmed by what had happened that I wasn’t interested in connecting with anyone outside my very tiny world, period. Retreating became my way of coping.

In the last few years I’ve tried to identify more with the disability justice movement because I’ve felt like I need to be more of an advocate or spokesperson for kids like Teddy. For example, I admire one of Teddy’s teachers so much and recently made a short film called Walk With Me based on a short story she’d written about working with kids with special needs for over a decade. It’s more polemical than other work I’ve made, but it felt necessary.

Allison: How do you navigate the terrain of making your children’s lives public?

Kelly: I’m going to begin my answer to your question with another one of my Facebook posts:

"I like this picture you took," Emma tells me, "but it's the opposite of Willow." 

"What do you mean?" I ask. 

"I don't know, it's just not her."

I know lots of people who would never post pictures of their kids on Facebook. The whole idea makes them uncomfortable. I totally get it, but it still makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong. I want to say my kids are my muses, they’re amateur actors, occasional collaborators, but I’m not sure this is a good enough answer. When asked about her photographs of her family, Sally Mann replied, "The fact is that these are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon….These are not my children at all; these are children in a photograph.”

I have a harder time separating my kids from my pictures of them.

Now that Emma’s older, the posts with her have become more collaborative. She’ll say things like, “Take a picture of me, Mom!” or if Willow says something wise or funny, Emma will encourage me to write about it. It’s like I have another pair of eyes and ears helping me. I also ask Emma for permission before I post something about her, but I feel less comfortable sharing her life publicly. Willow is still a bit young to understand what I’m doing, but she likes scrolling through the pictures even though she sometimes tires of me taking them! Teddy will never really get what I'm up to, but I try my best to represent him in a way that's accurate, in a way that's true to his sweet and complicated being. More than anything, I feel like the process has opened up communication between all of us, given us insight into the different ways we see and understand the world. I also know that my time with them is limited and one day they'll be telling stories about me. As British novelist Rachel Cusk writes, “Children are characters in the family story we tell – until, one day, they start telling it themselves."

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Allison Ellingson is an artist working primarily with textile processes and the social fabric. She received a B.A. from St. Olaf College in 2002, a Master of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary in 2007, and in 2015 earned an M.F.A. in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Originally from Chicago, Ellingson recently moved to rural Minnesota. She is the mother of two human beings.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Interview: Laura Shaeffer

Compound Yellow Workspace, drawing by Madeline Aguilar

Laura Shaeffer
is an artist-organiser cultural producer, and informal educator based in Oak Park, Illinois since 2016. Over the past 20 years, she has worked alone and in collaboration on numerous projects housed within unconventional and often underutilized spaces on the South Side of Chicago, including Home GalleryThe Op Shop and Southside Hub of Production (SHoP) and now, in Oak Park, Compound Yellow. 

She specializes in developing collaborative networks in the arts and other creative endeavors.

"Her approach is a combination of activism and common sense; community building and home-making. She honors domestic spaces as sites of radical, informal pedagogy, and this manifests itself in an important through line that runs across her projects; they act as platforms for kids to express their creativity and imagination, and indulge their curiosity. Alongside immersing them in art and cultural production, an important byproduct of this is kids’ engagement with other kids, families, neighbors and neighborhoods. By remaining open, nurturing organic expansion and leveraging intuition, Shaeffer stewards growth rather than shoehorning artists into rigid themes or mapping them onto discrete timelines."
                                                                                           - Thea Liberty Nichols for Bad at Sports

Cultural ReProducers is thrilled to share this interview with Laura conducted by artist and art historian Rachel Epp Buller, whose recent research has led her to investigate care, correspondence, and domestic art spaces as creative practice.

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CR: As a 'Cultural ReProducer,' what would you like to share with us about your family?

Laura Shaeffer (third from the left) and family.
Laura: My husband, Andrew, and I have two sons, Jasper now 16 and Sebastian almost 14, and a very sweet but challenging Bull Terrier, Shelby. I think most every project I’ve been involved in since becoming a new parent has been inspired by my children's surprising perspectives, needs, and honest responses to the conditions of their lives. They are both introverts like their father, extremely creative and critical people who have more or less gone along with my crazy ideas and strategies for how to work with whatever you have to create a world in which you want to live.

When I moved back to the U.S. from Berlin, where I had been living for many years, I experienced culture shock and felt very isolated, and having children initially increased that sense of isolation and feeling alienated from the art world. To address this issue, we decided to open our own home in Hyde Park as a “gallery,” a place to gather, meet other artists and get to know our neighbors.

It was at that point that I began to see my kids and other kids as collaborators: with their spontaneous and unbridled curiosity, their ridiculous gestures, and their brutal honesty, they became at times Fluxus mentors, instigators, guinea pigs and my hardest critics. I realized the more I tried to be a “good” parent and do what “good” Moms are supposed to do, the worse it was for my kids. I had to find a way, or multiple ways,  to combine creative practices with parenting, and this led to HOME, our first project together. 

Hoyun Son (stairs) and Samantha Hill (photos) at HOME, 2013

CR: You've experimented with a number of different types of alternative arts spaces. Can you tell us about the different motivations behind HOME, The Op Shop, SHoP, and Compound Yellow?

Laura: I think finding creative ways of meeting unmet needs in our neighborhoods as well developing strategies for finding collaborators and new connections between people is the common motivation behind all these projects for me. Also, I love art experienced in unconventional places.

 The first project space we opened in 2000 was in a dilapidated old department store above the Arc Thrift Store; we called it CAN Gallery. For one year we invited local artists (mostly young students) to exhibit and interspersed these local shows with exhibitions of Berlin-based artists. The motivation here was to ease the culture shock of moving back to the U.S. after 13 years in Europe and to find new connections with artists in Chicago.

The second project, HOME, we started 3 years after moving to Hyde Park and after having two small boys. The motivation was to build a creative community where you live. I invited all of my neighbors, kids, families, older people and artists from all over Chicago and beyond. We ran HOME for 7 years and had at least 12 exhibitions. Through this experiment we met so many people living in Hyde Park and so many artists living all over Chicago. In this sense it was a very fulfilling experience.

In 2009 Hyde Park was riddled with empty storefronts; I wondered why there were no independent galleries or independent cultural projects here so I decided to find a public space to make one. I approached Mac Realty with an offer to clean up and care for an empty space for one month for $1, returning it in better condition when I left. This was the start of a series of experimental cultural projects that moved all over Hyde Park. The Op Shop had a sense of freedom and fluidity: each Op Shop had a strategy or theme, and for most of these I worked in partnership with a different artist. It became a way to informally research the neighborhood of Hyde Park and the broader South Side.

 Soft Shop, a participatory installation by Chris Lin and Kayce Bayer at SHoP, 2012

Op Shop opened the door and paved the way to a bigger and more ambitious project that developed with the opportunity of renting a 16-room mansion, the Fenn House, near the University of Chicago campus. In 2010, SHoP (Southside Hub of Production), was conceived by a small group of forward thinkers and artists including John Preus, Eric Peterson, Mike Phillips, and myself as a place to stimulate local cultural activity, provide spaces for artists and neighbors to work, perform, exhibit, collaborate and socialize, and for relevant community programming.

SHoP became a vital cultural and social hub for all ages. For the 15 months of its existence, SHoP continued to enjoy that fluid, flexible and organic quality of the Op Shop but the question of sustainability loomed over us as Hyde Park became more and more gentrified. Fenn House was put up for sale in 2014.

Sebastian, Jasper, & Andrew at HOME w. work by Shawn Greene and Katrin Asbury 
 CR: How did your children react to living with art in their home and to having their home double as a gallery space for the public (at least periodically)?

Laura: I think they had mixed feelings about all of it. Their views and memories change over the years. On any given day, they may say something like: "I don't know, it was fun I guess," or  "No, I loved it, it was cool being around all of those artists and doing crazy things," to other less favorable responses that I have had to pay attention to, like "I just want to have some privacy and I don't care about art or any of this!"

CR: I read that part of your vision for SHoP was to offer an after-school space for kids - a kind of community maker-space. Can you tell us more about that, and how it worked? And does that element, of serving younger audiences as well as adults, continue in Compound Yellow?

HOME SCHOOL kids visit Dibs Garden, by Curtis Myers
Laura: We set up a space in the Fenn House that we called the Autonomous Making Space.
collected donations of all kinds of materials and bought tools for the kids to use to make things out of wood and other stuff. We tried to set it up for families and latchkey kids to come in and work anytime we were open and put things back in their places to keep a sense of communal order. (That order part didn't work out terribly well, which became the impetus for a wonderful project by Jorge Lucero, educational prompts and placards for the Autonomous Studio).

Coming from a long line of teachers, I vowed that I would never become one myself. However, my
mother, a devout educator for over 50 years, inspired a love of and passion for education in me that is behind all that I do. She brought me to conferences with her on topics of multiple intelligences, alternative pedagogy and radical philosophies of education as a young child.  I used to volunteer in my son's classroom on Fridays, bringing unusual materials in for the kids to work with; they didn’t have art in school then. They loved making their own new worlds from straws, clay and broom bristles, for example. The results were unimaginable and wonderful. Later when the kids got a little older, I started an after school program that ran from 2011 to 2015. We used an empty apartment and called it HOME SCHOOL #3, part of much larger project with other iterations and locations. We also used the basement of the Quaker House for some time. The idea was to fill the spaces with donated materials and allow the kids to freely engage with them in an open and creative environment. The adults (artists, actors, writers, filmmakers) acted as facilitators and collaborators, allowing themselves to be led by the desires and ideas of the children. It was an awesomely inspiring time for us all. I also co-ran summer camps with artists like Matthew Searle, Jerry Marciniak, Spencer Hutchinson, Hoyun Son, Dan Godston, Nitsana Lazerus and so many more for years in Hyde Park. We had kids ranging from 3 to 13, a very diverse group; many of the same kids came every summer. It was a wild and memorable ride, and one of the most significant projects in terms of mothering as an artist. My own kids of course took part in these camps, which was also a way to be with them and provide for them when school was out.

high school students meeting at Compound Yellow
By the time Compound Yellow started, my kids were already teenagers and Oak Park was all new to us. Naturally, I am more interested in older kids and their needs and what they have and don't have to meet them. We did try a camp here last year called Camp Yellow, led by Raffa Reuther and inspired by the Self-Reliance Library by Temporary Services, Brett Bloom and Marc Fischer. The library and the camp encompassed all sorts of topics: “visionary architecture, desperate or wildly imaginative mobility, miniature buildings and nomadic living, self-publishing and design, skill sharing, everyday repair solutions, running a music venue, spaces for parenthood, toys and design for children, ecologically sound living, foraging, blueprints for fantasy worlds and alternate realities, pranks and mischief, technologies used in prisons and other restrictive or impoverished settings, survivalism, weapons for self-defense or recreation, and creative approaches to living radically.” It was nice for the kids but being new to Oak Park, we decided to wait until we really knew what we were doing at CY before launching another camp scenario. Also, I now have a full time job, and my kids do not want to do camp with me or anyone else.

Alberto Aguilar painting, Compound Yellow, 2016

CR: Your current space, Compound Yellow, is on the same property as was formerly occupied by the Suburban, a domestic gallery run by Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, but it doesn't seem like you've just picked up where they left off when they moved. How do you see your aims for your space, and your motivations for running it, as distinct from what they did with the Suburban?

Laura: This is an interesting question and one that we think about a lot. In terms of our family, each person had a different vision for this move: Andrew wanted a hermit hut, a place of his own; Sebastian never wanted to leave Hyde Park in the first place, but being a realist, and after making a few friends, he’s decided to build a chicken coop on the side yard with his dad and get on with it; Jasper wanted to find a place to be himself and new friends who accepted him. I wanted a space to cultivate a project with time, to stop moving for a while. I also wanted to share space, to create a kind of art commune, and to work collaboratively with others. We have all learned a lot since moving here. This desire for collaboration and community seemingly differentiates us from the Suburban's aims; however, what we share in common is significant.

As soon as we moved here, we were welcomed by the art community in Oak Park. I'd like to express gratitude to artist and organizer Sabina Ott, who played a special role in connecting me with Lora Lode and Matthew Nicholas through her own domestic project, Terrain Exhibitions, and the 4th of July Terrain Parade. Thus began my collaboration with Lora and Matthew on this project, Compound Yellow. We're now in the process of applying for Not-for-Profit status.

What inspired me personally about the Suburban is the concept of an “uncurated” space where artists are in complete control of what they produce and the criteria for what made for a successful show, according to Michelle Grabner, was "if the artists learned something about their own work from their relationship with the space, and the suburbs." We also don't sell work here or charge money for events or workshops. We are most interested in using the site as a place to prototype ideas, to cultivate sharing economies, participatory art, and interdisciplinary explorations. There is a generosity here that we inherited when we moved in: the prairie garden is so wonderful, the studio, the windows, the light, the tree, the sweet side yard, the little cinder-block hut. All the decisions made before we came along are greatly appreciated by us every day. In many ways we are connected to the Suburban and are supported by Michelle. I am inspired by what I see happening at  The Poor Farm and see connections to what we are doing here as well.

Attendees at a talk by Miriame Kaba in Compound Yellow (L Studio), 2017

CR: What have you learned about yourself, your family, and/or your artistic motivations through these projects?

Laura: What have I learned about myself through these projects? I’ve learned that I am a natural connector, that I love watching things grow; plants, people, kids, fires... minds. I’ve learned to be more flexible, to listen more and to know when to let others take the lead. I’m just beginning to learn how to take care of myself, to be a participant, to support others’ projects by going out and meeting people where they are at, not just inviting them to my house!

What have I learned about my family?  I’m learning to give them space and to let them gravitate to what really resonates with them. To not push them to participate in what I’m doing if they don’t want that, and they usually don’t these days, but that’s okay. I’m learning to honor their needs as those needs change, and it’s not easy. I continue to be inspired by artists like Alberto Aguilar, Christa Donner and Jorge Lucero, for example, who work with their families creatively in their practice; this is my motivation.

What have I learned about my artistic motivations through these projects? I've learned about collective creativity and intelligence. I think these kinds of intergenerational spaces help us find in others an extension of self and family, to rely on collective creativity to raise consciousness around what it means to be in a community where we all participate in raising our children together and trying to find meaning together. I guess I want to make everything an art project: the house, the yard, the street, the subway, the grocery store, work, family and relationships.

Ad Hoc Playground, a collaboration between Laura Shaeffer, Raffa Reuther, and Verónica Peña for Gallery 400, 2016

Dr. Rachel Epp Buller is a feminist printmaker book artist art historian university professor and mother of three. Her artistic, written, and curatorial work addresses these intersections, focusing on the maternal body and feminist care in contemporary art contexts. Her books include Reconciling Art and Mothering and a forthcoming volume on Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity. She is a board member of the National Women's Caucus for Art and a regional coordinator of The Feminist Art Project, and currently serves as Associate Professor of Visual Arts and Design at Bethel College.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Residency Report: Popps Packing, Hamtramck, MI

Residency Report is an ongoing series of posts from artists undertaking creative residencies with their families. Find out about programs that support artists with kids, and see how other artist-parents balance the residency experience.

Here artist Kaitlynn Redell writes about her experience at Popps Packing, an artist-run, neighborhood-based nonprofit space focused on creating impactful arts programming and creative exchange between international and local artists in the community of Hamtramck / Detroit, Michigan.

not her(e) (stuffed animal)
Popps Packing is run by parent-artist couple Faina Lerman and Graem Whyte. Their Mom and Popp Residency is funded by the Sustainable Arts Foundation and included both an artist stipend, childcare stipend (I brought my almost two-year-old with me) as well as housing and studio space. My entire residency experience was incredibly easy and I truly believe this—in part—has to do with Faina and Graem’s understanding of the delicate balance between art-making and parenthood.  Even the “before” process of preparing for the residency was flexible; I was offered one month to come and work, and was easily able to choose my own arrival and departure dates. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay the full month due to scheduling conflicts, so instead I worked there for three weeks. My partner was allowed to come and stay as long as he wanted -- in our case, only a long weekend because of work.  We had an entire house to ourselves, and my studio was one door over at Popps Emporium (still within baby monitor range).  I had two different wonderful child caretakers who Faina and Graem use with own young children.

More than anything, I think the best part about the residency was the amount of support and flexibility.  I’ve had so many other residencies - even those with childcare stipends for the child to remain at home - be a lot more rigid.  We all know as parents, rigid is the last thing we need thrown at us; things come up and you have to learn how to go with the flow.

Popps studio, with work in progress
I thought it would be most helpful to other parent-artists, to outline a few logistic tips and notes about the residency:

Popps currently has two different living spaces and studios options.  It is comprised of three buildings, all in very close proximity to each other.  We stayed in the Guest House, I had my studio in Popps Emporium and held a workshop in the original Popps Packing building.  Popps also has an amazing garden (offers a new garden residency), chickens, outdoor play areas, and two very sweet dogs and a cat. 

the nearby Belle Isle Conservatory
During our three-week stay, I was able to create the pieces I originally set out to do, run a workshop, as well as have extra time to make a pretty large wall piece.  My studio time was structured during my daughter's nap time as well as when I had available childcare.  My daughter and I also had ample time to check out the surrounding areas and sights, like DIA, Eastern Market, Dabls African Bead Museum, Belle Isle, What Pipeline, Wasserman Projects and Hamtramck Disneyland just to name a few.

* Very family friendly space.  Faina and Graem’s two kids were very sweet playmates to my daughter.

guest house shower
* Lots of kid stuff provided: toys, stroller, dishes, car seat, high chair, bath tub.

* Laundry on-site.

* Our flight arrived late, but Faina still met us at the car rental with the car seat and even had grabbed us some groceries so I didn’t have to go out again!

(depending on your comfort level):

* Older house - it’s Detroit, so a lot of the houses are.  A bit like camping because of this (no heat, no ac, outdoor shower), but that was fine for us.

* Outdoor shower (which is kind of amazing in the morning), but no actual tub. They provided a small toddler one which also worked fine for us.

workshop with local artist-families
* Double-check the childcare schedule before coming.  It ended up working out, but if you need hard dates/times make sure you confirm before-hand.

* Slightly dusty workspace.  Again, not an issue for me, but other artists might have a problem, depending on your work.  They are in the midst of renovating some of the residency buildings, so some extra dust from that as well.

* Wifi was super weak at the guest house where we were staying, but to be honest, it was nice to have an internet detox.

* Definitely rent or bring a car.  I had never been to Detroit, but rented a car as per Faina’s recommendation.  The area is pretty spread out and having a car with a kid is a must if you intend to go anywhere besides the immediate neighborhood.

I would highly recommend this residency.  It is going to be even more amazing once all the renovations are complete.  I can’t say enough about Popps and how fully invested Faina and Graem are in their local community and creating an artist run exhibition space/residency that supports other artist parents.

not her(e) (table)

Kaitlynn Redell is a visual artist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her practice is invested in the exploration of race and gender in relation to the body and how the body becomes codified within these socially constructed categorizations. More specifically she is interested in inbetweeness and how “unidentifiable” bodies—that do not identify with standard categories—negotiate identity. She has participated in numerous exhibitions nationally and internationally including at El Museo del Barrio (NYC), Rush Arts Gallery (NYC), A.I.R. Gallery (NYC), Western Project (LA), Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LA), Charlie James Gallery (LA) and Museo Laboratorio - Ex Manifattura Tabacchi (Italy). Her work is currently on view at the 32nd Biennial of Graphic Arts: Birth As Criterion, in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Events: Extended Practice Series

Cultural ReProducers is thrilled to join forces with Extended Practice, a new project merging professional skillsharing, exhibitions, and programming with on-site childcare for artist-mothers organized by Angela Lopez and Sara Holwerda. The event series, supported by the  Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, picks up where CR's Childcare-supported series left off, and features on-site childcare, exhibitions and screenings of recent work by mother-artists, and professional practices events with networking lunches for participants. 

Find out more about the project at, and mark your calendars.

September 17th, 2017

The Art of Making it Work: Reimagining Participation and Production as Artist Parents

Registration Fee $10 (includes childcare and lunch - vegan and gluten free options available)

Chicago Family Picnic
3711 N Ravenswood Ave #105, Chicago
, IL
On September 17th, artist and Cultural ReProducers organizer Christa Donner will lead an idea-generating conversation and strategy-building workshop on 'making it work' as a parent and artist. Participants will explore existing artist-led initiatives that address the challenges of artist-parenthood, and will reflect on their own experiences with balancing art-making and child-rearing. Through individual and collaborative activities, participants will identify key needs and desires of artists parents and will develop new models for creating a more sustainable artistic life in Chicago. Space is extremely limited, so reserve a spot for yourself and your kids right here.

Saturday, October 7th, 2017
Video Screening
(Time TBD)

The Nightingale Cinema

1084 N Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL
Suggested Donation: $7- $10

An intergenerational screening of animated works by filmmakers and artists who are mothers. 
Bring the kids! Are you an animator and a mother?
Extended Practice is Accepting Submissions until September 16th!

Monday, October 30th, 2017
Ways We Make: Mothers of Color Nurturing and Building our Creative Communities 

Part 1: Childcare-Supported Gathering and Potluck 5:30-7pm
Experimental Station
6100 S. Blackstone Ave, Chicago, IL

The first of two interconnected events organized with artist Wisdom Baty, Ways We Make is a childcare-supported gathering of mothers who make. As children engage in supervised play and art making, mothers will connect with each other over a shared meal and guided conversation. Together, we will discuss the challenges of making while parenting, share strategies for how to carve out the space and time we need, and question traditional artist spaces. Registration is required:

Sunday, November 5th, 2017
Professional Practices Workshop by Selina Trepp + All-ages Performance by Spectralina

Experimental Station, workshop will be from 11am-2pm with a live performance from 2-3pm
6100 S Blackstone Ave, Chicago, IL

Registration fee: $10 (includes childcare and lunch - vegan and gf options available)

Artist Selina Trepp will give an artist talk and lead a discussion about how she empowers herself as a mother and artist. She will discuss her multi-disciplinary art practice, and will go into detail about how parenthood has affected her artistic production. Trepp will explain how she navigates  logistics, politics, and money in her practice, and her interactions with institutions. Following the talk, participants are invited to a networking lunch - and brainstorming session - guided by founders of Extended Practice, Sara Holwerda and Angela Lopez.

Afterwards all ages can enjoy a live performance by SPECTRALINA, the collaborative audio-visual performance project of artists, musicians and parents Dan Bitney and Selina Trepp. Working with an improvisational structure, Spectralina combines singing, percussion, electronics and real-time video processing. Together, Bitney and Trepp create an engaging image and sound relationships in their performances, in which projected animation and improvised sounds come together as visual music.

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017
Ways We Make: Mothers of Color Nurturing and Building our Creative Communities 

Part 2: Intergenerational Exhibition / Sharing, 5:30-7pm
Experimental Station
6100 S. Blackstone Ave, Chicago, IL

At the second of two interconnected events organized with artist Wisdom Baty, we will celebrate the creative work of mothers of color. Everyone is welcome to join us for this free, one-night exhibition and sharing: families and extended support networks of friends, fans and supporters. Mothers - and children - are invited to share and discuss their work at this informal, intergenerational event.

Coming in 2018...

Exhibition + Community-Building Events
Roman Susan Gallery

1224 W Loyola Ave, Chicago, IL
A rotating exhibition and weekly meet up featuring work by artists who are new moms. 

Free and open to the public. Children and families welcome.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Events: Many Possible Futures

What futures might our children help to create, and what tools or ideas can we offer them as a starting point? How will youthful vision expand our own sense of the possible? In conversation with like-minded collaboratives Temporary Services, Compound Yellow, and The Mothernists, Cultural ReProducers presents Many Possible Futures, a duo of generative workshops exploring the intersections between our roles as artists making in the midst of social, environmental, and political unrest, and as parents mindfully raising the next generation. Through informal writing, drawing, and conversation, we'll generate ideas that will become part of a collective archive and a small-press zine, published by Temporary Services, as part of their Self-Reliance Library. If you're unable to attend one of these but this idea resonates, please drop us a line - there may be other ways to participate from afar.

Many Possible Futures (Chicago)
September 30th, 2017:  3pm-5pm

Self-Reliance School
Compound Yellow
244 Lake St., Oak Park, IL

Created in conjunction with Temporary Services'  Self-Reliance School at Compound Yellow,  this workshop is designed for caregivers, artists, educators, and their children. Adults will work in one area while kids age 4-7 work on parallel activities in a nearby room, before regrouping for shared conversation.  If you want to participate but have kids outside this age range, let us know and we'll work out a plan. Email us at culturalreproducers (at)

Many Possible Futures
October 16th, 2017
The Mothernists II: Who Cares for the Future?

Astrid Noacks Atelier
Rådmandsgade 34, 2200 København N
Copenhagen, Denmark

We're looking forward to expanding this conversation with an international convergence of artist-activist-mothers, as part of the conference The Mothernists II: Who Cares for the Future? . The meeting is the brainchild of Deirdre M. Donoghue (m/othervoices foundation for art, research, theory, dialogue & community involvement) and Lise Haller Baggesen (Mothernism) and combines their two long-running projects concerning artistic and academic research into maternal (aest)ethics. For those who can't make it, you can expect our report of the conference once we've recovered from jet lag, with links to video and presentations as those become available.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Interview: Hồng-Ân Trương and Jina Valentine

In the midst of social, environmental, and political unrest, two of our most important resources are care and creative thinking. Artist-parents play a critical role in both, mindfully raising the next generation while also activating public imagination. Cultural ReProducers explore this intersection through a series of conversations with artists about the future our children will inherit, and the work we’re making in response. 

Hồng-Ân Trương and Jina Valentine are active artists, writers, mothers, and professors based in Durham, North Carolina, where they both teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Their practices share a deep engagement with issues of cultural identity and social justice, and they’ve joined forces through the community-based project, All Rise, which we were lucky to catch at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in April. All Rise combines strategies from two ongoing collaborative projects: Hương Ngô and Hồng-Ân Trương’s public performance And And And Stammering: An Interview and Jina Valentine and Heather Hart’s Black Lunch Table, activating candid conversations over a shared meal.  As close friends and collaborators, Hồng-Ân and Jina also operate as a sort of extended family, which in turn has expanded their creative lives. As we sat down to have this conversation over Skype, Jina had just accepted a new teaching position in Chicago, a geographical change that is the start of a new chapter in life, work, community and collaboration.

Cultural ReProducers: First, could you briefly describe your kids? Ages, names, general temperaments…

Jina: My son’s name is Sylvan Miles Palm Valentine, and he is four and a quarter years old. He’s playful, exuberant, and he loves people. He’s also aggressively affectionate, like a Labrador puppy. And Xuân June -  she’s also very affectionate, but also very contemplative. And she’s compassionate, and wise in her compassion well beyond her years. 

Hồng-Ân: I know! Xuân June is two and a half and she is totally this really emotionally mature human. It’s just... I don’t know where it came from (laughter). She is joyful and loves to laugh, but her temperament is very thoughtful, serious, and considerate – she’s aware of how people are feeling and is always asking how they’re doing. And she’s not afraid of trying anything physically – she’s kind of a monkey. Xuân June and Sylvan are like brother and sister: sometimes they totally love each other and then sometimes they totally don’t want to hang out.

CR: What kinds of expectations did you have about what it would mean to be a working artist who’s also a parent, and how have those squared with the reality of it? 

Jina: I think I had some idea that it was a big deal, but I still remember going in to tell the Chair of our department that I was expecting. He has a kid, and he’s like, “I’m really happy for you, but you’ve been really active in the department and have been taking on all these tasks... and when you have a kid, things change.” And I said “oh no, it’ll be fine, I’ll still be on all these committees, I’ll keep doing all this extra stuff, and you know, going out every night… (laughter) ” I couldn’t imagine how things might be different. He said “It’s not that you can’t do these things, but where you want to spend your time may change.” I think that was one of the biggest surprises to me. In Creative Capital workshops, one of the things they ask about is your professional priorities. Before, the way that I prioritized my time had been something like… departmental service at the top, then teaching, studio research, and then family. Now I’ve been trying to figure out how to flip that whole equation: family first, then research, teaching, and service.

I didn’t expect the experience of motherhood to change my worldview so drastically, and change the
way that I work in my studio – I mean not just practically, but what I’m talking about in the work. I knew that having a child is an obligation, of course you have to take care of this person that you made. But I didn’t expect him to be a friend. I miss him when I’m working. I enjoy just hanging out with him.

Hồng-Ân: It’s hard for me to remember what my life was like before Xuân June, which is so bizarre.

It already feels like this very far away thing. I think I did have the attitude that, “I’m going to be just as busy in the studio as I ever was and there’s no way that anything is going to take me away from that. I’ll give myself six months and then its back to normal, back to evrything.” It’s such an understatement that everything changes, and you just don’t realize how it can alter the fabric of your everyday life, and really alter your priorities. But I also didn’t expect that it actually wasn’t going to be that devastating to not be busy in the studio. I mean I remember at first, when I wasn’t really in the studio at all, till she was really about a year and a half, really, I was like “huh” (shrugs) – I wasn’t worried about my art career, it didn’t cause me anxiety.

Jina: That’s interesting. I don’t know that I felt the same way. Sylvan is four, and it’s only in the past
year and a half really that I’ve been able to spend a significant amount of time in the studio. I feel so much healthier, spiritually, intellectually. It’s been good for me and it’s also good for him, cause I’m more… me.

Hồng-Ân: But that time period when I was on leave during the first year of Xuân June’s life was when I started to realize that I needed to focus on being present here, in Durham, in North Carolina. So that was when we actually first collaborated, when I worked on the first integrated Black Lunch Table with you and Heather. So I think there was a shift in priorities in that sense; I wasn’t busy working on my individual material-based projects, but was working on stuff that felt really meaningful to me in a different way than just going at it in my studio. 

Also, I was really lucky in that Xuân June was born in May, and I was off for a year, but the summer after she turned one I had a three-month residency in Dublin, so I think in my mind I was like “That’s when I’m going to launch back into my studio practice.” As an artist you’re always thinking in this future way that’s kind of unhealthy, about what’s on the horizon.

CR: What was that first residency with your family like? 

 Hồng-Ân: It was really… hard. (laughs) It was really great, I met great people and it was the most amazing, beautiful place ever. I love Dublin, and the Irish Modern Art Museum -- it’s in this old military complex, and the studios and apartments you stay in are old stables. But the thing that was hard was that my partner, Dwayne, was basically full time care for Xuân June. That was so stressful, and I felt guilty the whole time. I really shortened my days. I didn’t get to the studio until like ten in the morning, and then I’d break to nurse her, and then I’d finish up in the late afternoon. 

CR: You each have separate practices that activate dialogue around cultural identity and community, but you also do a lot of work in collaboration with others, including each other. Most recently you’ve brought together two of these group projects to develop All Rise, a performance and community-based meal that opens conversation about immigration and institutional racism. What do you feel is activated in merging your projects in this way? 

stills from Hương Ngô & Hồng-Ân Trương's And And And
Stammering: An Interview
(top) and Jina Valentine &
Heather Hart’s Black Lunch Table (bottom)
Hồng-Ân: Bringing Black Lunch Table as a central part really added this other level of engagement to the project. Before we did the discussions afterwards, the performance part existed and then we would have this casual, moderated conversation with the audience, but there wasn’t a way for people to engage meaningfully with the thoughts and feelings they were having while watching the performance. Working with Jina and Heather really activates a strong piece that was missing.

In general I really enjoy collaborations. I still have a need to make work on my own, because there are some processes in the studio that are not necessarily shareable in a broader way, but it’s so much more enjoyable to make work with other people. I feel like collaboration is such a more human way to make work.

Jina: I think also practically speaking, collaborations are really important, especially as a new mom… When Sylvan was really tiny I was working on this piece with Heather Hart and Steffani Jemison, where we did over a year of meetings over Skype, and we still talk about how in the screen grabs there’s always Sylvan sitting on my lap or breastfeeding. That was how I was able to stay productive, by having other people to be accountable to, and to have this kind of group conversation that could keep things moving even when I’d only slept three hours.

Heather and I had been talking about how to expand Black Lunch Table, and I think it was around January of 2015 when Hồng-Ân and Dwayne came over to have dinner with our babies.  And we sat and talked about the Michael Brown shooting and about all of these police shootings. We were like “what are we going to do?” besides hashtagging and re-posting and marching, which are also necessary. We ended up getting a little money from the Institute for Arts and Humanities to do the first iteration of the Black Lives Matter Roundtable, which was organized collaboratively with Hồng-Ân and included her amazing community here. We invited the Durham-based activists and the folks from the Center for Documentary Studies, and professors from both Duke University and UNC, and students, and preachers to dine together at two events in Durham and Chapel Hill. That was the first event in a series that we’ve since been doing around the country.

As for All Rise, this collaboration with Hồng-Ân and Hương... Black Lunch Table centered conversation around social justice issues.  All Rise was an opportunity to focus conversation on people’s family histories, or immigration specifically, so I think that was really good for us to do. We also thought that it was our part of our responsibility as professors here at UNC to bring in the community, which has been fairly reluctant to have these kinds of conversations.

This is the community that I’m raising my kid in. How does that relate to my life as an artist here, as a teacher here, as an activist here? So it was a really intentional choice to make work here. It was so connected to everything else in my life as a new parent.

Hồng-Ân: When we collaborated for the first time I was on maternity leave. Xuân June was like six months old. It came together at a moment when I realized I really needed to focus on what’s here in front of me, and I do think it’s related to being a parent. There was a point when I said “I’m not going to fly to New York every other weekend like I used to do. I can’t do that shit anymore!” It made me recognize my desire to be more locally focused. This is the community that I’m raising my kid in. How does that relate to my life as an artist here, as a teacher here, as an activist here? So it was a really intentional choice to make work here. It was this other re-focus, without the anxiety of having an art practice that felt separate. It was so connected to everything else in my life as a new parent.

CR: For any parent, there’s always this question of what kind of world our children are growing up in, what challenges they might face, and what we hope for the future.  How does the current political climate impact your approach to raising your kids?
Hồng-Ân: I’m trying to think of whether I’m living my life differently now than if the situation was different. And I don’t know if I’d be doing anything differently if we were another era, or if Hillary or Bernie had been elected – there’d still be the same things out there. I think the Manchester bombing probably still would’ve happened. It brings up a larger question about global politics in general, and this state of powerlessness. I’m struggling with how to make sense of this era in some way, to temper my feelings of anxiety in having a larger view about the different conditions of violence that have always existed. It feels hyper intense right now. There are different levels of preparation for absolute crisis, and we’re preparing. If I wasn’t a parent I don’t know that I’d be doing anything differently in terms of all that. Do you think you’d be doing anything differently?

Jina: Yeah, I do. I know that I take better care of myself, for him. I started writing my will, and taking out life insurance. Stability is totally a priority. Even if the world is going to shit I try to maintain the appearance that everything is normal for him. Are things more extreme than they were in the cold war? I don’t know. James Moeser, a former Chancellor and now the acting Director of the Institute of Arts and Humanities at UNC, is a wise man who’s seen a lot of history in this state. He said to me, “Everything goes in cycles. I’ve been around for a long time.  The pendulum always swings back the other way.” This period we’re in cannot last.  But it’s also about the reality that the world might actually end. What happens when the glaciers melt? Will there be an earth for our grandchildren? If I was not a parent everything would be very different for me. I think I would be engaged in a very different way. You know? But now we have to engage in meaningful ways that are also safe.

Hồng-Ân: You’re right. In the early 2000’s I was on the front lines. I would be the first one to get tear gassed if… and now I wouldn’t. There is this other level of thoughtfulness around what is on the line. On the one hand there’s a lot more at stake about the future because we have kids now, so we should be working harder, and yet our bodies, our lives have a different kind of fragility and meaning because we have a child that we have to take care of. It has brought up this question of when I want to go to this protest, do I bring Xuân June or not? And then Dwayne and I have a conversation about is it safe, maybe just one of us will go.

Jina: We look for different ways to engage. We do things like Black Lives Matter Roundtable. Or we consider examples to model our civic engagement... like Pierce Freelon, hopefully the next Mayor of Durham, who’s the son of Nina Freelon and Phil Freelon, the architect of the African American History Museum. Or the activist and councilwoman, Jillian Johnson. You and I were just talking about what our roles are here in NC and at UNC... how do we change the system from within? Shit needs to be shaken up, and I see that as a kind of activism too.

Jina Valentine, Testimony (detail), iron gall ink and oxidant on paper, 2015

CR: So how has all this impacted your artistic practice?
Jina: I guess my first substantial body of work after Sylvan was about my inability to empathize with mothers who had lost their sons to police violence. I felt sympathy for them, and our relationship as moms changes to them because we want to empathize with them, but it’s your worst nightmare. When you’re hearing about Manchester, you’re thinking about the mothers of those people who were killed, not even necessarily the people who died. That kind of grief is pretty unfathomable. My most recent project is called Literacy Tests: Rorschach, looking at the most heavily gerrymandered districts in the country, which sort of look like Rorschach inkblot tests, and it’s also a play on the literacy tests that black folks had to undergo under Jim Crow. My work tends to inspire dialogue around the things I want to explain to Sylvan at some point.

Hồng-Ân Trương, On minor histories and the horrifying recognition of the swift work
of time
, phototex, voile curtain, pigment print on fabric, HD video, c-stands, lights     
Hồng-Ân: The big project I’ve worked on for the last year and a half was about my mom. And this other photo-based project that I worked with Hương [Ngô] was also a photo-based project based on our moms together, about women and labor. So the two full bodies of work that I’ve completed since she was born have been about my mom, and you know, not at all unrelated and having this other level of of intense, emotional attachment to my mom vis a vis her relationship with to Xuân June. A lot of my work links together my family history with larger social and political histories, the impact of those broader social and political histories on these more personal narratives. I had done several projects about my dad, who passed in 2013. It was kind of an organic turn to my mom.

CR: You have brought together your creative approaches within an art context, but you also collaborate in everyday life, as a sort of chosen extended family. Could you talk about how that network of support has worked for you as artists, and how it has evolved? 

 Hồng-Ân: It just started really organically. We bring our kids everywhere. We have our kids with us all the time, and by that necessity they’re automatically going to become closer. Jina and I have very different households in terms of what support I have and what support she has, so it makes a lot of sense to share resources, and work together to make it work better and be… more fun! There’s this blurring between hanging out, being a parent, and getting work done at the same time. If we’re both going to be at a faculty meeting, we share someone who’s taking care of both of them together. There were just some very obvious ways we could join forces. We can go out to eat dinner and Dwayne will go run around with the kids so we can talk for a bit. There’s a sharing of caretaking when we’re together, that’s an obvious way to relieve the pressure of being “the parent” in every situation.

Vietnamese as a culture and a language is very familial. So when Xuân June hangs out with Jina she calls her Dì Jina, which is Aunt Jina. Everything is relational, even with strangers, and so I really enforce it among my close friends. I want her to feel just as comfortable with Jina as if she was an auntie. I feel really strongly that that’s a really important way to develop trust in the world, and also have different notions of support and family structure. I foster that intentionally by insisting that she call certain people by auntie or uncle.

Jina: I don’t know if I’m as intentional or if my son is just that weird only child who feels really comfortable around adults (laughter).

Hồng-Ân: I think kids of artists are more like that, because they’re around adults all the time. And
just thinking about your comment about wanting to hang out with Sylvan - I want to hang out with Xuân June, but I want to hang out with… adults, too. So I want her life to have the texture of being… not insular. So texting Jina and saying, what are you doing for dinner, do you want to come over? I just like that fluidness between spaces that are not sacred to that nuclear sense of the family. I really am conscious of wanting that.

Jina: I echo everything you just said, and I would add that for Sylvan and I, there’s just the two of us. His dad lives around the corner and we see him on the weekends, so there’s this attempting to give a semblance of normalcy. I grew up in an ultra-normal suburban household.  My folks have lived in the very same house for 42 years, and have been married for a few longer than that.  Growing up, the five of us always had a sit-down dinner, my mom cooked, and the kids cleaned up. It was the same thing every night, and then we’d have homework, TV, bed. We don’t have that kind of domestic structure now.  But I think for Sylvan it’s like I’ve always had, in my adult life, this chosen family, the people that I text right after I just saw them. We also have his community, the kids he meets at school and their families – I feel like we’ve kind of chosen them together, but it’s a very different thing. You set the date a week in advance, it’s much more planned how long we’re going to be there, what we’re going to do. I feel like it’s really important to cultivate those kinds of relationships that are Sylvan-centric. As much as possible I try to blend those communities.

Advisors, mentors who are official and unofficial, those folks are definitely models for how we might care for the next generation of artists. I feel like that’s part of our responsibility too.

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

Jina: Maybe it’s an extreme example, but Hank and Deb Willis have an amazing relationship as collaborators, as friends.  I think about Hank a lot. I mean I think that’s the dream -- to be established to a point at which I want to be established by the time that Sylvan is a teenager or going to college, so that I can pass all of this knowledge and what not to do, how to survive, and also… create work with him.

Hồng-Ân: Deb Willis is an amazing example. She’s actually the reason I went to art school. I didn’t
know her when she was parenting Hank as a kid because Hank is exactly my age, but of course she is still and always a mom. Just thinking about what a powerhouse she is, and how did she do all of this while raising an amazing son. She’s powerful, kind, brilliant… so generous and so critical of the art world, and making her own way about how to exist as an artist and an intellectual. She’s definitely been my role model in general because she really embodies a really ethical way of operating as an artist and an intellectual. One of the most powerful things we can do is to model the way we think artists should exist in the world.

Jina: Other amazing Art moms... I used to have what I called “fairy godmothers.” Advisors, mentors
who are official and unofficial, those folks are definitely models for how we might care for the next generation of artists. I feel like that’s part of our responsibility too.

Lisa Sigal – she has two, three kids, they’re teenagers. She is a painter, and among other things, Curator at The Drawing Center. If she’s not there she’s in her studio, or she’s out in meetings with artists involved through the Drawing Center, or she’s having people over for dinner. She has children, and sometimes her husband is in town and sometimes he’s not, but it seems like it all works out.

Hồng-Ân: Around the time when I started thinking about having kids, a lot of my colleagues and friends had kids. I saw other people having kids and that gave me some sense that, okay, it’s possible. Not in the sense of holding someone up in high esteem, but just that there were people doing it. It’s not impossible. In the arts, you assume that people are parentless until proven otherwise. I think in the last five, six years that has really changed. I remember finding out that Simone Leigh and Saya Woolfalk were moms, and I was like “wow, badass.”