Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Interview: Natsumi Sakamoto

Natsumi Sakamoto in her studio in Glasgow, UK
Natsumi Sakamoto is an artist exploring the relationships between memory, history, and mythology through a range of media including video installation, painting, and animation. Her work has been exhibited in London, Tokyo, Seoul and beyond - including shows at PlaceMAK, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the 13th Gunma Biennale for Young Artists. Sakamoto is also a member of the feminism-focused artist collective Back and Forth Collective

This interview is the first in a brand new series from Cultural ReProducers Tokyo, thoughtfully conducted and translated by artist, art researcher, curator, and CR Tokyo organizer Catherine Harrington. These conversations explore some of the culturally-specific challenges of working as an artist-parent in Japan, and the fundamental questions we are all working to sort out together.



Catherine Harrington (CR Tokyo): To start, tell us a bit about you and your son. 

Natsumi Sakamoto: I’m an artist, mainly working with multi media. Focusing on untold histories such as individual’s and women’s histories, and everyday customs and beliefs, my aim is to examine the possibility of preserving the ephemeral, as a way to recover a loss. One of the documentary films I made in 2014 took me to places in Japan and the UK that were connected with my grandmother’s significant, personal memories.  I have been developing this project in my more recent work, and in 2019 I am going to start a new project in Scotland about Scottish superstitions and witch hunts.

My son’s now four years old and he’s very active and inquisitive - curious about everything.  Now, at his age, he asks why, why about everything. That was something I was really looking forward to. I wanted to answer those questions, even if they are sometimes silly questions, or really huge questions. For example he asks, “Why do you see the moon everyday?” and I try to be respectful to him as a person and I try to answer everything, even the little questions.  Sometimes I need to Google them.  He’s opened up a new world for me and made me more curious. Life has become richer than before, I would say. On the other hand, he’s stubborn.  He doesn’t easily change his opinions.
 
CH: What kind of identity shift did you experience when you first became an artist-parent?

NS:
I didn’t really have a clear shift because I was working all the time.  When I came back to Japan from the UK, I was pregnant and I really wanted a chance to network and show my work again in Japan. I kind of knew that it is going to be difficult to do an exhibition for maybe another year once our little one had arrived. So I thought I should plan something in advance, and decided to curate a group show just before the baby arrived. That was my first experience organizing an exhibition by myself – from getting the funding to finding a venue, and it took over a year and a half. The exhibition title was Everyday Fiction, and included work by artists from Japan and the UK dealing with two different worlds: reality and fiction, and the flexible boundaries between them.

I applied for several open calls and funding applications a few months after the baby was born - I was trying to keep on doing as much as I could in my spare time such as during the baby’s nap times. It was very tough! I probably did that purposely so as not to make a clear transition point between being an artist and being an artist-parent. It was thanks to support from my parents, my partner, my friends, and temporary childcare that I was able to do it. 

I tried not to change my everyday schedule and attitude to life.  You physically change and you psychologically feel that you have to be a good mother. It’s not like I became someone else, but more like I have a mother-identity and my artist-identity, and I shift between them, instead of trying to combine both. So, I don’t think about art when I spend time with my son; I become just a mother.  If I can switch easily between these two identities in a given moment, I can enjoy them. But sometimes it doesn't work and it becomes a bit of a mess. Exhibition time is very stressful because sometimes the switch doesn't work, and I’m always thinking about art while I’m talking to my son.

Natsumi Sakamoto, still from Rowan Wards off Witches, 2019


CH: With that in mind, do you feel that parenthood changed your art practice in some way?


NS: 
Before becoming a mother, my art practice was all about me and the environment around me. But after becoming a mother, I started to see the structure of society and the mother’s position in society. I guess I started to be interested in feminism more, and began to think about these questions through my art practice. I wouldn’t have been able to think this way without the experience of being physically incapable of certain things while being pregnant and while looking after a small child. You suddenly become so powerless in society. This was probably my first experience of becoming seriously aware of gender equality issues in real life.

In that first year I had this very concentrated time of being with my son twenty-four hours a day. I went to parks or the jidokan* with my son almost every day. It was a happy time, but when I saw other parents in those places, I started to become more aware of this unequal situation.

Note: *Jidokan(s) 児童館 and hiroba(s) 広場 are playgroups or play spaces where children and parents can play or socialize with other children and parents.  These spaces or groups can also involve organized singing or play activities.

At jidokan, I rarely saw fathers and mostly saw mothers, because the fathers were working on weekdays. Most of the mothers I met were unable to get a place for their child at a nursery. We talked with each other about how difficult it is to get a place in a nursery, how to make a successful application, and how hopeless our future careers would be if we couldn’t get a full-time nursery place for another few years. I actually met a mother who was thinking of a ‘temporary divorce’ from her partner so she could change her condition from ‘married’ to ‘single mother’ and strengthen her nursery application. The situation is so desperate. I hardly ever met fathers who had taken paternity leave, and whose partner had gone straight back to work after their child’s birth.

I was disappointed and angry about this situation. Japan has a declining birthrate, which is a big social problem, and the Japanese government encourages couples to have children as well as encouraging women to work more to help with economic growth. This is a contradiction: how can you encourage women to work without offering child care? There were many women who felt the same at this time and took part in protests. All this made me really aware of the issue of gender inequality. I felt I should do something – so I started to work with a few of my artist friends as part of a group we call the Back and Forth Collective.

CH:  Yes! The practice of the Back and Forth Collective is really important and valuable, and I hope you can continue to pursue this project.  When did you form the Back and Forth Collective?

NS:
We met at a workshop called Feminism for Everyone at Kosaten* in Tokyo around two years ago. I met Asako Taki and Mei Homma there. We all graduated from the same art university in London, but at different times. So we had known each other, but this was the first time we actually met altogether. We hit it off at that meeting, and started to talk about working as a collective.

Note: Kosaten* is an intersectional community space in Tokyo. Events such as discussions, conversations and workshops are held there with people from different backgrounds, and for instance; of different nationalities, ethnic identities, religions, sexualities, genders and (dis)abilities.


The core members are three artists at the moment, but we often collaborate with different artists and researchers. Each artist has a different area of interest but our common interest is feminism, so we started by working on this topic together. We’ve held workshops, exhibitions, and had a meeting with invited female artists. Last summer we had an exhibition at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum called Quiet Dialogue – Invisible Existences and Us.  Artists from Japan, Austria, Turkey and Indonesia showed work responding to the theme. The topics explored included Japanese women’s suffrage, the history of home economics, immigrants and minority ethnic groups, witch hunts, the issue of female labor and sex trafficking in East and South East Asia including Japanese girls serving as sex workers called Karayuki-san, and so on. To show the wide range of each artists’ research, we made a library in the exhibition space, which also functioned as an open space to talk.

If I didn’t have that intensive first year as a mother, I might not have joined.  I’m not sure how to put this, but I think that experience I had has given me stronger opinions about solving these problems.

 filming on the Isle of Bute, UK
CH: Did your experience with the art community shift when you became an artist-parent?  What kind of changes would you like to see in the art world?

NS:
Tokyo is quite big and there are many galleries and museums. It’s also an expensive place to live, so it is not easy for artists to have a studio in the city. I always feel that working in a local artists community has a good energy, with a lot of encouragement and exchange of ideas. But there are a lot of artists like me, working with digital media or small-scale work, who work from home. There are groups organizing events and meetings for artists and curators such as artist talks, screenings or discussions, and reading events. I met quite a few people through those events, and we often ended up doing projects together.

There is a certain difficulty to taking kids to art events. I’ve never tried. I would probably leave the room every time he gets fussy or cries. I just always think, “oh, I have to find somebody to look after my son.” My partner is very helpful and supportive with what I want to do, and always looks after my son so well. I need that help. But I feel bad every time I do this.

There are some changes recently: I’ve seen more and more baby-friendly event descriptions, including childcare services, on museum websites etc. This is a great improvement, but it is still not enough at all. If I go to events in the evening, everyone always asks me “What is your son doing?  Who is looking after your son?” I’m just thinking, if any fathers go to these events, probably not everybody is going to ask them this.  Probably they think that the mother is looking after their child.

Natsumi Sakamoto, still from unforgettable landscape (ROWAN TREE), 2014
CH: Have you had any role models for artist-parenting?

NS:
I don’t think so, no, because those stories are quite hidden, I don't know anybody personally.  Most of the successful female-artists I know are either single or they don't have a child.  Maybe the situation is different in the UK or other countries, so I hope I can meet some more artist-parents there.

CH: One issue that has been raised a lot in Japan – which is also a wider issue - is that of childcare. You had that first year when you were with your son for 24 hours a day.  After that, did you continue working alongside your son at home, or did you use childcare?  What was the next step?

NS:
The first year I didn't get childcare, so I had to wait another year.  From two years old, he went to nursery. He goes five days a week, so I could work on my art as well as working at my part-time job. I became more financially stable and I have a lot more freedom now than in the first two years.

In Japan you can only apply for the nursery if you have a job. It’s very competitive. So I was teaching two days a week. For those two days [before getting a nursery place], my mum helped out by looking after my son. That was such a big help. I put my condition down as freelance artist, editor, teacher and translator, working two days outside, and three days at home. I made a schedule with all the details such as who I work with, what kind of project it is, and where the funding comes from.

Basically I tried to combine all the types of ‘work’ I do – no matter if it’s paid or not – to fill up my working schedule. Other mothers were working full time, five days a week, and more than 40 hours a day. I needed to make my schedule equivalent to this, even though my work schedule isn’t a fixed one. The reality is that I often worked in the middle of the night and between nap times, so it was almost impossible to count how many hours I actually worked.


CH: So you found another way to apply for a nursery place ‘as an artist’?

NS:
Yeah, I was trying to find a solution. But I know it is not easy for everyone – another artist-mother friend gave up applying to nursery. She was making her artwork at home every day when she had time, and didn’t have a part-time job. She was a full-time mother-artist. The reality is that an application from someone working from home or as self-employed isn’t as strong as one made by a full-time company employee. So for her, there was almost no hope of getting a nursery place. From the government’s perspective, the occupation ‘artist’ isn’t as reliable as other occupations. I presume they don’t want to provide childcare for people who don’t make money, so it might be a bit different if an artist is only working on commissions. But the reality is that not a lot of artists actually make their living from only art!

Under these circumstances, being an artist-mother is very difficult in many ways, and it makes us feel guilty to work on our artwork. And when the baby is small, you have so much housework to do … there’s so much invisible labour that needs to be done. 

CH: This issue of what counts as labour and how different forms of labour are perceived is directly related to being an artist-parent in the art world.  And with all this invisible labour to deal with - how did you find time for your practice? What was your strategy in those first two years?

NS:
Before getting nursery care five days a week, I just had no time.  But I had this group show, so I had to make time.  So I got up super early in the morning every day.  Morning was the best time for me, before the baby woke up. If anyone else wakes up then a mess appears, or some other work - it becomes difficult to keep working or doing.  So I decided to wake up really early in morning, sometimes 4am, in the dark, and I just had to make a deadline for every little thing.  For example, “this writing has to be done in the next hour”, or something like that.  I made a super tight schedule.  And then when the baby cries I have to go and pick him up.  I’m like an athlete… running.

Natsumi Sakamoto, The Interview with a Witch, 2019.  Installation view at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

CH: So how did you deal with sleep deprivation?

NS:
Yeah, I can’t remember.  I think I went to sleep early with my child.  I often used social networks, just to show or prove that I’d done something. At the time I felt I was invisible in society.  I couldn't go to see my friends because I had to be in the house.  I wanted to connect to somebody.  As an everyday routine, I would make one small drawing and post it to Instagram – like a diary – it works, you see the progress every day.  You make a little bit day by day.

CH: I recently read about a parent and child- friendly studio residency at the Washington Project for the Arts in the US, where the children can stay in the studio while the parents work.  Would this kind of initiative be helpful here?  If this kind of studio programme existed near you, would you want to be part of it?

NS:
A studio, with childcare? It sounds interesting. But I do wonder whether they have a strong barrier between the kids’ area and the parents’ area. I can imagine my son often coming to interrupt me... so, personally, I’m not confident that I could concentrate on my work when my kid is with me. It is a contradiction, because I totally agree with this idea of making your workplace more accessible to kids, but then, I know how difficult the reality would be.

Not only workplaces, but public spaces like museums or theaters still have a strong separation between kids and adults, and the unspoken rule is that kids shouldn't disturb the adult’s world. Having a separation is definitely the most productive and less stressful way for adults. For example, I am always nervous when I take my son to the museum. He loves to make noise in a quiet space, so the other people’s evil eyes towards me make me really sad and upset. I can totally understand what they feel, so my feeling is complicated. I feel angry and I also feel bad to have disturbed the other people at the same time. This situation is probably more particular to Japan than the UK.

I think it’s definitely worth trying these kinds of new ideas – otherwise the situation is never going to change.

Note: At the time of this interview Natsumi Sakamoto was based in Tokyo, Japan.  She is now based in Glasgow, Scotland.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Events: Graham Foundation Series

Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, from Unraveling Modern Living, digital collage, 2019
Cultural ReProducers is excited to share a new series of events created in collaboration with the Graham Foundation this Fall, in conjunction with the exhibition Estudio Tatiana Bilbao: Unraveling Modern Living. The Mexico-City based architecture office transforms the former domestic space of the Graham Foundation's historic Madlener House to explore new forms of collectivity. CR and other groups will activate and intervene in these spaces throughout the season.


Alberto Aguilar, "Portal Court" (detail), sidewalk chalk, bean bags, rubber
balls, and public participation, 2019
Portal Court
Alberto Aguilar

Sunday, September 15, 2019
1:00pm
Graham Foundation, 4 West Burton Place
Chicago, Illinois 60610
To join us, RSVP HERE


Using pavement, chalk, bouncy balls, and bean bags, artist Alberto Aguilar transforms the sidewalks surrounding the Graham Foundation's Madlener House into a floor game court and participatory performance. This event is designed as an outdoor program for children and families though participants of every age are invited to join in.

Alberto Aguilar is a Chicago based artist. He has exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; El Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, Havana, Cuba; Palo Alto Art Center; National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, IL; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Minneapolis Institute of Art: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR; and The Art Institute of Chicago. His work is held in the collections of the National Museum of Mexican Art; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; Soho House Chicago; and the Chicago Cultural Center. Aguilar is the recipient of the 3Arts Award.

Cultural ReProducers, Making it What We Need at Glass Curtain Gallery, 2014

Making it What We Need
Christa Donner
Saturday, November 23rd, 2019
9:30am - noon

Graham Foundation
4 West Burton Place
Chicago, Illinois 60610

Help create the creative community you'd like to be a part of - in conversation with curators, artists, arts administrators, and others. Making it What We Need is a generative workshop considering alternate models for living, making, and making a living as artists, led by Cultural ReProducers organizer Christa Donner. Non-parents are welcome to join the conversation, which will be relevant to anyone working toward a sustainable life in the arts. Free, on-site childcare will be available through pre-registration. Space at this event is extremely limited. If you'd like to join the conversation, please fill out this Participation Form by November 7th.

Christa Donner is an artist, curator, and mother who incorporates drawing, participatory performance, and small-press publications to create multi-layered projects that are both intimate and community-centered. Donner’s work is exhibited widely, including projects for the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin, Germany); BankArt NYK (Yokohama, Japan); Chiaki Kamikawa Contemporary Art (Paphos, Cyprus); Yale-NUS (Singapore); the Museum Bellerive (Zurich, Switzerland), and throughout the United States. In 2012 Donner helped launch the collaborative platform Cultural ReProducers, providing skillsharing, critical dialogue, participatory events, and an international community supporting the dual work of artists raising children. 

Exploring the Grahamlener Bilbraoducers Commons
Hui-Min Tsen, view of the Graham Foundation, 2019
Hui-Min Tsen

December 7, 2019
10am

Graham Foundation
4 West Burton Place
Chicago, Illinois 60610

Come explore the Graham Foundation! Participants will be given a diverse range of prompts and sent out to interact with the historic Madlener House and Tatiana Bilbao's exhibition, "Unraveling Modern Living." What will you discover? How will you perceive the building? On return from your explorations your tales and impressions will be woven into the broader story of the building and some of Tatiana Bilbao's ideas.

 This intergenerational program is open to participants of all ages.


Hui-Min Tsen   is a photo-based, interdisciplinary artist whose work contemplates the spatial and mental landscapes residing in the gap between Here and There. In projects ranging from walking tours to boat building to works on paper, she uses research and observation to interweave stories of history and the collective imagination with our everyday experience of place and the unknown. Tsen received a BFA from the Tisch School of the Arts, and an MFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has exhibited and published with the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago Artist's Coalition, MDW Fair, and Sector 2337, among others. Her book, "The Pedway of Today" was published by Green Lantern Press in 2013. She currently teaches photography at Loyola University.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Publications: Art Fair Adventure Book

Art Fair Adventure Book
Published in Chicago by Cultural ReProducers 2019
5.5" x 8.5", 11 pages

 It's Art Fair season, and we have just the thing to your keep school-age kids from getting bored while you chat with fellow art folks: our Art Fair Adventure Book. Drawn and designed by Christa Donner, this little zine has eleven action-packed pages of risographed fun for ages 7 and up, featuring a multisensory scavenger hunt, fair fashion design, comics templates, people-watching games, art review-writing, and more.

$3 US plus shipping

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Interview: Angela James

Singer-songwriter Angela James moves fluidly and collaboratively between the genres of alt country, improvised music, and indie rock. The Chicago Reader called her 2016 album, Time Will Tell, “smoldering and gorgeous.”

When Angela found herself struggling with postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter, she turned to her music as an anchor.  Now she’s using it to celebrate and support artist-parents. Her forthcoming album, Quiet Night, is a collection of lullabies that evolved through the difficult days of early motherhood. As the songs became an album, Angela made a commitment to work exclusively with fellow parents on the project, from the instrumentalists and the sound producer to the publicist and the album artwork. 

Quiet Night debuts April 12th with a 3pm all-ages show on April 20th at the Hideout, the Chicago institution where the project got its start. If you’re in Chicago, bring your family! Cultural ReProducers sat down with Angela over hot mugs of tea to find out more about this labor of love.


Cultural ReProducers: Finding time for creative work as a new parent can be… complicated. How did you return to music after becoming a mother?

Angela James: After Hattie was born I did this month-long residency at the Hideout. I’d scheduled the residency before I had her, because I was like, “if I’m not back making music and performing when she’s nine months old, then I’m not relevant anymore.” (laughter) I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to reconnect.

The residency basically meant that I had to perform every Tuesday for a month, put together a bill every week. It’s an opportunity to do new material, which would be one thing if I just decided to play one show, but I was like “I’m gonna play a show every week!” These are the ideas you have when you don’t have a child yet. The first show of that residency was called Women of the World Take Over, with 18 different female performers each covering a different Chicago female performer. I got sick in the middle of it and lost my voice, and there were all kinds of things that happened. It was so much work. It was wonderful.

I had these melodies that I wrote while spending all these hours trying to get her to sleep. I was gonna go crazy otherwise. After the residency, I started making them into songs. I have no illusions that these melodies actually helped her sleep (laughter) - they were lullabies for me.

CR: That’s something I feel like people don’t talk about enough: that lullabies can be just as important to the parent as it is to the child being sung to. Singing creates this breathing and resonance that is so grounding for someone who’s exhausted and dealing with a baby that won’t go to sleep.
 

Angela: It’s also part of this whole arc of things. It’s what I’m going to play during a bedtime routine
at the end of the day, and the days are long. That’s also why I decided it would all be mid- to low-tone instruments, no percussion. The vibraphone and the bassoon, those are the instruments that just make me kind of … sit a little deeper. I can remember when I was first exposed to Peter and the Wolf as a child – the idea that instruments have their own personalities. It was huge for me. I’m a singer, but it gave me this internal sense that these things have voices just like I have a voice. The vibraphone just makes me feel… safe. There’s something about that bell-like chiming sound that is so soothing.

CR: You’ve made an intentional decision to work with fellow parents on every aspect of this album. How did that idea come about?

Angela: Well, I know some incredible musician parents in jazz or experimental new music. And then I was like, “Well, if I’m gonna have all the performers be parents, then …”

My friend Shelly usually does live sound, but she was a new mom and had just gotten a new job in broadcasting and asked me if I had a project that was fairly simple that she could record.  And I was like “Well yes, actually, I do.” And then I decided that whoever mixes it has to be a parent, and whoever does the artwork has to be a parent. And the mastering engineer. And now the publicist, she’s also a parent.

It’s been a great opportunity to observe and honor what people are able to accomplish while raising young children. Most of our kids are preschool-age. I feel like everybody’s just trying to hold on, to maintain some kind of creative practice. And at the same time - I know in my case - that creative work keeps getting better. There have been some interesting articles about this in the past few years, whether it’s time-management, or because your world view has gotten more expansive because your love is… exploding, but you also have to focus. There is something better about my work, now. And it’s cool to see that in everybody that’s involved in the project in different ways. These people’s careers are blossoming at the same time that they’re raising a newborn. That’s so inspiring to me.

CR:  You’re open about your struggle with postpartum depression. How did that experience intersect with your work and your identity as a creative professional?

Angela: “Quiet Night” came out of this really emotionally fraught time. I think it is for everybody! Even if you have a great breastfeeding experience, or your child sleeps through the night at two weeks old, which is … impossible (laughter) but some people do have really chill postpartum newborn situations. Even then, it’s still kind of crazy. As an artist I just put all this extra pressure on myself, which was another layer to my postpartum depression. I thought, “I’ll never make art again. This is just the way it’s always gonna be. This is the child I have made.” You can’t see anything else.

I feel like everybody’s just trying to hold on, to maintain some kind of creative practice. And at the same time that creative work keeps getting better.

I remember having a panic attack – [my partner] Jordan was curating at Elastic at the time, and he had to go to an art opening. We lived a couple of blocks away, but I was panicking at the thought of being home alone with Hattie. She was two weeks old at the time. I thought that was just the way people feel. It took another week of that to realize that I was suffering. We don’t realize it’s a problem because there’s not a visible support structure for that. I went in for a checkup and my doctor said, “I don’t want to offend you, but you’re not okay.” And I was like, “No offense taken. You are correct.” She connected me with a therapist who specializes in postpartum depression, so I was able to address it with talk therapy and medication. Those feelings were a huge part of this project. The more I listen to the songs on this album, the more I think that maybe they’re really for me. That they will be soothing for parents that are going through this difficult and all-consuming time.

CR: I love that idea of using music as a way of caring for people who are going through something you went through.

Angela: I didn’t set out to do that, I guess few people actually do – but the lyrics of one of the songs is like, “I don’t know what you need, I don’t know what to do, I don’t see what you see, I can’t go everywhere with you… but I love you. The most.” I think the desperation is evident in that song

CR: It’s interesting because I don’t find that edge in most of the songs. Even knowing what you went through in the process of making it, the music itself is incredibly soothing.
 

Angela: Right, well there’s one other song that’s like, “we’re both really tired. Just, please go to sleep.” But everything else is just about love. That’s the real thesis statement. I didn’t write the lyrics when there was that edge. She was finally sleeping and I was finally starting to come out of it. I hear these mythological tales of artists who can create while they’re in a horrible spot in life… I had a very difficult decade in my 20s with lots of experience that could be material to write about, but there’s no way I could have written music and lyrics when I felt that way.

CR: How would you say this is album is a departure from your previous work?

Angela: Well, it’s all me. This is the first project that I’ve done musically without Jordan. That’s a new layer that I’m still processing now, the fact that Jordan doesn’t play on it. A lot of it is logistical: he has to be home with her while I’m doing these recordings. We’re not gonna pay for a babysitter. He wrote one song, but he’s not involved in the recording. I got a DCASE Grant to manufacture it, and I just received word yesterday that I got an Illinois Arts Council Grant to pay for the PR.

CR: Congratulations!

Angela: Thank you. I’m super excited about the publicist I’m working with. She specifically does kids music. I’ve never worked with a publicist before. Usually the people who need publicists the most don’t have them, because the good ones are very expensive. If I hadn’t gotten this grant, I don’t know if I could do this. I am committed to talking about postpartum depression in an open way, and this album is a vehicle for me to do that. It’s an experience that so many women have, but we’re not encouraged to talk about it. I think that’s important.


CR: Your daughter is two years old now. How has the reality of making music while parenting measured up to your expectations pre-motherhood?
 

Angela: All babies are different. Early on I had this idea that, you know, we’ll all go to shows… I’ll wear her, and she’ll wear those ear protector things. But that’s not the child I was blessed with. I have a child that likes to be in her own bed at 7pm, and then a 45-minute interval of alone time where she chats and sings. And if you don’t give her that time by herself she’s very cranky and won’t sleep. I respect that about her. She’s not shy or introverted, but she has a sense of self-awareness out of the gate that I really admire. It took me until I was in my 30s to learn how to create some boundaries for myself! (laughter) I choose to honor that this is how she feels about these things. She doesn’t like snow, which I’m disappointed about… but you know, she doesn’t have to like snow just because I do. She matches pitch really well. I’m constantly navigating my own pressures and expectations as a mother, but also of my child. To let her be who she is.

Sometimes I feel a lot of mom guilt, because any spare time I have, I’m just trying to maintain a creative practice in my own home. I have this career that really doesn’t pay me anything, and it’s separate from childcare, it’s just… extra. It’s desire, it’s pressure, it’s all of these things – but I need it to feel okay about myself.  That realization actually made me feel better. She doesn’t need to go to dance class, she’s two! She can dance any time she wants. We all live in a building together with my mother-, father-, and sister-in-law. My mother-in-law was a concert pianist, and there’s a baby grand piano in their apartment. Hattie has a pretty decent form just from watching her grandmother. The piano’s got weighted keys - it’s not this miniaturized kid keyboard - it’s the real thing. And that’s her normal. I just want my daughter to observe her parents as artists, and see that that’s possible.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

What Artist Residencies Can Do For Artist Parents - And What Artist Parents Can Do for Artist Residencies

An ad-hoc group of artists, artist residencies, and funders is working together to spread the idea of parent-friendly residencies beyond the pioneering group of residencies that currently offer space for families.

A little background: In the summer of 2017, Eve Biddle and Will Hutnick of The Wassaic Project talked with Travis Laughlin, then of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, about the challenges of supporting artist parents. That conversation led to a larger gathering at The Wassaic Project, with leaders from Artists U, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Marble House Project, the Millay Colony, Sustainable Arts Foundation, and Wassaic.

In 2014, Artists U did a project called Artists Raising Kids: a national survey, in-depth interviews, and gatherings in Philadelphia and Baltimore. As a result, I have a lot of artist parents in my network. So before the meeting at Wassaic, I surveyed 300 artist parents about artist residencies: What are the barriers?

The top two barriers were not surprising: accommodations for children, and childcare or money for childcare. Those are real needs, and addressing them takes significant resources. But the third and fourth most common barriers were: duration of residencies, and lack of scheduling flexibility. I was struck that addressing these barriers, while they require some administrative work, do not cost a lot in dollars. How many more artist parents could do a residency if they could choose the duration and start date? How many artist residencies might be willing to take this smaller step and become more parent friendly?

Here is one output from our conversations at Wassaic. We outlined a “spectrum of support” that
residencies can offer artist parents. Family-friendly residencies, with accommodations and childcare for children, are amazing, of course. But we also highlight other, smaller steps residencies can take. We hope the entire residency sector can make some of these smaller, simpler changes to open up possibilities for artist parents.

On the flip side of the poster, we offer ways artist parents can help problem-solve these challenges. In Artists U, we don’t start with our needs; we start with our skills.

Please share this poster with artists and residencies. And if you have thoughts or ideas about it, get in touch.

andrew simonet
artist
founder, Artists U

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.

GOOD TO KNOW
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.

CHILDCARE
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.

COSTS
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.  

ABOUT THE STUDIOS
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.
GETTING THERE
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. 

NEARBY ATTRACTIONS
Northshire Bookstore:
Less than 10 minutes away in Manchester, VT, this bookstore has a large children’s section with books and toys.
https://www.northshire.com/

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.https://massmoca.org/

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.