Thursday, August 1, 2013

Interview: Irene Pérez

Irene Pérez is an artist and curator investigating memory, identity, home and housing. Born and raised in Spain, she studied Art History before relocating to the US, where she pursued two art degrees in photography and studio art. While she was still a student she began organizing ambitious exhibitions and projects, serving on the curatorial team for artXposium and co-founding the Second Bedroom Project Space with fellow artist Christopher John Smith in addition to making and exhibiting her own work. Upon returning to Spain, however, Irene struggled to reconnect to the art community there, especially once her daughter was born. After a lot of hard work, this year has been a good one: she has already had two solo exhibitions in 2013 and is looking forward to several upcoming group shows and artist residencies. Her interview is a candid reflection on the challenges of balancing motherhood, art, and identity.  

CR: Tell us a little bit about your daughter: age, name, general temperament?
Irene: Maia is a strong, chatty, stubborn, creative, moody, loving and intelligent person whom I’ve been falling in love with for the last three years. She just turned three, so for the last year she has been going through her “twos” phase (let me tell you they don’t call them terrible for nothing) which turned her into a very temperamental little girl. But just three weeks into her “threes” I can see some changes happening and she is becoming more communicative and less irritable.

CR: How do you find a balance between parenthood, artmaking, and a day job? What strategies might you recommend to other artist-parents?

Irene: In my experience finding balance is a day-to-day endeavor. Being a mother is a new experience for me, and life with a child changes constantly as they grow up. So, there are both a learning curve and a high degree of instability that become part of your daily life.

Since Maia was born, my professional status has changed twice. I was unemployed during my pregnancy and until Maia was 10 months old. I had just returned to Spain and was still trying to get reacquainted with my home country and the art world here. After Maia was born, I was just trying to keep myself together and not collapse from exhaustion. Still, with no studio and a small baby, I kept producing some work and participated in a couple of group shows. The way it worked out was to work during Maia’s naps, sometimes even with Maia in my lap, and then during the few hours Maia’s dad could look after her.

When Maia was 10 months old I got a full-time job. I worked at this company for a year and a half, Monday through Friday. Between the commute and my working schedule, I ended up only being able to see Maia for about 1 hour each day. I used Sundays to work in my studio for 5-6 hours every week. That was a nightmare -- both because I couldn’t spend time with my daughter and because I didn’t have worthy time making art (I am a slow producer). Fortunately, I had the option to quit, and I am now an (almost) full time mom/artist, doing work a few times a month as an exhibition guide and doing art workshops. Maia now goes to preschool, so I drop her off in the morning and most weekdays I go to my studio during the hours she is there.

I do have to say that I have family, my parents-in-law especially, who help us out. Sometimes when I am preparing for a show, they take care of Maia after school. My husband and I have also, little by little, been working out a system. He is a research scientist and his job is very demanding, time consuming and he travels often. We take turns picking up Maia after school and taking her to the playground or the library. It does take a village, not only to raise a child, but so that her parents can have productive lives as well.

CR:  How did you get back into a studio practice after having a newborn? Any advice to other artist-parents for getting through that phase?

Irene: It took me a while to have a full studio practice again. During the first few months I didn’t have a studio and worked at home, which allowed me to have Maia by my side. But it wasn’t until Maia started going to preschool that I got a studio space and went back to making art regularly. Up to that moment I mainly kept notes and sketches for works, so when I finally had my studio I had lots of ideas and was very excited to realize them.

For the first few months of your child’s life you think and feel often that you will never be able to make art again. I couldn’t see how I would manage two such demanding things together, both of which I wanted to give 100%.  All the advice I can give now, seeing things in perspective and only three years into motherhood, is to be patient and don’t give up. Take time to enjoy being with your child, and even take her with you into your studio if possible and safe.

CR: How has parenthood affected your creative practice and/or the work itself?

Irene: The fact that I am now not only responsible for my daughter’s education but also truly invested in her becoming a fulfilled, honest and happy person has made me realize that I can only help her achieve all that by example. I became a professional artist not that long ago when I graduated at age 33 (I am 38 now), so I had my doubts about being able to pull through since I got here a bit late. This has changed my practice in two ways: one, I do not give up when things do not work out; two, I follow my principles making artwork that I believe in and, if applicable, sharing my ideas and art experience with others. I now volunteer through the Documentation Center and Textile Museum of Terrassa teaching embroidery to psychiatric patients. Together, these patients, their therapists and myself have created the Collage of Memories project, made up of embroidered pieces that reproduce specific moments and memories from our past.

As for the work itself, I am starting to see a turn more towards social issues that worry me, both because of the alarming situation we are living in Spain (economic but most importantly in relation to the loss of our social rights) and because I fear for my daughter’s future. My recent piece sinHogar (homeLess) was made in reference to the hundreds of thousands of evictions that have taken place and are still taking place in my country, leaving hundreds of thousands of families homeless and without any chance of recovering.

In a way my work is also becoming a conversation with my daughter about the things I want to share with her. I hope that as Maia grows older she will take a more active part into my work just because it is an experience I want to share with her. So far, her voice has made it into one of my most recent video pieces.

CR:  Has having children affected your relationship with the art world? What alternative structures might make the art world more inclusive for artists with families?

Irene: Yes and no. When you have a small child, it is difficult to be able to go to openings that usually happen in the evenings, so that cuts down on opportunities to network. Still, I go to exhibitions on my own (less often than before my daughter was born) or with Maia -- something I really like to do because it has become an amazing learning experience for both of us. I network any other way I can, usually through the Internet.

It is also harder, economically, logistically and time-wise, to travel for work or go on residencies. You adapt and look for opportunities that you can make work for your situation. As I am writing this, I am at a residency at Nau Côclea, in Camallera, Girona, Spain. I’ll be spending ten days here working on a new project and since this place is only two hours away from where we live, Maia and my husband can come and spend the weekend here with me. Later on this summer, I’ll be in a residency through People Made Visible for three weeks at the West Chicago City Museum. Maia and her dad will accompany me for two weeks while I work, which will be our family vacation this year.

CR:  Is there anything else you’d like to address that hasn’t been asked?

Irene: At a personal level, my experience with motherhood as an institution hasn’t been good. For the first year and a half of Maia’s life I loved my child but was at war with motherhood, because it had taken away everything I had worked for in the previous ten years and made very real some of my insecurities and fears. I also felt motherhood, or should I say the social construct of motherhood (especially here in Spain), took my social “status” and role as a woman back 50 years.

Everybody tells you your life is going to change when you have a child, but you really have no clue what they are talking about until you are a parent. It was hard to come to terms with giving up studio time and the complete freedom to decide. It was even harder to see how becoming a mother made me feel that socially I was only valued in relation to giving birth and taking care of my child.

What I have come to realize is that, as much as artmaking is my way of making sense of the world, Maia is a crucial part of my life experience. Not being in the studio whenever I need to be is still difficult, but it is equally hard to take away time spent with my daughter for how important it is to both of us.

A friend told me jokingly: “Becoming a mom has turned you into a feminist.” But it is not a joke. I thought feminism was a thing from the past, and before having Maia I was naïve enough to think there was no need for women to fight against the social norm since I had never experienced discrimination for being a woman. Now I see I have to be part of a positive change for women. And I have to be part of change most especially for one woman-to-be: my little Maia.

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