Monday, June 1, 2015

Interview: Courtney Kessel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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