The art (and stigma) of being an artist and a parent

A new residency for artists who are working parents is aiming to normalize children in the art world – as well as art about motherhood

“If the men who run the art world gave birth to babies, it’s the only thing art would be about,” says textile artist Brette Gabel. “You’re the creator of life and death. What is more fucking cool than that? But for some reason it’s looked down on as an art subject.”

When Gabel was pregnant with her son, Levi, she recalls hearing warnings from fellow artists against making artwork about motherhood because it wouldn’t be interesting or relevant. After giving birth, she’s encountered other ways Toronto’s art world isn’t particularly receptive to children: she’s seen people openly scoff at her young son at openings, there are few kid-friendly residencies, and most art events are in the evenings and don’t provide childcare.

“There’s a sense that unless you’re willing to work a lot harder for it, you can just disappear from the arts when you have a kid and people are fine with that,” says Gabel.

There’s a long-standing myth that parenthood and art are incompatible, or that one needs to be sacrificed for the other to thrive.

Indeed, in 2016, during an interview with the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, performance artist Marina Abramovic said she believes children are the reason women aren’t as successful as men in the art world. “There’s plenty of talented women. Why do men take over the important positions? It’s simple. Love, family, children – a woman doesn’t want to sacrifice all of that.”

Meanwhile in Sheila Heti’s Giller Prize-nominated autobiographical novel Motherhood, the Toronto author recalls a conversation with her partner in which he says, “You can either be a great artist and a mediocre parent, or the reverse, but not great at both, because both art and parenthood take all of one’s time and attention.”

But for multidisciplinary artist Sarah Cullen, parenthood isn’t the problem. It’s the art world that’s at fault.  

That’s why she co-founded Mothra, an artist residency where parents can work alongside their children. “There’s an isolation of being a self-employed artist and a parent or caregiver,” says Cullen. “Mothra is about finding ways to combine the two.”  

During the five-day inaugural residency in September at Artscape Youngplace, nine artists and about 10 children participated, ranging in age from a 20-day-old baby to a six-year-old. Some of the parents brought their children but worked independently on their own projects, while some collaborated with their children, like oil painter and founder of the Angry Asian Feminist Gang, Amy Wong. She and her 22-month-old son, Rudi, drew and painted together, which Wong wants to later turn into a kids’ book.

“There’s a faux pas that’s floating in the ether that if you are going to address art and motherhood, you have to make sure you do it in a way that’s interesting. It’s almost as if motherhood isn’t an inherently interesting subject matter,” says Wong. “I don’t see having a child as a hindrance, but as an active contributor to a space and project.”

Although Wong involves Rudi in art projects and, whenever she can, brings him to galleries, she’s experienced the constraints of the art world as a parent. Because she doesn’t have regular childcare, she’d love to participate in a residency that offered some kind of childcare option and was also more than a week long, since she’s currently on the hunt for affordable studio space.

“I don’t think the true idea of parenthood is accepted in the art world,” says Wong. “I teach at the AGO and when I bring Rudi to the galleries, he’s very engaged. He’ll squeal and crawl around. I don’t have my work badge on. I’m just a mom with her kid, and I get pretty bad looks. Like, ‘You’re not supposed to do this with a baby.’ And I also think as a person of colour, [there’s the sentiment] you’re not supposed to take up space in this world. ‘Don’t you know better? This is a place of culture.’”

Mothra is currently accepting applications for its next residency, at Artscape Gibraltar Point next June. Unlike the first, this one will have accommodations for families. Although these opportunities are rare in North America, they do exist worldwide. Cullen spent the summer in Norway participating in the Nordic Artists’ Centre Dale, which was set up for children. “They had high chairs, strollers, cribs and accommodations, which allows you to bring kids,” she says.

Cullen has collaborated with her children on numerous projects. She’s worked with her daughter on Taking An Object For A Walk, a workshop commission for the Gardiner Museum that involved imagining how objects in the museum would spend their days out in the streets of Toronto. She also worked on a three-month project with her toddler-aged son where she drew plant life on the island that were his height as a way of measuring time.

For Gabel, kid-friendly residencies like Mothra not only offer a solution to high childcare costs, they also give children the opportunity to see their parents working. “It’s important for kids to see what their parents do, especially if they’re artists. It can be a mysterious thing, so it’s great for kids to see their parents making stuff and experimenting. If they get to join in, that’s fun for them, too.”


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