Make art wherever you already are
“The most important thing is the doing—integrating your life and your work and everything together.”
I had the great gift of going to an exhibit of Ruth Asawa’s work at The Whitney in New York recently. As I wondered the big white rooms and stared at her drawings, that stemmed from her noticing, and sometimes her children’s gifts, that also led to her sculpture, I was so heartened by the organic chaos of it all. This was an artist with a distinct and evolving point of view. This was an artist with a real gift for isolating a visual question and exploring it with aplomb. This was an artist with six children.
I make a lot of art—particularly, I suppose, for a person who is not a professional artist. I draw bouquets of flowers that I receive. I sketch my daughters who never sit still long enough. I collage birthday cards and watercolor beloved businesses from my childhood and collect rocks and shells and draw them piled on top of one another. I find the challenge of creation soothing. It returns me to myself. It reconnects the sometimes frayed wiring between my eyes and my hands, while putting my strategic mind to rest for awhile.
What I create is not particularly skilled, though obviously it’s “better” than a lot of art because I have spent so many hours doing it. The product is sometimes a delight, but it’s never the point. The agency that I feel from seeing something in the world and making something of it, the wholesome feeling of the making—that is the reward. That is the compulsion.
I’ve had friends who have been surprised when they learn how often I make art, as if it were a skill I learned somewhere along the way that they did not. It’s true, I did take art in high school, photography in college, but that’s the sum total of my art training. Mostly I relate to art, not as a skill, but as a culture—a way of being in the world, of processing the world, of coping with the world. I have always had art supplies around, even when I lived alone, and of course, now that I have kids, I have art supplies everywhere.
This, I tell these friends, is the secret that is not a secret at all, actually—have supplies on hand and make things. Make ugly things. Make beautiful things. Make things you wouldn’t show anyone. Make things you, even if secretly, want to show off to people. Make things that answer questions lingering in your mind. Most importantly, make things that slow you down.
Ruth Asawa, for example, is most well known for her sculpture, but did you know she has a whole series (now hanging in a prestigious museum!) of potato prints. Yup, like those you might have made in kindergarten. I found this so relieving! This serious artist was not above going with the flow of a house full of chaotic children and experimenting with some potatoes and a paring knife. I can see her at her kitchen table, newspaper layered over everything, paint dripping on the floor, a cacophony of multi-generational creation.
I am not a control freak, but I can be controlling. I can get caught up in wanting the world—especially the little world of my home—to be reflective of a certain level of intentionality and completion. Making art disturbs that for me. It doesn’t go well and I have to start over. Or it doesn’t go well and I keep going anyway, seeing how terrible it could really get. My kids move on. The mess remains. Maybe I return to it, maybe I don’t. The lack of control is sometimes uncomfortable, but also freeing in a way that most of the things I devote myself to each day are not.
Of course so much ink has been spilt about how difficult it is to be both an artist and a mother, and structurally, this is still painfully true. But corporeally and spiritually, I find mothering and making art to be deeply intertwined. Everyday, I get to watch my children both create things in the world and also create themselves. And in a sense, I have also been watching myself create myself—the mother version of me, that is—this last decade. My physical care for them is a dance. My arrangement of objects in our home is a set. My rules are artful constraints. Even my parenting failures are often poignant material—moments of utter humanness where I am revealed to be just as good and bad as everyone else who has tried so hard to make a family, to make a life, to make art.
While not a professional artist, I feel kin to Asawa in this—like maybe we are similar kinds of humans trying to raise children and make things, all at the same time and in the same place. Asawa said: “I’m just interested in the way nature grows and structures.”
Me too. Etched inside of my wedding band is the phrase all things grow and though I hadn’t become a mother when I chose it, I think some part of me knew—that I would survive this life by being interested in how things grow, particularly humans, and scribbling and drawing and investigating all the while.
As luck would have it, one of my bestie’salso wrote about Ruth this week after going to the same show! How cool is that? Read her awesome piece about how Ruth became Ruth, and what was so remarkable about her drawing life, and do the great assignment she cooked up.