On Making Art (and parenthood)

My husband and I met in 2004 while at art school in Detroit. We’d both grown up in New York but we met in Michigan. I was minding my own business posting fliers for an art show and stopped by the student tutoring center where Brendan was working as a tutor. He asked if I needed help with a paper which I found irritating because I had a degree in writing, which I told him. The conversation should have ended there but he shot back that he had a minor in history, and I pointed out that that had nothing to do with writing and so our lifetime of bantering began. It makes perfect sense. This is how New York people flirt, but to our Michigan friends it was bewildering. “Why did you give your number to someone who you feel insulted you?” my friend asked as we walked away. I explained, “Insults are how New Yorkers say hello”. Nowadays when Brendan tells the story he says I needed help, I just didn’t know it yet. And maybe maybe if you catch me on a good day he’ll get me admit that that was possibly true. Not with writing, obviously, but with so many other things. Visual art was new to me at the time, and my head was full of ideas for things I wanted to make, but my technical ability lagged far behind my ideas.

(Look at how helpless I look? I can't make anything!... ok, this needs context. This was the staff photo for the art managazine I was EIC for way back in 2005. We were making books out of metal wire. It was maybe not one of my best ideas.

(Look at how helpless I look? I can't make anything!... ok, this needs context. This was the staff photo for the art managazine I was EIC for way back in 2005. We were making books out of metal wire. It was maybe not one of my best ideas.

Enter Brendan, who was a product design student with a strong background in crafts (woodworking, glass blowing, drawing, building, etc.) We went on a date, but didn’t hit it off. I don’t remember why. I think it was because he was more serious than what I was looking for at the time. But we did start making things together. Brendan helped me bring my ideas to life and, at that point in my journey, that was the most amazing thing a boy could offer. It became apparent to everyone but me that we were destined to be more than friends. As a matter of fact, when my boyfriend at the time broke up with me, he said something like “Now you can go date Brendan” and I remember being really blindsided by that! But of course, making things together is a great litmus test for being in a relationship, in its peculiar way.

The greatest thing we have collaborated on, by far, are our kids. We have two super fun little girls who’re blossoming into clever young women and I write about them a lot on this blog. Everyone says parenting changes you, and it’s true. But artists and makers face, I think, even more drastic changes than others. For starters, your time to make work becomes suddenly nonexistent as you are occupied with the task of caring for other human beings instead. In those early parenting years, especially, I felt like the character in Don Marquis’ poem, Mehitabel and her Kittens: 

the life of a female artist / is continually / hampered what in hell / have I done to deserve / all these kittens/ I look back on my life / and it seems to me to be / just one damned kitten / after another / I am a dancer / and my only prayer / is to be allowed / to give my best to my art / but just as I feel / that I am succeeding / in my life work / along comes another batch / of these damned kittens / full poem

Viola spent her first year exploring the art at Cranbrook Academy. Totally normal playground for a 1 year old.

Viola spent her first year exploring the art at Cranbrook Academy. Totally normal playground for a 1 year old.

That’s not to say that it’s only women whose work is affected by parenthood. Brendan often gets freelance contracts to design toys for mass market, which means that we receive large boxes of product from Hong Kong for him to use as the basis for his redesigns. Sandbox toys or cowboy kits, not such a big deal in our house. But one time he received an entire crate of dolls and sparkly ponies. You try telling your three year old that she can’t play with the sparkly ponies because they’re daddy’s work. Cue all the tears. He eventually had to put a lock on the studio door because the girls kept sneaking in to steal the prototypes!                                                                                                             

these terrible / conflicts are always / presenting themselves to the artist / the eternal struggle / between art and life / is something fierce

I was at a party a few weeks ago and ran into a classmate of mine from the graduate school where I earned my MFA, who now has three small children. One of the first things she said to me after the initial catch-up small talk was “I don’t make art anymore”. It was so unexpected and it just kind of hung there in the air between us. I wanted to set her at ease so I said “Yeah, me too” and that was both true and not true. I don’t make the kind of art I made before, the kind that hung in formal white gallery spaces. And I don’t make the kind of art that I thought I would be making, either. But I do still make. Every day, every weekend, Brendan and I are still making things together. But now, instead of pouring concrete for sculptures, we are building pirate rafts for birthday parties. Instead of learning how to work with caustic, I am watching tutorials on how to frost tiered cakes. I’m pushing my sewing, painting, and crafting skills every day, learning new techniques to bring my girls’ crazy ideas to life.

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Brendan is really bitter that Santa gets all the credit for this thing!

Brendan is really bitter that Santa gets all the credit for this thing!

I felt really guilty about what I was making for a long time. I dreaded running into artists i had known and having them ask what I was up to. I never said ‘I don’t make art anymore’ so forthrightly, but I did change the topic hella fast! I actively avoided places where it would come up. I looked back on nearly ten years of life and thought I’d made nothing. But then I realized that actually I’d been making a ton!

We make things for, and with, our girls constantly. Now that they’re old enough to participate it’s practically impossible to keep them away. And it’s given them an entirely skewed perspective on reality. Doesn’t everyone’s dad build them convertible sandboxes and floor-to-ceiling American Girl dollhouses and complex mini pet shops (though Santa still gets the credit for that one for now). Doesn’t everyone’s mom sew them elaborate teddy bear costumes and pink princess teepees, and sparkling gowns when the characters they want to dress up as aren’t popular enough to be productized? (I'm looking at you, Tremaine sisters!)

Still, that nagging feeling, man. It stalks you. It was a big reason why I started this blog, actually. I wanted to chronicle the things we were doing with the girls so that someday (once they know Santa isn’t real) they could come here and see a history of all the things we’ve made for them. But I also was looking for a kind of validation that even though I wasn’t making ‘art’, what I was making had value and was a worthwhile use of my time. It’s funny how those things become so ingrained in us through the Fine Arts education process, isn’t it? If I’m not moving the discourse of design forward, do I even make a sound? tbd.

Parenthood teaches us so much, and also leaves us with so many questions. I look around at other artists I attended school with and the many ways they’ve incorporated their kids and their parenthood into their work. Some use their children as subject mater, models, or supporting actors in their work, while others see their kids as their muses, and still others incorporate them into their art making process directly

I don’t do any of those things. And I also do all of them. And I grapple with the baggage around domestic crafts. But I'm also learning to unlearn that definition of ‘worthwhile craft’ that I picked up along the way, and learning to see the pirate ship and tiered cakes and masquerade masks and Halloween costumes and vacation outfits as my art, as much as anything that came before in my career of making. They decorate our home, our memories, our hearts, and this blog. And that’s something.

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(You know you may have been to WDW too often when they request a Jungle Cruise themed birthday party.... and you have all the props you need to give them one on hand! But how 'bout that 'backside of water'fall cake, huh?)

(You know you may have been to WDW too often when they request a Jungle Cruise themed birthday party.... and you have all the props you need to give them one on hand! But how 'bout that 'backside of water'fall cake, huh?)

But the very best part? After twelve years, I’m still making things with my favorite person every day. And through that making, we connect with our girls and pass on the design and craft ability that are so intrinsic to how we both identify. They are experiencing who we are, and how we love them. I love you, says the sewing machine. I love you, says the jig saw. I love you, says the paint brushes and hot glue gun and grommets and sparkles and wood stain. Making things together is a great way to say I love you

Fair warning, though: I feel sorry for the unlucky designers who end up with Viola as their Art Director twenty years from now. She is a brutal task master! Double checking my sewing against screenshots from her favorite cartoon to make sure that I recreated Sofia’s costume accurately in bear-scale! (In case you were wondering, Sofia has pearls around the neckline of her dress AND a necklace, not just a necklace, slacker. And those white designs on the skirt? The project isn’t done until you add those, regardless of whether you know how to or not. Hello tutorials about iron transfer!) I love you, teddy bear dresses. I love you, hand-sewn pearl edging.

Soon we will be celebrating all these years of making with a wedding at Walt Disney World, and I can't wait to share all the things we're creating for our big day with you! Please bear with me as we are super busy making for the next few months, I likely won't be posting much until it's over. But then: all the sparkles, I promise! :-)

Update: I haven't gotten all the projects posted, but here is a sort of sneak peak into all the projects we did and how we managed to get them all done! I really thought I'd have been all caught up by now (4 months post-wedding) but, alas, it's been nonstop with kittens since we got back!

Cranbrook, 2009

Cranbrook, 2009

Cranbrook, 2016

Cranbrook, 2016