Artist – As Mother – As Artist

MOTHER/ARTIST DICHOTOMY: Are we first artists, or women destined to be become mothers by the biological yearning of our DNA? Growing up, I was told that a woman could not be both.

I was ARTIST FIRST.

I found my craft in suburban New Jersey in the 60’s and 70s. My mother mothered the cocktail party approach: children as show pieces for their guests — to be seen but not heard.

Women in their cocktail dresses, high heels and bouffant hair, and men in their suburban bread winner wear, professed about their wealth and stature, while the children looked on.

Mom’s purpose to marry off her four daughters (which she had in five years) set her on a course to make sure each little girl had the right skills for the corporate husband: right dress, right speech, right traditions and right sexuality. Wearing my first black dress at 12 began the process of rejecting all of that. I professed to never be like my mother. I proclaimed myself as an artist – not corporate.

As a result, I became the black sheep – literally – black dress, black eye make-up, and a lioness mane of black curls, stark against my three sister’s coiffed corporate republican mod daywear.

By the time I got to high school, I was an official outcast. My people and me cut school to listen to Parker, Mingus, Miles, or banged Thelonious percussions, spending days rambling in Beat-speak, or sneaking out for Zappa’s midnight show in the pits of Passaic N.J. — all of it — challenging my corporate mother’s mothering, who eventually declared I was unfit to show her friends.

Said my first fuck you in those years → a go-to phrase ever since.

Thinking my life in crisis, Moms sent me to “finishing” school. The John Robert Powers School of Modeling attracted rich kids who dreamed to walk the runways, or desperate mothers to give their ‘challenging’ daughters a leg up in corporate lifestyle. A 1950’s approach, instructors taught how to walk across a room with grace (yes, in a straight line, one leg over and in front of the other with a book on your head). They instructed how to apply make-up for different soirées, and most importantly, how to be interesting at a cocktail party with limited knowledge of current events.

Music became the portal out of that reality – the first craft.

My straitjacket upbringing gave way to non-stop improvisations, endlessly playing the piano, with the occasional respite reciting lines from Ovid’s Metamorphosis to whoever would listen.

By the end of my high school daze, I intuitively understood the following:

“Artists must learn a tradition to challenge it. [They] are products of their times and context. Like natural talent, the vision is innate. Yet the way that vision comes to fruition depends upon the artist’s time and place, the surrounding artistic tradition, training and life experience.”

After my junior year, I talked my way into a New York City College, and moved to 58th and 6th Avenue. Desperately, I sought my people on the bankrupt streets of 1976.

Although just 17, Mom agreed to pay the bill because it was college.

NY’s Gritty streets of ‘76, had rats, piss, more poor than rich, and opportunity shadowed by crime around each corner. I searched for collaborators at Max’s Kansas City, at the Circle Theater of Greenwich Village, in Harlem doing performance art, or at school creating dances for actors and then a chorus bit in Lysistrata.

I lasted about 6 months, and then transferred to Bennington College.

Moms glowed with pride her “kooky” daughter was legit. She believed saying to her friends “She’s attending Bennington College, cousin to the Seven Sister Colleges,” garnered a special type of adoration in her Woman’s Club. My acceptance gave her “pseudo” ivy league cred. She paid the bill.

In the hills of Bennington/Vermont, along the corridors of simple structures, my people gathered. We journeyed together, talking, partying, performing, partying, creating, partying, and discoursed existential philosophy with the likes of Camille Paglia.

Time flew by. The feelings of a limitless invincible future opened to our practiced crafts, and we boldly created “things.” After our liquid graduation, I sobered quickly.

I was pregnant. My world as artist – and mother – collided.

To be or not to be?

I always believed artists needed solitude and suffering to create. We existed in and out of relationships, wielding weapons to shield our vulnerability at becoming responsible or failing at surviving emotions. The “Hemingway Effect,” where alcohol, and all things created like it, drove my creative process.

My practice of craft, sitting meditations, became a trance like state, often enhanced by the debauchery, yet in some moments of clarity true enlightenment. For the musician, the actor, or the visual artist, the process of constructing a “thing” rests upon losing oneself deep into that creation: an unconscious process. The artist intuitively strokes the canvas, or hits the keys, or speaks from a place deep within, bringing the story alive. My music flowed out of my heart – through my veins – directly onto the keys. No deliberate thought in-between. If I cried, smiled or frowned, the sound, the words or the image in my imagination became absorbed fully in storytelling through my fingers.

Sandy Meisner referred to true talent as having a creative eye that could not be taught.  The it. “It.” The artist who has “It.” Being in the presence of “it” lifts us.

My mistaken perceptions believed, in some divine moment, I had an “it,” and Bennington’s breeding ground nurtured that “it” inside me. Graduating into Meisner’s study further intoxicated me to think something “it” lived inside and needed to come out.  How could I give all that up for a child?

I was too afraid to walk through the fire.

ARTIST AS MOTHER (REJECTED):

The aftermath of my decision to not be a mother became part of a suffering artist narrative lasting five years. My delusions believed at the expense of the child the artist would prevail.  It only led to darker places, like a needle in the haystack. Shuttering veins flatlined, but resuscitated in the end.

As I cleaned up, the unexpected happened. I became pregnant, again, but decided this time, the right time. Every person I asked — I mean everyone — said “You’re making a mistake.” Ignoring them, I became the artist as mother. I played my last gig at CBGB’s 7 months pregnant.

ARTIST AS MOTHER (Acceptance):

Poohkie was born the first day of spring with Baby Daddy right there beside me. Artists Bringing Up Baby!

The Dad, a messy artist, always worried about being kool and in the right place. The Mom, transformed by an OCD lens, cleaned and moved everything in its right place – order — all business — form and function — serious craftwork, nothing street.

I wanted my little girl to always make right decisions, and never make my mistakes. To make sure that happened, I went straight khakis, loafers, and nine to five teaching, ensuring all the resources (money) for success were in place.

Art as I knew it took a backseat — she was more important, and besides, the world didn’t want a mother artist on the road. Who would take care of baby?

Her Dad claimed I sold to the other side, and he was right. I became my Mother, classical straitjacket, while the Dad remained punk artist throughout his life.

Despite our divorce, Poohkie became the coolest cat – the girl other girls hated, but the boys loved and could trust. Never boring — always thinking in creative strokes. Life was art.

She had the eye at an early age. The “it” – the creative imagination. She is an “it” girl.

After her Dad died, so much fell apart. I had to be both business and artist for her, yet the artist was out of practice. Her graduation to adulthood left me longing for a long lost past. My life felt adrift. No longer care-taking the baby artist an obsession to create some “thing” creeped in. Turning 50 will do that.

The artist as mother as artist: my third leg.

Motherhood took me back to my mother’s mothering, and then I came all the way forward in a new way. I found empathy for my mother’s creative suffering, her mother’s stifling, and her grandmother’s stifling of her mother. My daughter does not fall far from this tree. We are linked by a creative DNA. She just happens to have double creative DNA from both parents. So here I am, returning to the stage  – different – seasoned – ready to hopefully make some kind of “it” happen by starting a company with my daughter as partner.

Yet my greatest artistic endeavor remains the parenting of my children; working toward accepting each different child as their unique self; passing on basic tools; and guiding them in finding their unique ‘creative’ voice in whatever they do. This gift steadfastly remains the most cherished.

The artist doesn’t stop with a change in how they ride. We take on new activities that reinforce our intuitive process. On this journey, I came to believe the following —

 

A Moment of Clarity

fingerprint

The room, the last office along the beige corridor, cornered to the right. Its windows, showered light that enveloped the walls. She sat in front of the windows facing me, while I faced the windows. The desk bore no personality, or ownership. Just semi-empty drawers occasioned by pencils, napkins, and salt and pepper pouches from a lunch long past.

I couldn’t feel my body. Still in dismay from their lies to get me there, my stoic body stared with wide eyes open. She asked questions, and I replied with calculated quips that at first strategized the best right answer to get me out of there, but then gave in. Leaving was not an option.

My mind raced with what had just happened.

Cringing from the betrayal, I craved satisfaction that would not come for quite some time. I needed sedation by the doctor’s remedy to numb the uncomfortable pain of transitioning. Sitting there, motionless, I wondered how my life came to this instance of reckoning: the end of a long road of running. It took endless seconds to realize this confrontation, between nurse and patient, marked an opportunity.

My addiction started long before the first drug.

Memories go as far back as when my little sister was born. Dad, taking charge of his three little girls, seemed overwhelmed, yet elated with welcoming his fourth. Each small hand holding the other sister’s hand waved to the hospital window above us. A shadow of our mother waved back, and we all felt special.

Having a little sister meant I had someone smaller than me to play with. I quickly learned that the specialness of being the “baby” passed to her. Now, relegated to the third out or four, I represented the child in-between: no longer the one cuddled and cooed over, or given full attention. All that hubbub came to its end, and a different self awareness awoke, unfolding to a darker, saddened worldview.

Little sister and I were a twosome pod in a family that grouped into twos. With six, this kind of compartmentalization seemed natural and effortless. As besties who looked to each other for companionship and compassions, I loved the idea of loving her and being loved by her. We pretended all the time: to be wealthy, talented, scholarly, and fashion forward.  But dreams don’t often manifest in real-world self actualization. Although a twosome, I always believed myself alone: distant and outside the group.

My daily growing up stared into the abyss of my parent’s 1960’s TV. No books. No conversations at dinner. Little time for connecting. My inner dialogue tethered to the TV sound track, which brainwashed my imagination.  Overtime, when I took to exploring deeper meanings from within, and mindful thought found spoken words, these meanderings met criticisms, or ridicules, from older sisters and their friends, who mocked and beat down any lingering confidence.

Craving a connection to hope, which I couldn’t imagine for myself, I believed that anything better existed beyond my reach at home. My sole purpose in finding a means to the end only led me down darker alleys with g-o-d centered smack as the elixir to open imagined doorways at dead ends.

I wandered off, looking for like minded fiends, yet craved fixing the damaged spirit. Some days happened without issue, but one day, I stayed away longer than usual. The return home only convinced me to leave for good. Moving to New York City, in the fall of 1976, marked the beginning of a ten year run. The beige room with the chair facing the windows marked the end of the marathon.

The nurse locked the doors behind me. She put the key in her drawer. She expected me to learn to live a new way of thinking. Although given this moment and many others to confess, leaving was not an option until I believed in a life without regret.

Switching Things Up

tortoise and hare

Taking one’s time at figuring out the next step in a situation is not a bad, or weak, thing to do. On the contrary, moving slowly with major changes allows for a greater opportunity to have things be more successful. In this age of fast tracking information, and constant gratification through internet feeds, the old road of the tortoise still has ground.

In the beginning of my life in academia, I took on whatever task I could fit into my schedule, which meant each day was filled with multi-tasking, and late night sessions to complete an assignment ready for submission the next day. There was little time for play, and if there were extra moments, those belonged to my daughter. As a result, the marriage failed, and gaining my freedom just became a greater opportunity to get more done, in as little time possible. I was the “hare” in the race.

I competed with myself, through the eyes of others. A good decade, and then some, older than the average student; married then divorced; a single mom on welfare, while very insecure about academic writing; these essential elements of me only fed my desire to make good. Determined, I set out to become something that was shortchanged right from the beginning of my life. Success.

I created a competition for myself, which shaped my approach to everything I set my mind on.  As my children grew, and have slowly left the home nest, the hare eventually became exhausted; tempered down from mediating academic and domestic life. The creative flame, which once burned bright with passion, although dulled over time, continued a low, hidden light in the shadows. Slowly the tortoise came to be. So slow that she grew into grey.

So as the ages come to the salt and pepper phase, I am blessed with switching it up. Starting the race again, in competition on an unknown playing field, with eyes wide open, and fears in check. Like the students in college, some 35 years my junior, we are both leveled by hearing our words give import to fictional moments in time, showing loves, jealousies, insecurities and sometimes death.

There are no visuals, no lecterns to lecture behind, or advertising of a portrait. All these things would expose the greyed novice and feed the bias of audiences. Blind to the writer, the audience and performers speak whether my truth is real or fodder for what they see, not who made it. Knowing age compromises, or blurs the lines of acceptable art.

So, a new decision, long in the making, has switched things up. I show up each week, hoping to find some inner humbled light shining on a jewel, hoping my words see the place, and understand the psyches. Words that for so many years failed me — so I sought out others with similar talents, as a way of turning up the light burning inside.

The maker, or builder, of tableaus creates images that move on a stage. I sit as this computer, marking when the curtain rises, and at the same time, for this moment in a life’s journey, I can more confidently choose when the curtain falls.