Can a Mother Be an Artist?

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My college roommate and I never really talked much about the day our children would play together. Yet there we were at the park, seventeen years after leaving the dorms, trading stories about potty training and time-outs just as easily as we used to discuss our career hopes and dreams late into the night. Back then, she aspired to take Hollywood by storm as a writer/director, while I set my sights on journalism. We both ended up going pretty far. Then motherhood intervened and each of us took a break from our professional lives to raise families.


We are now writers who steal time to write after the children go to sleep at night or early in the morning before our households get up. The fragmented schedule forces us to be creative on demand—not an easy task to accomplish in those tiny windows solitude.


Yet, as we watched our preschoolers take turns in the sand with shovels and pails this morning, I realized that for the first time in a while, we weren’t venting about our creative frustrations. Instead, we both seemed to be reassuring each other, “Hey, you’re doing a really good job at this mom thing.” It was a mutual pat on the back for the often unrecognized, unglamorous hours spent guiding young kids into the world.


The moment felt especially meaningful to me after watching the new documentary feature film, Who Does She Think She Is?, which just opened recently in Los Angeles.


“This film is really about questioning whether we really value mothering in our culture,” director Pamela Tanner Boll explained to me in a recent telephone interview.


The documentary chronicles the lives of five artists and their challenges to pursue their passions while nurturing families. The film asks the audience to consider what would happen if a mother didn’t have to choose between work and family and instead, carved out a path to care for her children without losing her own self-fulfillment.


Despite the growing number of moms doing just that by opting for part-time work, flexible schedules or starting their own home businesses, often the work-life juggle is portrayed by the mainstream media as only applicable to women earning a living outside the home in traditionally male-dominated fields. Boll’s film reveals that mothers in the arts—painters, sculptors, performers—face the very same imbalance in their lives as mothers slogging through eighty-hour work weeks to climb the corporate ladder.


“Whether you are a dancer, singer, writer, a lot of people have the idea that these professions are more welcoming to women. It is wrong,” Boll says. The film, co-directed by and edited by Nancy Kennedy, points out that while 48 percent of the professionally trained artists and art historians in the US are women, the percentage of female artists represented at major institutions is tiny. At the National Gallery of Art, for example, 98 percent of the works on display are by men, 99.9 percent by white men, according to Guerrilla Girls, an activist organization promoting gender equity.


The emotional film takes the audience inside the lives of mothers like Janis Mars Wunderlich, a gifted sculptor whose candid representations of motherhood in her art are stark and even disturbing. Yet, despite the conflicts illustrated by her clay figures, we learn Wunderlich is a devoted mother to five (!) children. I was inspired to watch this force of nature manage a typical crazy morning and then rush home for her baby’s nap time so she could jam in a quick session in her home studio.


“There have been times in my life when I haven’t had time to do art and I go crazy,” Wunderlich says in the movie. I know what she means. It was beautiful to watch someone make time for her passion and to see both her success and the way her art holds her life together.


Boll says she hopes the film will do more than point out the dilemmas of modern motherhood or sexism in the art world.


“I wanted to show that there is incredible value in nurturing another life. There is huge value in not always putting your own needs ahead of others. It is training for a more empathetic and more passionate way of living,” the mother of three grown children says.


Artists or not, mothers will be inspired and empowered by Who Does She Think She Is?

Photo courtesy of TheWellMom

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