Why do you do what you do?

It is possible to be a successful woman artist and mother, if one has an exceptional husband, good time-management skills, and an iron will.
Daddy’s little helper, 2015, Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I was reveling in the simplicity of my job. I had planned no deep thinking; it would be a day alone with my brushes.
That never works. “Why do you do what you do?” asked a regular reader.
The easy answer is that it’s the only thing I know how to do. A little honesty compels me to admit that this isn’t entirely true. I can write. I could retire if I want. Clearly, something besides necessity drives me.
In fact, my reader sensed that. “Why do you teach, travel all over the place, produce as much work as you do?” she continued. “Is working at that pace a habit, or something deeper?”
Maternité, 1890, Mary Cassatt. Cassatt, the greatest painter of the mother-child bond, had no children of her own.
Yes, I was raised to work hard, and it’s an ingrained habit. Still, I do take time off. A chance conversation with a Mennonite contractor years ago turned me into a Sabbatarian. He explained what a tremendous gift a regularly-scheduled Sabbath day was. There are a few weekends a year I can’t take off, but in general, you’ll find me working six days and resting on the seventh.
I like painting and I like being on the road. I like the challenge of sizing up new places and trying to reformat them to a 12X16 canvas.
But mostly, I work like this because I can. It’s a pleasure and a shock to be free of day-to-day responsibility for others. Yesterday, I mentioned a Tracey Eminquote about parenting. Here it is in full:
I would have been either 100% mother or 100% artist. I’m not flaky and I don’t compromise. Having children and being a mother… It would be a compromise to be an artist at the same time. I know some women can. But that’s not the kind of artist I aspire to be. There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men. It’s hard for women. It’s really difficult, they are emotionally torn. It’s hard enough for me with my cat.
When I first started painting full time, another woman artist told me much the same thing. The evidence supported her statement. Most artists (of either gender) in our circle were childless. Those with children also had wives who supported both their family and their art careers.
Mutter mit Jungen, 1933, Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz is an exception to rule that says mothers can’t make good artists.
That realization came close to derailing me. I was struggling to make enough time for my kids and art, but the historical reality seemed to be that women with children would always be second-rate painters.
I’m glad I didn’t learn that before the kids were irrevocable. They’re certainly the best work I’ve ever done.
Now that I’m beyond child-care, I think it’s a case where history is not necessarily destiny. Gender roles have changed tremendously in the last century. It is possible for a woman to combine competent child-rearing and any career, provided she has an exceptional husband, good time-management skills, and an iron will.
But the question my reader asked is an important one. There are many easier ways to live. Why do we do what we do?

Paint what you love

Daddy’s little helper, oil on Belgian linen, 14X18, by Carol L. Douglas
When I’ve laid off painting for a while, I “play scales” to limber up. Usually that’s in the form of a still life, but yesterday I decided to paint my grandson, Jake. Jake is three months old, and painting babies is decidedly out of my comfort zone. But if you want to be energized as an artist, paint what you love.
Yesterday’s post about consistency sparked a lively discussion on Facebook. Cindy Zaglin said, “I’ve been told people should be able to look at a group of work and know it’s yours (or someone else’s.) But I like the freedom of experimenting and sometimes a piece will not look like my other work. I wonder how to marry ‘brand’ and experimentation.”
As always, I start with an oil grisaille. The gridding is because I needed to doublecheck the proportions of that massive head. Even so, in the final rendering, I couldn’t believe it, and I narrowed his head slightly (and incorrectly).
Cindy doesn’t have to worry; her work is iconic and highly recognizable. She has wide latitude in subject because her style is rock solid. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t grown and changed in the decade I’ve known her. The important thing is that those changes were incremental, not a frenzied trying on of different techniques.
If you can put into concrete terms what is unique about your paint handling, then you probably don’t have a style, but an affectation. In other words, “I always leave big patches of raw canvas showing,” would be an affectation, whereas, “I start off intending to be super careful but inevitably a fury takes over and I’m left with this mess” is probably more of a mature style.
No matter what I am painting, I approach it the same way. Same primer, same brushes, same underpainting, same pigments, same medium. For this reason, my portrait of Jake is stylistically linked to my paintings of sailboats at Camden Harbor, even though the subjects are worlds apart. And of course, this painting is slyly political, as so many of my paintings are. (I like the quaint idea of fathers married to babies’ mothers.)
After the gridding, I filled in masses, and from there worked in more detail. In short, the usual, regardless of the subject.
“Brand is both an identifier and a trap,” said Jane Bartlett. “I’ve seen celebrated artists who are trapped by what they have created and become known by, especially painters. The audience they built leaves the moment significant changes are made either in subject matter or paint application. It’s as though they are starting over. The loss of audience drives them back to what they had been doing and often to boredom.”
I think of that as the Hello Kitty-ism of art. Tom Otterness’ The Creation Myth, at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery, is a case in point. It’s interchangeable with all his other public works. There are, sadly, too many visual artists who have commodified themselves in this way. They may as well be stamping out engine blocks at Ford.

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Smart kids

 
“The smartest kid in class, by contrast, is not an expensive problem. A boy or girl who finishes an assignment early can be handed a book and told to read quietly while the teacher works on getting other children caught up. What would clearly be neglect if it happened to a special-needs child tends to look different if the child is gifted: Being left alone might even feel like a reward, an acknowledgment of being a fast learner.”
When I came across that in a recent Boston Globe pieceon educating gifted kids, I had to laugh. Having once been the smartest kid in my public school class, I was anything but a cheap problem to fix; in fact, my parents ended up sending me to a private school to finish high school. I’m a great example of high intellect swamped by low expectations.
Fast-forward a generation to my own kids’ educations. You would think it would be better, but it’s not. Gifted and talented programs—all the rage before No Child Left Behind—have (if they still exist at all) become shock troops in the military boarding school approach to education we’ve adopted. More seat work, more homework, no time for things like art and music.
Busy work is the bane of the bright child’s existence. It teaches him to blow off his homework and rely on test-taking skills to get by. Moreover, it ignores developing the synthetic, intuitive parts of his brain, which are developedby studying art and music, and, yes, by daydreaming.
I have a friend who’s a classicist, living in penury as an adjunct professor. I’ve often thought that our school district should send three kids to her and pay her the roughly $65,000 it gets for educating them for a year. After four years, they would know history, music, the arts, Greek and Latin.
And before you tell me that’s not enough, America was built by people with exactly that education.

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Creativity

Maternity, Mary Cassatt, 1890. Cassatt never married nor had children. It would have been impossible in her era to mix her career and a family.
Sorry about the delayed post. I was busy caring for a baby.
Actually, I’m not all that sorry. After all, all other creativity derives from this fundamental beginning of life. The word “create” derives from the Latin creare: ‘to make, bring forth, produce, beget,’ and is related to crescere: ‘arise, grow.’ My etymology dictionary also links the latter to the Greek kouros (boy), and kore (girl), but I’ll take that with a grain of salt.
Most of the artists I know are childless, and the ones who do have children struggle to resolve the demands of their careers with the demands of parenting. Not that this isn’t true of all careers, but there’s something about the creative impulse that seems to channel in one direction or another. I’m an outlier because not only do I have kids, I have a lot of them.
Breakfast in Bed, Mary Cassatt, 1897. 
My daughter had a difficult delivery and I’m back in Pittsfield helping her until I’m sure she’s recovered.
We Americans have a weird attitude toward parenting. In trying to give women equal access to the marketplace, we’ve relegated parenting to the status of a hobby or a part-time job. Done right, it’s difficult work, demanding high levels of organization, energy, intelligence and time. My daughter is a well-paid professional, and I don’t want to see her dump her career to stay home. But having worked through my own parenting years, I also don’t want to see her wandering around in a fog of exhaustion, either.
But enough of this. Junior needs changing and his mom needs her meds before we start the round of doctor’s office, visiting nurse, visiting specialist. This baby stuff is a lot of work.
Baby Reaching For An Apple, Mary Cassatt, 1893
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