Overcoming Barriers as an Artist
People often ask me how I make time be an artist as the mother of two small children. Most of the time this question comes from other moms or other artists, and it’s an important one for those who want to keep producing art while juggling real life, kids, and obligations that decidedly are not art.
How can we overcome the internal obstacles that all artists already face in the process of art making, while overcoming the external roadblocks that all new moms face when attempting to do anything productive outside of motherhood? The answer isn’t a simple one.
When I first left my job as a middle school art teacher to stay home with my first child three and a half years ago, I was terrified. I felt like a fraud. I had an identity crisis. I thought if I wasn’t an art teacher, who was I? I didn’t want to be just a mom.
It is not in my nature to devote all of my energy to keeping my home fully functioning. At the end of the day as a stay at home mom, I was bored. I wasn’t stimulated mentally or creatively. I thrive on routine, and so I became obsessed with my daughter’s daily routine for naps and bedtime, and then wildly annoyed when they were disrupted. I was in the middle of a fantastic bout with postpartum anxiety, but I didn’t realize it until I was out of that phase and looking back on the experience.
Now that my second baby is six months old, I am fully aware of my tendencies for nervous, fretting, worrisome anxiety. It all boils down to control and self-care for me. The less control I have over a situation, the more anxious I become, but if I have an abundance of self-care opportunities, then I can better cope with my lack of control over things in my life. Although, as any new mom will tell you, that formula is complicated to execute with tiny humans in the mix.
In motherhood, the best-laid plans are completely and constantly being overturned and opportunities for self-care are often impossible to extract from days that rotate around caring for others. Under these circumstances, creating art can seem a hopeless endeavor.
But, when I went back to work teaching community art classes to adults, I learned something, and I was elated. Suddenly, I had this opportunity to reinvent myself and reassume the identity I had been missing.
My adult students seemed to view me in a way that only a few of my middle school students ever did and my confidence soared immediately. I began to set a new loftier goal for myself—something I had lied to myself about every really wanting. I wanted become an active artist (i.e. create new work on a regular basis, show my work publicly and become a networking member of the artist community in Austin and beyond). Sure, I made art as a public school teacher—project examples for my classes mostly and in the summers I’d START a big painting, but usually never finish it.
I began to approach my art making practice as just that—a practice. If my job is being an artist, then I have to work whether I feel like showing up for my job or not. Like Picasso said—“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
Even before I became a mother, making art wasn’t easy. But procrastination was. I once made a list of all of the things I do when I’m procrastinating making art—finding the perfect music, making the perfect cup of tea, cleaning my workspace, etc.—and then I got real with myself and realized that all of the procrastinating was just a lot of busy work that masks the fear of making bad art.
But bad art isn’t something to be afraid of, and it’s all part of the process—practice, setbacks, lessons learned, and new course correction. And once mom-artists recognize how precious their creation time is, a lot of the course correction becomes automatic—one of the tools we pick up naturally and add to our tool belt by default of becoming mothers.
Now, instead of cleaning my workspace or making the perfect cup of whatever and waiting for the muse to arrive, I started to just shove the mess on my desk aside, sit down with my tepid cup of coffee and get busy drawing. Some days, I may only have however long the baby nap generally lasts and I probably still need to shower, but I have to work on my art.
My art practice has become everything now.
It’s not just a therapy or an outlet for my anxiety and a sanctuary of self-care from the unrealistic expectations of motherhood in our modern era; it’s my livelihood and my identity. The lovely side effect of devoting myself whole-heartedly to this goal of art making was that my class sizes at the Dougherty Arts School where I teach drawing and painting suddenly grew around the same time my paradigm shift in personal art production occurred. I am consistently at max capacity at the start of a new class, and that had been far from the case at first. As if overnight, I had a large mailing list of students. Word of mouth is a beautiful thing.
I now share my secrets and tips for building confidence and a daily or regular art practice with all of my students or anyone who will listen, and I find this audience to be extremely grateful of my encouragement and support in this area.
I read positive art affirmations to my classes out loud while they draw and paint. I approach the class like the best yoga instructors I know structure their classes—by supporting students with a relaxed and non-judgmental atmosphere in order to help them let go of critical inner dialogue, release expectations and explore their own self-guided practice.
Sometimes my classes end up feeling like a therapy session, and I love that. People find themselves, build confidence and grow before my eyes. I think part of my journey is learning to take credit for that though.
Recently, I’ve had some “Aw, no—that was all you!” moments when students have said I was the reason they were able to surprise themselves with their painting or drawing abilities, but as I type this I realize I should probably use the line I often feed them when they start to be self-deprecating about their work—“Thanks, I worked really hard on that.”
To bring it all back around to motherhood though, I’d say my mantras for a successful art practice could be applied to my practices as the confident mother whose shoes I’m still growing into.
The key for me is setting my expectations for myself extremely low.
Yeah, you read that right, and I often say that to my students, too. “Don’t aim for the moon. Aim for the end of the lawn and maybe you’ll land among the stars. Plus, the moon is closer to the earth than the stars, so that platitude is really scientifically incorrect anyway!”
Seriously though, we expect too much of ourselves. When we let ourselves off the hook, release expectations and find a niche in our day to day that is realistic and enjoyable, that’s where we generally find peace. I am still on my path to becoming the artist I want to be, and I’m sure I always will be. It’s a long road, and I find solace in that. The joy and growth happen along the way in the most unexpected ways. “Mistakes are opportunities for growth” is something I used to say to my middle school students, but I don’t think I really owned it until I threw myself headfirst into my own art journey.
Sometimes I really do attempt to approach a day of mom-artisthood with the expectation that I will fail at getting anything done. On days when I can only make it up to the studio space I now share with another talented and inspiring artist-mom if I bring my son with me, I set out knowing it’s going to be a struggle. I put him in the pack n’ play I leave there for him, and I may only get 20 minutes of actual work done over the course of a few hours, but it doesn’t matter. The success is in the attempt.
Just showing up is what matters. I have so much patience when it comes to learning and teaching, it amazes me. I wish I could apply that kind of patience to other areas of my life. I still feel like a fraud at times. I still have a hard time taking myself seriously as an artist. There is a fine line in the mind of the creative between egotistical grandeur and crippling self-doubt.
As a mother, you can find me guzzling my glass of wine after the tantrum orchestra that is the toddler-baby bedtime at my house thinking, “Well, I kept them alive today—that’s all that matters, right?” It sounds like another joke, but it IS what matters. When I spend hours I feel I don’t have to spare on a piece of art that doesn’t work and I decide to scrap it, I can choose to see those as wasted hours or be grateful for the valuable practice and growth I just experienced as an artist.
Likewise, as a mother, when I spend an hour trying to leave the house to run an errand that doesn’t happen that day because of a diaper-blowout-turned-unexpected-naptime or epic tantrum that leaves me staring into space, I have a similar choice in regards to perspective.
Being an artist, a part-time art teacher, and a full time stay-at-home-mom means I have to choose to make the time for my art career, to set aside my fears of making bad art, to power through past exhaustion, illness, bad moods and procrastinating tendencies.
I have to schedule blocks of work time around my busy business owner husband’s schedule at times when he can be home with both kids, pump breast milk for the baby, schedule babysitters, bring the toddler or the baby to the studio with me, play cartoons for hours longer than I care to admit in order to meet a deadline or work out an idea, and stay up late into the night when everyone else is asleep. I have to not care what anyone thinks about my messy house, my laundry piles, and the takeout meals or whatever unrealistic expectations I feel I’m not meeting as a mother.
When I look back on these years of early motherhood, I know it will be a blur and I know I will think fondly of the magical cuteness and sigh heavily at the hard-but-worth-it aspect of it all.
Although, the most incredible thing that keeps me going is that something in me switched on when I became a mother.
At a time when it would have been so easy to hit the snooze button, I decided to start dreaming bigger for myself and chasing some lifetime goals I could have easily put off until the nebulous time period when kids become easier to raise.
It’s as if I was such a huge procrastinator that I thought if I don’t challenge myself at one of the most challenging times in my life to do this, I never will.
Throughout this post, I’ve started to list the tricks I employ to get and stay busy on my creative work, but they are so idiosyncratic, I’m not sure they would apply to anyone else, but I’m going to do it anyway:
· I work small: I keep small bags of drawing pens and pencils, my nicer inks in one bag, small sketchbooks I can take anywhere, etc. I pull them out when I’m sitting on the couch watching crap television.
· I’m constantly researching and connecting with art: Instead of scrolling through my phone mindlessly, I search Pinterest, Tumblr or Instagram for lesson planning ideas or resources to send to my students or ideas to inspire my own art. I don’t try to overachieve like I used to with lesson plans. I take screenshots and drop them into a slideshow to share with my classes. I look at the art of others all the time. They say good writers read a lot, and I think a good artist should stay connected to art all times. I recently traded some art prints for some gorgeous glasswork of another artist who found me on Instagram. Pulling from and putting back into the local and global art community is so important. I truly believe in the law of attraction, and I think supporting other artists in any way I can will only result in the growth of my own art career.
· I keep repetitive habits: I know I thrive on routine, and I know what my procrastinating pitfalls are, so I do what I’ve found works for me and I do so religiously. I listen to a certain podcast pretty much every time I sit down to really accomplish work on a project (Marc Maron’s WTF podcast or sometimes On Being with Krista Tippett).
Most importantly—I actively nurture and fuel the positive inner dialogue in my mind, and listen to the inner critic just enough to move away from what isn’t working in my art without bemoaning the loss of time and energy.
I practice constantly, and recognize that if something is off, I’m probably out of practice.
I’m not lying about positive art affirmations. There is a lot to be gained from saying “I am an artist. I am a creative genius!” to yourself and believing it.
All of these tricks really boil down to this, too. It’s an attitude.
A personal investment in your own self-compassion goes such a long way.
There is a thing we all wish we could do if personal ability wasn’t an obstacle and most of the time acknowledging that inner critic and nurturing yourself anyway will make it happen—sometimes overnight, and sometimes in the midst of the most challenging self-care epoch of your life!
Woah!! What an amazing piece of writing, right? I found myself idenitfying with so many points and also feeling completely inspired. I hope you did too! xo- catia
Connect with Adrienne here!
Adrienne Hodge is a literal and sentimental artist whose current pen & ink portrait series combines classic portraiture with sometimes whimsical elements and symbols from nature and material culture. Her chosen medium of walnut ink, India ink, acrylic ink and gouache gives her the freedom to experiment with mixed media while remaining focused on the concept of a primarily sepia aesthetic. When she is not making art, caring for her two small children, Elliot & Jack, or antiquing with her husband, Brandon, she teaches drawing and painting classes and workshops to adults at the Dougherty Arts School in the heart of Austin, TX.