Residency vs. Motherhood

Posted by: Elaine Luther

Like a dieter who can’t stop reading recipes for luscious cakes in glossy magazines, I can’t stop reading calls for applications to residencies.

I crave the time away, the community and the outside recognition of my art career.

Sadly, I can’t get away very easily.  I have three kids, and when I’m away, it can take up to three people to replace me (one to drive, one to babysit, one to cook).  Once when I went away to a course at Ox-Bow, my dad flew in to watch the kids for me.  Another time, I had a combination of paid help and relatives.  Sometimes, if the babysitter is a teen, someone else has to come in to be the driver, to drive the kids to their various lessons.

It’s a lot of work to set all that up.  I dream of artist Jill Miller’s program, Art Reach, where she swoops down on you, whisks you away, while another volunteer stays with your family and helps them.  Alas, her project only happens in California, far from me.

I’ve made it away twice in recent years.  Once was the trip to Ox-Bow, where I was awarded a merit scholarship for up to two weeks, but only took one week because my youngest daughter was only 5.  I didn’t think she could handle two weeks (I was right).

The separation was so difficult for her that I felt guilty for putting her through it.  A friend pointed out that my daughter might benefit from this, she was now stronger for having been through that experience.  That made me feel a bit better, but I decided to wait until she was older to go away on residency again.

But still, I didn’t stop reading those calls for applications for residencies.  I LOVE applying for things, I’m really good at it!  I love being chosen!  A couple of years later, there was brand new start up residency and I applied and got in.  Yay!  I made all the arrangements, for the food, the childcare, prepping my car for the drive, deciding what kind of art to make, buying supplies to work with.

The preparation was valuable and important and I made new work at the residency, a body of work I’m still making.  Even so, the residency wasn’t quite what I expected, there was no community aspect, it was almost complete isolation.  Whoops. 

In my excitement to be accepted into one of the few residencies that’s shorter than a month, I didn’t consider what I most needed from a residency to really nurture me.  I need community, inspiration, and meals provided for me.  Unfortunately, this residency had none of those things.  (I still managed to start some interesting work, some of it is shown here.)

That experience led me to ponder – what’s more important?  Creating the on-going rhythm, support and commitment needed for a productive studio practice at home?  Or getting away into inspiring spaces and artist retreat communities?

I came up with these ideas to “bring the residency home.”

To start, <strong>what are the important aspect of a residency?</strong> Usually there’s some level of freedom from distraction, preparation, deadlines, inspiration, a change of scenery and community.

How can we create that in our lives, all the time?

1. Travel!

Travel can shake things up and that part of a residency can be key to shaking you into trying new ideas, seeing things in a new light. Even a weekend away, sketchbook and camera in hand, can be beneficial.

Can’t travel right now? Be a tourist in your own town. What are the sight-seeing activities you never get around to doing? Do them!

2. Go to a bookstore with no agenda.  Just wander around and be surprised. I did this on my trip and realized I can’t remember the last time I did that.

3. Work in a new way, give yourself a challenge.

4. Abandon some art.

In my recent travels, I found myself in a couple of book stores with no agenda. In one of them, I found <em>The Art of Abandonment Project</em> by Michael deMeng and Andrea Matus deMeng. It’s just the right book for me right now and I’m sure I’ll be abandoning some art, in a random acts of kindness kind of way, sometimes soon.

5. Create the community you seek.

First, look really hard to see if it exists and go join it! If it doesn’t though, use and create your dream community. You set the rules and attract the people you want!

6. Set expectations.

A Chicago fiber artist I know created her own at-home residency this summer, complete with a partner who would agree to the challenge of committing to making art for 4 hours a day for 5 days a week, all summer.

She’s been keeping herself to this expectation, plus more, and creating oodles of new experimental work.

Another friend is using <strong>Project 365</strong> and posting a photograph a day.  I love looking at her photos month by month and seeing the themes and the seasons move across her project.  I’m rather inspired and might join up as well.

What expectations can you set for yourself?

7. Shake up your routine.

Do something you never do. Never take time to go walk around the local lake? Go! Never go to art openings? Go!

8. Stick to your routine.

Create habits around your art making. Habits can be extremely helpful. You never forget to drink your morning coffee, right?

Read the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg to learn how to effectively create new habits.

9. Get into nature.

At minimum, go outside barefoot and walk around. We talk about getting grounded, but it turns out walking barefoot on the grass or sand really is good for you!

Lots of studies show that time in nature is good for our health. If it’s good for health, it’s good for creativity.

10. See your neighborhood in a new way by doing a color study.

It’s super easy and fun. Just walk around with your camera and take pictures of whatever catches your eye. Come home, upload the pictures, take a look at what they look like as a group, or multiple groupings.

What colors show up again and again? What are you drawn to? What are the colors of your neighborhood?

11. Cross-pollinate your creative work by being an audience member for others.

See live theater, go to a story slam, go to a music concert. Soak up the excitement that comes from a live performance.

12. Lay the foundation.

We all work in phases, right? Sometimes we’re making the work, sometimes we’re promoting it, and sometimes we’re laying the foundation by taking a class. Learning a new technique might open up new ways of creating and be just the thing we need!

If you’re in a lull or stuck, sometimes taking a class can be just the thing to get us out of it.

13. Nurture yourself.

Many residencies offer some level of nurturance – food cooked for us, interesting fellow travelers to talk to, perhaps artist talks. How can you bring in some nurturance for yourself, to allow you to do your best work?

Start with what you need most in order to be productive in your art work, spend some time bringing that to your awareness, so that you give yourself the right things.

Quiet time, exercise and healthy food show up on lots of people’s lists. If you’re doing an at-home residency for a specific time period, you could plan the meals. Maybe some of those meals would be dinners out with a good friend. Make it easy, and yummy, so you can focus on the art.

14. Make it easy, remove obstacles.

Clean the studio, plan your meals, tell everyone what you’re doing, set boundaries.

I’m doing lots of the above to “bring the residency home.”  I’ve got multiple artist groups that I’m a part of, I’ve cleaned the studio and have terrific boundaries around my studio time.

One thing I’ve decided to do for now is to travel more with my family.  That way I can get that inspiration of getting away, taking photos and seeing new things, but without the hardship of being separated from my family, without the extra trouble and expense of going away alone.

And I still have my eye on two residencies!  On one of them, you’re allowed to bring your family along, and the other is only a week.  Like that dieter eyeing the German chocolate cake recipe, I’m still not cured, but I’ve found a way to work some moderation into my art life, at least for now.

Want to learn more about artist residencies?  The Alliance for Artists Communities is a membership organization for the residencies themselves, and they provide extensive listings.  In addition, they offer this helpful guide on what to consider in choosing a residency:

Want to read about how other parent artists and writers have managed residencies, both with and without their children?  Cultural Reproducers has a whole series on that, here:

Learn more about Jill Miller’s Art Reach Residency here:

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