Artist and Mother, a new hour-long documentary episode in KCET’s Emmy Award-winning Artbound series and a co-production of Sylvia Frances Films, offers a brief, dense glimpse into the lives of artists who are also mothers. It’s tempting to wedge “happen to be” into that sentence, to shush motherhood into mere incident (which, sometimes, it is) — a standard judgement of gallerists and critics who, generally speaking, don’t support even the concept of motherhood, the documentary purports.
Artbound, which is in its ninth season (Artist and Mother is the seventh episode), documents the work and projects of artists in Southern California, though given the region’s breadth, the series’ reach feels wider than its aim. Episodes that showcase the California Indian Basketweavers Association, art making as a healing practice for post-traumatic stress disorder, and Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio’s “One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct” point not specifically to California but to issues that shape, more broadly, the country. While Artist and Mother focuses on Los Angeles women and their practices, it’s the pain and euphoria of motherhood, as experienced by femme artists, that is its crux.
Artist and Mother revolves around the practices of four artists: Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Andrea Chung, Rebecca Campbell, and Tanya Aguiñiga. They were selected, co-director Kate Trumbull-LaValle explained over email, because they “were not just mothers, but women artists who made ‘motherhood’ a part of their work. Beyond that, we wanted to catch artists at different stages in their career, diverse in perspectives about process and materials, and artists who could speak to the intersections and inequities that women face not only based on gender, or motherhood alone, but also in terms of class and race.”
Sandwiched between vignettes illustrating the four women, there’s an ongoing discussion, among curators, professors, and writers, about motherhood in the art world. Naima Keith, deputy director and chief curator at the California African American Museum, is one voice. “For artists that either make work about motherhood or incorporate aspects of being a mom into their work,” she says, “…there’s this fear it won’t be looked at beyond the scope of motherhood.” Curator Helen Molesworth adds, “In Western civilization, we have this idea of an artist … This person is almost always considered a white man, and he is a genius, and he will do anything for his art. A mother, on the other hand, also gives up everything, but she does so in the guise of selflessness.”
Directors Kate Trumbull-LaValle and Joanna Sokolowski starting filming the episode last year. Trumbull-LaValle told me they “had both just had babies” and were thinking about “the gendered values and expectations placed on mothers, artist mothers, the misogyny women who are mothers confront, and the unique inequities women face in creative fields.”
“Being an artist and mother is not a fixed identity,” Sokolowski added, “and we wanted to film with folks at the complex intersections of these experiences — not only in their work, but in their lives.”
The careers of Hinkle, Chung, Campbell, and Aguiñiga found new contours upon the birth of their children; Aguiñiga speaks candidly about her move from functional to conceptual work: “I was seeing every single thing with new eyes.” Campbell discusses her painting, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (2010), an image taken directly from a photograph — a mysterious arm lingers around a mother and her baby, in a shared, picnic-induced languor. “You grow a third arm,” she says, of becoming a mother. “You grow more love. You simply have enough.” Hinkle, who became pregnant upon completing her graduate degree at CalArts, tells the artist Alison Saar that she “thought about my mother’s breast, her mother’s breast … this matriarchy, this mamahood.” For an experienced so aligned with sacrifice, it’s a sobering pleasure to hear the alacrity felt among all four women, how they’ve folded motherhood into their work.
Artist and Mother would be remiss, though, if it ignored those fractured aspects of parenthood— depression, loss, the eventual pigeonholing that colors a career. “Being a mother is the last taboo in contemporary art,” says writer Jori Finkel, not long after Campbell admits she was “hesitant to be in a documentary about women artists who are mothers.” That forced changing of roles — from genius to fertile martyr — is assumptive; motherly, inspired bliss takes work, and it doesn’t always exist. Campbell adds, “It’s already complicated to be an artist and a woman, but when you’re a mother, they get compounded. I feel like one of the expectations is that you will be good, that you will be motherly.” She discusses the loss of one of her children, one of her twins who were both born with persistent pulmonary hypertension. “I had just lost Josephine,” she says, “and I immediately had to go see Andy. At that moment, I thought, ‘Fuck this. I do not want to be a mother … If I see her, I’m going to love her, and I don’t want the burden of loving another person I might lose.’” Paintings made while Campbell was in mourning depict the flowers gifted to her by friends and relatives; with love comes, always, the risk of loss.
Chung, too, faced her own postpartum depression, this time with no loss prompting it — the condition has no one cause, other than a pregnancy. “I did not know anyone who had kids,” she explains. “I had no idea what to expect and it was kind of a challenging delivery and I had postpartum depression. That was definitely a struggle — figuring out what your role is. You’re adding being a mother to the roles that you already carry, and you’re trying to figure out how that works.” To cope, she photographed her son daily; her motherhood now appears in her oeuvre in subtle ways — like the outlines of her son’s toys in a glob of paint, visible only to him.
Chung, who often explores the effects of colonialism in the Caribbean, says her practice started with “looking at my grandmother,” who raised nine children in Jamaica (Chung’s grandfather had traveled to the island from China). When she mentions the older white women artists who told her they regretted not having children, she states, “I can sympathize with them, but I feel like I already have so many disadvantages against me that having a child isn’t going to make or break anything.” Throughout, Chung, Hinkle, and Aguiñiga discuss the racialized aspects of misogyny, the difficulties of navigating the art world’s particular terrain in their own bodies. Hinkle, while pregnant, says she “felt like Tituba. She was in this puritan, all-white society, and already demonized inherently because she was a black woman.”
While most of the profiled artists refer to the racism and misogyny directed at women and mothers especially, I initially wished the commentators discussed this more in-depth themselves. And yet: it’s better to hear it from those who’ve lived it, not through the myopia of white-washed distance. There’s a poignant moment early on, when Campbell calls motherhood as “abhorrent as Paul McCarthy and beautiful as Bernini … terrible and amazing.” It’s as much suitable fodder for art making as anything else; that it’s barred from contemporary art (and art criticism, says Finkel) is a well-calibrated marginalization of women, especially of women of color and queer women. Hinkle explains she thinks about her “pregnant body,” but more specifically about “my black pregnant body, that I’m not supposed to be a creator within this art canon.” Still, she is. She then kisses her son, Jahari, so hard it seems her lipstick will come off.
Artist and Mother (Season 9, Episode 7 of Artbound) is streaming now on KCET. It will also air on Tuesday, June 12 at 9pm PT/ET on KCET and Link TV nationwide (DirecTV 375 and Dish Network 9410). A screening and panel for Artist and Mother are taking place at the California African American Museum (600 State Dr, Los Angeles) on Tuesday, June 12 7–9pm.