The mystique of the artist locked away in their studio for hours or even days is centuries old. But for artists who are also parents, that ideal is largely laughable. The art world often overlooks the reality of parenthood and the balancing act artists play to maintain a career. As much of the globe is forced to stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, artist-parents are confronting greater constraints on their practice, while also coming up with creative methods to engage and educate their children.
Philadelphia-based artist Mia Rosenthal was supposed to have more time for art-making in 2020. Her eldest is in fourth grade and her youngest had finally started preschool — freeing up part of her days for making work. With both back at home, she is balancing their schoolwork with at-home activities, including card-making and sidewalk painting. “We also bake a lot and go for walks,” she explained in an email. “There is something special about being out together on a random Tuesday morning, experiencing nature and early spring, when under normal circumstances we’d each be doing our own thing.” On the weekends, Rosenthal tries to get to her studio for a few hours, where she is working on a series of ink drawings that incorporate objects picked up on walks around Philly — the project taking on new meaning in a time of social distancing.
For many artists, the complexities of parenthood already define how they go about their careers. Social practice artists Yara El-Sherbini and Davina Drummond began collaborating in 2012 after becoming mothers. “We realized we could be part-time artists independently or full-time artists together,” they explained in an interview. Now, living on separate continents — Drummond in London, El-Sherbini in Santa Barbara — they are accustomed to working via Google Hangouts on their collaborative projects, but time has shrunk from an average of six to eight hours to just two precious hours a day during this quarantine period. From 7 to 9am in California and 3 to 5pm in London, they finalize project details, shift exhibition schedules — including one at Somerset House in London meant to open this April — and discuss new ideas.
The rest of their days are devoted to their children. Drummond’s nine-year-old is navigating computer-based learning for the first time, while her five-year-old stays busy helping with projects around the house, storytelling, and lots of craft time. She has found crocheting with her eldest to be a respite, the blankets’ layers becoming physical markers of the time spent at home. In addition to establishing a daily routine, food helps tremendously, she says. As a family, they have morning and afternoon tea accompanied by freshly baked treats — providing moments in the day all look forward to.
For El-Sherbini, the importance of altering educational expectations, particularly around building a specific curriculum for her nine- and six-year-old daughters, has been essential. “You come to the understanding that they are getting their education in different ways,” she explained. “I can provide them something different than their teachers.” This includes getting outdoors as much as possible, coming up with at-home science activities, and making dens. Both Drummond and El-Sherbini have learned that coming up with projects that they also like is most successful: “The kids will see your enthusiasm if you are planning activities that you also enjoy.”
Los Angeles-based artist Edgar Arceneaux is making sure his 14-year-old daughter gets the most out of her final months of middle school. “The hardest part for her is that she’s graduating, so she’s missing the community of all being together, those moments like signing each other’s yearbooks,” he explained. To bring a bit of that experience to life, he’s planning a virtual graduation ceremony for her with performance gadgets in his studio, Zoom cameras, strobe lights, and perhaps even a smoke machine.
An art professor at the University of Southern California (USC), Arceneaux is also navigating online education for his Advanced Painting course and coming up with ways to maintain a spirit of connection virtually. He set up cameras in his studio and encourages students to sign onto Zoom in the evenings and paint together — no conversation necessary. Having focused on performance and theater-based projects more recently, he’s returning to painting for the first time in years — experimenting with poured paint over plastic vessels. His daughter often joins him on the project, which he documents on Instagram.
“I’ve come to see this time as an opportunity for parents and children to show resolve together through creativity,” Arceneaux said. “The busyness of our everyday lives doesn’t always allow time to just be together.”
Numa Perrier, a filmmaker and artist, emphasizes the importance of surrendering to the moment. As a co-parent to her nine-year-old daughter, she alternates weeks with her former partner, the two taking turns managing their daughter’s daily Zoom classes and Google Doc assignments. “We’ve found our way into a rhythm,” she shared. Between parenting responsibilities, Perrier is also working on two screenwriting projects. “I’ve shifted to doing the bulk of my own work the weeks when my daughter is not here,” she said. If ideas come to her during their time together, she just takes notes and jots down thoughts that she can return to later.
Living in Downtown Los Angeles, Perrier and her daughter try not to leave home during these weeks, instead spending the bulk of their time inside. “It’s a strong bonding moment,” she said. They’ve found themselves having long, deep discussions, while also coming up with fun and creative activities. “Every day there is a new painting project.” They’ve painted objects around the house such as water cans and old cameras, and both are turning to photography to document candid moments throughout the day. One image has stayed with her — a photograph she took the first time she helped her daughter put on a mask. “As a mom, it really affected me,” she shared. “I overhear my daughter on phone calls with her friends and they’re using words like pandemic, death, and virus. It’s striking how much kids are absorbing this moment and thinking through these ideas.”
And what about when both parents are artists? For Brooklyn-based Shaun Leonardo and Mckendree Key, the pandemic began with health scares. In March, Key was diagnosed with pneumonia and chose to self-quarantine — now likely sure it was COVID-19. Leonardo’s brother also became seriously ill and, after waiting days, tested positive for coronavirus and was treated at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. While both are now healthy, the experiences were frightening, and all the while the couple cared for their four-year-old daughter and Key’s 13-year-old.
Now having relocated to Vermont, the couple stagger their days to attend to their children. “As parents, we are learning that the idea of structure is impossible,” Leonardo said in a phone interview. While their 13-year old’s school has transitioned to packed days of online learning, their four-year old requires constant attention. They start their mornings outdoors, creating handprint butterflies, felted rocks, magic wands, or painted tree bark. Key and the girls are also creating handmade weavings out of found materials to raise money for Elmhurst Hospital and Artshack Brooklyn, the nonprofit she founded in 2008 that she’s now working to keep alive.
And while both artists are having to reconceive postponed or cancelled exhibitions, including a culminating performance of Leonardo’s Primitive Games — in which people debate one another through movement rather than words — the two appreciate the time together as a family. “We are making sure there is a lot of time for music, for storytelling, for dance,” Leonardo shared. “By slowing down and just being parents, it’s showing us that we probably did too much to begin with.”
Amid dealing with the stresses of parenting, each of these artists is inevitably thinking about the nature of their work. Throughout our interviews, critical questions arose: What will performance or social practice look like on the other side of this? How will community-building be achieved when people don’t want to sit next to one another? As artists, how can they be mindful of access as the world moves online? What will be the role of public space now and in the future?
Time at home has provided an important space for reflection. And while questions and more will continue to linger, for now each of these artists is focused on gratitude, on creativity, and on taking advantage of this time together.