On Being an Artist and a Mother

Still from Chelsea Knight's The Breath We Took
Chelsea Knight, all images are stills from The Breath We Took” (2013) (All images courtesy of Aspect Ratio)

CHICAGO — What does it mean, bodily, physically, emotionally, mentally, and perhaps spiritually, to be what Simone de Beauvoir deemed “the second sex,” to be a woman and, moreover, to be a mother? These are questions that Chelsea Knight explores in her latest video work “The Breath We Took” (2013), now on view at Aspect Ratio.

…Knight creates a duality akin to “right versus wrong” or “good verses bad” — as if the “natural mother” is more valuable to her offspring, more available — a “good” mother, yet another constructed cultural ideal.

The 22-minute video blends Knight’s philosophical musings about motherhood with a curious montage of personal biography, fictional references, and documentary-style interviews with her mother and grandmother about how they married and when they became mothers — or became aware of their roles as mothers. These conversations about motherhood and the blood relationships between generations of women are cast against the social construct of marriage mostly through other women’s and the artist’s own weddings. The video itself utilizes a dreamy, stream-of-consciousness aesthetic style, making this work flowing and fluid — like fragments of poetry snipped from the page and translated into the moving image.

The artist’s look into her friends’ wedding ceremonies feels unemotional, and not at all nostalgic; Knight has already been through this experience, yet continues to relive it through participating in their weddings. In fact, her lucid detachment trails throughout the film; it is unlike what we see through the artist’s own brutally honest mother who came of age during the 1960s, and proudly owns her hippie roots. Knight’s mother talks about how much she absolutely hated motherhood, how she wasn’t cut out for it, and that birthing Chelsea was in fact “probably the worst birth ever, and it’s probably the reason you’re an only child.” She says this all with a smile, and a chuckle. Knight, however, appears vulnerable and still seems to be processing what motherhood means to her. She reflects, “The birth wasn’t scary, but the becoming a mother part was really scary.”

Still from The Breath We Took by Chelsea Knight
Still from The Breath We Took by Chelsea Knight

Of course, it’s easier for Knight’s mother to make these statements about motherhood to her now-adult only daughter; more than 30 years have passed since Chelsea was born, and her mother has had time to reflect on her role, and become more comfortable in it. Knight, however, is still a young mother who is grappling with some of these questions while looking back at the socially constructed female rites of passage — namely, marriage and motherhood — that have brought her to this point in her own life and art-making practice.

For the mother who is also an artist, or for the artist who is also a mother, compartmentalizing the experience of motherhood away from art is one option; the other is to integrate it into the work itself. In artist Sharon Butler’s article “Neo-Maternalism: Contemporary Artists’ Approach to Motherhood,” she explores the integration of motherhood and artmaking, referencing painter Elizabeth Murray, who channeled the energy of caring for children into her work. She writes: “The paintings channel the screaming, fractured energy and frustration that come from being both an artist and a mother, but ultimately transcend specific circumstances to make a more universal statement about life’s challenges and satisfactions that is neither masculine nor feminine.” Sally Mann’s oft-controversial photographs of her children portrayed them in their natural states of undress; in an interview for Art21, Mann stated that she was not specifically interested in children or photographing them — rather, they just happened to be there, and so she photographed them in her spontaneous style. Similarly, Catherine Opie treads into formerly ‘taboo’ motherhood territory, turning the lens she usually focused on queer community at herself, heavily tattooed and breast-feeding her son, Oliver, establishing what one version of queer motherhood looks like. 

Yet how does a woman’s relationship to production and reproduction affect the woman who is also a mother and an artist? 

Let us return to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. One of this text’s central motifs is that of the woman in her role of production vs. reproduction—yet the “job” of being a mother and an artist is not recognized by Western cultures as anything in the realm of “productive.” The thanklessness of the mother “job” is something that Knight’s mother points out in this layered video, stating: “It’s a 24/7 job and you have no status, no pay, you don’t get social security … here are the mothers who are raising all of our treasure, and we have no value. There’s nothing … ”

The task of being a mother falls under the “reproduction” realm, which in and of itself poses one of the central problems of the female role. If a woman’s productive capacity includes her participation in a capitalist economy, how can she also participate in the reproductive role without falling victim to a sort of outsider status, a cultural “othering”? These questions, first posed in the middle of the 20th century, and leading to the wider women’s rights movement, still hold weight for women today. Beauvoir makes clear that a woman’s reproductive role shouldn’t stop her from fulfilling a role outside of the home. A woman is not boxed into her roles as mother or as worker. Yet at times, she may oscillate between these two polemics. And as a mother with a womb turned inside out, she may never again be able to choose one or the other.

But then what of the artist, who also is not often valued as a worker in a capitalist system of moving, making, and spending money? The artist is not seen as an integral part of American culture, period; tax forms would have us think we are all hobbyists, unless we are in fact making gobs of money off of our creative productions. For some this is the case, but for the majority it is not.

Knight’s montage-like mixture of conversational snippets and dialogues between herself and her mother, grandmother and various brides seems to tiptoe across these bigger questions about motherhood and being an artist, allowing them to remain open-ended and unanswered. There are moments when she gets to the meat of the “what does motherhood mean to me?” question, and the combination of both ennui and loneliness that come as a result of being a mother, or trying to be a mother. But more often than not, these conversations begin and then trail off.

Knight obliquely discusses the idea of the cynical performer acting as a mother versus the “natural mother,” who apparently understands this role intuitively, as if she was handed a secret invisible guidebook to “how to be a mother,” which seems to come to her as naturally as washing a child’s feet. In doing so, Knight creates a duality akin to “right versus wrong” or “good verses bad” — as if the “natural mother” is more valuable to her offspring, more available — a “good” mother, yet another constructed cultural ideal. More interesting moments arise when the artist herself speaks of what it was like being pregnant, feeling one with her child both physically and emotionally, and then the moment the detachment occurred—and how that loss affected her, emotionally.

“I felt pretty connected with myself when I was pregnant, which made me feel connected to Pema [my daughter] … I looked at her and I had this surge of hormones or emotion or whatever, but then she didn’t belong to me — now she is this entity in the world, and before she was a part of me,” says Knight, in a dreamy, distant, and disconnected voice.

The Breath We Took is not about brides, grooms, marriage ceremonies or men, and the footage and momentary lapses into discussion of these areas distracts from the heart of it all—the connections that occur between mothers, grandmothers and daughters, the experience of literally passing life on from one body to the next. The way society views women via the social construction of marriage is outside of this video’s main focus, so the attention feels unwarranted and lingering.

Still from The Breath We Took by Chelsea Knight
Still from The Breath We Took by Chelsea Knight

At the end of the video, Knight’s daughter Pema, who appears to be about seven, begins telling a dreamlike sequence of her own birth, reciting it as if it were fact. This welcome fictional aspect of the family narrative adds depth and character to a dialogue-heavy video. Later, Pema is bouncing around her grandmother’s studio, and Knight asks her what she wants to be when she grows up.  She answers point-blank: “I want to be an artist.”

When a daughter of an artist proclaims that she, too, wants to be an artist, the cycle begins anew. This is perhaps the most startling moment of all — and it is here that things start clicking. This gorgeously-edited video that could have benefited from more candid conversations like these and less peering into unrelated brides’ worlds and lackluster memories of marriage. Wipe away the excess questioning of selfhood and societal roles, and this could be the breath that the collective “we” — daughter, mother and grandmother — take at the moment when they first met, to be followed by moments of meeting again and again through the delicate, familial, female ties that bind.

The Breath We Took is on view at Aspect Ratio (119 N Peoria, Unit 3D, Chicago) through June 1. 

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