Saturday, January 31, 2015

In the spirit of full disclosure: why money matters when it comes to art

I have always enjoyed the company of people who are willing to be candid. Perhaps because candidness tends to require other traits that I admire: self-reflection, generosity, self-deprecation, openness…

Admittedly, I am a journalist and so I rely on people’s willingness to be honest and articulate about their feelings or experiences. But in my personal life, too, there’s nothing I like more than conversations had in the spirit of full disclosure.

I don’t mean that I want to know everyone’s secrets. Privacy is important, too – and relationships would be way too intense without it! But one of the things I’ve come to understand over the years is that there is a big difference between that which is profoundly personal and that which is actually private.

The Divided Heart relied on women’s willingness to be (at times searingly) honest about their experience of mothering, without requiring them to tell me anything specific about their children or their partners. That said, it still meant talking about the circumstances of their lives. In a book which is all about dismantling the romantic myths of the artistic life, it would be naïve and, essentially, dishonest, not to be frank about the context in which we live and work.

And if you’re going to publish a book of conversations, the last thing you want is a book of “polite conversations”!

This is in part why, of all the actors I could have approached, I chose to interview Rachel Griffiths – because she is so refreshingly upfront about the role that earning big money and having a stay-at-home husband has played in her ability to pursue her acting career as a mother. And about the downsides of that. When asked about her decision to move back to Australia recently, Rachel admitted: “I had really not seen my children enough, I’d outsourced a lot of that child stuff in order to do 70 to 80 hour weeks on set and I just wanted my kids to actually like me.”

Some of my interviewees were more relaxed than others about this line of questioning, especially when it came to the matter of money. But on the whole they were extraordinarily generous about discussing the kinds of support that enable their creative work.

Yes, people can overcome all manner of obstacles, and do make all manner of sacrifices, in order to make art. And some have more robust practices, not to mention egos, than others.

No amount of advantage can trump talent. But talent is only one tiny piece of a puzzle that is largely made up of practice and perseverance. It can be pretty difficult to make anything of your talent without the time and freedom to develop – and, at the end of the day, money buys time. For most of us, that means support (moral, emotional, financial) is crucial.

The conditions of our life can make all the difference when it comes to creativity – if not in our basic capacity to create, then almost always in our level of output. As someone who has been interested in the lives of women artists over the centuries, this has been patently clear to me.

In a more contemporary context, though, it has to be said that partners have often replaced patrons as the “sponsor” of many artists. And I, for one, am grateful when an artist is willing to admit that having a partner who brings in a sizeable income – and is happy to provide that support – is what allows them to focus on writing (or painting or composing…), as writer Ann Bauer does in her recent Salon article, '"Sponsored" by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from'.

What this satisfies for me I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps, as a mother who also works full time, it makes me feel more justified (or less guilty) in doing so little creative work! Perhaps it just highlights the important ongoing problem of making any kind of living in the arts without support. Or perhaps it’s just refreshing when people recognise and admit to their good fortune. Then the rest of us can express our envy openly and generously!

Whatever it is, I appreciate it in the spirit of candidness, disclosure and good old-fashioned honesty.

Monday, January 12, 2015

'Intersection: The Art of Motherhood' exhibition opening Wednesday

I have contributed a few works to a group exhibition, Intersection: The Art of Motherhood, which opens this Wednesday January 14, 6-8pm at Red Gallery, 157 St Georges Rd, North Fitzroy.

The works run the full gamut of emotions that motherhood engenders, as I write in the catalogue essay:

As new mothers, we confront the sudden loss of boundaries; our minds and bodies tested beyond all previous limits of patience and endurance. As our children grow, we are challenged by our inability to control the world they move through; to embrace the extreme vulnerability and uncertainty that comes with loving another person so much. 

The universal themes of mothering – the guilt and ambivalence, the power of maternal love, the challenge of letting go – are all explored in "Intersection: The Art of Motherhood". These works describe the newfound connection between past and present; the renewed chance to see the world through a child’s eyes; and a love so intense that it can only be represented by the vastness of sea and sky.

So if you're in Melbourne and feel like taking in some art and a free drink while lots of kids run around your legs (always a crazy combination!), then please come along on Wednesday night. Or pop in whenever you get a chance.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Talking divided hearts on Triple R

I had the pleasure of talking about The Divided Heart on Triple R's "Reading Room" segment with host Kulja Coulston and author/ illustrator Sally Rippin as part of station's Grapevine program today.

You can listen here if you like. Our chat starts at about 2:27:00 into the recording.

Working on the reissue of The Divided Heart has again given me the chance to talk to some incredible women artists. I'd forgotten how much I love meeting and talking to women about these deeply felt issues. It's wonderful to be reminded how discussing the "intersection" of mothering and creativity leads to such a profound and heartfelt explorations of both.

A book like this relies on the openness of its subjects - and I am still struck, every time I meet one of my interviewees, by the extraordinary intelligence, honesty and generosity of spirit - not to mention the precious time - that these women proffer.

It's as though I myself finally understand what playwright Hannie Rayson meant when she said: “There is such intelligence, insight and honesty in this book, which makes me remember why I love being in the company of women. Perversely perhaps, this book made me yearn to go back and do it all again.”

Me too!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

New version of The Divided Heart on its way...

I think I can now safely announce that The Divided Heart has found a new publisher and, all things going to plan, will be reprinted and back on bookshop shelves in April 2015!

Independent publisher Affirm Press have taken it on, albeit with some significant changes -- all involving a very tight deadline.

Hardworking editor Aviva Tuffield and I are currently working on the new edition, which will feature updated content and additional interviews.

It's very tempting to tell you which artists I'm set to meet next week, but I don't want to steal the book's thunder, so you'll just have to wait till the book is released next year.

It all feels very exciting -- and such a relief to be able to tell people who ask me how/where they can get their hands a copy that it will be back in print soon...

Also, for me personally, it will finally free me up to pursue some of my other writing more wholeheartedly (no pun intended!). For quite a while now, every time I've tried to sink into a new project, I've felt this pressure to put that energy into getting The Divided Heart back into print as a first priority.

The combination of kids and full-time work means I still have very little time around the edges for creativity, so it's all too easy for unfinished, long-term projects to use up the space that might otherwise go towards new work. (All part of the complex discipline required to make art, I know!)

So not only is it lovely to get this chance to breathe new life into what really has been my passion project for some time now, its reissue might finally give me the space and time to follow it up with some new writing (I hope).

The great gift of writing this book has been the incredible community of creative people it has connected me to. As I've said many times, the letters and messages I have received from readers over the years have been so insightful and moving, I've felt that any one of their writers would have been worthy of an interview for the book itself -- if only it could be endlessly expanded. Which it has and will continue to do in other forums.

Thank you for staying connected with this blog and with The Divided Heart. I'll be sure to keep you posted on its progress...

Monday, August 25, 2014

The art of learned selfishness

I still have a strong memory of the day a lecturer stood in front of my art history tutorial to declare that, to date, there had been no great women artists.

Of course there was the inevitable outrage from students in the room, who argued that it was the definition of greatness that was the problem: that the themes and forms taken up by women didn't fit the patriarchal categories of "great art". We identified the cultural and institutional barriers that historically stopped women from becoming practicing artists. We listed all the female artists we thought worthy of recognition...

After the class, there was the bitter aftertaste: the familiar, niggling suspicion that we were merely being toyed with. It was all a bit of a game with these male teachers, stirring the pot before standing back to enjoy the predictable reaction from the latest batch of naive, dogmatic young things.

But I was also genuinely troubled by the question. Are there really no great women artists? What makes an artist "great", anyway? Or, more to the point, what enables an artist to become great? Because surely no-one could sensibly argue that women didn't have equal capacity for greatness...

I began doing some research about the lives of the women artists we had mentioned in the class... (Can you see where this is heading?) Yep. That is the day I realised that almost every one of the female artists named was, either by choice or circumstance, childless. There may have been the odd exception, but even then they tended to be either wealthy enough to avoid much of the hands-on care or to have abandoned their children altogether (not always happily or freely).

I have often thought about that tutorial and wished I knew what I know now. I would have a simple answer.

Art is all about time. There is no way of making great art without investing huge amounts of time into the practice of it. And time is what most women still don't have.

I could go on and have, in previous posts over the years but I don't think I could put it any better than Helen Addison-Smith in her article "Yes, Men Are Better Writers", published in the current edition of Overland. As she says:

‘Good writing’ does not emanate from the penis but it does emanate from material conditions. Writing takes time – great swathes of clean, empty time, unsullied by children or housework or deep worry about money or skincare routines. To be a writer is to be selfish enough to grab time and spend it churning words around, even though you are not getting paid very much, hardly anybody cares about what you’re doing, and even fewer people think that it’s any good.

Men are better at being selfish than women. They are better at it before the having of children, but they really come into their own after the having of children. While women generally see the immediate needs of the shorties as taking first priority, men are able to keep themselves as the focus and so spend less time and energy bringing up children.

In the comments, there are those accusing Helen of being "reductive and rather silly". But surely sometimes being intentionally reductive and a bit silly is the best way of driving home a point and provoking a debate. That doesn't mean there isn't truth at its core.

If it wasn't for Varuna: The Writers' House I would barely have written a word since having children. As Helen implies, while there are creative women who want kids and want to make art about (or in spite of) their lives the only answer is for them to be supported in practicing the art of selfishness, at least on occasion.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Come Worry With Us - a review

My friend Katie and I went to see the thought-provoking doco Come Worry With Us (not a great title) the other night at the Melbourne Film Festival.

There was something so gratifying for me in seeing this film — not only because (much like Mary Trunk's film Lost in Living) it was such a perfect actual and visual representation of all the themes and ideas in The Divided Heart. But also because I felt like it backed up the original impetus for my book: that motherhood can be challenging for all working women, but has its own very particular set of difficulties for artists.

I often got what seemed a very defensive reaction from potential publishers (and, later, reviewers) to my desire to focus on artists — the whole “what makes you so special?” question — when I never understood why delving into the specific experience of one group of people was in any way devaluing the experiences of others. Neither did I assume there wasn’t plenty of cross-over with the experiences of non-artists, but I still strongly believe that the kind of dedication any creative practice requires makes for a particularly fraught situation for those who want or have children.

Come Worry With Us perhaps presents an extreme version of this situation in focusing on a couple who are bandmates in an experimental rock group, Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra — a band dedicated to both creative and personal integrity. Their boisterous, largely instrumental (though with vocal elements) music has a small but faithful audience and they intentionally keep ticket prices to a minimum. With baby Ezra in the mix, they remain dedicated to their decision to share both income and costs evenly, including those related to touring with a toddler.

Having a child proves the ultimate challenge not only on a practical level for parents Jessica and Efrim, but also on an ethical one. They are confronted with the way a child demands a different kind of engagement with the conventional world, especially on the financial front.

As father Efrim says, the world of touring musicians is the opposite to everything a child requires: they are stuck in a bus when he should be outside running about and they are working when they should be getting their child to bed. And the cost of the bus and the nanny almost cancels out any money they make.

That said, amid the obvious trials, some of the loveliest scenes are those between little Ezra and his parents' bandmates, who are like second parents to him, and witnessing his own growing love of music.

The film illustrates the seemingly inevitable gender division that occurs after having a baby, all the more dramatic for a couple who has never subscribed to traditional roles and been very much equals. In the early days after their baby’s birth, for practical reasons, Jessica stays home with baby Ezra while Efrim tours with his other band.

Despite this split, I found myself somewhat irritated by father Efrim’s insistence that while Jessica was doing much of the hands-on care, he was bearing the brunt of the anxiety about providing for his family. While his financial concerns were real, she expresses similar fears about the threat to her creative endeavours and the need to find more stable work.

At one point Jessica’s best friend, a visual artist, makes the astute comment that while she’d like to have kids, she thinks she’d much rather be a father than a mother.

Jessica really sums up the central dilemma when she asks: “How can I be the kind of mother I want to be and keep doing the thing I love? Is it selfish or is it the best thing to do for your kid — showing them that you’re doing what you love?”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Chaos and creativity

It is always so lovely to hear from readers of The Divided Heart. I've been lucky to get hundreds of letters and emails over the years, and every time I am struck by how articulate and thoughtful -- and candid -- these messages are.

It is humbling to get such heartfelt responses from women who are often arguably a lot further along in their creative careers than I am, but for whom the book still struck a nerve. It is also especially gratifying to hear from readers who tell me that the book was what enabled them keep hold of that elusive creative thread when everything else in their lives was telling them to give up and let it go.

Most recently, I got an email from painter (and mother of five!) Jasmine Mansbridge, who after reading The Divided Heart shared her "thoughts on being an artist and a parent" on her blog.

She writes there about how a lack of time for art creates a kind of urgency that ends up driving greater productivity. It is such a potent fantasy -- that idea of having endless time rolling out in front of you to create without disruption or distraction. And yet, even at times when my creative frustrations are through the roof, I know that if I had all the time in the world for writing and drawing, I would likely only freeze under the pressure. You'd just find me down at the local cafe drinking my tenth coffee and pretending to myself it was all part of the process...

As my kids have gotten older, I can now look back and see what an incredibly fruitful time those early years with small children were for art. Yes -- manic and exasperating, but also intense and rich and full in all the right ways.

Thank you to everyone who has written to me (especially those who I may have neglected to respond to -- that includes the reader who wrote me a particularly long and gut-wrenching letter in an envelope I threw out before realising that it meant I'd lost the return address -- I have felt terrible about this ever since!). Your words mean a lot.