The End of Lockdown

Children in Badock's Wood
A middle way in Badock’s Wood, Corsham

(For those with children going back to school after 6 months at home)

Maybe it’s not a time for writing. Maybe the coalescing of junctioned thoughts gives too much structure to the wisps of ideas. They haven’t been written for so long anyway. The traipsing catalogue of lockdown lent a plan of Things To Get Done around the kids. A slowly circling pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, where each half-blinded attempt lends to ridicule and futility their hope. The beautifully crafted timetable for home-schooling lasted a week. The game-playing on tablets assumed an inverse proportion. Chores became battlegrounds around a finite number of marbles. Material stuff continually moved around the house. The dog got stressed. You want to know what lockdown was like? PARENTS COULDN’T NAIL ANYTHING. The short-circuit in all and every circumstance to a child’s immediate desire: their hunger, their tiredness, the shouting each other up and down, their right to self, their pure entitlement. The hijacking thereby of any prolonged moment of concentration, reflection, consideration – no chance to stare at the world because the world is beyond the shores of your island and doesn’t hear your shouting. The relationship bridge to your partner has weathered some storms, but this time, the stasis necessary for the kids’ laws of motion has translated into brittleness. Being in the business of denied thought, denied conversation, denied chancing your arm, and everything stifles and stalls. Our job has been silence, silenced to each other because you can’t pay attention to the kids if you’re talking.

Maybe it is a time for writing. Maybe the considered attempt to join up memories fills out the picture of lives lived. The photos were taken throughout anyway. The traipsing catalogue of lockdown lent a plan of Things to Enjoy Doing with the kids. A whirlwind cacophony of race-you-to-the-moon-and-back, where the abandon of play lends to ridicule and futility their hope. The timetable included Joe Wicks giving us Fancy Dress Friday for carpet-room workouts. The sunshine assumed a glorious proportion of fields, treehouses, rivers, cow parsley, frogs, Easter gardens and radishes. Chores became shared. Material stuff didn’t matter and we spent less. The dog got loved. You want to know what lockdown was like? PARENTS COULD EXPERIENCE EVERYTHING. The short-circuit in all and every circumstance to a child’s perspective of now: their excitement, their openness, their commitment, their pure youth. The liberation thereby into receiving everything as a gift rather than an interruption – a chance to stare at the immediate, colourful presence of the world right in front of you. The relationship bridge to your partner has weathered some storms, and this time, the stasis necessary for the kids’ laws of motion has translated into deeper equality. Being in the business of shared responsibility, shared loves, shared creativity, and everything expands and inspires. Our job has been steadiness, steadiness to each other because you can’t pay attention to the kids if you’re trying to get one up on your life.

3 front lines when you ‘turn pro’ with art and motherhood

Children in a running race
School sports day, June 2019

This month has been a month of recalibration, the long 8 weeks of this summer term (second half) feeling like a marathon. I’d sprinted to St Cyriac’s Day last month, a deadline for my latest project; and now somehow July has passed with my wondering where the solid ground is. Practitioner reflection brought about by 8 job/grant applications for next autumn, by my trilogy reading of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, Turning Pro, and The Artist’s Journey, and by my tuning in to Mark McGuinness’s podcast The 21st Century Creative. I’ve been reading/listening to quite a bit about motivation and productivity as a freelance, and there has been so much useful, insightful, fog-lifting, challenging counsel in the above. I could make a list of those gems, all very mindful and productive. But none of them came near to the particular circumstances of a working mum. In fact, I kept getting very annoyed. Annoyed at how disenfranchised I continue to feel at the creative party that is the modern day portfolio or freelance career. Annoyed at the lack of female voice, and the mother in particular. Annoyed at aspirational optimism without the reality checks of family needs.

So I asked myself to write this post, at least in part to try and articulate what I actually am up against, what is actually at stake with art and motherhood. And I came up with the idea of front lines. Actual front lines, not obstacles or challenges to be swept aside and overcome with neat assertion. By which I mean I have to negotiate the presenting differences in what I want to do, and what I can do, daily, over and over again. I HAVE to enter the fray with malleability and responsiveness and commitment, otherwise my sanity will be shredded. The issues are of identity, not just of management of a circumstance/situation, which to the external (usually male) eye view may simply be practically accommodated. They plumb deep cultural associations, and they mine sense of self.

So here we go:

  • Emotional labour.  Emotional labour or load has only recently been identified in the world of family life (in parent/child relations, and in marriage) as the concerted human effort behind a family’s daily arena of coordination and communication.  The carrier of the financial load in family life is unsurprisingly well-identified – whether the father or the mother, the breadwinner is a traditional keystone around which the needs of childcare, housework and sustenance are arranged.  But the carrier of the emotional load has arguably as central a place in the family home, a place where the demands of parenting are concentrated around one or more small dictators who change the rules/furniture every hour.  There is no simple dualism here, but if you are the person at home who carries most of the emotional load AND you are trying to work part-time as a creative, then the pressures you face are particularly emotionally intense and exhausting. I remain surprised at how little emotion features in any of Pressfield’s descriptions of ‘turning pro’ in the world of creative work.  He holds up child-birth (and noticeably not child-rearing) as a parallel exceptional achievement by women – commendable for its comparison with the warrior-pro mindset, as unhesitatingly committed to ‘do the work’ (= labour).  But the expression and experience of emotion is downplayed in what is a cool-headed levelling of human function and focus. Yet both child-birth and child-rearing are front lines of emotional labour through or alongside which women are encouraged to work – often without reckoning of the turbulent, shifting, alternatively myopic and magical stresses this involves.  The contradictions are many, but I’m looking for compounded benefits too.  It’s not enough to say that ‘turning pro’ requires the wholesale rejection of emotion, we need a richer way of talking about this kind of work.
  • Multi-directional responsibility.  I’ll also call this required selflessness.  There’s a prevalence of the self in the working practice of a self-employed creative.  The artist needs self-control, self-discipline, self-knowledge, self-doubt – and the exertion with self over self is undoubtedly a part of the road to maturity for all of us. For Pressfield it’s about getting to the real you. But in family practice, and in parenting practice most certainly, the dependence of children encroaches on this kind of self-introspection. ‘Normal’ adult social boundaries, conventions of communication, personal space, and relational signals are thoroughly challenged (WARNING – emotional labour reaches gigantic proportions here!), let alone ones that put a high value on solitude. The challenges of daily interaction with people who can’t yet dress themselves demand a grown-up response, a response which has to concern itself with the development of a new little person, not just the adult. It can be a long hard journey to self-responsibility, but it hits the ball out the park to learn multi-directional responsibility on the journey with children. It is nothing less than a full-frontal, direct assault on the ego, where the daily instinct of self-assertion (prized in creative practice) has to learn a different dance of side-steps, reaction, distraction, consolation, coercion – sometimes just to keep a room quiet and a child fed and/or clean. It naively misses the point to merely separate a world of adult work from a world of child development – though there are plenty of guidelines about how to do that, how to better ring-fence your ‘own’ time. This frontline is epic. It is where love does most of its real human shaping, in something relationally reflexive and multi-directional. That kind of unseating of the self needs a greater say in the focussing and articulation of creative practice.
  • Seasonal growth. I don’t find that my life and circumstances respect the idea of linear career progression or learning. In early parenthood, I well remember that most reassuring consolation from other parents, ‘It’s just a phase’ – at the confusion of growth spurts, the dropping of daytime naps, periods of teething etc. Now with young children, my months are defined by the school year, with weeks of activity across termly/holiday boundaries. These are also shaped through patterns of church liturgy and the church calendar, which in turn reflects seasonal changes such as the amount of light in my day, or whether it’s springtime or harvest. Not least, as a woman I experience a monthly cycle, a living embodied practice of variegation in mood, focus, and energy. These are real enough, and pressing enough, to insist on adjusted and constantly adjusting expectations of productivity. Models of career progression, even if shaped through understandings of portfolio careers, tend to assume a kind of consequential linearity. A logic of linearity informs descriptions of employment, we can draw lines from one position or project to another, and indeed trace life’s passing along time’s numerical calendar. We can apply ourselves to advancement along this calendar. Well of course that’s an obvious thing to do, and all very useful up to a point – but it’s also like a straight rod of iron applied to the measure of the human form. We work in curves. Life has circular rhythms. Our energy ebbs and flows. There’s a whole wisdom tradition about living in such as way as to cultivate these patterns, and to work with them. It’s a different paradigm from the conventional modern world of work, a world where the creative journey is otherwise grossly misrepresented by a linear work ethic – more often beholden to capitalist ideals and the production line. Seasonal growth is so devalued by first world culture that we experience guilt about periods of ‘fallow’ or slow or repetitive time – yet these are good and rich, even when they don’t pay with pound signs.

I wonder about this stuff a lot. I feel like some vocabulary, some sense of intuition, related to being female, is only barely being articulated here by me. Maybe there is more to come.

A Financial Picture of Self-employment

The recently published report (Dec 2018) from the Arts Council, Livelihoods of Visual Artists: 2016 Data Report, found that 90% of visual artists in the UK don’t make enough money to live on. Across the 2,000 artists surveyed, the average income from art practice was £6,000. This is further skewed by a small number of higher income artists raising this representative average, where in fact two-thirds of artists earn less than £5,000 (see p.9 of the report).

I’m taking the opportunity to review and present my own self-employment practice in the interests of transparency here. I’ve worked part-time in art practice for nearly twenty years now, at first in an ad hoc way during and after graduating, then registering as self-employed in 2007. The bar chart above summarises my Shospace business for the 10-year period since then, with income and expenditure shown side-by-side for each year. It’s probably safe to say I’m reaching mid-career stage now, but one of the consistently hard issues to deal with is that my practice income is not remotely self-sustaining (the greyed-out income shows earnings from additional employment after tax: firstly in libraries, then as a grant during PhD studies, more on supplementary income below). Of the 10 years represented in my chart above, for 6 of them I declared a loss with regard to Shospace, since direct costs for making the work exceeded the income. Even in 2011, when I sold nearly every print and numerous catalogues from a solo exhibition of 25 works (making Bristol Through the Lens my most ‘successful’ exhibition), the costs of printing and gallery hire just overtook the sales.

In individual art-making, this is an emphatically different situation regarding the administration of one’s job – employment in other sectors rarely costs the worker this kind of expenditure. And further, it’s often a vicious circle: you need money to make the work, and to get money you need to sell things you’ve made. Further still, according the to survey, mid-career female artists are the group facing the biggest expenses (p.31, below, with childcare unsurprisingly being a feature). In my case, despite the support of generous tax credits for childcare, and despite the low overheads caused by working from home in church-managed properties, it is the inflexibly-coupled linking of work and expense that has most specifically inhibited my business’s growth, which I’m sure is the story behind many unmade, unrealised, artist projects universally. Even where a full-time artist would probably show greater progression or expansion over 10 years, I don’t believe there is gradation or drop-off in this linking of income with expense – a friend of mine whose photographic career you would describe as ‘taking off’ says the achievements are illusory, because she’s spent more than she’s ever spent on prints, books, exhibitions etc. Unless your work reaches the world of the super-rich in the upper inflations of the art market, there is no stable business model here.

From Livelihoods of Visual Artists, published by Arts Council, 2018, p.31.

Now why am I highlighting this? I’m not getting the violins out, this isn’t a woe-is-me lament, nor a presumption of money growing on trees. I’ve been self-righteously sad and angry in turn with previous projects, and in trying to get that element out of the way, I’ve learnt that one’s perception of ‘earning’ has to reckon with a personal burying of entitlement. It’s a familiar enough life lesson that one has to learn to deal impersonally with rejection, or unrealised potential. But the modelling of artistic practice as a livelihood (if not necessarily a career, as we note the careful choice of the report’s title) does have to reckon with this mode of production (if not necessarily profit) and its viability. The pursuit of art practice is one choice amidst a wealth of choice in our Western educationally privileged society, and it is almost inevitable that we are schooled into comparative career assessments, charting what we do against what we can get out of it, often through the aspirational language of business development and the capitalist dream – but such assessments misrepresent the kind of delimited, grass-roots existence that such de-institutionalised practice is. Supporting structures for other livelihoods involving practice, such as medical practice, or agricultural practice, tend to offset the costs or the direct carrying of costs by the practitioner: there are centralised pay structures (such as the NHS), or governmentally-ratified policies and investments (such as farm tenancies and quotas) and such large-world structures contribute to (and legitimise) less direct mediation of and accounting for ‘craft’. But artistic practice is very much up against its small-world individual binding of cost-to-production, which while it assumes the same vocational circuitry as some of these other practicing professions, is far less equipped, mediated, or measured through societal or institutional organisation. Or even talked about in these terms.

So what are the options? The most obvious is seeking supplementary income, as recognised in the report (p.81ff, 7 out of 10 artists have other jobs, nearly half of these having 2 or 3), and in my own experience. The effect is often double-sided, however, the report acknowledging that time and energy spent elsewhere necessarily diminishes time and energy for art practice – I well relate to the feeling of living two lives with my earlier jobs in administration, or in council and university libraries. Over time this is a false economy, and the splitting of self can become detrimental to mental and physical health, though I don’t doubt that for some there is little choice in the need to earn. More recently for me, a change in the nature of my business, stepping sideways into research rather than practice, and finding thereby a contract for services (rather than raising money through sales of art work) has taken my income over the £5,000 mark for the first time. Coming from the church (specifically the Bishop Otter Trust), it’s not that far from an old-fashioned model of patronage, which would have been an option in earlier times of societal/institutional organisation for artists. It certainly reflects my inclination of wanting to find work in related forms, and in my case this is a move towards the top type of secondary-income job held by artists according to the report – that of lecturer/academic (closely followed by teacher, see p.84).

The troubling extended consequence of seeking income elsewhere is the likelihood of artistic practice diminishing and even ceasing. Indeed, stopping is another option; the report’s data depressingly suggests that of those considering stopping, mid-career women married-with-kids are pretty much at the top (p.66ff). Further, by art form, photographers experience lack of financial return as the greatest barrier to developing practice (p.106), despite being at the top of the list for total income (which includes non-art-practice income. At the top of the charts for average practice income alone are craft, sculpture, ceramics, illustration, and community projects, p.13). This wouldn’t be the first time I have considered stopping, and in fact I think I did once decide to leave it behind, only to find I couldn’t not do it – I couldn’t stop dreaming up and tinkering with visual ideas.

So I think I’ve accepted the impulse, but I’m seriously questioning the model, and in particular the viability of material production. It’s one thing to say I have a body of new work on the theme of motherhood ‘on the go’, it’s quite another to pursue its realisation in print or on the wall. The reality is that I need more than £20,000 to produce it, and that I’ve sought funding since 2014 on 3 separate occasions which has been unsuccessful, despite committed institutional support for its display and promotion. There is potential to crowdfund or patron it, or even to commercialise a lenticular process that I’m exploring with it, but even then its reach wouldn’t extend to income. It’s also possibly publishable as digital content, minimising production costs significantly, but again, income and impact would be correspondingly small – a reflection of the ‘shallow’ online market, with its fast and devaluing dissemination of digital visual culture. It doesn’t seem like a winning situation. In truth, the cold reality of costs here pushes me to scope and think and pray for a return on my effort in different ways: the waiting for a ‘right’ fit with an as-yet unimagined context for the work, expecting/seeking relationship out of it instead of money, shifting the value of productivity to something seasonal and organic (rather than black or red columns), and as a Christian choosing to trust God’s model for growth through kingdom and character rather than through economy and numbers. I don’t find it easy to accept, but then it’s a good reminder that we’re all ultimately works-in-progress aren’t we?

September to school and sibling photographs

First days at school, 2015 (right), and 2018.

At this time of year, first-day-at-school photographs are all over social media. I can’t help but join in, the narrative of my children’s lives weaving into my own. But I’m also consciously reflecting on the way I choose to represent them to myself: the photographs, the albums, the poetry, the birth narratives that began 5 and 7 years ago. That’s all part of a long-term project, Born Again, in which I’m exploring something profoundly formative about the journey of early motherhood – and in particular, the forms of self-representation that I choose to work with (including among other things, taking part in One Born Every Minute).

For me, the pairing of my kids, brother and sister, with their own experiences of ‘firsts’ invites the obvious time-travelling comparison between then and now. I see a proportion shift in their limbs, I see older, more intuitively formalised body postures. And in their relationship I see my daughter’s hand on her brother’s shoulder in the younger picture, and I see his toe-pointing shoes in the older. But I also see me: in the reflection in the glass, where my husband takes the earlier photo, and my hovering, which then assumes the photo-taking position in the later image. The kids’ differences, and the different horizons of their ‘firsts’, has my sameness in the background. There I am, 3 years apart, doing the same thing, attentive even to the fact of sameness when I took the later photo, wanting to recreate the scene. That effort, paradoxically, was based on sameness, but intended to render change visible – a change that I am part of, and feel part of. I don’t think it worked, because I can’t foreground my feeling about it other than by writing here. Though perhaps indeed, that’s why I’m doing it. Some insightful people writing about photography have put their fingers on this:

The legibility of a presumed relationship in time was the backbone of a system of visual representation underwriting some of society’s most fundamental beliefs about itself. These beliefs are registered not only in the temporal realm but also in the photographic image’s fraught referential relationship to the ‘real’ object or event it depicts. This linkage has always been a cornerstone of photographic theory, oscillating across an evidentiary spectrum, from a positivist view of a transparent connection between the two to a thorough skepticism of the medium’s ability to tell any kind of truth. Before-and-after pairs disrupt each end of this belief spectrum, paradoxically, by embracing both of them. They depend as much upon the evidentiary aspects of visible temporal bookends as they do upon acknowledging that the more powerful way of articulating the central event is to leave it unseen. The before-and-after pair relies on the imaginative participation of the viewer, thereby diverting attention from the ‘proof’ of the photographs toward the viewers’ own – necessarily subjective – interpretation.

Kate Palmer Albers and Jordan Bear, in Before-and-After Photography: Histories and Contexts (Bloomsbury 2017), pp.4-5.

Siblings 20 years apart

My imagination in these images ends up taking a bit of a detour – since I feel thwarted by the evidentiary primacy of comparison invited between my kids, I mentally superimpose another effort of comparison with which I do have a deeper pictorial association – a posed recreation of another brother-and-sister shot, this time of me with my brother. In one I’m about 8 years old, in the other about 28. Yet now I’m thwarted by too much reality, the bookending is a rather blunt tool. It turns out that I’m consistently trying to turn my attention to writing ‘in between’, to the the invisible spaces that we occupy around and between photographs. If my practice is indeed a book, perhaps the image-making is only ever the cover, the boards, or the book-ends. It’s the exercise of writing and research whose pages fill out the story, that invite imagination in the reading.

Dreaming of the resurrection

Natal, 2018

I almost don’t know how to write. It’s Holy Week (or Still Week, as in Denmark; or Suffering Week, Germany). This year, more than most, I find myself small in the face of Christendom’s elegiac, centuries’ old commemoration of Jesus’ last hours. I’m feeling it partly because of my husband’s seried, close attention to the preparation of church services, one on every day until Easter Sunday. I’m feeling it too because I’ve been following the Lenten journey as presented in Biola University’s online series of reflections: a frankly outstanding and deeply sensitive collective of images/music/texts coordinated in commentary and Bible reading. But I’m also acutely aware of a sense of timing in the publication of my new work, Natal, for an exhibition which opens on Maundy Thursday. Selected for the Chaiya Art Awards, the piece became my answer to the exhibition’s posed question, ‘Where is God in our Twenty-First Century World?’ Here I explore some of the ideas behind the piece.

The figures stand in a poised relation, on the left a semi-naked man we might recognise as Jesus, and on the right, a full-term naked pregnant woman. This is my friend Helen, who posed for me when I embarked on a series of work about motherhood and iconography. My writing and photographs, as well as my appearance on One Born Every Minute in 2014, all drove the creation of work about the rite of passage that is giving birth. Born Again has become the project title, for which Natal is the first in production. But Helen didn’t meet her companion until I thought about the exhibition question. I’d had in mind to show her with an effigy from a cadaver tomb, those unusual forms of church monument where the body of the deceased is carved in stone as the likeness of a skeleton – her life and the life she carried were to be contrasted with their opposite. But then I stumbled across the portrait of Jesus here, by Fred Holland Day, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Taken 120 years ago in Boston, USA, Day posed himself as the dead Jesus for The Entombment in 1898. His austere pose, and the controlled identification with such a statue of stiffness, were a catalyst for a whole host of connections.

In the first place, I thought that the subject of the dead Christ has become archetypal of a certain strain of Christian doctrine – his death is central to the gospel stories of course, but why and how others have said it matters has tended, traditionally, to focus on the death’s substitutionary power (he died so that we don’t have to). It follows a neat logic, but its doctrine is necessarily fixated on something quite closed, on endings, on the mortal. Even those outside believing doctrine, such as Nietzsche, capitulate to the final (human) ideology of death, when he pronounced ‘God is dead’ in the same decade as Day’s picture. It was Hannah Arendt who I first read for a theology that reframed this for me with the concept of the natal. Isn’t that what Holy Week leads to? Isn’t the resurrection where the money is? And isn’t that about the exploding horizon of a humanity now defined by new life, new birth, and what Jesus said he came for – life to the full? I’ve since read others around this subject (Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and W. H. Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting among others), but I also increasingly want to raise the question of a woman’s perspective here. Like what has been said of the film Mary Magdalene, released in the UK last week, can we recover a ‘position of feminine difference from the misogynistic, patriarchal disciples’ (Michele Roberts on Front Row, 14th March). If we can, what might it look like?