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

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.

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?

Dylan in the spotlight

Dylan, 12 hours old in Southmead Hospital, Bristol
Dylan, 12 hours old in Southmead Hospital, Bristol

One Born Every Minute, Channel 4, 9pm, 10th March.

I find myself emerging from maternity leave with both a work hat and a mum hat on at the same time. In the public sphere of TV and online debate around this programme, I’ll be considering the spirituality of birth, with an eye to producing new work later in the year – see the Twitter and Facebook feeds in the adjacent column. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the reflections and ideas I had during pregnancy should gestate and form their own distinctive project (see posts on my scan and Hirst’s Verity), now to be realised as part of a commission from the Birth Rites Collection. From the press release:

Visual artist Sheona Beaumont became a mum for the second time in September 2013, and was filmed at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, for Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute. As part of the Birth Online: Birth Offline project, she will be making new photographic work about her experience, and about the place for a spiritual expression of birth in such a public domain.

Central to the process of making this work will be the response on social media during and after the episode in which she and her husband, a curate in the Church of England, feature on the 10th of March 2014. As an interactive live event, watched by millions, this documented conversation will form an integral part of the lenticular prints she intends to produce.

Beaumont’s perspective of faith brings a deeper reflection to birth and motherhood, which, far from being incompatible with the hospital environment or watching cameras, finds a place for praying the Bible, collective involvement, and even the virtual equivalent of a rite such as ‘The Churching of Women’, once well-known in the Anglican tradition. If ceremonies around birth have largely been lost in our medicalised Western culture today, it is nevertheless true that it remains a profoundly transforming moment for women where the extraordinarily miraculous meets the visceral intensity of bodily labour. To the extent that One Born Every Minute celebrates that moment as part of the story and background of the individuals, producers focussed on the importance of the Christian faith Beaumont shares with her husband, alongside and within the medical and relational approaches of the programme. Editing (One Born Every Minute) remained the full responsibility of Dragonfly Film & TV Productions.

When I met Verity

Damien Hirst's 'Verity' at Ifracombe
Damien Hirst’s ‘Verity’ at Ifracombe

I’ve seen quite a few Hirst pieces in my young art journey: at the landmark Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, and up to recent appearances in Gloucester Cathedral and Bath Abbey – see Artsy about him. I’m always conscious that it’s impossible to ignore him on the British art scene, but the levels on which I have been interested in his work have nevertheless remained at something of intellectual distance. I’m not shocked by his work, and I don’t dislike it, but there is a sense that I take them on as a kind of conceptual exercise, toys to play with in terms of imagery that gets me thinking – whether the references to disciples and saints, to visual religion, to butterflies. I’ve been recently excited by the techniques of digital foil printing and lenticular printing that he’s employed – glad that he’s doing it, and finding the results quite beautiful at times (‘For the Love of God’ as a 3D lenticular) – but the explosion of his self-marketing has a slightly hollow inflation which I haven’t quite settled in my head.

So it was something of a surprise to find that when I met Verity, on holiday in Devon last week, I was deeply moved by her. Verity is a 20-metre bronze-clad sculpture sited on the harbourside of Ilfracombe, a recent loan to the town where Hirst lives nearby. She is certainly a talking-point, and since installation last year in October, has received much negative and positive press about the connections and benefits she brings to the area – largely negative on the aesthetic response. She stands facing out to sea, in a pose that deliberately recalls Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer (c.1881), one side of her showing unmarked smooth skin and countenance, the other revealing a stripped level of skull, muscle and foetus. She holds a sword aloft in one hand, and scales in the other, while standing on a pile of law books – she represents Justice and truth.

For me, her monumentality had everything to do with being pregnant and exposed. She seems to exude both triumph and indifference in her state, without being locked into any male gaze of suitable womanhood, desirability, appropriateness etc. She doesn’t have a certain confined self-consciousness – or rather it’s more like a self-possession that means she can stand with her back to the town and the glances of others without seeming to hide. The exposed baby is key – the pregnancy is internally felt by her more than it is externally assumed by others. I love that. I felt an affinity with not just her, but Hirst who has in some way recognized a particularly visceral, interior burden and not simply a rounded glorified symbol of fertility (and/or nudity). This woman’s corporeality is the same as that of Virgin Mother – Hirst’s 2005 version of this sculpture without the objects in hand or under foot. She is not demure, she is feminine, she is humanity doubled – as receptacle of new life she is not just a passive recipient of something external, but rather the configuration and conjunction of internally-borne life, wrestled life, bloody life.

The shock of the new

Baby Beaumont the Second
Baby Beaumont the Second

It feels slightly odd marking this post in my ‘research’ category, but the photograph is such a departure point for so many thoughts, that I can’t help but mull it over:

  • Up to the point of climbing on the hospital bed for the first scan, the knowledge of pregnancy is somewhere between an abstract mark on a test stick and the lurching bodily reminders of a sea-change happening somewhere underneath. Plus it’s a knowledge contained from the majority of others. So it’s almost a form of not knowing, or a knowing that refuses to declare itself outright. It’s a knowing without language.
  • The only connecting line is offered in the first midwife appointment, when you get the glowing yellow book – yes, here is a text, a language that seems to offer some proof. But it’s a text in code. With numbers and acronyms for so many statistics and states. The marking out of a programme of appointments and tests says that this is, and will be, about lines, results, dates, charts. My head finds it reassuring, because it seems like a solid, sensible construction around that first state of not knowing.
  • But the second the picture grain solidifies into a foetus shape, as the ultrasound scanner presses onto my skin, my heart comes crashing into the room. It really is the shock of the new. And the grain moves where the baby’s heartbeat pulses away. Life turns out to be uncontained by the half-knowing of early pregnancy and also uncontained by the NHS-knowing of monitored states. More than that, it breaks out through an image – a pattern of black and white that seems to need tuning to be revealed, and then BANG! it’s there.
  • It’s such an important image – important for the potency it has for the mum. It makes an internal thing externally present and real. And that real thing hinges on having the inner, ongoing connection with my body. It’s about seeing, and being the seer, in the prophetic sense of making visible what isn’t yet. It’s surely that spark of a punctum which Barthes talks about – a kind of puncture in space and time. To others, it probably doesn’t have that jolt, though it is usually received as celebratory – an image with some magic and wonder.
  • Finally, there’s the filling-in language around the image you take home. On the precious scrap of paper, something is slightly lost from the first experience of seeing a shape appear. But there’s that reassuring medical speak again, at the edges of the frame, counting, dotting, testifying that you are the bearer, you are the inscriber. The bearing of an image has so much resonance here – resemblance, heritage, gift, God-in-humanity. A bigger picture, as Hockney might say.