making art with kids in tow

(or, how to welcome children into your art practice)

It's hard. I'm not going to deny it.

That phase--from walking up until about age 4--has been one of the most difficult phases for serious artmaking as a mother. It's certainly among the most intense phases of motherhood; physically involving and unrelenting. But it's beautiful and full of discovery and meaning too.

Toddlers are incapable of giving you the things you need for artmaking, though --

  • respect for your space (they want you so deeply, all the time)
  • care of your tools (curiosity gets the better of them)
  • uninterrupted time (they're an endless stream of questions)
  • guaranteed safety (they might eat what you're working on)

--all while depending on you to provide for their needs.

It's an inherent challenge.

One of the ways I try to make space for myself is not only asking for quality time alone & apart to refuel, but to welcome kids into my art space. I have to communicate clear expectations about what they're allowed to do (and--this is vital--lower my expectations for the amount and types of things I can accomplish with them around). This is easier with my older children, who can understand what a closed door means (knock first, and if I don't respond, come back later).

Toddlers don't get that. You have to welcome them almost 100% of the time, simply because of their level of development. I set firm boundaries about what is theirs and what is mine. Basically, I'm as territorial about my art supplies as my two-year-old is about her wooden train set.I ensure that my kids have access to similar washable versions of my supplies so they don't feel as left out.

children drawing on the studio floor // (c) jocelynmathewes.com
children drawing on the studio floor // (c) jocelynmathewes.com

Even with that, kids will always want to use the grown-up tools, because there's magic in the grown-up tools. So you have to be watchful. You have to be patient. You have to choose activities where it's okay for you to be interrupted. You must add buffer time because things will take longer than you intended. And that's okay. It's frustrating from time to time, and it's natural to feel that way. There's nothing "wrong" with your toddler or with you, or with your kids.

And in spite of the challenges it's been neat to see how we bounce off each other. My youngest will try anything and everything because she doesn't know she isn't supposed to do that. My kids don't know that a sketchbook is for anything in particular, or that there's a way to do it. My son sees me working in my sketchbook & simply likes what he sees. He'll settle down at the table and create his own versions--explorations that break my rules and turn out delightful all the same.

So, one day, when I saw my eldest daughter agonize over what to paint, I told her, "Just paint."

Then later on, I'll have to tell myself the same advice. I need to create more work! I'll agonize to myself. What am I going to do? What's my big idea? My advice back to myself is, Just make. You'll figure it out.

Welcoming kids into my art practice has done this: it's made me more aware of how the work itself is the only thing that leads you. I can't think my way into great work. I have to work my way there. And sometimes letting my toddler in helps me to shake up my ideas about what's working and what's not.

...

This is a sister article to an earlier post on structuring the art practice around children, and a far more in-depth and philosophical read would be this beautiful editorial about motherhood and the artist's life and career appeared on Artsy.net and articulated so many of the complex things that come from womanhood and the art practice. Going down the rabbit hole of links reveals some other lovely resources, like the Artist Residency in Motherhood, the Artist Parent Index, and Cultural ReProducers. All of them are worth some exploring.