Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mother as Muse

Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, a profound epic describing the dichotomous nature of the life of an artist, is one of the few novels I have read several times in my life (most get one chance, then I'm on to another must-read). In my first post, "Living the Impossible Life", I introduced myself with a favorite quote from the character Goldmund. A sculptor, Goldmund uses the term "bliss" to convey the state of mind he seeks both as a student of religion, an artist engaged in the creative process, and as a man traveling the world in search of his muse. He looks to God and to the image of his mother, his own creators, for inspiration and ultimately accepts that his artistic development, life experience and happiness are integral. He cannot fully realize one without also nurturing and making sacrifices for the other.

Minimalist sculptor Anne Truitt's (d. 2004) Daybook: The Journey of an Artist is another book I have been compelled to reexamine. My appreciation of her whole life, the public life of a successful artist and the private life of a Washingtonian, changed significantly after my son was born. I now understand the weightiness of her seemingly simple decision that dirty dishes remain unwashed in the kitchen sink during childrens' nap times; she seized the opportunity to work in her home art studio at the expense of tidy appearances. But more stirring was her disclosure that her early pieces, sculptures of the "marked, used" female form, "failed" in her estimation. Having been misdiagnosed as sterile and told she would never have children, Truitt was haunted by this physical "deprivation" and feared that her work would lack the "vital force" of assimilated experience. Reflecting back on life during her 50's, she asserted that her career was the only enterprise she made successful entirely by herself, but her three children were her "greatest blessings".

Family and home have long been pervasive themes in my artwork, whether it be capturing images of relatives and close friends or scenes from the neighborhood. But I returned to Hesse's and Truitt's writings for a little perspective after a month during which I infrequently raised a camera to my eye. Instead of documenting AS's every new accomplishment in pictures, I exhausted my reserves in hot pursuit of a toddler boy who very much wants to wander and explore, often into harm's way (not so unlike Hesse's Goldmund). The artist in me, for whom creating is vital to well-being, needed gentle reminding that my son and I are collaborating in the most creative endeavor, his development.

Gretchen Ruben, an urban Mom and author of The Happiness Project, deduces that mementos help prompt positive memories and that "recalling happy times helps boost happiness in the present". So, instead of fretting about the serious art that is not getting made since I left the teaching profession to be a SAHM, I try to remember all that I have accomplished during my first momentous year as Artful Mom. I pull out an album of our mementos, snapshot photos I have diligently taken and archived, and place it on the floor. AS sits in my lap and helps turn the pages. He identifies the faces of his parents and grandparents and flashes smiles of recognition at his own image. We love looking at the photographs together, and this motivates me to pick up my camera again. While I take pictures of AS, he experiments with an old 2.0 megapixel compact point-and-shoot. Digital cameras designed for kids are available in toy and camera stores, but this hand-me-down seems to do the trick. AS already knows, from seeing his parents model the behavior, how to hold it and push the shutter release button. He immediately looks at his LED screen for playback of the digital image and shows it to me. A third book comes comes to mind, Show and Tell, containing photos of city life by artist Thomas Roma with written commentary by his son Giancarlo who was eight years old at the time. Giancarlo selected the pictures to be used for the book and thereby turned the process of creating it "into a dialog between father and son".

That afternoon, we look at newsworthy pix from an on-line gallery at It proves to be a great opportunity to introduce AS to new vocabulary and help him see the most basic elements of an image, such as colors and shapes, which I point out or trace with my finger. This is similar to our experience of looking at photographs together at the Newseum or in the West Building at the National Gallery of Art. As I carried AS on my hip from room to room to view the prints on display, I talked to him in clear language about important details, including features of people's faces and clothing. AS enjoyed seeing the images from my eye level (as opposed to the lower vantage point of the stroller), and I was able to keep his interest by talking animatedly and gesturing to parts of the pictures. While we were at the NGA, I overheard a wonderful mother of three older children, probably between ages 5 and 9. She asked her kids a variety of short questions about the pictures, praised their responses, and modeled good learning practices by reading information provided by the museum to answer her childrens' questions when she didn't already know the answer. A book I later discovered in the juvenile section of our library, Tell Me a Picture by Quentin Blake, provides examples of questions parents can ask their children about art.

Documentary photography, maybe more than any other type of photographic imagery, seems to have immediate appeal for young people. Perhaps this is because kids can better relate to images made directly from their world. In the 1980's, Jim Hubbard, an acclaimed professional photographer, began documenting lives of the homeless in Washington, DC, and found children he photographed especially eager to look through his camera's viewfinder. Many of these children were from low income families that suddenly fell upon hard times, such as the death of a parent or a parent's loss of a job, and were at risk of being lured into gangs and illegal activities. Hubbard was motivated to establish, "Shooting Back", a program to help children in shelters develop skills to increase their self esteem and to learn about legitimate career possibilities. I often shared a documentary film about "Shooting Back" with my own students to raise their social awareness and prompt them to act.

In 2002, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop for DC educators at the Corcoran Gallery of Art by photographer, teacher and author, Wendy Ewald. Ewald has helped build darkrooms and bring the power of photography to disadvantaged children and their communities all over the world. She discovered that children, "insiders" in their communities, often take more emotionally compelling photographs of their families and neighborhoods than do professionals who are "outsiders". Ewald applied for grants to purchase Polaroid instant cameras and film for the children, empowering them to find their own voices and to become ambassadors for their communities.

The success of Hubbard's and Ewald's efforts with children motivated me to begin a mentorship program at the high school where I taught. Teenagers in the advanced photography courses were challenged to apply their knowledge of photography and writing to teach elementary school students, for whom English was often their family's second language. We used the childrens' own images of home life, captured with simple Kodak one-time-use film cameras, to inspire their creative writing and help improve their literacy. One of my high school seniors adapted this program for the Best Buddies chapter at our school, creating friendship and learning opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She is now teaching photography to inner city kids in Baltimore using inexpensive, plastic Holga cameras while she completes her degree in special education at Gaucher College.

These personal experiences, however, did not completely prepare me for how to introduce the magic of photography to my very young son. Nor did a quick tour of photography websites for kids on the web (Google: "teaching kids photography"). So I looked to my original role models, my sensitive, right-brained parents. Art-making became intrinsic to my life in early childhood due to their efforts and understanding of it's value. Mom encouraged my natural interests by keeping art materials and books on hand, enrolling me in classes and, most importantly, earnestly participating in art and craft projects with me. My father and paternal grandfather were avid amateur photographers who also shared their equipment, knowledge and enthusiasm with me. I first fell in love with drawing for its immediacy as I urgently recorded the real world and shared the stuff of my imagination. As a teen, I inherited a small, portable single lens reflex camera and created lasting images of beloved people, places and things, reconnecting with them through the process. Smitten, I went on to earn a BFA in Photography before earning my teaching certification in Art K-12.

As an artist, I found encouragement in knowing that I could not fail to make important images if I was photographing my family. As a teacher, I led by example and shared my work with students as they shared theirs with me. In this way, we learned more about one another and about Art. My mantra, photograph what you are passionate about. If an image ultimately lacks artistic relevance, it will still have personal value. This is the thing I want most to share with my son about art-making, the special and limitless rewards of following your bliss.


  1. One of the most important details of Goldmund's discoveries is his recognition of the similar facial expression we make during both pain and bliss. Seems like that says something about the experience of raising a kid.

  2. I had forgotten that... Thanks for reminding me. I think you're right about the interrelationship of the two, bliss and pain, especially when it comes to raising kids. I recently read one mother's blog in which she writes a letter to her young daughter explaining that she loves her so "fiercely"now because she is preparing herself to cope with a broken heart when her child is grown and leaves home.



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