Anna Stump and Daphne Hill
Life as an artist is tough. Being a parent is also difficult. Combining the two, well, that's been one of the biggest challenges of our lives. Now that mothering is mostly over, how will we live? How is this life change affecting our work?
Before motherhood I made art that reflected the world around me. When I became pregnant, I focused on my changing body. When my sons were babies and small children, they became the focus of my work. These bodies of photographs, videos, artist books, and performances about motherhood remain intensely personal. They also probably didn't help my career—artists are not supposed to have children, and if we do become parents, many keep kids hidden.
I remember attending an art opening, trying to talk to someone important, who might help my career, and my toddler came to me and reached under my skirt, demanding attention. Why bring him to openings? Babysitters were an expense we couldn't afford. And my partner at the time was "supposed" to be on duty. But that's another story.
As my sons grew up and needed me less, my work moved away from my body and my role as a mother, a relief. I jumped at the chance to make paintings about the environment and politics, while still embracing feminist imagery.
Now that my sons no longer require me on a daily basis, how do I respond? What is my new role? One thing I've finally been free to do is apply to artist residencies (which don't accept children). I created the work for "Empty Nest" while on two different residencies, Cill Rialaig in Ireland and the Centre Pompadour in France. The "nest" is empty of the mother, the eggs remain. In other words, I'm flying away into new territory, trying to redefine my life.
Gut punch. That’s how I would describe empty nest syndrome, and the feeling of loss I’ve experienced at its most acute. At other times, it’s just a dull sort of awareness that life is… different. Activities that used to consume countless hours of my time (driving kids to and from school, playdates, doctor’s appointments, helping with homework, cooking their meals, etc.) are completely absent. Like other types of grief, empty nest grieving comes in waves, and hits me when I least expect it. I’ll be doing great, and then find myself in tears in the freezer isle at Trader Joe’s because I no longer need to load my cart with the microwaveable macaroni and cheese and mini pepperoni pizzas that my kids devoured after school. Yes, they ate other stuff. Often green and healthy stuff. Stay with me here. There’s no need to buy them because the kids now live more than 2,000 miles away, and for the most part I have no idea what they're eating these days. As grief intensity goes, empty nest falls somewhere between heartbreak and death of a loved one - at least that’s how it is for me.
But there is an upside to empty nest grief—more time for myself and some of the OTHER things that matter to me. Like making art. As a mother and an artist, I found it very challenging to find that sweet spot where I felt I was really giving my kids and my art practice just the right amount of time and dedication. In retrospect, I'm not sure that I ever struck the right balance.
The work I have been making for the past 20 years has been shaped by my experience as a mother. Now that both of my boys are on their own, I feel a strong pull towards bird and nest imagery. The collection of collage elements I have amassed for the Empty Nest series represents hours and hours of paper cutting over the past couple of years. I have cut out these illustrations of birds, and nests, and snakes, and a number of other things that mean something to me in the Barrio Logan studio, the Golden Hill studio, a loft in the L.A. Arts District, in the Little Italy studio, at my parents’ home, while waiting in the lobby of a doctor’s office, while I was planning my wedding, while I was planning my move, while I was missing my father who died last winter, and certainly while missing my children. Now, after a number of huge life changes, the work is coming together. Much of it includes baby blue paint. I’m not trying to outsmart anyone here — the color triggers a strong, sensory memory of the nursery, and the Winnie the Poo (from the original E.H. Shepard illustrations, not Disney’s) crib set I had for them when they were babies. The work is all about memory and hope and anxiety, and goes back to some of my first childhood memories. Walt Disney’s “Merriest Songs” album is something I have a very vivid memory of hearing for the first time when I was about three years old. When I moved into my grandmother’s house recently, I discovered 37 copies of this album. 37! I am using some of those vintage albums in my work, commingling my childhood memories, and those of raising my boys. To me, it makes perfect sense. In the Empty Nest series, I believe I may have found the perfect balance of dedication to making the art I love, and loving the people I made.