Interview with Artscape

Written in 2019. Interviewer Lindsy Kwan came on a MOTHRA residency in 2022 after the birth of her first child! What a compliment. :)

1. Where did the idea for a child inclusive artist residency come about?

Sarah - The seeds for MOTHRA were planted in the UK. We were living in Oxford while my partner completed his DPhil. I was primary caregiver to our daughter and working to maintain an art practice at the same time. My daughter and I were happily working and playing from home, but I realized that we were isolated. So I contacted some other parents I knew in the area, got free access to a community centre, and there we had a creative co-working group. The other participants were not professional artists, but they all had a creative practice - sewing, knitting, woodworking, drawing, paper-craft. The children were happy as clams playing alongside us and joining in when they could. I realized that I was on to something. I recognized there were people dissatisfied with working in isolation and I saw the potential to try a collective response to this problem, taking co-working (which was emerging as a popular trend) together with parenting. Our group had a four month residency at the Pitt River's Museum. We were comprised of mothers, fathers, carers, and grandparents, and were very culturally diverse, with participants from all over the world. I ran this group from 2012 until 2015. Then we moved, eventually ending up back in Toronto, where I am from. Since I am a visual artist I decided to focus this new group specifically for and about contemporary visual arts, and to start asking more questions about how art can change when children are included.

Alison - I got on board with it after recognizing the value via my own participation in an Artist Residency in Motherhood (ARiM). I loved the online community of ARiM but I really wanted something to happen in person here in Toronto. Helping to facilitate a project like MOTHRA gave me the chance to show up in person for myself and others.

2. Are there any other family friendly residencies in Canada? What about internationally?

Alison -There are places that will allow you to bring your family. Some are subtle and some make it their agenda to welcome families. My favourite one to watch is Popps Packing in Detroit.

Sarah - I am sure if asked some residencies would accommodate children - like Banff for example. The general feeling about residencies is that children are not expected, and sometimes not welcome. Nor are partners. I think MAWA in Winnipeg has a child-inclusive residency. I’ve been twice to a residency in Norway that accommodates partners and children. My partner is also an artist, so the last time we went we worked as a family and incorporated our children into the project. MOTHRA is more than just “family friendly”. We are interested in how being with your child might change art. Parents might have different ideas of what “family friendly” means - to some this might mean your children are on site, but in a different location with childcare. MOTHRA’s focus is how our kids can take part in the creative lives of their parents and vice versa. MOTHRA’s ambitions are unique in this sense.

There is of course, Lenka Clayton’s, An Artist Residency in Motherhood (ARiM). She is a UK artist based in the US. I first came across her work twenty years ago at Central St. Martins. I’m a fan. When she had her first child she saw her maternity leave as an “artist residency” and produced a body of work during this time. She then opened this concept up to other artist-parents, complete with an online invitation to participate in your own Artist Residency in Motherhood. Her project has a massive following online. I believe that it is this project that has given a lot of artist-parents the confidence and "permission", if you like, to continue with and maintain a practice while also caring for a baby or young child. It is through this online network that I connected to three local artist-parents with whom I’ve collaborated with on MOTHRA - Alison being one of them.

3. What makes Artscape Gibraltar Point a suitable location for a child-inclusive residency? What should parents know about the location?

Alison - AGP is an ideal location for a child inclusive residency for many reasons. The location on Toronto Island is well connected to nature, and we all benefit greatly from access to nature, both mentally and physically. It is a setting where artist families can unwind a bit and explore creatively. Having an old school as our setting is exciting because the space was once designed and designated to children and now children are it’s inhabitants again. We are curious to see how the children impact this particular environment (converted school studio/arts building) that is typically used by adults. Kids reclaiming the space!!

To know about the location: As idyllic as it is this is not a “let your children roam free” scenario. The artists are responsible for their children at all times. The island is a public space just like anywhere else in the city. There is also a lake. Child safety is first and foremost! We will be located a bit of a hike from the ferry dock so a quick trip to the city to get food might be longer than you anticipate. We will be on hand to assist with helpful info!

Sarah - Beaches, space, playgrounds. Large communal spaces, including a communal kitchen. We must mention the amazing staff who jumped at the chance to host us and were not daunted by the thought of children in the halls.

4. Tell me more about Mothra and Mothra’s Artist-Parent Project in Toronto.

Sarah - Since 2016 I’ve been working on getting something going in Toronto. I met a few other artist-parents who were keen to take part. In 2018 we received OAC planning funding, at which time we formally launched MOTHRA. In September 2018 we piloted a residency at Artscape Youngplace. For one week nine artists worked with and alongside their kids. It was a really great experience and beneficial for all I think. We became aware of some of the kinks to figure out for future residencies - that, for example, having a group discussion is very challenging when juggling the needs of the children. We had quick chats over lunch, but I feel that some artists wanted and needed more. Alison and I have come up with some creative solutions to this which we will test in October at AGP. That said some participants were happy that they were left alone to work albeit in a communal setting.

MOTHRA has an online presence and network, and we have plans for more meet-ups in Toronto. We’ve been given free access to the AGO, so expect to see us congregating there! We have lots of ideas for the future of MOTHRA. Some of what we end up doing depends on successful bids for arts funding.

Alison - We hope to break the old notions that ‘real artists are not parents’ or that ‘real artists don’t make work about the parenting experience’, which should already be dead ideologies however we see it/hear it often enough to recognize it as a barrier to the success of the parent artist. While this issue affects women folk and gender equality in the arts, which is a priority for us, we also recognize that these notions impact male folk negatively as well. We wish to improve the situation by creating space and leading by example. At the moment Mothra is working on connecting artist parents in the city via small scale meet ups as well as organizing these residencies.

5. What challenges do artists, who are also parents, face in accessing opportunities to further their creative practice because caregiving largely is unrecognized or overlooked in contemporary art?

Alison - Oh where to begin… well.. How about a list.

Sarah - The challenges you face can depends on what kind of practice you want. There are different types of artist-parents: Lapsed Practice: those who are seeking new ways back in, Newly Parenting: a practice in transition, and those with an Active Practice who have a need for more time. Add to this artists who make work about and/or with their children, and those who need an accommodating environment/work-life balance to maintain their practice or work on a specific project away from their children.

MOTHRA’s ambition is to have a collective activity, collective action, collective response. This can run counter to contemporary art. In art schools we are trained to imagine ourselves working alone in our studios with no interruptions. Imagine if art school prepared us for an alternative ideal art making condition - living with others, having a family, and possibly being parents.

I also agree with everything Alison has said above! :)

6. What challenges did you face that encouraged you to start the Artist-Parent Project in Toronto?

Sarah - The challenges I face as an artist-parent in Toronto are similar to those I faced in the UK. Although I feel it has been much more difficult here to get things going. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is just that Toronto is larger and people are more spread out. I sense the competition here and less impulse to share, less generosity. I think the online networks for artist-parents are fantastic, but I think that what we really need are face-to-face interactions. Having kids around needs to be normalized - for everyone’s sake.

Alison - I really wanted to engage with other parent artists. I needed an artist specific parenting group to keep me sane and to keep me going. I absolutely loved the ARiM experience and benefitted from skype chats with mother artists around the globe but I wanted to be part of something tangible here. It is really hard to chat with moms who have standard day jobs about how to move forward with work because for them there have planned maternity leave and Monday to Friday jobs that fit daycare schedules. I always get this odd blank stare from moms at the playground when they ask when I go back to work and I fumble about explaining how I am always still kind of at work. And while we meet on so many levels I find the effort to explain this tiny difference can be a mountain. It is much easier to chat about work with other parents who do the same kind of work. Less isolating to spend a little time with parent folk in similar situations to myself.

7. Why is it important to not separate children from the parents’ art practice?

Alison - It is and it isn’t and it really depends on the particular artists practice and their take on being a parent artist. MOTHRA’s take on child inclusivity is not merely about having the parents make art with their kids- though some do. It is about making space for them to be together working, playing, exploring. To ensure that a parent can work with their child around them and not in some isolated studio setting only for adults. The MOTHRA working model is about having adults working in a structure where children are readily welcome. We offer it as a potential solution to the problems artist parents face.

Sarah - This all comes down to one’s parenting style. I mentioned some types of artist-parents above, but it also comes down to what kind of parenting style you have. It won’t work for everyone. The artist has to have an interest in spending time with their child. Including children, means including parents. A lot of artists are parents. A lot of artists are parents during their most productive and prolific years of being an artist. Having a child, inviting another person in to your life, is an incredible thing. It’s layers of care. It opens up the possibilities of meaningful relationships. I don’t actually see many reasons to NOT consider bringing your child along to the studio. You can work together, and learn together. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child calls for a shift away from the traditional beliefs that assume early childhood is a time for the socialization of the immature human towards a mature adult. They state that the very youngest of children should be respected as persons in their own right, as active members of families, communities, and societies, with their own concerns, interests, and points of view.

I have a great book, “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”, which discusses the inclusion of children in activist circles - how to, and the benefit of. The book rings true for artist circles too.

8. I imagine that a child-inclusive residency also allows participants to connect with other artist-parents. What benefit does a community have for caregivers of children who are also pursuing an artistic career?

Sarah - MOTHRA’s emphasis is on relationships. We are curious about the aesthetics of an ethically driven art. We don’t have a solution to “How do I keep painting while my child is crying?”, but admitting to relationships moderates what you can do as an artist. This way of thinking coincides with a turn towards “care” in general in art theory and practice. I don’t have the answers to these questions, but these are the themes we are working with and the questions we are interested in asking ourselves, and those who come and join us. Artist residencies can be so important for an artist’s practice in that they allow you to be more open and perceptive to coincidences, letting ideas unfold with no limit to where they might tumble. These things are often constrained back in our everyday lives.

MOTHRA is a meeting point. We are bringing together a community that is only formed for this purpose and which will disperse again after the residency is complete. I hope the residency transforms their art practice, and transforms how the artists understand their art practice in relationship to caregiving. We hope to learn from each other about how we parent and how we make art.

Alison - It is tremendously beneficial for people in similar situations to get together. To be able to see other people who are actively working and parenting is helpful. We each come to the challenge of art making while parenting with different solutions. It is great to have a space to openly share in those challenges and share our found solutions. Parent artists need a diverse network of support and the MOTHRA community aims to build a network of artists who can connect and support each other.

9. What programming have you planned?

Sarah- We do not have the week nailed down yet, but the following is a taster: Activities led by the children, daily bread making, letter writing workshop, artist presentations using creative methods, open studio times, critiques, group visit to AGO, film screening, outdoor excursions, and a hopefully a mini-conference/panel discussion. There will be opportunity for communal writing and artwork sessions. Ooooh, and I hope a reading group too.

10. How will the participants contribute to a dialogue surrounding parenting young children whilst maintaining an art practice?

Alison - Any way they want to. We welcome input from our participants. Our hope is to foster lots of dialogue during the residency that will be noted. As this is an experimental model for working we expect there will be many solutions to art making and parenting that will arise.

Sarah - We imagine that many of our discussions may occur during the preparing and consuming of food. We are devising ways to have ongoing discussion without all having to sit in the same room for a long period of time. MOTHRA has a printed zine and we plan to have participants contributing to the next edition. We would like to collectively come up with guidelines for other artists residencies in order to help make including children an easy and essential task. We want to collectively write to our arts councils to ask them to consider primary caregivers as being a priority group to fund.

We hope the artists will want to talk about and reflect on being an artist-parent, but its not required. There will be time each day to get together to talk. We might just hire nannies and head to the beach


11. Anything that you want to add?

Sarah - Yes. In case you didn’t know: Mothra, first appeared in the 1960’s, as a character from the very popular Japanese sci-fi films depicting giant monsters. The characteristics and imagery of Mothra the film star appealed to us. Although not necessarily attracted to bright lights at night, we parents of young humans are often up and active during the dark hours like our moth friends.

Mothra is similar to the word “mother”, but it isn’t the word mother. Our project is for all parents and caregivers of children whether you are biologically female and gave birth to a baby or not. Artist-Parents don’t need to be making work about their baby’s placenta, but it might be beneficial to be attuned to these new and changing relationships in your life, and be responsible for the relationships that we form. When you have children the way you relate to the world can change. MOTHRA is interested in taking this in a different and new direction, not a direction back to some place in the studio before kids.

Creative Commons Licence: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)