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Interview with Hettie Judah
Sarah was interviewed by Hettie Judah in 2022. Extracts from the text (below) are included in her book How Not To Exclude Artist Mothers (and other Parents).

Fact Check:

Short Answer:
I started MOTHRA officially in 2018 with its seeds starting in 2012 in Oxford UK. Toronto artist Alison Thompson came on board to help run it. Recently we have also brought in Toronto based artist Mary Dyja. We are currently based in Toronto. The three of us officially run it with myself at the helm. We consider all the artists who have been on our residencies as being part of our "collective".

Long Answer:
MOTHRA officially started in 2018 but the idea had been brewing for years before that. In 2012 I started "Crafternoon" in Oxford. I was there with my partner who was was completing his DPhil at the Ruskin School of Art, and I was primary caregiver to our one year old daughter. I made friends with a lot of parents who were temporarily situated in Oxford because of their partner being involved with the university somehow. The parents and kids moved around each day from playgroup to playgroup. I became tired of the tea and cookies and wanted something more from these gatherings. I was also working from home which I found isolating for both myself and my daughter. Myself and a friend, Monica Baurier, also a parent to a young child, started Crafternoon. Parents and kids met once a week first in a church hall and then in a community centre for a couple hours in the afternoon. We each brought along something to work on. It was a great success. We had a culturally diverse group which included fathers, mothers, grandmothers, and, for a short time, a nanny. There was sewing, knitting, scrapbooking, wood whittling, guitar playing, drawing.... The stars aligned and it just worked a dream. The kids got on with playing, or joining in with the adults, and the adults were able to work on something in the presence of or alongside their kids.

We were invited to the Pitt Rivers for a four month residency during which we made a communal quilt based on objects in the museum's collection which had to do with parenting and childhood across cultures. Our quilt was on display and is now in their collection. Co-working was becoming popular and I wanted to know how being an artist and parent related to what was happening in contemporary visual art. I realized that I was on to something, so when I moved to Toronto I started to plan. Initially I thought it might be a bricks and mortar location like what Mother House Studios has done in London. I put a call out on social media for artist-parents who wanted to start something and I met with Alison Thompson who became a part of the project.

Alison and I put together an application for funding to the Ontario Arts Council to run a pilot residency at a flexible studio space. We had the studio each day for a week - we were fully funded, so we could subsidize artists and their children to take part. Nine artists and their kids came along. Again it worked really well. By this point I was really determined to start something that would help to make some change and normalize the presence of children in the studio, or the boardroom floor.

I asked the manager at Artscape Gibraltar Point - where I already had a studio - about hosting a residency where artists can bring their children, in fact, in order to come they must bring their children. He said YES right away. The rest is history. The manager has since changed, but the support has remained strong. We couldn't have done this without the wonderful staff running this art centre.

AGP is the old school on Toronto Island. Slated for demolition it was saved by local residents and was turned into an art centre with studios and accommodation. MOTHRA is one of the most popular residencies at AGP. We could fill a residency once a month, maybe even permanently fill the space with artist-parents and kids. Currently we are running a residency for one week about four to five times a year.

What is best description of MOTHRA these days?

We call ourselves a "project" as well as a "collective". Most of our energy is put towards running residencies for artist-parents and their children out of an already established artist residency venue. We also have a zine, have exhibited, spoken at conferences, and are on the steering committee for Balancing Act - a Canadian group pushing for caregiver equality in the performing arts. We are interested in thinking about the tropes and stereotypes of what an artist is. We want to be part of a shifting to rethink the assumptions and biases in the institutions of art. MOTHRA is in the feminist tradition of taking everyday life and transforming art through that. MOTHRA borrows from feminist approaches to art practice, but we do not exclude others (ie. men/fathers, carers).

The name 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 we do think that 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 - by birth or to care for - 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.

Why is it so important to offer family/parent residencies?

A patriarchal mode of making art has dominated our lives as artists as it has throughout our culture. To be taken seriously in most fields you are expected to sever your links with personal relationships - such as family- in order to be successful. I am sure some people feel these pressures as the only way to have success in their fields. MOTHRA is attempting to push back against this.

Artist residencies can be very important time periods in an artists career. The residencies we offer are not for quiet time away from distractions of family. They are a bringing together of artists who are all balancing parenting with their careers and creativity. We are integrating art and life and producing work through the everyday relationships that would otherwise be excluded. Its a time for minds to meet. Ideas tumble and unfold in ways that might not back in our home-lives.

There are residency facilities that allow children and there are residencies popping up which include childcare. Our residency requires that artists come with a child(ren), and we offer no childcare. Parents are free to work-out childcare with other artists, which they do, and we have had a local elder "baby cuddler" onsite in the past. The idea is that artists work out how they can work alongside or with their child. We are interested in learning how art and how parenting are transformed when brought into relation this way. I think it is also very empowering for the participating artist to have their child(ren) and often their partner there on site seeing them in their "professional" mode with other artists whilst also parenting.

We need to prepare the artist-parent, arts funding bodies, studios, galleries, art venues, and society as a whole for the participation of children. A big part of what we do as humans is to care for others. This care should be acknowledged, should be visible, and should be rewarded. 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. We agree.

What does a residency space need to consider if it wishes to open up to parents and families?

Artscape Gibraltar Point is the site of the former elementary school on Toronto Island. It consists of studios and bedrooms, large communal rooms, and a communal kitchen as well as a larger catering kitchen. It is right on the beach on the shores of Lake Ontario and also looks north over a lagoon towards the towers of downtown Toronto. AGP hosts themed residencies (such as MOTHRA), self-directed residencies, and has permanent studio space.

Aside from making sure that these youngins have somewhere to sleep appropriate to their age and that there are not tons of hazards that parents can't deal with, the main thing we've had to think about ... are the other humans in the building. The building is not a sanitized play environment with blunt edges. We trust that parents know their kids and know how to change the set up in their studio in order to make the place safe. We don't charge artists extra if they want to bring their partner, or if their child needs a larger bed.

The logistical stuff, like sourcing potties and step stools, compiling age appropriate toys, putting covers over electrical sockets, is easy to deal with. Its negotiating others sharing the space which can be tricky. Some of the fellow artists in the space will be operating in ways that sit nicely next to loud talking, shrieking kids, and movement. For some they love the positive change in energy the kids bring to the space. It gives them permission to not creep around themselves as if the silence is sacred.

But we also share the space with artists who want to play out and justify their life choices, who have different criteria for success, and for what it means to be an artist. Our presence can antagonize other residents who came there to have total focus and peace and quiet. There is a moral outrage that comes with not wanting to deal with the whole population - in this case children and babies (and maybe parents).

Diplomacy and briefing by the institution is helpful in our circumstance because we share the space with other artists - long-term and short term residents. We've had 98% support from all other residents and staff. The skeptics are few and far between, although I do find them fascinating when we do run into them.

At times we must ask the children not to run (too fast) down the hallways, and to keep their voices down. Its a negotiation.

Our presence at AGP has enabled a policy shift. We've made direct change in the wording of who AGP wants to accept. Artist-parents were recently listed as a priority group for a fully funded series of residencies during winter 2022.

During a residency like ours you are in someone else's "house" as a collective - its not 'a room of one's own'. A room of one's own is an outmoded reality for most people. Even a house of one's own is unattainable for most these days.

We have noticed that it is beneficial to have more than one family on site at a time. Being the only one can feel lonely for the child involved. For this reason the themed group residency has stayed, rather than only promoting AGP as child and parent friendly.

The most important thing that a residency space needs to consider if it wants to open up to artist parents and families? Supportive people.

What are the biggest impediments to this area of the art world landscape becoming more inclusive of artist mothers/parents?

Gate keepers invested in previous 20th century modes of being a professional artist. I was on an online panel last year discussing art and care. The artist I was paired with was quite critical of MOTHRA's proposed mode of working. This mode being, to admit to the relationships in your life, to work with or alongside your child. I presented before her. When it was her turn, she asked "Why should I change my practice because I have a child? Why should I work in a different way because I have had a child?" - all of which I was proposing artists do. She wanted the system to change in order to enable her to work the way she wanted to work - free onsite/offsite childcare for example. As she passionately raged I felt smaller and smaller. I felt that MOTHRA had somehow missed the point, that I had submitted to the patriarchal system by deciding to be a mother, by deciding to spend time with my child(ren), by suggesting to artists who need total uninterrupted silence in order to work, that maybe they change their practice for a bit and see what happens when they put themselves in the same studio as their child.

This session disturbed me and I have thought about it a lot. It was a reminder that there is an aspect of feminism which doesn't look kindly on MOTHRA. I'm all for free childcare, I'm all for showing up to a lecture and having someone else entertain my kids in a room onsite, but I want to take it a step further and see what happens when the kids are in the room too. I think that the real anarchists, the real transgression in the "art world" is to show up with your baby. Coco Fusco said in a panel discussion at Art Basel that the art world would rather tolerate a drunk artist at an art opening than a child or baby. (Is the drunk artist at the opening like the art world's child? Another discussion)

There are tropes and stereotypes of what an artist is. We need to re-shift and rethink these assumptions and biases. There are lots of artists and collectives and projects transforming the way that art gets done and MOTHRA is one of them.

If AGP had told me "no" to parents and kids we would have found a different location. In Oxford I came up against some resistance to the Crafternoon idea. I was told that babies and knitting needles don't mix (why she thought we were a bunch of knitters I don't know!), and to get the community centre I had to attend a board meeting to convince the board why we should have access to their facility - they said yes, but it wasn't without some stern discussion. We are working by example and by doing so we lean heavily on institutions (AGP) to make policy change. We put what we preach into practice, we don't just instagram about it. In fact our social media and website are in dire need of updating.

I think this quote has been wrongly attributed to Gandhi, I'm not sure, but I like it: "Be the change you want to see".

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