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Remembering To Be an Artist When Life Gets in the Way

So, “work-life balance” isn’t one of your big phrases in Bohemia. Was anyone keeping track of Jackson Pollock’s committee work? Do we worry about how it was all working out for Gauguin’s wife and four kids when we rhapsodize over those luscious Tahitian canvases of his? And what about all those black-and-whites of Sam Shepard — his wife and son back in California — shacked up with Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel? Visionaries like that need to explore and experience to create great art, we rationalize, not stress out about the ball and chain and the nine to five. To the extent that these undomesticable figures still enchant us, we have to acknowledge that there’s a part of us that still gladly gives artists their license to live immoderate, untethered, unsustainable lives.

Printmaker Elizabeth Busey. | Courtesy photo

Printmaker Elizabeth Busey. | Courtesy photo

Which makes it hard to see the artists in our midst.

“I live in a vintage 1976 quad-level home in Park Ridge East on a cul-de-sac,” says printmaker Elizabeth Busey. “It’s super sexy.”

And it’s where she makes her art. Although it is a French phrase, “cul-de-sac” isn’t in our standard erotic lexicon, nor does it come up that often among the avant-garde, come to think of it. But the prospect that the suburban studio might be recast with sex appeal will be raised over the weekend of October 21 and 22. That’s when Busey, along with 30 other artists in and around Bloomington, will be inviting visitors into their studios — most of which are home based — for the sixth annual Bloomington Open Studios Tour (BOST). At Busey’s home, visitors will wend their way down to the lowest of those four levels, where she makes reduction linocuts — or linoleum block prints — on her 36-inch roller press. She and her husband made the press using a design on the internet and dedicated the space to it.

“I took over the basement area, painted the cinderblocks white,” Busey explains. “It has no windows and doubles as a tornado shelter.”

Painter Meg Lagodzki has worked out of her own basement studio for the past six years. But the idea of opening it up to strangers was way out of her comfort zone when a few years back her friend, fellow painter and BOST co-founder Sarah Pearce, suggested she participate in the tour. “I said, ‘It’s only thirty dollars to register,’” Pearce recently reminded Lagodzki. “And you said, ‘It’s my basement,’ and I said, ‘It’s my basement! It’s all basements!’” Finally persuaded, Lagodzki signed on to BOST and her basement has been a spot on the annual tour, and she has been a participant in the year-round artists’ networking group, ever since.

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Revealing the troglodytic, suburban existence of the working artist to the general public is just the beginning. No, you won’t see a single sixth-story cold-water walkup on the tour, or a loft big enough to shoot hoops in between canvases, and that may come as a surprise to those of us weaned on Hollywood’s versions of painters’ lives. Peeling back the curtain to expose the artist living next door is one of the tour’s great lessons. But it’s the opportunity BOST gives artists to come out to one another that might be even more valuable. Because when you’re not one of the approximately 73 people who cavorted with Clement Greenberg and Peggy Guggenheim in New York in the 50s, but have a day job, or are a trailing spouse, or have kids, it’s hard to remember that you are an artist. Especially if you’re a woman.

Meg Lagodzki's "Exit Strategy," oil on panel. | Image courtesy of Meg Lagodzki

Meg Lagodzki’s “Exit Strategy,” oil on panel. | Image courtesy of Meg Lagodzki

“I stopped painting for over a decade after my first child was born,” explains Lagodzki. Her child had special needs; she’d been through several illnesses herself; and her husband’s upwardly trending career involved a move for the family every two years and a lot of business trips. Hovering above anything resembling a predictable studio practice in a holding pattern, Lagodzki still tried to make art. Though trained as a painter, it was easier to work in textiles during this period. “I would make these unstructured quilt things with my sewing machine in the middle of the living room with my kids crawling all over,” Lagodzki recalls. Her interest in the medium was stoked by a fiber arts group she fell in with in Florida.

BOST participant Christy Wiesenhahn learned that she, too, had to be flexible about medium if she wanted to keep making art. Another painter by training, Wiesenhahn didn’t have the space to paint in her home after her first child was born, so she found studio space with a glass artist. More than having any natural affinity for glass, what brought her to the medium “was those two hours I could get away to the glass studio during the nap.” Two more children and several medium shifts later, stained glass became her primary art form, along with glass-tile mosaics, which she creates for the skate parks she and her husband design and build around the world.

Down in Florida, Lagodzki was getting increasingly inspired by the textile medium, until she had to move again — and had another major illness that left her unable to talk for a year.

She can’t remember whether she had her voice back when she first showed up to an artists’ group at Busey’s Bloomington home with a few quilts and paintings, but she knows it felt like a safe space, somehow, to express her existential doubt: “I don’t know who I am anymore. Why am I even here? What do I do?”

Sarah Pearce's "Untitled 1," acrylic on paper. | Image courtesy of Sarah Pearce

Sarah Pearce’s “Untitled 1,” acrylic on paper. | Image courtesy of Sarah Pearce

Busey and the group’s members reassured Lagodzki with a refrain reminiscent of the 12-step world: “Just keep doing stuff!” they insisted. “The group is not a critique group,” Busey stressed. “It’s useful for the times in your life when you can’t make art as a way to feed your creative soul — if you’re the parent on duty, the first responder, the one who drives to Cleveland.” It was started by a couple of artist moms, Busey explains, “who said, I need a time to meet once a month, either to show how I’m being creative, talk about how I’d like to be creative, or explain why I’m not creative now.”

Lagodzki’s discovery of Busey’s group helped her feel like an artist again, because she realized that other artists were also struggling to balance motherhood with a creative life. “I’ve literally called into a meeting to say, ‘I can’t be there, I’m at the hospital with my child,’” she explains. “There are some things that you can share with other moms who are artists — that you don’t want to go public with. As a mother, those things happen and the sense is that motherhood should come first. And of course it does. And my husband, who is the primary breadwinner, still goes to work in the morning. And I’m home nursing the child, and artwork gets put aside for a while. It takes a while to come out of that space. If it’s the first thing to go, how important can it feel? You start to believe that this is something I get to do when everything else is taken care of.”

And when is everything else really taken care of? In 1963, Betty Friedan observed that “housework [or motherhood] expands to fill the time available.” It’s hard not to hear echoes of the malaise Friedan termed “the feminine mystique” in Lagodzki’s ambivalence. Friedan’s diagnosis of “the problem that has no name” has been dismissed for, among other things, the relative privilege of the Smith College-educated housewives it sampled. The women who’ve gathered to talk with me in painter Ellen Starr Lyon’s sun-filled home studio — just five of the 31 artists (23 of whom are women) who will participate in BOST this year — repeatedly acknowledge their own privilege over the course of our conversation. While they’re not the ladies who lunch, these are well-educated white women, with spouses who provide emotional and/or material support. Which could make their anguish over not having unlimited time in the studio sound trivial — a classic first-world problem. But this iteration of the feminine mystique is a little more nuanced, and merits scrutiny for what it reveals about contemporary American values: that not only are parenting and domestic labor held in contempt, art isn’t much respected either.

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“Mother-artists are at the epicenter of this problem we have in our society that there’s a lot of labor that doesn’t get quantified or qualified very well,” Pearce says. “There are so many forces telling you that this little thing you’re doing with pigment is a total treat — not something you’d agonize about, like factory work, or cleaning houses. Well, actually,” Pearce adds with a smirk, “you’re also cleaning the house.”

Artists (l-r) Wiesenhahn, Pearce, and Lagodzki. | Photo by Yaël Ksander

Artists (l-r) Wiesenhahn, Pearce, and Lagodzki. | Photo by Yaël Ksander

It’s a given that cleaning the house is an undervalued service. As for widespread art appreciation, these artists need only point to the frequency with which they are asked to donate work to fundraisers, and the sticker shock gallery-goers sometimes seem to register. “I get pressured for charging the prices I do,” says Lyon. “But you know, I paid for a fancy Indiana University degree just like a business major or someone else going into a career that is rewarded.”

Ellen Starr Lyon's "Music For One: Odessa at 12," oil on canvas. | Image courtesy of Ellen Starr Lyon

Ellen Starr Lyon’s “Music For One: Odessa at 12,” oil on canvas. | Image courtesy of Ellen Starr Lyon

Wiesenhahn believes that the economic impracticability of the artist’s life can be attributed to cultural priorities. Collaborating with local artists to build a skate park in Denmark, she noticed that “the artists had these schedules — they would start at nine, take a break at noon for lunch — and I thought, ‘That’s a society where they feel propped up.’ They don’t have to worry about college costs or healthcare costs — and it gives you the ability to have a lifestyle that makes sense. You can even have hobbies outside of art! Can you fathom that idea?!”

Lyon probably cannot. As her family’s primary earner, Lyon has worked for years as a paintings conservation technician at the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art. When she comes home at five, the mother of two teenagers heads straight for the studio, a glorious jumble of still lifes, plants, palettes, and canvases where we’ve gathered for our conversation. It’s just a few steps inside the front door and open to the kitchen. That location is intentional, Lyon says, “because I can be at the easel and I can still be parenting. Everything is multitasking. I can be painting, listening to music, composing my next painting, breaking up a fight, and telling my husband what he should get at the grocery store — thank God he’s the one making dinner. It’s one big miasma of life — I don’t get a chance to distill it, and that makes me a little crazy.”

Seeking out others facing the same challenges is essential to persisting, she says. “It’s too easy to feel, ‘Oh, I’m doing this all wrong,’ and it’s so hard,” says Lyon. But the BOST community serves as a mirror in which she can see her own artistic identity reflected. “You meet other people, and they’re doing it differently, but doing it in ways that are not stereotypical. And you learn more and hear more stories, and take this and leave that and move forward, and you’re not just on your own.”

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Regardless of the strides women have made in the workplace, figuring out how to run a freelance art career while parenting is still a sort of Wild West. Pearce says her cohort belongs to a “mixed-up generation,” raised with the expectation that we would “have it all” without knowing what that looked like. “The generation before us, who proved that women could be artists — those artists who were my heroes, like Helen Frankenthaler — a lot of them forewent childbearing, and that was an expectation,” says Pearce, the mother of twin teenage daughters. “If they had a child, it was disastrously painful. But we keep throwing things in the pot; we keep throwing it in there, and treading water.”

Elizabeth Busey's "Iridescent Argosy," reduction linocut diptych. | Image courtesy of Elizabeth Busey

Elizabeth Busey’s “Iridescent Argosy,” reduction linocut diptych. | Image courtesy of Elizabeth Busey

To the extent that motherhood and professional success have been systemically divergent pursuits in what passes for modern civilization, the idea that motherhood and creative innovation might work synergistically meets with even greater skepticism, as a recent article explores. And it’s hard even for members of the so-called “have-it-all” generation not to internalize the historical expectation that these goals are mutually exclusive.

BOST gives them, and the larger community, an updated set of expectations about what it is to be an artist. And in the case of these five women, at least, a portrait of an artist who is also a mother, with a studio in her home. None of them is a member of the university’s fine arts faculty. Some of them show and sell work around the country and abroad. “Their stories are all a little different from mine,” Lagodzki says, “but this is the real community of artists.”

And their studios, which they’ll throw open to the public during BOST weekend, represent a gamut of responses to the challenge of combining the roles of mother and working artist. For Lyon and Busey, ensconcing themselves in the middle of the domestic milieu has allowed them to make art while keeping the home fires burning. The studio where Wiesenhahn works in oils and glass is a stone’s throw from her house, but connected by a path. She designed it after reading an Alice Walker story in which the female protagonist had a bell installed halfway between her home and studio, which the family has to ring before visiting. Wiesenhahn works in dangerous materials that she wants to keep away from her kids, and needs the separate space to focus, but the distance is symbolically important, too.

You’ll visit Lagodzki’s basement studio on the tour, but she doesn’t spend as much time there as she used to. She’s been painting outdoors for the past few years, venturing into quarries and caves, the more remote the better. (Her newest work is currently on view at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Art Center.) Having never been interested in landscape before, she has surprised herself with this shift. “It was a little bit of an escape,” she admits. “I had felt trapped for so long and isolated. And it wasn’t that I needed to be with people, but I needed to be free.”

Free to be just an artist, at least for the afternoon. With a wink, she shares the disingenuous apology she offers her daughters: “’I’m sorry, I have to go paint this spot, but I get no cellphone reception there! It’s awful! So sorry, honey!’”

Christy Wiesenhahn designs mosaics for the skateparks her company designs and builds (left). A piece from her Stained Glass and Wire Bikes series. | Photos courtesy of Christy Wiesenhahn

Christy Wiesenhahn designs mosaics for the skateparks her company designs and builds (left). A piece from her Stained Glass and Wire Bikes series. | Photos courtesy of Christy Wiesenhahn

Pearce will be showcasing a new studio this year. She’s moved out of her basement and into a converted church across town. “I think I do better out of the house when I can afford it,” she says. “When you live with a family, you’re in kibbutz mode. You don’t get to make your own decisions. So when I get to the studio I can yang out some of that yin in a more concentrated form.”

I wondered whether the geographic shift had precipitated a stylistic one. Pearce paints both figuratively and abstractly, so I anticipated that the non-domestic setting might set her painting on an ethereal, or non-objective, course. It did not. “I started tracing my family on paper, making giant paper dolls of them,” she explains. “I was literally there in my glamorous studio, dragging around life-size paper versions of my family.”

[Editor’s message: Bloomington Open Studio Tour will be held on Saturday, October 21, and Sunday, October 22, throughout the Bloomington area. The two-day event is free and you can visit as many studios as you like with no registration needed. Click here for a map of studios for the participating artists.]

[Publisher’s note: BOST is a Limestone Post advertiser. Yaël Ksander has no financial or personal connection to the tour.]

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Contributors
Yaël Ksander
Yaël Ksander is a writer, editor, and radio producer who works at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies and contributes to Bloomington’s NPR station, WFIU. The longtime co-host of the syndicated program A Moment of Science, Yael narrated the documentary films The Natural Heritage of Indiana and The Ordinary, Extraordinary Junco. Having grown up in Alexandria, Virginia, Yaël studied languages, literature, and art history at the University of Virginia and Columbia University before pulling up stakes to pursue an MFA in painting at Indiana, hoping it would be the Wild West. Well, it has been wild, at least.
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