By no means do we live in a golden age for the artist-mother, but with the recent publication of Hettie Judah’s book-length manifesto How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and Other Parents), podcasts like the Artist/Mother Podcast, support groups (the Art Mamas Alliance comes to mind), and the Mother Art Prize, the artist who is also a mother has been, at the very least, acknowledged to exist.
The artist who continues to endure silently, between doctor’s appointments and large medical bills, however, is one sandwiched between motherhood and retirement: She is the artist-daughter. It won’t shock that 80% of single parents in the United States are women, but many will be surprised to learn that the average caregiver of an aging parent is a 49-year-old woman with another full-time job. If we are to go by national statistics, these caregivers’ children will have just left the house by the time their parents are in need of help.
Many artists, finding that their flexible schedules are mistaken for free time by siblings in more traditional jobs, end up shouldering responsibility for their parents. With limited studio time, erratic schedules, and the creativity-draining effects of grief, artist-daughters and other artist caregivers are living in a precarious position with little public acknowledgment or support.
“I feel like I’ve been living in a state of perpetual emergency for months,” said painter Louise LeBourgeois of taking care of both her parents. “I miss the way I used to be able to dive into my work.”
When discussing the effect of caregiving responsibilities on artistic practices, it is helpful to think of the predicaments suffered by artist-parents, though it is by no means sufficient. While both birth and child-rearing are inherently creative endeavors, the deterioration and eventual death of a loved one can often feel like the opposite.
“[Taking care of a parent] is like raising kids, only sadder and even less predictable,” artist Nancy Cohen told Hyperallergic. “At least half of my women artist friends in their late 50s and 60s are talking about this (pretty much everyone whose parents are still alive).”
Artist Patricia Fabricant agrees: “The biggest difference between caring for children and caring for elderly parents is the knowledge that this situation will only get worse until they die, which is heartbreaking.” While exhaustion might interfere with the art practice of new parents, the mental drain of prolonged hopelessness is enough to sap the creative energy of even the most energetic artist.
“Only now, in hindsight, do I see how much energy grief takes,” said artist Julia Couzens. “It’s a silent thief of time. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t just pick up work once my mother was safely put to bed or hit the studio on weekends … There was simply no room in my head for anything other than caregiving and recovery.”
Couzens’s experience will feel familiar to many other artists whose creativity was vaporized by taking care of loved ones. “Before my mom’s illness, I was the Chair of the Santa Ana Art Commission, a political candidate, and an award-winning artist with significant momentum,” said artist Pocha Peña. “Since then, there have been canceled shows (one a major exhibition in South America), and I’ve flaked on projects and suffered a massive lack of follow through on many levels.”
“My health has taken a hit too, so self-care is a priority for me as much as being a caregiver,” Peña added.
When an artist caregiver does carve out time for her practice, she might find that something has fundamentally changed in her work on both a practical, material level and a spiritual one. Accompanying a parent to doctor’s appointments, hospital stays, and nursing homes means sometimes studio time is on the go with small, transportable works taking the place of larger pieces.
While taking care of her parents, LeBourgeois transitioned to making smaller paintings, finding that “the intimacy of a small scale seems to match the intimacy of caregiving.” Photographer and conceptual artist Michelle Burdine found the transition from a large format camera to her unobtrusive cell phone camera made sense when she began to document her mother’s experience within the American healthcare system while caring for two rapidly declining parents.
“My caretaking duties surpassed my role as an artist, yet I could not abandon the project,” she said “I needed the act of making, of creating, as I powerlessly watched my beloved parents die.”
More abstractly, Burdine adopted menstrual blood as a new medium in her work. She noted that in the midst of the mental fog she describes as “grief brain,” she used this traditionally taboo material as “an expression of my organic clock, my body as a keeper of time that served to tether me to the present in a time of chaos.” The blood circles she obsessively drew (which eventually became part of the installation project Collected I & II) served to remind her of her embodied experience, as her mother passed out of her own.
Part of integrating the experience of artist-daughters into the art world conversation is to normalize caregiving as a subject of serious art, given that the experience of taking care of aging parents can also be a generative one. For Burdine, it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that she understood what she was creating while taking care of her parents. The photographs she took became In Sickness Until Death, a moving photobook project that documents her parents’ relationship within the context of their slow decline. Installed in gallery shows on a low coffee table, it becomes an elegiac distortion of the family photo album.
While subjects of care become the subjects of work for some artists, Ilana Harris-Babou takes a different approach to incorporating care into her art practice. The video and installation artist travels back to New York from Connecticut weekly to help her mother Sheila Harris maintain her household. Rather than considering this a hurdle in her practice, however, Harris-Babou regards her role as a caregiver to be integral to her creative output. “My relationship with my family is actually the driving force behind my creative practice,” she told Hyperallergic.
In fact, Harris-Babou’s mother appears frequently in her video work, where the artist thinks of her as a collaborator, allowing her experiences and ad-libbed reactions to influence the final cut. “Taking care of my mom creates the time for my practice,” she said. “[It has] created the subject of my work.”
The subject Harris-Babou refers to is not explicitly an account of her care responsibilities, but rather an investigation of our cultural relationship to care and its perversions. Using familiar wellness tropes, as well as the structures of cooking and home improvement shows, the artist critiques the way we are sold capitalism under the guise of taking care of ourselves, our homes, or our family. Her mother is often subject to these systems of care and self-improvement as seen in the 2020 video work “Decision Fatigue,” a spoof of a beauty influencer vlog that ends in Harris-Babou’s mother smearing her face with homemade Cheeto paste, but a sly squint or sigh let us know she’s in on the joke. Making art “is a way of caring for my mother,” the artist said.
Whether or not an artist is moved to incorporate caretaking into her work, there is a need for more support for caregivers. While the most profound changes to this system must come from government policy, the art world can help in material ways.
Alexis Hyde, curator of the Quinn Emanuel Artist-in-Residence program in Los Angeles, makes sure her residency is flexible enough to accommodate artists in a variety of life circumstances. She ensures the studio space is child-friendly and open 24 hours a day, and is upfront about expectations, payment schedules, and reimbursements.
But in the midst of such emotional chaos, many simply want to be pointed in the direction of resources, or at the very least towards others who have had similar experiences. “The thing that happens after you go through something like this is you find out how many other people have gone through it, too,” laments Burdine. (It is worth noting here that for those who are fully employed, the Family Medical Leave Act allows up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave a year, with no suspension of health benefits.)
Of course, there is no real “solution” to the problem of mortality and the labor of love that surrounds a dignified death. If art is to be a reflection of life, then there is no art without the messy, exhausting, often devastating experience of dying.
“When [my mother] died I returned to an entirely new art world,” said Couzens. “Only this time with a humanity I didn’t have before and a profound respect for what life costs.”