My New Recipe for Making Art – What’s Yours?

Image by Mika Rosenfeld

When I was fourteen I bought Annie Lennox’s Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves and danced to it in my bedroom, feeling radical:

Now there was a time when they used to say
That behind every -great man.
There had to be a -great woman.
But in these times of change you know
That it’s no longer true.
So we’re comin’ out of the kitchen
‘Cause there’s somethin’ we forgot to say to you…

Thirty years on I remembered this song when I read a recent Guardian article by Brigit Schult, “A Woman’s greatest enemy? Lack of Time to Themselves,” which ends with Schult not coming out of the kitchen. Her daring act is rather to give herself time to sit down in the kitchen, at the table, to drink some tea and dream. Schulte argues that many women still struggle to give themselves time to do anything by, or for, themselves. She names a few of the famous great male artists and thinkers who have been looked after by their wives/ mothers/ housekeepers/ maids, whilst they made their great art or contribution to the world. She writes, “If what it takes to create are long stretches of time alone, that’s something women have never had the luxury to expect.”  

I could claim this narrative as mine, a version of it. I am married to a man who is a performer and director. One reviewer recently called him “a genius.” He is making brilliant theatre, whilst I am looking after our children. However, for many reasons, I refuse to accept this story- the one in which he is the great man and I am the time-short woman behind him, not making art, enslaved to a life of care. It is not to deny the truth of this historically but it seems critical to write a different narrative for “these times of change.” At 45 I will not disappoint that radical 14 year old with middle-aged cynicism.  

I am all the more stubborn on this point at present as I had a moment recently when I felt the tug of that great man/ hidden woman story. My husband is Phelim McDermott, one of the artistic directors of the company Improbable. He premiered a show two weeks ago: The Tao of Glass at The Royal Exchange Theatre as part of the Manchester International Festival. It was a collaboration with another great artist, the world-famous composer Philip Glass. It is a beautiful show about art, inspiration and loss. It is a show about things not going to plan, about how art can grow from grief, from the things that did not happen. In it Phelim describes how dreams and images are everywhere, running like a river through us and the world, day and night. The show is an invitation to stop and lie down in that river.

It was a huge success. Audience members came away in tears every night, saying it was the best thing they had ever seen. He received extraordinary five star reviews. I was immensely proud of him. But, I have to admit, I had flickers of vulnerability too, feeling how easy it could be to slide into being the woman behind the great man. The children and I were staying in a cool Mancunian flat, provided by the festival, 12 storeys up, with a wide view of the city and the theatre. In the evenings I would look out through the glass balcony doors at the roof of the Royal Exchange and imagine my husband on stage, as I ran the bath, returned to the kitchen to make the night time milk, lay down in bed with our son and daughter and waited, awake, until I heard the door at last – Phelim coming back.  

The Tao of Glass was a long time in the making – the seeds of it began just weeks after our son was born, seven and a half years ago. Around the same time, a little sooner, when I was still pregnant, I wrote a short prose piece inspired by the Persephone and Demeter myth. Ever so slowly, as my son was growing up, as my daughter was born, and changed from a baby into a little girl, that piece has been growing into a novel. In spring last year I finished its fourth draft. In the autumn I realised I had to begin again. The fifth and, I hope, final draft of the novel has not yet happened. It has not premiered anywhere. It is now the summer holidays. I have six weeks before me in which I will have no stretches of time alone – the essential ingredient Schulte identifies for productive creativity. How am I going to make it out of the kitchen? To make any progress? What to do? Now, this summer, but also in the years ahead, while the children are still young? If I am ruling out the ‘kitchen-contained, oppressed wife’ scenario – what other ones are there? I have been reviewing the available options. I count four. 

1) The traditional: Give up the making – just let it go – and do the caring. I mention this because if it is a genuine choice, it is a worthy and amazing one. To stay in the kitchen. Make wonderful loaves of bread for the man or woman or significant other whom you love. This was my mother’s choice. She did have her moment (she has written some brilliant history books about how women were not as oppressed in the middle ages as you might think!) but only after my father had died and her children had grown. For 20 years she made the meals and cared for the children, while my father did skilled scholarly work in his study, during long stretches of time alone. She did not resent this. If she had her time again, I think she would do the same. But it will not do for me. I could not do it without resentment, and then there would be nothing amazing about it.

2) The reversal: Get your man, or other partner, to do the caring.

This option is exactly the same as above but with the usual gender roles reversed: a great woman with a great man behind her. This was my sister’s way. She married a man who was happy to stay at home whilst she went out to work as a plant scientist, becoming increasingly well-known and respected. She is now a Dame. Her husband died tragically young, but not before he had cared for both of their children and seen them leave home. 
I have huge respect for my sister and her husband. However, I did not marry a man who wants to stay at home, and in truth this is not what I would wish either. I cannot emphasize it enough: I am not being saddled with the children – I wantto be their main carer.

3) The contemporary: Share the care. Share the work. Half and half. 

This, for many, is the modern ideal. The goal of these liberated times. Show your man/ partner – if you have one- round the kitchen. Teach them how to change a nappy. Buy them a baby sling. Pump your breastmilk, or do bottle-feeding, so you can both feed the baby. Take it in turns who goes to work, who stays home. Or both go to work so that you can both contribute to the childcare costs of someone else having the children, be that a nursery or a nanny. Ensure you both get the same amount of time alone – an equal chance at making, and at making it. 

Again, while I admire this scenario in other families, in ours it is important to me that ‘equal’ does not have to mean ‘the same as.’ It can also mean, ‘completely different but as good as.’ I think division of labour is a wonderful thing. I am not totally comfortable about the ways in which my choices reinforce gender stereotypes, but I am comfortable with my husband and I doing different jobs – he earns most of the money, I do most of the childcare. My husband has told me that he could not do what I do – be with the children from dawn to dusk, and often from dusk to dawn too. I could not do what he does – go away for weeks at a time to direct shows. Let me be clear: Daddy does take his turn. I also do some paid work. But I want to care for our children and I am seriously lucky to be able to do so, thanks to Phelim’s support. I also want to care for my mother as she ages (I’ll come back to the wonder of Granny later). Like making art, caring has a strange ambivalent status – it is both a privilege and a necessity. I can’t not do it. I am well aware that many people have no choice about this: our culture values care so little, we are economically rewarded for handing our children over to other people to look after them, and meanwhile those who care professionally are amongst some of the most poorly paid.

4) The superwoman: Do the whole lot.

Schulte’s article also refers to some of the extraordinary women that have done it all: George Sand, working late at night, Francine Prose, writing during the school hours, others getting up at 4am, so as to finish writing in time to make breakfast. For some – single mothers, for example – this may be almost the only option. 

It is seven minutes past midnight as I write this. I am sitting at the end of my son’s bed. This way is, in part, what I have been practicing for the last seven years, but I am not sure if it is enough or is sustainable. I need more time. I need more sleep. And something troubles me in all of this: I want to find another scenario, a whole different story, besides these four that I have named…..

I think I need to ask some more radical questions. The above options are based on the assumption stated at the start of Schult’s article that to create requires stretches of focussed, uninterrupted time. Does it? This is undoubtedly one proven methodology for making, but is it the only way, or even the best? Could I create a new recipe for creativity? 

At the moment, during the summer, I am being a ‘time magpie.’ I snatch whatever shreds of shiny time I can spy. Little silver wisps of it, when the children run ahead of me on the lane; a crinkly, twinkly scrap of it when I am breastfeeding my daughter and my son is reading; a whole twenty-minute-sized sparkling square when they are watching an episode of ‘My Little Pony’ together. This is not much but it is what I have, and it is the start of my new recipe. What can I grow from these snatched, glittering moments? What can I make slowly, whilst I am caring? Like slow cooking, I wonder whether there may even be a value in the length of time it takes and the fragmented way in which I work. I think again about Phelim’s show. It was not a show made by sitting for long hours uninterrupted. It is a show made from a story of a shattered glass coffee table and a man who died before Phelim could work with him. A show made from broken things.            

Why do we do it anyway? This privilege/necessity called art? If I am writing a new recipe I need to touch back into what the motive is behind the making. Yes, of course I would love ‘success’, recognition, the things that great artists receive, but ultimately I am certainly not doing it for ‘greatness.’ I love and believe in what Elizabeth Gilbert says, that the success of a work is not in the number of stars the reviewers give you, it is in how it has changed you. You make the art, and as you do so it makes you. By the end of the process you are a different person because of what you have created. Ultimately your life’s work, your greatest art, is what you have made of your life. 

A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.
(Elizabeth Gilbert, from Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear)

And this in turn reminds me of another of my favourite quotes, from the poet Mary Oliver, 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ With your one wild and precious life?

My new recipe is starting to take shape, one in which great work could come, not from 10 hours of uninterrupted time alone per day, but from a lifetime of company and care: 10,000 precious scraps of time, mixed in with 1000 wild days of care.

My problem with the old recipe for making art is that it necessarily positions creativity and care in opposition to one another. It splits them apart. It tells the story that the one excludes the other. If you are caring for a child, a parent, a home, then you have to get up and tend to the person or thing in your care. You cannot stay sitting, undisturbed, deep in thought at your desk. This polarisation of care and art is nowhere clearer than in the stories of great artists (most of them male) who made great work but were horrible people, or at least they did some horrible things to those close to them, often those caring for them. There we have it: the artist who did not care; the carer who made no art. Their lifeworks – their lives as works of art – were not all they could have been. 

This segregation of art and care is still hugely powerful in how we think, talk and act in relation to creative practice. I believe that paradoxically part of why this split is so intense is that in fact the act of caring and the act of making share so many close connections. My five years running Mothers Who Make has only confirmed this belief. They both require dedication, patience, sensitivity, attentiveness. They both require time. Again and again I hear women who are doing both, sustaining their making and being mothers, describing themselves as feeling split. I am curious as to how far this has to be the case. If we could reframe the artist and the carer as collaborators rather than competitors would this sense of impossible division continue? Might it be possible to feel whole?

I am not trying to deny difficulty here or paint some fanciful picture of motherhood in which it is suddenly easy to engage in the rush of creativity, along with the rush to catch the child who is running out the door, in which the challenging logistics all magically melt away. It is undeniably hard, but I am convinced that everyone – and I mean everyone, regardless of gender – loses out when the care and the art are kept separate, in opposition to one anotherThe care becomes drudgery. The art becomes inaccessible.

So, how to integrate them? Another part of my new, radical, work-in-progress recipe involves my choice to live with my mother. This means I have both more support and more caring responsibilities. I know I am incredibly lucky that this is even an option. The most time I get to work is when my son is at school and my daughter (now 3) and my mother (now 78) play together in the kitchen, whilst I try to write a novel in the bedroom. I get this precious time but it is hardly ever uninterrupted (frequent visits from my daughter) or alone (except for the odd five minutes when my daughter and Granny walk down the lane to try to buy some eggs). What I like about this set up is that I am working within a web of care – there is nothing particularly ‘equal,’ as in measured out to be ‘the same as,’ about the caring transactions that are present. I am looking out for my mother. My mother, still my mother even though I am 45, is looking out for me. We are both looking out for my daughter and my daughter, in her own small but determined way makes gestures of care towards both of us. My son too. My husband too when he is around and in truth even when he is away – over the phone, the ether, the air. There is a river of care running through our days. It is not easy – there are many challenging moments – but this set up allows the flow of care and the flow of art to coexist as far as possible, and for me this is vital.

There is nothing about this work-in-progress recipe that is fixed. Not everyone has a granny, a husband, a wife, a partner, an income. Not everyone can work with their children in the room. For many the separation of work and care is important and often, depending on the context of their practice, essential. But, whatever your answer, whatever your particular recipe – and there is no right one- I think it is still useful to loosen our thinking, shake up the story that art and care must be at war with one another, rather than two reflective rivers running side by side, sometimes intersecting, always present in our lives. 

Midweek, during my husband’s run at the Manchester International Festival, there was a matinee that was billed as a ‘relaxed performance.’ I did not stay in the tower block with the children. We walked down the road and entered the theatre. Care was allowed to turn up with a ticket. As Phelim said at the start of the show, “This afternoon is a relaxed performance. This means that everyone will be less uptight.” He got a laugh, but he was right. My daughter sat on my lap and was allowed to say, “That’s Daddy!” in a loud stage whisper and no one minded. My son was allowed to loll on the seat and ask me “How long is this bit going to go on?” when Daddy was lying on the stage pretending to be in a coma, whilst the ghost of Philip Glass played the piano. It was a lovely show. 

I would love for ‘relaxed performances’ to be the rule rather than the exception. I would love for art and its makers to be more relaxed, ‘less uptight’ more of the time, to be able to welcome care into the room – care for all those that need it: children, parents, friends, partners i.e. everyone. I would love to stay in the kitchen, while the children grow, and write my novel at the table, able to trust that it is worth doing, however long it takes and whatever happens to it at the end. I want to be an artist who cares, and a carer who makes art out of millions of broken, shiny seconds. Like now, at 1.01am, with my daughter in the crook of my left arm, as I type this with my right, and nurse her back to sleep.

Before I lie down and try to sleep, here then are my questions for you – you can answer this moment, this month or it may take you many years:

What is your recipe for making art? Is it stretches of time alone? Or something else? What is your system of care? Is it the one for which you wish? What would it take for you to feel whole? What will your life’s work be?


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