Gwen Charles : Member Q & A

 
 
 Video still from ‘Double Donut Inflatable Collar’

Video still from ‘Double Donut Inflatable Collar’

 

Firstly, tell us about yourself! Where do you live, what sort of art do you make and how many children do you have?

I’m in United States, a New York native, I live in Northern New Jersey, just 40 minutes from New York City. My art career started in figurative oil painting. I’m currently working in performance and installation, creating sculptures and sculptural costumes to be worn while in motion, used in a photographic scene or video. I have two children with my lovely husband of 21 years.

How do you continue to engage with your art practice alongside raising children? Do you have a dedicated studio space and routine, or do you work from home in between other things? 

For many years my art practice was integrated into our home life, I worked at the dining room table that we used as a multi-purpose work and eating area. Outside the home, I consistently enrolled in various classes at universities and art centers as a part of my studio practice. When the children were in elementary school my husband, also an artist, and I acquired a studio space to share outside the home in an old office building in the next town. We spilt the space in half, each of us with two rooms to work in and a small room in the middle that functioned as a gallery space. At the time, I only worked on large pieces at the studio and continued to create small works at home. After a few years, our lease was not renewed, studio was packed up and moved into storage, the building was demolished for new construction. At this point I really missed having the space to escape to and understood the importance of having a dedicated space to work. I then went to all the local artist studio buildings in the area to inquire about space but there were no vacancies. I told everyone that I was looking for a space. About a year later a friend called to offer me a storage space behind the building she was renting that had a separate entrance and a bathroom, only walking distance from my home. I have been working in this space for the past few years, walking over to the space, almost daily. I work as a freelance educator at the local museum so with my flexible schedule I can go to the studio in the mornings and be home in the late afternoon to greet the kids when they return from school. On days where the kids have after school activities, I often return to the studio to work a bit more. Since much of my current studio practice is video editing, I often edit video at home at the same dining room table.

 
 
  Melting Iceberg , 2018, full color digital photograph, 30" x 36”

Melting Iceberg, 2018, full color digital photograph, 30" x 36”

 
 

What does a typical day look like for you and how much time do you manage to carve out for your own work?

Although I have had a studio practice for years, I had to shift from a painting practice and then shift again to rethink my practice after having children. I made a recommitment to my studio practice after a intensive workshop in 2016 with Creative Capital (Creative Capital is  the largest independent non-profit supporter and funder to artists in the United States. Their unique program provides not only financial support but also logistical support) I decided that that I must work in the studio every day. At the same time I made commitment to my self care. Each day I make sure to do something for myself as well as something for my studio practice. I spend some time researching and reading, writing, visiting galleries and museums, viewing contemporary dance, watching films. Each week i spend time writing label copy for my works. I use instagram as a daily digital sketchbook, noting what I’m working on and what I am interested in. 

This gives me a place to practice writing about my and others art works.

Regular monthly meetings and critiques with artists keep up an on-going conversation and studio support system. We discuss our progress, our references and meet to see new work at contemporary art galleries, museums and performance spaces. These meetings and activities are both part of the studio process and of self-care inspiring and nourishing.

Most days in the studio I take a self-portrait. After graduate school, I had a moment of paralyzing terror where, without deadlines or advisors, I was afraid to make anything. The best advice was to just get into the studio and just make something, anything, without worrying about whether it would be artwork. I had to break the paralyzing fear- so I went back to a theme featured in a few of my works where I wear an object on my head as a headdress. I went in to the studio and grabbed a bunch of random objects: a bag covered in sequins, a curtain, and feathers and took some self portraits with them on my head. I laughed the whole time and wasn't sure where I was going. I then doubled and mirrored the images in editing software. Through that process, I was able to relax, not take myself so seriously and created a new studio practice that I use when I'm stuck or need a break. I make it a rule to have fun in the studio!

I have boxes of “costumes” in my studio- clothes from thrift shops, garage sales and friends that are unique. I put these on to find the different personalties they may represent and use these in my photographic set-ups. Often I strip down and remove all the costumes and props to explore the essence of a movement or idea, then add back sculptural elements as needed. I create objects as they are needed for a work of art or project. I will test out a movement and record it on video and play it back to see how it translates. There is a lot of testing and playing with materials. The best works comes out of this non-directive, no-pressure playtime.

 
  Found objects in the attic: Wooden door , 2018, Full color Digital photograph, 20" x 24”

Found objects in the attic: Wooden door, 2018, Full color Digital photograph, 20" x 24”

 
 

Have you come up against specific challenges as an artist and mother? What were they and how have you navigated these challenges?

As a young mother and as the first to marry and have children in our friend group, I had no other peers to look to regarding work/life balance. 

I was able to find a network of holistic minded parents,, many who were creatives, when we moved to a progressive town and this supportive environment allowed me to be comfortable in my choices and to be myself- a unique woman, an artist, a creative holistic minded mother. 


What is the best piece of advice you have been given?


When the kids were babies I tried to fit in small moments to draw. As they grew to toddlers and preschool age I would set up paper next to me so the children and I could work side by side. Inevitably the kids would migrate over to my space and sometimes draw on top of my work. for a time with two small children i gave up trying to have time to create work on my own and all the painting, drawings and collages were collaborative endeavors with the children. One day my husband came home and said, "you know the children don’t always have to “collaborate” with you. They are old enough to understand that mommy is an artist and is working on her own projects”. I was surprised to hear him make this statement, but understood that he was telling me to give myself permission to be an independent artist again. We worked out some time for me to work on my own when he was around to play with the kids and explain that they were not going to collaborate with mommy. 

 
 “ no use crying over burnt milk. ” 2018, 18” x 24” milk silkscreens on cotton paper. Silkscreened prints made with soured milk, left to dry then ironed until the milk sugars burn. "No use crying over Burnt Milk”  is riffing off common idiom “no use crying over spilled milk” said to emphasize that it is not useful feeling sorry about something that has already happened and cannot be changed. The burnt milk implies that the milk not only spilled but also burned, adding another layer of unfortunate, uncontrolled circumstances.

no use crying over burnt milk.” 2018, 18” x 24” milk silkscreens on cotton paper. Silkscreened prints made with soured milk, left to dry then ironed until the milk sugars burn. "No use crying over Burnt Milk”  is riffing off common idiom “no use crying over spilled milk” said to emphasize that it is not useful feeling sorry about something that has already happened and cannot be changed. The burnt milk implies that the milk not only spilled but also burned, adding another layer of unfortunate, uncontrolled circumstances.

 

Who are your role models? Who or what inspires and encourages you?


As a young mother i did not have a network when the children were small I looked to past artists for inspiration on working and mothering. I looked to the heart warming photos of Elizabeth Murray working in the studio, with her children drawing right next to her. I purchased books that featured stories of mothering artists: 

Strong Hearts, Inspired Minds: 21 Artists who are Mothers Tell Their Stories where Anne Mavor interviews several artists who are mothers. 

A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood compiled by Judith Pierce Rosenberg. Mira Schor created a independent contemporary art journal 

M/E/A/N/I/N/G. Issue 12 was a forum on motherhood, she interviewed artists about the struggle as artist as mothers. These were resources I could find in the early 1990’s. This is before the internet, and the journals was mail ordered from a paper catalog. I was also looking at how Sally Mann was scolded for her work at the time, lauded for taking photographs of her children instead of caring for them. Critics said she was endangering the children. The guilt of taking time away from family was real and society scrutinized the time away from the children, especially if it wasn’t a money producing job. The question always came up, would we be better mothers if we were not devoting time to our art?  I realized that being an artist is who I am and I want my children to grow up to see me as more than a mother, and as a wife, but as an independent woman with her own interests and career.

How has the experience of motherhood impacted your practice on an emotional/intellectual level? Has it made you view yourself/your work differently? Are there things that influence your work now that you didn't think about pre-kids?

Family life influences my artwork profoundly. I draw inspiration for works from moments from my daily life, interjecting the performing body into spaces embodying female archetypes, stereotypes and our stories, while also exploring gender roles. Most works end up having playful edge, unintentionally bringing together the two parts of my personality. Having children had me looking for “life balance”. A friend starting his own home business suggested I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective people. This book helped me define the several roles I play in my life and how weekly, if not daily, they need to have attention: self, wife, mother, daughter, artist, teacher. Next reading Richard Eyers book Life balance helped as he states we must have something planned for each sector of our life: self, home life and career for each day.

 

gwen’s video work ‘double donut inflatable collar’ was recently exhibited as part of our members show ‘oh motHER’ at Custom House Gallery.

you can find out more about gwen by visiting her website.