Q: Firstly, tell us about yourself!
A: I live in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. This is a semi rural area only about 40 minutes drive from Adelaide, the state capital city. I live with my husband and 2 sons in a straw bale house we built some 15 years ago. More recently we built an Earthship style, off grid, sustainable dwelling that we currently rent out as bed and breakfast accommodation. I am predominantly a painter, but use drawing and iPhone photos as source material. These sources are now part of my practice too, as they describe the chaotic, messy, precarious project of motherhood perhaps more directly than do my paintings.
Q: 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?
A: One year when the kids were little I made just one painting. When they were babies and toddlers I felt really inspired with ideas for paintings that described my experiences of mothering but just didn’t have the time, energy, or space to make them. Now the boys are older I have more time but my art practice is still often the last thing on my long list of things to do. To formalize my practice and privilege it above my other roles I have created a research project for a PhD that explores the lived experience of mothering. I have a studio away from home that I work in but sometimes if I’m making work about the home I’ll sketch and take photos, and maybe even paint, at the kitchen table.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you and how much time do you manage to carve out for your own work?
A: Every day is different for me, which keeps life interesting, but I find the effort of juggling many roles is very tiring. A recent study found women are no better at multi-tasking than men; they just have to do more (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-15/multitasking-women-and-men/11414540). I sometimes feel like I’m doing many things at once – but none of them very well! Each day is bracketed by the school drop off and pick up, so that a “day” in the studio is actually about 5 hours.
Q: Have you come up against specific challenges as an artist and mother? What were they and how have you navigated these challenges?
A: The challenges for an artist-mother are making time and space to make art work when there are so many other competing roles and responsibilities. For example, I also need to earn money to contribute to the family finances. How do I privilege a studio day over a day of paid work? As an artist and an academic I have about 3 paid jobs that I have to make fit with family life and art practice. The PhD research I’m doing explores the realities of mothering in a patriarchal, neoliberal, capitalist society, and so I feel like my struggles and frustrations all contribute to this research.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
A: Just keep painting (when sometimes that is the hardest thing to do!)
Q: Who are your role models? Who or what inspires and encourages you?
A: Louise Bourgeois and Paula Rego – strong women artists and mothers who maintained careers despite times of great hardship. In their lives and work they admit to the ambivalences and ambiguities of mothering.
Q: If your child(ren) were asked “Tell me about your mother” what do you hope they would say? Are there particular things you are trying to show/teach them as an artist, a mother, a woman?
A: I have a small collection of drawings my sons have made of me over the years. What I love most about these drawings is that they show they’re not fooled by my pretense at calm and control! In one picture it looks like I am in a cleaning frenzy – which does happen sometimes – and in another I am holding a sharp knife in each hand. I feel like I have taught the kids to be critical viewers and thinkers. Aged 16 and 11 they both describe themselves as feminists.
Q: What drives you to continue to create work?
A: The above comment is one thing that drives me on. I keep going with my art work and research project as I think work in the field of mother studies and the arts is so important. Women and mothers are still doing the majority of care and housework in Australia (https://melbourneinstitute.unimelb.edu.au/hilda/publications/hilda-statistical-reports). Where feminist gains have been made in more empowered mothering, there are also many backlashes against these – for example models of intensive mothering require that women devote all their resources and time to raising their children “correctly.” Also, the model of the “yummy mummy” does not offer real freedom from the patriarchal institution of motherhood but is just another way of controlling mothers’ bodies, behaviours, and spending power.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A: Projects, platforms and networks like Spilt Milk are really important for artist mothers who often still feel isolated by the patriarchal institutions of motherhood and the art world.
ZOE FRENEY is an artist, writer and Head of Art History & Theory at Adelaide Central School of Art in South Australia. She is currently undertaking a PhD (studio practice) in painting and research at the Australian National University. Her project investigates the creation of alternative images of the mother and the experience of mothering, images that privilege her embodied experience of mothering over stereotypes perpetuated by the media and western, Christian traditions. Her work has been included in local, interstate and international exhibitions.