How to Make Art with a Toddler

I have a solo art show opening this week at a local boutique! I’m so excited.

Promo postcard for art show, "How to Make Art with a Toddler"

How did this come about? Four years ago I had some prints made of my artwork for an event at the Oakland Museum. I sold some, but not long afterward I found out I was pregnant, and almost everything in my life went on back burner as we prepared for the arrival of the person I now call Owl (at least on this blog). 

By the time I was able to think of the prints again, I barely had the bandwidth to even unearth them from the bottom of my closet, much less send out feelers to see if stores wanted to carry them. They felt like an unhappy reminder of, among other things, my seeming inability to continue making art now that I was a parent. In the infant stage I was more willing to cut myself some slack, but once Owl became a toddler, I felt like I should be able to do more. But it wasn’t just the lack of time that was a problem, it was the lack of energy and the surprising (to me) difficulty of turning over mental space from mom mode (requiring a lot of long-range planning, multitasking, tracking of tiny details, and sometimes just plain endurance) to artist mode (open-ended, non-linear, free, single-minded). When she was about a year old I finally carved out time to write, mostly in my private journal, but that doesn’t require much space; getting out my painting equipment felt cumbersome, if not actually out of the question.

Enameled metal butcher's tray being used as a paint palette

Eventually I got tired of my own baggage around the prints, and began contacting stores. Most didn’t even reply, but to my great delight, Kate, the owner of my favorite nearby shop, agreed to carry one. A few months after that, she offered me a solo show in the store, if I wanted it. Of course I said yes, and I was sure I could make it work — I just didn’t know how yet.

I had six months to put the show together, a time period that included the winter holidays and a weeklong international trip around Owl’s birthday. I had a lot of ideas, but they made more sense for my pre-parenting life, when I had more time and more mobility and could strew materials around the apartment freely without worrying about toddler damage to artwork (or paint/tool damage to toddler). We were in the process of moving to a larger apartment, which would give me more space to work, but it wasn’t anything like a room of my own: a movable drafting table and stool in the dining room, with supplies stored in the pantry and the built-in cubby under the window seat, and a wall shelf that’s really a shower caddy I found at the thrift store.

Painted color swatches and a shower caddy repurposed as a wall caddy for painting supplies

I could find some weekend time when Erik took Owl out to play, and we had our sitter coming three times a week most weeks, but I knew from past experience that those sessions were not always great working time. I often had to fit housework, errands, or appointments into that time — or the preschool search, which I was doing during this time period as well — and even when I could just be home and working, there were always kid things and household mess in my line of vision, not to mention Owl’s shrieks and remarks and demands always in my ear. I could put on headphones, but that can be distracting in its own way. I was always spent by the time she went to bed; the energy just wasn’t there.

Eventually, I decided to make the challenges of my creative life the explicit focus of my show: how does one make art while parenting a toddler nearly full-time? And with that, things started to come together, especially in the last two to three months before the show. I started setting a morning alarm, so I could get up early and paint some days before Owl woke up (with Erik taking over some of the morning duties, too). It cost me a little sleep, but I didn’t sleep well while fretting about not painting, either. With the return of near-daily painting time — something I hadn’t had since before Owl was even a thought — I could start experimenting, playing with ideas, riffing on previous days’ work, which created continuity and coherence to what I was doing (even if it was only in my head).

Assortment of 18 postcard-sized watercolor paintings

I also began pairing words to my paintings: indirect answers to the question of how to make art while parenting, oblique explanations for how the paintings themselves answered the question.

Hand-lettered "Do What You Can" on green watercolor background

It takes a lot of energy to make art, but as I started doing it more regularly, I also remembered how much energy it gives back. After an hour or two of painting followed by a full day of parenting, I would be exhausted as usual, maybe even more than usual, but I would also feel good about myself — something which, I have to admit, art does for me in a way that parenting does not. (That’s something for another post, but I suspect it’s because my parenting philosophy is that kids grow on their own and we just get out of their way, after making sure their basic physical needs are met. So, even though I think Owl is amazing, that’s not credit I take for myself. Whereas, when I’ve written or drawn or painted something, that feels like my work. I would love to hear from other artist/primary parents whether they feel the same way.)

Watercolor painted grid of pink, blue, and purple rectangles

As of today, the show is almost fully installed at the shop, I’ve promoted it to everyone I could think of, and the opening is the day after tomorrow. (No, I don’t know what I will wear yet.) Even though it hasn’t really launched yet, I feel incredibly good about it already, because I know what went into it. From having no ideas, a little hope, and a lot of panic, I’ve developed creative, mental, and logistical habits that have enabled me to make visual art regularly for the first time in about four years, in a sustainable way (not counting the time crunch of the past few weeks, which has definitely not been sustainable). I’ve chased my ideas, day after day, and seen how that persistence can generate a body of work even when it seemed on day one that I had nothing to say. I learned that even without a studio, even without more than a couple of hours at a time on most available days, I can make something — and that the art I make in those sessions, even if it’s not the art that I would love to be making if only I had more time and more space, can still speak to me and hold my own interest. In this sense it matters absolutely not at all whether anyone else thinks the show is good or important, although of course I hope some people will. The really valuable thing is that it has been so important and so energizing for me where I am right now — and that’s mine to keep, no matter what happens with the show. I’m already thinking of what I want to make next (after the opening is over and I’ve had a chance to rest a little)!

Meanwhile, even though it isn’t necessarily typical to include a note of acknowledgment with an art show, I wrote one for mine. I’ll share it in its entirety after the opening — when I will also post pics of the fully-installed show — but for now I will just say thanks, thanks so so much, to everyone who has helped and encouraged and expressed interest. Both parenting and art-making go better with supporters in one’s corner. I get a little impostor syndrome when so many people say they’ll come see my work, but I’m learning that this is just a part of my process around showing in public. I hope you’ll all get as much out of this collection as I did in creating it. I made it for me, but I also made it for you.

Hand-lettered multicolored text, "You've Got This and Your Community Has You", on dark blue watercolor background