Last month, my husband and I snuck away for a much-needed evening out. This date was typical of those we’ve had since our children entered the picture. We anticipated a long, romantic dinner with good wine and a rich, chocolatey dessert. We’d have stimulating conversation about his music and my art, and challenge each other with all the brilliant ideas we’d been storing. Afterward, we planned to see the Chihuly exhibit — illuminated glass sculptures at our city’s botanical gardens.
The food at dinner was excellent; the conversation, slightly less mind-blowing. After a few minutes of staring into our plates, we found ourselves recalling the funny things our son had said earlier in the day. Then, over dessert, we weighed the importance of starting a college fund for our eleven-month-old daughter. By the time we paid the check at nine o’clock, we agreed that we preferred sleep to an art exhibit and headed home an hour early to relieve the sitter.
Long since before we got married, I have been a chaser of beauty, a pursuer of the creative life. My husband is an artist too, so we’re a good fit. But as we left the restaurant that night, I sunk into disappointment. We had missed an opportunity to see these magical works of art everyone in the city had been gushing about, and even more so, we could barely muster a discussion about the thing that had drawn us to each other in the first place: a passion for creating.
I first noticed this shift at the obvious time, four years ago when I became a mother. Prior to having our son, I’d never known a time without a stream of new ideas running through my mind. Then suddenly, I was in survival mode. I simply had no space in my exhausted brain for imagination, let alone the time to actually put an idea on paper. I was lucky if I washed my hair once a week. Photography, a hobby I had once pursued wholeheartedly, became a means to document my son’s first smile or the shape of his tiny hands, and less about self-expression. And if I did take time to make something, it was hasty and functional, like slapping paint on a wooden box to hold his collection of trains.
As much fulfillment as I found in being a mother, the consistent outpouring often left me physically drained and artistically empty. Opportunities for freelance work became less and less frequent, and if they did come along, I usually felt so out of practice that I found the work more stressful than satisfying. I noticed myself envying my husband for having a job that engaged his artistic side.
With the birth of our second child a year ago, I realized even more the importance of maintaining an artistic life beyond my family, and how intentional I need to be about making it happen. My children, with all their enthusiasm to play and explore the world, provide an endless fountain of imagination from which to drink. But they also produce a mountain of laundry the size of California, and it isn’t going to wash itself. My kids, like most, necessitate a certain rhythm to their daily lives, and it doesn’t usually leave room to dash over to the local museum for a Renoir fix whenever I need one. Quite frankly, I’ve discovered that motherhood can feel isolating at times, especially for a free-spirited person like me who doesn’t thrive on structure.
Making art, whether in the form of a painting, a photograph, or an essay, is a way for me to break out of that rhythm for a while. It is so gratifying to accomplish something that cannot be undone or that doesn’t need repeating day-in and day-out. Scraping syrupy bits of waffle off my kitchen floor, for example, can feel like I’m living in a scene from Groundhog Day for as often as I repeat the task. With art, there’s no déjà vu. A stark white canvas comes alive with color and abstractness, and I can keep layering the paint until something emerges that never will be replicated in quite the same way.
For me, pressing my brush against a canvas shakes the snow globe of monotony. It’s how I process this season of life and refill my cup. More than that, it’s the way I etch toward beauty, contemplate truth, and lasso the wayward bits of myself so I have more to give to the people I love.
When we renovated our current house, my husband and I decided to sacrifice a walk-in closet so I could have an artist’s studio of my own to write and paint. I’ve filled this little room with an assortment of tools. An old painter’s palette with faded, flat blobs of cobalt blue leans against one wall. I’ve collected antique farm ledgers and tattered bird encyclopedias, a seashell, an abandoned wasp’s nest, and a tangled mess of twine and lace. Across the room stands an easel and my art cabinet with twenty crooked drawers containing everything from salvaged hinges to foreign postage stamps. This room is a visual contrast to the rest of the house and is a good space for daydreaming.
Downstairs, the dishwasher begs to be emptied, while carrot peelings decorate the sink like confetti ribbons. I don’t even have to step down there to envision it all — the pile of shoes near the back door, the dining table sprinkled with an assortment of mismatched socks, broken crayons, a diaper bag, and cake crumbs from Sunday’s birthday party. In the bathroom, pirates line up next to their ship while a bubble-eyed plastic goldfish attempts to overtake them, and a Batman figurine stands ready to swoop down and save the day. I won’t even consider the living room because the vast ocean of toys prohibits me from entering. It’s rare that I look at these parts of the house and see them as artful or lovely, even though I realize how much imagination went into creating the mess.
When it comes nurturing my kids, I’ve tried to find opportunities to integrate my love of art. It gives my imagination some needed exercise throughout the day. I’ve decoupaged flowers for my little girl’s nursery and shown my son that squeezing Play-Doh through a garlic press makes a mound of purple spaghetti. But when I have a few hours to myself away from the house, nothing refuels me more than wandering around Anthropologie to admire their inventive displays. Most of the time I don’t buy anything, but allowing myself to absorb inspiration makes all the difference. It’s good to step back and look at everything from a new perspective, to walk through someplace beautiful for an hour and take the beauty home with me.
That night after dinner with my husband, I discovered something meaningful in spite of our change of plans. As we coasted twenty miles down the highway toward home, we talked about how exhausted we’ve been. Our conversation migrated to the challenges of parenthood, the need for absolute selflessness, and the elusive tidy living room. We reminisced about the years before having children, when our biggest concern was whose turn it was to choose the movie at Blockbuster. We had plenty of time to pursue our passions then, to invent new creative goals for ourselves and expect we’d actually reach them. We remembered how my husband wrote an album’s worth of songs in a matter of weeks, and all the times I’d see a patch on a wall in need of color and rush to the art supply store for a canvas.
Contemplating these memories, I turned to my husband in the driver’s seat and asked him, “If you could go to any time in your life, the time that you enjoyed the most, when would it be?” We both pondered the question silently before arriving at the exact same answer one second later.
As tiring as parenthood is, this is the time of life we love more than any other. In fact, I’m starting to see motherhood as the reason why excavating truth through my art is so crucial, why finding beauty in this often-ugly world gives me oxygen. My children’s curiosity about everything from iPhones to where the water goes when you flush the toilet pushes me toward curiosity, too.
If my art is an ongoing conversation I have with my life where I dream of all that might be possible, the added bonus is that I get to encourage my children in their dreams, too. I also see beauty in less likely places than I used to, like the tiny white T-shirt I just bleached that reappears smeared with grass stains. I study my children and never cease to be amazed by the complexity and uniqueness of their delicate faces. They are small, priceless masterpieces. I know, without a doubt, that their existence makes me want to escape to my upstairs studio to make art, and not just because it gives me time alone.
I suspect that this tension between maintaining my artistic identity and my responsibilities as a mother will not unclench itself anytime soon. It will be years until I stop squeezing my creative work into the parameters of a toddler’s nap, but eventually there will be time. In the midst of examining my new reality, I remembered something Psyche said in C.S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces. Even to my sleep-deprived mind, these words made perfect sense:
"It was when I was happiest that I longed most. ... The sweetest thing of all my life has been the longing ... to find the place where all the beauty came from."
Kierstin Casella is an artist, writer, and photographer who looks for beautiful things in unlikely places. She resides in Tennessee with her husband, their two small children, and ten backyard chickens. You can also find her on her blog, A Net for Catching Days.