Wednesday, June 26, 2019

life: artist / mother

When the baby and I woke up this morning, the sky outside our window was a pale apricot yellow, the air wet but bright, promising a brilliant June day. It feels like I blinked and Madeleine turned one year old last month, I celebrated two years in my beloved art studio at SoWa and eight years as a full time artist.

Where has the time gone? That saying feels so true: the days are long but the years are short.

One day past my due date last spring, I waddled into Studio 417, tidied up and opened my door for our building's monthly First Friday Open Studios. I felt fine and joked that I'd be there "until 9pm or whenever I had a baby." Three hours later Madeleine rushed into our world after a fast, intense natural labor: a healthy 6lbs 12oz with fluffy cowlicked hair, a sweet button nose and long artist fingers. When we came home on Monday the cherry tree behind our porch had burst into flower overnight, enveloping our porch in luminous clouds of pink as if to welcome our baby girl home. Maddie has my blue eyes, Mike's expressive eyebrows and a joyful and curious personality.

I'm so rusty at writing these days and am struggling to fully describe what motherhood feels like. It is wild. Madeleine felt like a missing piece of me, like I'd been waiting to meet her forever and just didn't know it. She is just so us; she belongs; she connects us in a new way and made us into a family. I felt great after she was born and found a lot of creative inspiration and energy in being a new mom.

We've had fun introducing Maddie our little corner of the world. The three of us spent the first several weeks enjoying our tree-top porch and visits from family. She's an easy traveller: we've road-tripped to New York, hiked Ithaca's gorges, and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We spent many weekends on our family's boat in Rhode Island and a week sailing around the Caribbean, rocked to sleep by gentle waves and up early to see resplendent copper sunrises I've always slept through before. She's a funny baby who smiles at everyone, loves waving to dogs on the street and insists on sharing every bite of food in her hands. Little things captivate her attention and in turn, mine, and she brings so much new perspective and joy (and noise) into all of our regular adventures. Watching her discover our surroundings, fresh and new, has inspired so many details in my new work.

That said, caring for a baby is an unprecedented lesson in extremes: love, exhaustion, confidence, fear, trust. From the first morning I woke up as mama, looking at her has brought me both a calm, tangible peace and an indescribable, anxious yearning. Watching Maddie change and grow each day, from her beaming, crinkly-eyed smile when she wakes up in the morning to her funny sideways flop as she falls asleep at night and everything in between, is both grounding and ethereal. My heart feels broken wide open, wrecked and mended. I'm hyper-aware of her vulnerability and possibility, and, strangely, my own as well.

Becoming her mother was easy  caring for Maddie felt shockingly intuitive from her first day home — but figuring out where my art fits in around her was a challenge. I tried to balance it all in one hand for a long time. Mike works a 9-to-5 without paternity leave, so from the time Maddie was a month old and we figured out how to leave the house in one piece, she and I would ride the subway to my studio and I'd paint while she napped, or pack prints with her in a baby carrier. I met with designers and delivered art with her on my hip. She came to weekend art fairs and slept soundly in a sling while I hung my work, and her stroller has hauled countless online orders to the post office. Like many working parents I was stunned by the huge expense of daycare (in addition to my studio rent) and I felt a lot of guilt trying to justify it when I could bring Maddie to work at supposedly no cost to me.

I truly loved having the freedom to spend time with her and my work together. But an interesting and little-known fact about babies is that they grow up! Suddenly my sleepy, squishy little infant dared to become a smart, standing, babbling toddler in her travel crib who wanted MAMA!, right now, no matter what I was busy doing. Anyone who has cared for a baby alone can attest that you barely have time to think half a thought while you're engaged with them, much less get your hands sticky with paint and summon the creative energy to make artwork.

When I was pregnant with Maddie, someone commented, well-intentioned: "It's so nice that your job will let you to be with her all the time!" But the reality of self-employment is that it's a constant balancing act; for eight years my business relied on 60 hour work weeks, outdoor shows 20+ weekends of the year and long nights (and overnights) in the studio alone. Nevertheless, I think that comment stuck with me for a long time, and I expected to keep up my studio practice at pre-baby pace while caring for her all day alone, balance a social life, a home, a marriage, self-care, et cetera. Thankfully I had an assistant who worked many outdoor summer shows while I recovered from birth, and a husband who helps with the heavy lifting, but otherwise my studio practice is a one-woman show. Motherhood made me supremely efficient and fiercely motivated because I wanted my daughter to grow up seeing me achieve success at my passion. But there's only so much you can do at any job with a baby in one arm.

One morning in late December while Maddie napped, I approached my easel to find that not only had I left my best paintbrushes in a bowl of water, but that the water had completely evaporated, leaving their formerly bright white bristles encrusted in a dingy, brittle film of dry paint residue. Despite having been at my studio all week I'd been getting so little done that I hadn't actually painted. In a forty hour work-week there, I'd found nine or ten productive hours in the midst of naps, walks, play, nursing, etc. I was selling lots of older work and thankfully booked solid with commissioned projects, but every recent email reply was days late, and every client interaction was embarrassingly sleep-deprived. When I tried to make up work during evenings and weekends, I felt guilty for missing family time. I was the kind of tired that makes your eyelids feel like sandpaper and your personality disintegrate into dust. Worse, I felt creatively burnt out for the first time in my career.

That day I sat at my easel, watching Maddie nap peacefully, feeling so in love with her but very disconnected from the artist-self I've always known. How did I get there? How could I get back? Where is the road map for this? How do I stay productive and keep up momentum without missing moments of these sweet "never get them back" baby days other parents warn you to savor? It's well documented that female artists are less represented than their male counterparts, and artist/mothers even less, and so many articles dissecting how parenthood affects creative energy and success, and whether women artists can still work to their full potential alongside the endeavor of child-rearing. It was silently defeating.

Sometimes in the thick of things we can't see the forest for the trees. We're fed pretty photos of people who "have it all" or highlight reels of someone's life without seeing the many silent hands that made it possible or what messes lay outside the frame, and it warps our expectations of ourselves. Except the expectations put on motherhood involve another tiny person and the stakes feel monumentally higher. 

After a busy December I came up for air, snuggled my baby at home and had the chance to dig for perspective in the invaluable work/life experiences shared by fellow mother artists  Jessica Hische, Heather Rochefort, Kate FisherLee Nowell WilsonAllie D'Atillo and others. I recalled the bits of advice from my maker friends who have balanced their small businesses with small humans. Their insights assured me that it wasn't just me unable to find a picture-perfect balance. In the end, I recognized that I can't do it all. And I shouldn't do it all. In the end the solution was simple — biting the bullet and budgeting for part time daycare — but it signified much deeper reassurances for me: my work matters. Art is my business, not a hobby, and no business can flourish when confined to nap times and the hours after bedtime. Childcare was a game changer and I wish I had looked at it in the same logical way as other business expenses. But I guess a lot of parenting is emotional, not logical, as we try to wear so many hats without acknowledging that their silent, heavy weight.

Ruth Bader-Ginsburg has famously credited her success at Harvard law school to her infant daughter Jane, saying that each part of her life gave her respite from and appreciation for the other, and I'm feeling that fully. I still have yet to discover the magic balance between creative and family time that doesn't feel a little guilty but I'm getting there. On days Maddie goes to daycare I'm excited to step into my studio for a blissful 8 hours of inspired painting, and excited to leave for the day to see her again. On our days off together, I'm mindful, out of "work mode" and completely present as a parent, no longer trying to work two jobs at once. I put in extra hours working during naps and after bedtime, am fiercely protective of my studio time, creating more and better work. I sold my largest non-custom painting last month, and (probably more importantly) am growing as an artist and person in non-quantifiable ways as well.

"Sea Change", one of many large paintings I've finished since Maddie started daycare

New small works framed by hand in driftwood

Me and Maddie on our porch on her first birthday

Many women say that being a mother is the hardest job they've ever had. In the past I assumed (with the inherent skepticism of the child-free) they meant birth and diapers and late nights. But really, it's the visceral, elemental change in our priorities and personhood. This "job" makes our lives shift in both tangible and invisible ways. Truly, everything changes, but not in the way I thought. The center of our universe is now a tiny human who we can't get enough of, but every other element of our sense of self is still deserving of a place in its orbit, too.

In 8 years I've never been nervous to click the "publish" button here, but I'm sharing all of this to counteract the highlight reels I see online, to be honest about the highs and lows and what has worked for me (so far). It's a work in progress.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

new year & life happenings

Hi, it's been a while! This poor neglected blog... writing about my art process and adventures has always been something I love, but somehow it got away from me this past year. Which is ironic as the past year (plus some) has been one of the busiest and most exciting of my life and there's a lot to share.

First off, we got married!

Mike and I met at a house party in college, when I saw a cute guy with a backpack full of beer and went right up to him to ask if I could have a few. Romantic, right? Ten years later, we exchanged rings and vows at the top of a beautiful Vermont meadow with our friends and family.

We celebrated with a weekend full of festivities at an organic farm that we rented on airbnb. Almost everything was DIY, from the lights, decor and flowers to the ceremony music, rehearsal BBQ and next day brunch. All 22 members of the wedding party stayed in the farmhouse, my bridesmaids and I had a bouquet-making brunch, friends camped on the farm, our friend Dan played our ceremony music while my mom walked me down the "aisle" (a dirt path from the barn to the meadow) and our friend Samuel officiated.

So many friends and family lent a hand (or a grill, guitar, mason jars or a deep-fryer) to create a fun, memorable weekend for us. It was an incredibly humbling feeling to have nearly everyone we love -- people who have seen us through all different stages of dating and growing up -- gathered together to celebrate our relationship and our future together, and even moreso because so many people helped us make it happen.

Two weeks before the wedding I was downtown and heard an someone playing a viola on the street corner. We were blown away to find out Rita was a junior in high school, and she sounded so amazing that we hired her to play her first "gig" during our reception. She and our band blew us away.

Just a few weeks before our wedding, Mike finished grad school with his PhD in Biology from MIT. It was the culmination of seven years of incredibly hard work, successes, frustrations, countless midnight trips to his lab and lots of perseverance. We planned to go to the big commencement ceremony but ultimately skipped it to spend a few days sailing our family's boat together, which is a much more fitting celebration if you know Mike.

In February, we reached the end of our three year lease in my live/work studio at Fenway Studios. I was super sad and expecting to shuffle between a few small, temporary studios for the foreseeable future when my name happened to come up on the waitlist for a permanent studio at the SoWa Artists Guild in Boston's South End.

My jaw literally dropped when I walked into the space -- huge 20' ceilings, giant north-facing windows and tons of space to spread out huge paintings and invite people in. A studio at SoWa has been a dream of mine since blogging about Open Studios there nearly six years ago, and after several months here I can honestly say it was everything I hoped for. After having work/live studio spaces for the first 7 years of my career, I love having a dedicated workspace to go to outside my home and the ability to "turn off" and separate my work from the rest of my life -- it's increased my productivity greatly to spend less time with half-finished paintings staring me in the face. Artist workspaces in Boston are not cheap or easy to come by, and I feel deeply grateful and appreciative to get to head to work here every morning.

If you'd like to visit,  I'm open daytime by appointment, and often on First Fridays and Open Studios events.

Until it got too cold I was biking to work about ten miles every day, either along Boston Harbor and through the Financial District, or along the Charles River and through Back Bay, which was fun and gave me a new perspective on a few different parts of the city.

Much of my work over the past year has been commissioned paintings for local homes and corporate collections, including the Boston Harbor Hotel, the Jordan Lofts, and Samuel Adams (Boston Beer Company.) Lots of urban subjects and very, very specific historical material needs. I'll blog about them separately but here are a few progress shots:

This year's cross-country road trip was my first time road tripping with a friend! Jillian and I logged an amazing 50+ miles of hiking and 15 miles of kayaking throughout the Southwest, which deserves a post of its own as well.

The rest of the year was a blur of summer shows, deadlines and the annual holiday rush. Most recently, Mike and I decided to buy a home here in Boston, and found a sweet little top-floor condo in a neighborhood a few miles down the bike path from my studio. Buying a house always felt a little claustrophobic to me and was never a goal of mine, but it finally made sense to do so, especially after finding out we are expecting our first baby this spring!

For the eight years I've been a full-time artist, life has been a superb and mostly uncomplicated balance of travel and painting and the occasional growing up, but since the new year I've spent lot of time in my studio quietly reflecting and anticipating the certain changes coming this year. I have hopes (perhaps overly optimistic) of taking baby to work in the studio, bringing her on adventures, teaching her to love nature and finding fresh creative inspiration in our new shared life. I believe in "having it all" and am determined to find that balance, however elusive it may be.

"And now we welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been." - Rainer Maria Rilke

Happy New Years to you and yours.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

on the road: solo hiking & camping in havasu canyon

Havasu Falls! Or, a 26 mile hike in paradise.

While I was sharing photos on the road I got a lot of questions about the 3-day hike into Havasu Canyon, an offshoot of the Grand Canyon that leads to the Colorado River. There are tons of hiking guides out there with much more seasoned, technical advice, but I'll give mine from the perspective of a solo female hiker.

(A stranger on the trail took this photo for me at mile 3 of 12. Look at that happy hiker, blissfully unaware of the blisters and aching muscles in her future!)

After a spontaneous whitewater rafting stop on the Salt River, I packed up my tent at sunrise and headed north towards the Grand Canyon. Accessible only by foot or horseback, Havasu Canyon is both unbelievably beautiful and fairly difficult to access, requiring a highly sought-after permit from the Havasupai tribe and a 12-mile hike. After searching and searching, I found this blog post, emailed a total stranger in the comments, miraculously got my hands on her extra two-night permit, and planned the rest of my trip around that weekend (reeeaaalllly hoping I wasn't being scammed.)

The trail to Havasu Falls starts at Hualapai Hilltop, a remote cliff edge at the end of desolate Indian Road 18, about an hour's drive from anything. The hilltop is nothing more than a small parking area, an outhouse, and the stunning and expansive opening of the canyon. Even the early evening view from the parking lot is breathtaking, offering hikers a peek at what awaits them below.

Like most southwestern hikes, the trek down past the falls and into the camping area is best started in early in the morning to avoid the heat. I tidied up my car, packed my backpack as light as possible, texted Mike a bit (I wouldn't have cell service for three days) and enjoyed the awesomeness of cooking on a camp stove overlooking the very edge of a cliff at sunset.

One or two groups started hiking down at night, presumably to set up camp discreetly on the canyon floor, which is technically prohibited but completely unenforced. I didn't want to deal with packing up my tent and gear in the morning so I slept in my car, as did a few dozen other hikers in the lot. Around 5am, car doors and excited voices form a group wake-up call all around the parking lot. I had the first part of the still-dark trail to myself, descending over 2,000 feet in just the first mile in a series of steep, winding cliffside switchbacks. The trail was well-maintained, but definitely not something I'd want to do in the dark.

The next 3 miles were an open canyon wash, flat and easy with a wide view of the ominous looking clouds in the distance. 

About five miles in, the rusty canyon walls start becoming taller, steeper and the trail narrows. The wash turns into a jumble of boulders and slick rock, requiring a little more navigation and caution, though still not difficult except for the weight of all my gear. It's impossible to get lost or disorriented. I kept a good pace going and only rarely saw anyone else on the trail, though the few people I did see really helped accentuate off the enormity of the sandstone walls.

The Havasupai tribe offer mules and horses to carry hikers' gear down to the falls and back up again for a fee, so every hour or so the pounding of hooves shook the trail and provided a good excuse for a break against the rocks. Truthfully, I am not an avid hiker at all, but there wasn't any point where my 5'1" self felt overburdened with a 40lb. backpack and a 10lb. camera. (The condition of the horses was also really sad. They looked overworked and had injuries and open sores from ill-fitting bridles and packs. I was happy to not be contributing to their load and would strongly discourage any hiker who cares about animals from supporting this abuse, either on their own hike or through an outfitter who uses horse packs.)

In Belize, I asked our yoga instructor Rebecca whether she meditated every day, and she answered no, not in the traditional sense, but that she often went for hikes and walks in the woods that offered her the same kind of calming, meditative rewards. About six miles into the canyon, I started to notice how meditative I felt; how no outside concerns had entered my mind for a while and how I was unconsciously focused on only putting one foot in front of the other, occasionally adjusting my pack, and silently noticing small things like flowers growing out of cracks in the slickrock or the occasional black-and-blue bird perching on sparse greenery. I felt extraordinarily energized physically and incredibly calmed mentally.

The bright red sandstone walls were sometimes smooth, sometimes pocked with little craters in which perfectly-sized rocks nestled, innocuous evidence of the thousands of hikers who had hiked in and out over the years.

Nine miles and four hours into the hike, the canyon opens up into a stunning, lush garden of cottonwood trees and foaming cascades of crystal blue water. The village of Supai, 2,000 feet below the rim of the Grand Canyon, has been home to the Havasupai people for over 700 years and is the last town in the United States where mail is still delivered by mule, since there are no roads into the village. The tribe runs the Havasu permit office, a low stone hut where hikers check in and pick up their permits; anyone without a permit should be ready to hike the 12 miles back to the top or pay double the camping fee. 

Past the check in, dogs and horses roamed freely in the village and the muddy trail criss-crossed over streams and down hills, finally leading to Havasu Falls, the enormous and impressive 100-foot waterfall that marks the start of an Eden-esque paradise.

Mind blown.

One more short, steep downhill hike lead to the canyon floor, where the crystal blue pool splits into gurgling streams that weave and wander between the narrow red walls, shaded by thick cottonwood trees and vines. The half-mile long 'campground' was actually just kind of a free for all, with tent spaces dictated by the path of the streams and makeshift bridges... basically my dream campground. 

I set up camp on a little patch of land between two waterfalls and made lunch, enjoying the soft creek murmur and the company of two roaming dogs. Other campers were on larger and smaller land patches, or on the side of the canyon up right up against the red walls. The entire campground consists of two composting outhouses, a little shack selling flatbread, a spring-fed faucet for drinking water and a few scattered picnic tables. There are no showers, electricity, cell service or campfires.

Interestingly, hikers reserve the limited permits over the phone but don't have to pay until they get to the village, meaning there's no penalty for reserving one and not using it, which may have explained why the campground was half-empty on a Saturday.

By necessity, my gear for both White Sands National Monument and Havasu was pretty spartan. There are great backpacking gear reviews out there by more knowledgeable people, but I wanted to link to what I like using, all of which fit into a backpack I could carry alone easily. In my 65L Osprey Ariel pack, I fit a 3L water reservoir, trekking poles, change of clothes/swimsuit, first aid kit, water filter, mini lantern, tent, down sleeping bag, sleeping pad and pillow, foldable propane camp stove and a single pot, spork and cup. I brought dehydrated meals, instant coffee and a box of Annie's bunny mac and cheese.

My camera and lenses added about ten pounds, and in the future I would have allocated weight for a hammock and a mini bottle of wine. Some groups near me had coolers, floats, large camp chairs and more stuff that probably made their experience more pleasant but necessitated paying for a mule to bring down.

(Altogether, backpacking gear isn't much to look at. If you see a photo of someone in vintage leather boots making coffee in a glass pour-over on a scenic mountain-top, be assured that they didn't hike there.)

Anyway, the next morning my legs didn't work. I laid in my sleeping bag for an hour wondering what the heck I did to myself, then popped an Advil and stretched a bit before heading down the rest of the canyon.

This is the rest of the canyon. Mind blown again.

The winding blue streams that meander through the campground join together to form Mooney Falls, which plunges over rock formations into another stunning turquoise pool. Getting down to this one is a challenge: narrow tunnels are cut into the slick, wet rock, and a series of steep carved steps, metal hand holds, chains and ladders bring you into a lower canyon nearly 80 feet down.

The near-vertical steepness of the ladders and chains leading into the rock tunnel and the mist blowing from the massive waterfall makes this descent a little challenging. The river once again splits off into multiple meandering streams, which cascade over mineral walls for two more miles through a canyon floor covered in lush, primordial vines. Half of the trail is wading through water or over more teetering bridges and walkways.

Beaver Falls, a popular swimming hole and cliff-jumping spot, marks the end of the trail and Havasupai land, although intrepid hikers could keep going until the confluence of the Colorado River or even further. I spent a few hours swimming, reading and chatting with other hikers.

The next morning it was time to hike back out of the canyon, which I did with a group of guys who had camped nearby. Hiking with Hector, Orlando and Mike was fun and definitely made the five hour trek uphill go by much faster. Around mile 8, we noticed a flower collecting dew, and next to it, a boulder with a bunch of shell fossils from millions of years ago when the canyon rock was part of the ocean.

The one thing I'd do differently next time is start the hike out earlier; we got to the final mile of steep uphill switchbacks around 2pm when the sun was blazing and it was so strenuous that we were stopping every 100 feet or so to huddle in any available shade due to the incline and heat. Finally we got to the top -- 26 miles completed! -- and it felt awesome. After driving to Seligman, we grabbed dinner, then they headed back to Phoenix while I found a retro motel on Route 66 and started planning my next stop in Zion National Park.