Artist & Writer, San Francisco Bay Area

Balancing Act: Life + My Studio MFA

It’s Summertime. Over here, that’s when things get both more quiet (my creative life) and more noisy (my boys at home, at play, all-the-time.) It’s easy and not easy, but this is a pretty good life. It’s our most successful summer so far; it looks especially nice through the rose-colored glasses I wear. When I focus on what’s working well (home life) and ignore what’s not working (studio life), it looks like everything is peachy. Each spring for the past few years, I’ve been anxious about the long hours of the summer that lay ahead. How would I keep my studio practice alive? How would I keep my boys (now ages 9 & 12) from languishing on screens? I’d go back and forth between What about me? and What about them? Each summer, I try to figure it out. Three summers ago, I enrolled the boys in various camps. From the get-go they were frustrated and in bad spirits about being forced to spend half-days with people they didn’t know. No matter how fun the activities looked to me–these were the kinds of things I would have loved to do at their age!–they were not persuaded to enjoy themselves. The energy output of getting them to the camps wasn’t worth either the money spent or the few hours I’d supposedly get to devote to my work. The last two summers, the boys went to part-time day care (full days 2-3 times per week) with kids and a home they knew well. There was a pool! But they still preferred being home and complained about “having to go” to daycare. “We’re too old for this!” they said and “why why why???” every time I dropped them off. They generally prefer to be home instead of anywhere else. It’s quite a compliment to our family, but… what about my studio time? It’s not easy carving out time for my work as an artist. It took some convincing to get my sons to accept that I do, in fact, have a career. It was true that I didn’t “have to go” to the studio in the traditional sense… no one was marking my comings and goings, and my studio practice doesn’t bring much income to the family. Our family needs don’t depend on my work.  I had to articulate the importance of what I do, to convince them that I did “have to go to work” even if it didn’t fit the typical type of job mode, and they did “have to go to daycare” so that I’d be able to do what I’m meant to do with my life. Art is my life’s work, and that’s the end of that.

This summer started out slightly different; instead of being anxious about the never-ending summer hours with my boys home from school, and having no daycare so I could go to the studio freely, I had an influx of energy to wile away the days with my children. It might have something to do with surviving that bike accident/brain injury thing; I’m just happy to be here with them. Maybe also, being active with my children is one of those perks that have come from the accident. In any case, I no longer have the daycare option available anyway, so I figured I’d try out a less-structured summer and see what would happen.

The boys have this loose framework for each day; it’s my parenting framework, too. There are three things daily that I direct the boys to accomplish:

  • reading chapter books or learning things
  • housework or yardwork (I don’t call my work around the house “chores” so I don’t call theirs that either)
  • going outside (sadly I have to direct them outdoors, they aren’t the kind that seek it out on their own. I like it best when they are being goofy with made up weirdness while they’re outside, but basketball and other sports are good too)

As I wrote this, I realized that I didn’t create a daily framework for my studio practice. I had a general idea how I might get help with my boys, so that I could do my work during those times, but that plan didn’t materialize. So I stalled out. I’ve been drifting, unsure about how I’ll get back to shore. But here I am writing this, so I’m righting the course I’m taking. I’m making a plan. It’s a start!

Here’s what a day might look like. Yesterday, I took my time waking up completely. I’d stayed up late the night before reading, and I needed to recuperate the sleep I’d lost. Late in the morning, I got my coffee and breakfast, took time to read an article on Ta-Nehisi Coates, then worked at my spiritual practice (a daily thing I do.) By 11 o’clock, I started to dress for the day & told the boys we’d leave soon to take our dogs to the vet. After the appointment, we got a used volleyball at the sports thrift store, then we came home for lunch. I wrote for a while, and the boys “read books” in the backyard, aka reading that morphed into water games; which turned into an indoor ball game (it was literally exactly next to me as I typed this at my desktop computer); which came to tears when someone (not me) smashed a hand; which turned into pleading for more video game time (NO); which led to TV watching of an animal show on Netflix (at least that’s the summer favorite, and they are learning about animals from all over the world.) So. They read a little & played outside a little. Then we headed out for our afternoon of volleyball even though we’d never played it together before (some friends joined us). Our awfulness at it was so very fun. Lots of out-of-bounds plays and cries of “nailed it!” for completely missed balls. It wasn’t a perfect day, but we all felt pretty accomplished. We ended the night at Halmeoni and Hal-abeoji’s house (Korean grandma & grandpa’s) and they made us patbingsu (korean sweet bean shaved ice dessert). The day felt ideal.

Patbingsu: a Korean shaved ice dessert made with red bean paste, and fruits. (image via wikipedia commons)
Patbingsu: a Korean shaved ice dessert made with red bean paste, and fruits. (image via wikipedia commons)

My days recently have a sort of delightful summer free-wheeling feeling to them, but my free time (to work in the studio) is unpredictable and unreliable. I have this summer plan for my boys at the cost of having the active studio practice I crave. I could have forced them to go to camps, I could have given them a bummer of a summer. But I didn’t want to. I had higher hopes for productive working time this summer, especially as I started to fully recover and have less headaches and fatigue. When I was still resting and recovering, I was reading so much & writing almost all the time. I thought that more healing would bring more creative time, but No. It’s been three months since the bike accident/brain injury. I’m pretty much on the mend now, which is great! but I’m just not managing to keep the creative part of my brain humming along in the background as loudly as I used to. I’m so busy with life, and I guess I’m catching up with everything I couldn’t do for quite a long time. It used to be that when life got busy, I could still juggle a lot and have thoughts percolating as I went along. Instead, creative things seem to be running at a much lower volume as I go about living my life. It’s frustrating. I mean, I’m thrilled I’m pretty much healed and that my home life is functioning optimally. But I feel an acute sense that I’m not functioning the way I used to (as an artist, as a writer). I’m not sure if it’s due to the brain injury or the restless summer hours that my boys are keeping. Maybe both. I need to write a short article for ProWax Journal. Like, today. Since I’m the editor and we had a couple writers take a break this issue, I need to contribute a little something. My deadline to the copyeditor is tomorrow. This deadline is what got me writing yesterday. But I felt all dried up. So I wrote this collection of thoughts to hopefully prod out the writing I’m really supposed to be working on. That deadline is what got me to carve out time for my work today. That deadline is what got me articulating things I haven’t stopped to clarify for myself. Maybe since I fit working time successfully into my yesterday, I can see how to do it again in the coming days. For example, I’d like to determine what the next steps of my #exMFA are. I need to determine when I will add in the critique group, the work with a mentor, and the IRL events (the Fall is likely the time to make these happen.)

To conclude this post, I want to discuss the subjects I chose for the first semester of my Studio MFA, so that I can shed some light (for myself) on my status with them. They are:

  • artists & object making in the art market,
  • social practice and art as activism, and
  • the artist as writer.

To get myself focused on these subjects, I made a reading list of ten books.

But the past few weeks, I’ve struggled to focus my attention on my chosen subjects when the terrible shooting in Charleston demanded my attention. I watched commentary on PBS Newshour, I considered the symbols of the confederacy, and I put together a future reading list that was suggested by a friend, to further wrap my mind around the black experience. AND ALSO: I stumbled upon a five hour series on PBS that happened to be exactly the kind of material I needed to feed into my work, so I had to watch the whole thing. While watching it, a lightbulb went off about the provenance of the imagery I’ve used in my artwork for so much of my life; I checked out seven books about it (not on my #exMFA reading list!) from the library. I fully credit my Studio MFA program with showing me how to consider the visual language I use in my paintings, so that I can place it in a larger context. I’m thrilled with this new inspiration source but I need to pace myself. AND THEN: On a whim, I read two other books this past week, (also not on my #exMFA reading list!). They were: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and her biography: The Mockingbird Next Door. (Harper Lee disavowed the bio after she cooperated with its compilation.) I read those because it’s the eve of the controversial publication of a second book by Harper Lee; it’s possible it’s being printed against her will. Hmm. So much to think about. I’m really not keeping up with how all of this works with my three chosen subjects, but I suspect each of these “distractions” are actually quite in line with the original subjects I set aside for myself. I have to trust that. I sort of see how things relate, but my brain feels too busy to spell it out. My understanding of the connections between these subjects seem to be lying beneath the surface of my conscious thought. This process isn’t happening in a linear way, so I’m trying to let it happen organically. I’m happy I set my #exMFA so that my first semester would be April through December. Originally it was because I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to recover, but this nine month semester (as opposed to possible four or six month ones) is really working since this entire summer seems to be pretty tricky with my boys out of school. Maybe another way to look at it is that my graduate studies are starting in the Fall, I’ve just gotten a jumpstart on them. There, now I don’t feel so behind. 😉 I plan to complete my Studio MFA by Summer 2017. 

This is life as the primary caregiver/parent. This is life as a persistent artist. This is my circus-y life.

%d bloggers like this: