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The Parallels Between Being an Artist and Being a Parent

“…an understanding deeper than my own of what it is to be human, and a mysterious revelation of a radiant order.”

“Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio,” Teresita Fernández asserted in her spectacular commencement address on what it means to be an artist. “The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth… will also become the raw material for the art you make.”

Two generations earlier, the great sculptor Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) captured this dynamic dialogue between art and life with uncommon nuance and insight in Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — one of my recent selections for the TED Bookstore, and the source of Truitt’s abiding wisdom on compassion, the ideal daily routine, and the vital difference between doing art and being an artist.

Like many creative luminaries for whom a single epiphany revealed the meaning and purpose of art — including Patti Smith and the swan at the lake, Pablo Neruda and the hand through the fence, Virginia Woolf and the flower in the garden, Albert Einstein and the compass, and James Baldwin and the reflection in the puddle — Truitt traces her creative roots to an encounter with a single painting at the same Picasso retrospective that had also moved Louise Bourgeois to become an artist. Truitt, who resisted the label “artist,” writes:

I had no idea at all that I would become an artist. It was in one of those deflections that sometimes subtly predict the course of a life that I sought out, just for pleasure, the Museum of Modern Art.

On entering, I turned left and up the stairs straight into Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Shocked, my eyes clamped on it. I focused on the three towering women gazing out at me with the eyes of basilisks — their breath would be fatal — and then took in the remote shadowed faces of their companions. Suddenly I understood that I knew very little of what it is to be female. Even less of art. I had not felt its naked power before, its power to shatter the appearance of things so as to reveal behind them another order. When in 1949 I began to study art, I more or less consciously looked for what I had found in Les Demoiselles: shock, an understanding deeper than my own of what it is to be human, and a mysterious revelation of a radiant order.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Truitt, who was trained as a psychologist before she became an artist and carried this penetrating insightfulness into her meditations on art, draws a parallel between this supreme reward of creative work and the rewards of parenthood:

People sometimes ask me if I feel as if my sculptures were my children. I do not. The love I feel for my children is unique in my experience. Nothing is comparable. But it occurs to me this morning that they too are transformations of secret, silent resources similar to those out of which [my] sculptures emerged.

Elsewhere in the journal, Truitt — who considered art a “transaction between [one’s] inner world and the outer world” — revisits the subject of parenting and how it illuminates one’s creative autonomy:

I noticed that when my children reached the age of about twelve, the balance of power shifted from me to them. I have sometimes felt myself in the quandary of a chicken who has hatched duck eggs: my children took to the water, I remained on the riverbank. But I cherish my own independence too much to begrudge them theirs. I do better on the bank cheering them on. If I keep a respectful distance, they welcome me into their lives almost as wholeheartedly as I welcomed them into mine when they were born. “Almost” because even the most affectionate adult children maintain with their parents a healthy reservation that marks the boundary of their autonomy.

I am more impressed by what my children have taught me than by what I may have taught them. The physical purpose of reproduction is, obviously, the continuation and renewal of genetic continuity, human survival. Its psychological purpose seems to me to be a particularly poignant kind of mutual learning and, matters being equal, ineffable comfort.

Complement the enormously insightful Daybook with Truitt on vulnerability and the price of integrity, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s courageous open letter on merging the artist self with the parent self.

Published March 11, 2016




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