Recently I came across a rare thing- an open call for a residency geared specially towards artists who are parents- and carers. I couldn’t quite believe it- I didn’t have time to look at it properly when I first saw it advertised on social media- so I did my usual thing of screen-shotting the post so as I would remember to revisit it later. But before then a couple of artists who know my situation had already posted me the link.
The residency is for an artist led space in NI. I worked with them for a show during covid. I made a new piece for it, working for a week straight to get it completed, on the kitchen floor, each night once the kids were gone to bed. The piece was about being at home, the endless sameness of the days, trying to stay invigorated and entertained, my kids, going for walks, games my kids played on their i pad, all drawn in a looped scroll of brown paper, entitled The Days Roll By. I’ve been searching since to find somewhere who will frame it for me, an 8 foot long drawing. I want to put it in my hall, as a visual memory of that time.
So the open call when I read it invited the artist to write about how the gallery could assist them in making the residency a viable option for them. Again, I had to sit back and think about this. A gallery asking how they could help me? I learned a long time ago that artist mothers, never mind artist carers, are not seen as particularly sexy or exciting in the art world. And residencies are usually something that are completely out of reach, as I cannot leave and go off somewhere easily for one night let alone a month to work exclusively on my practice. I would read about other artists writing about residencies they had been on, and wonder what it was like, getting to go off by yourself and spend ALL day making and developing work. I always note that I am fully aware I had kids by choice and am hugely fortunate in my family. I wouldn’t change it for anything. But why are artist mothers and carers so often ignored in the art world?
However, this post is not about the open call for a carer artist residency. It’s about what being an artist carer means.
Artist as carer
Duty of care.
The duties of a carer.
Identity of a carer.
Ever since I started my masters (again that problematic word- lets call it higher than degree level qualification- HDLQ) back in 2016 I struggled with my identity and duties as a carer, and being an artist. I did not wish to talk about my carer role to the world, as I felt it was nobodies business. I was protective of my family and my child whom I am carer to. I also did not wish to brandish my carer role as a flag of my identity.
When you are caring for someone, in my case my child, you are so engaged, so entrenched in your duties on a day by day minute by minute basis you do not have time to separate yourself form the role and to be objective about it. You are too busy. And too tired. I completed my HDLQ through taking advantage of late nights, early mornings and school hours. Around my duties of being a carer.
My carer duties were and are always there. They are a constant. Other things change but these don’t. They simply have to be done. Doctor and therapy appointments have to be kept. Letters have to be written. Consultations have to be attended. Phsyio has to be carried out. Washing, dressing, transfers, toileting, have to be assisted with. Travel and transport has to be managed. Someone has to make sure all these things happen.
A recent surgery my child had to have resulted in an increase of their needs as they recovered from the operation. We had to plan who could leave the house to go where and for how long down to the minute. Nights were divided into shifts. The urgency of caring took over everything.
The idea of getting to go off on a residency, by myself, felt at his time , and still tbh, like such an impossible, faraway notion. Who would mind/look after/care/cook/clean/parent in my absence? How could I even go about logistically planning my absence in the event of my being granted such a residency, never mind actually going on it? I imagined the scenario of the artist carer parent being granted a residency, and then, arriving at said residency venue, only to spend the entirety of it sleeping, exhausted by the job they’d just done of preparing everything at home, writing endless schedules, training others in how to manage things, so as they could leave to come and do the residency.
As an artist, I never wanted to be seen as the mother artist who is a carer. I wanted to be the interesting, exciting artist who makes bold and uncompromising work. I am not and was not ashamed of my carer duties, I view them as privilege and they have taught me so much. But, I was reluctant to talk about it. Should I be hash tagging #carerartist after every post on instagram? Reminding all and sundry of my personal situation. It felt wrong to me, like an excuse, or a defence. I worried, I am ashamed to say, that I would be perceived as someone who was using their personal situation as an excuse.
Yesterday I had the good fortune to work with a business/life coach, to whom I talked to this about. I spoke about how recently, I wrote a letter to all my child’s medical caregivers, protesting why we were waiting 8 months for a surgery she had to have. 2 weeks after sending the letter, we received a date for her surgery. I was relieved and angry and sad. Angry that it took these measures to secure a surgery date, and sad- what about all the exhausted carers who are too tired or not educated as well as me to write such letters for their kids? Who advocates for them? My coach asked me had I thought about advocating for the rights of carer artists. For example, campaigning for financial support for them to go on residencies or even just get time to make and develop work. I have been thinking about this ever since. I know well that most carer parents like me do not have the time or impetus to do this work, they are simply trying to get through the day.
I thought of carer parents I know, a mum and dad to a wonderful kid, who are quietly remarkable people. Remarkably strong, resilient, brave and tough. Their lives revolve around their child’s needs. There is no one applauding their endless daily tasks, and the extra lengths they go to, and the shitty stupid remarks that people make about their kid, and the exhaustion they must manage.
I have decided I am going to be more vocal about my own carer role. I am proud of what I have achieved over the years in my carer role. Being a carer has taught me to be stronger, more resilient, less compromising, and has taught me patience and most importantly, to stop giving a shit about the small stuff. It also hugely informs my work, and always has done. I am lucky, as all the disappointments of not getting selected for something, not achieving a goal, I don’t have time to cogitate over them and let them toxify in my head. I have to park the feelings of failure, of dissapointment, and get on with whats needed to be done. To park my ego, and use the next bit of bit of time I get well, and not waste it worrying over shit I cannot control. This, I have learned, for an anxious procrastinator like me, is a very good thing.
#artistcarer coming to an instagram post near you.