Friday, November 28, 2008

Art and motherhood: where it's at

There are some pretty interesting things going on around the world on the art and motherhood front. Despite struggling for over a year to convince a publisher that there was indeed a market for my book (thank you again Red Dog Books for your faith!), I suddenly feel part of a mini-zeitgeist! For whatever reason, this subject seems to be experiencing a kind of resurgence around the world. I never cease to be amazed by the phenomeonon of sychronicity.

There is certainly a potent context with the whole "Motherwars" debate of recent years and the emergence of motherhood/childcare as Western feminism's final frontier--I do talk about this in The Divided Heart. But art, as a vocation that demands so much of someone and for which the rewards can be so unmeasurable (much like mothering), is carving out it's own special genre within this broader agenda.

Some of you might already have heard about the new doco now doing the festival circuit to great acclaim in the US: Who Does She Think She Is? by filmmaker Pamela Tanner Boll, who produced the extraordinary Born Into Brothels, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary a few years ago. Funnily enough, Pamela told me that at one time she wanted to title the film "A divided heart: On art and motherhood" but was told it was too "literary"!

The film looks at the lives of "five fierce women who refuse to choose". It explores the situation for artist-mothers as a way in to "some of the most problematic intersections of our time: mothering and creativity, partnering and independence, economics and art". It also reminds us that, despite all we have gained, we still live in a world where the average punter on the street struggles to name a handful of women artists. When this film makes it to Australia, it'll be a super-exciting event (on my calendar at least). Will keep you posted...

What also makes this so exciting is that a film version of The Divided Heart is also in the pipeline. I was approached a while back by producer Kylie Bryant, who (among other things) made the incredibly moving short film Breathe, and has just shot a doco on the Lentil as Anything mob--the restaurant chain with the "pay what they can afford or feel the food deserves" ethos. The success of the US film has proven that there is an audience for such a topic; the key will be making a film that complements "Who Does She Think She Is?" in the Australian context.

There is nothing more affirming than having people approach you after talks or via letter or email to tell you what your book has meant to them--except perhaps having someone tell you that not only has it been meaningful, but they want to option the film rights! It's a bit of a fantasy, isn't it? (Even if in my case we're not talking 4-figures, let alone 5 or 6--such is the life of the small-niche author.) Any ideas of what/who you would like to see on screen--all those things a printed book can't convey--please speak up.

I was also going to have a little rave about conferences on the art-motherhood subject; an American anthology I've been asked to contribute to; a new Australian magazine being launched soon with articles from me and from Anne Manne on the motherhood theme... but I think I've said enough for one night... more soon.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Some random thoughts on the nature of genius

It’s been a while (sorry) and I find myself sitting down to write full of a jumble of random thoughts.

Firstly, yesterday I heard a fascinating interview on Radio National (yes, I am one of those annoying RN junkies who starts sentences with these words on an all-too-regular basis) with Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks about his new documentary about composer Philip Glass.

The interviewer, Jason Di Rosso, mentioned the tension within Glass’s marriage about his workaholism. Which raises the question, Di Rosso said, of “the nature of obsessive personalities, the ethics of living a life dedicated to the muse”. He used the notion of a ‘selfish gene’ to describe the artist who is driven “and sometimes that singular vision can be to the detriment of those around him”.

According to Hicks, when going into his latest marriage and having children, Glass was frank with his wife about where his dominant energies would lie. “So people make a choice about what they want to be involved with. What he does is what he does. He doesn’t really think about it as work. He works all the time … It’s just what he does.”

Using Bach, who had 17 surviving children, as an example, Hicks said: “Mrs Bach’s story would be a very interesting one I’m sure, because there was a man obsessed for sure.”

At our talk last weekend at the Northern Notes Writers Festival, where about 30 women and one brave bloke had a fascinating and very comprehensive discussion on the art and motherhood theme (thanks for the chat, those who were there), artist Sarah Tomasetti said she'd always experienced a level playing field, where male and female artists had the same opportunities—until she had children, that is. For so many contemporary women, having a baby is the point when feminism starts to make sense.

Inequality is not always about overt discrimination (though that continues, unfortunately). As a male artist like Philip Glass, that choice “about what he wants to be involved with” doesn’t rule out having children, though his predominant focus may be elsewhere. No matter how far we’ve come, could this ever be true for a woman?
It is an ultimate taboo for a woman to neglect or abandon a child for the sake of her vocation (and historically very few women make this choice, despite the notorious examples), yet the numerous male examples are largely ignored as nothing out of the ordinary.

There was an ABC doco recently about an artist featuring interviews with his children (can someone jog my memory re: the artist’s name?!). Anyway, I didn’t see it (we don’t have a telly), but I was chatting to a (female) art magazine editor a few days later who scoffed at his kids’ complaints about being ignored by their distracted father, saying they should have been grateful just to be in the midst of such greatness. Hmmm, what a question…

I was also approached after a talk by a mother of five who was the daughter of a famous painter and an artist herself. She had decided to give up her art until her kids had grown up, she told me, as she didn’t want to be the kind of parent her father was—with a mind always elsewhere.

So if a woman artist chooses to be involved with both her work and her children, does this dictate the kind of artist she can be? Almost certainly. But does this exclude her from the realm of genius—of “truly original” creation—as Hicks describes Glass’s work? In other words, does genius require the kind of single-minded obsessiveness that a loving mother cannot afford, at least while her children are small? Or are these male artists just having their cake and eating it too—because they can, because they have a Mrs Bach in the wings? (And good on Scott Hicks for mentioning how fascinating her story would be!)

P.S. If you want to read a great book on this theme, check out Wendy James's The Steele Diaries, which I will review properly in a future post...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A cuppa tea and a chat...

The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood

Why do women still struggle to reconcile their artistic and maternal selves?

Please join me, with singer-songwriter Emma Tonkin, actor-musician Alice Garner and artist Sarah Tomasetti in a discussion about keeping the work alive amid the overwhelming demands of motherhood.

Stick around and say hello afterwards if you can make it!

3.30–5.00pm, Sunday 9 November
Festival Hub
1st Floor, Northcote Town Hall
189 High Street Northcote