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Artist Mother and Child

By HELEN SHALFI
ART TIMES April 2007

Mother and Child—a series of delicate etchings by Mary Cassatt so beautifully expresses that tender yet powerful relationship, despite the fact that Cassatt never had children, never even married.  But, perhaps it was owing to that very fact that she did succeed as an artist.  When I was expecting my first child, my doctor told me to give up printmaking because of the hazardous chemicals.  It was a choice between being the woman in the picture or the artist who created it.  That moment in my life was fraught with possibility.  With an MFA under my belt, my first solo show just ended, and my best print recently acquired by a New York museum, I saw my star rising.  But stars can fall, and sometimes plummet, and the years to come saw me painting in a makeshift studio over the garage.  Those years of child rearing and painting late into the night were checkered with exhilaration and frustration, and an overwhelming sense of isolation.

I had to sell my beloved Charles Brand press- the small studio was only big enough for painting.  I stole opportunities to return to printmaking though, taking a part time job at a school with a press, and, when the children were older, going to an artists' colony on a printmaking fellowship.  I joined a co-op gallery for a while but found it too time consuming.  Time- to be with my children, time to do my art work, was a precious commodity that I always seemed to be chasing after.

Is family life nurturing for an artist?  Only if the artist is male.  Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, Gauguin, to name a few, had multiple children, yet not one took on the tasks of child-care; in fact Picasso and Gauguin all but abandoned their offspring.  What mother, though, could continue to apply brush to canvas and ignore a crying baby?  As I painted and midnight approached, I was faced with the specter of not being able to get up in the morning for my children.  Often, just as I was starting to get into it, I was forced to stop.  The frustration was so great, that finally I just locked the studio door.  At first I had a delicious feeling of relief at not having to always rush my household duties to make time for art, but eventually it gave way to a different frustration, that of having to constantly stop up ideas and inspiration; so back I went to my balancing act.

Thankfully, those stressful years are just a memory now.  My youngest is away at college, and I'm free to pursue my career.  I have the time to develop themes I've explored only sporadically through the years.  Now I can start painting after breakfast and continue all day and even into the night.  With a new studio, I have room to expand; I may even buy back my old press, which sits, in a dusty corner, unused by its new owner.  Most importantly though, I now have time to pursue the business of being an artist:  getting slides together, applying for grants, and finding a good gallery to represent me.  I'm hoping that, in my case, the term 'emerging artist' will be interpreted broadly.   

(Helen Shalfi is a painter and printmaker living in Rockland County, New York).