Who does she think she is?


Dear Artist,

While staying as the house guest of an artist friend and her daughter, I dwelled briefly in the onslaught of raising a human. “It’s like throwing a party all day, every day, for the rest of your life,” a mother-friend once told me when describing parenting. On top of her all-day celebrations, this particular six-year-old seemed to team with the insatiable creative mania of, well, a six-year-old, bolting between rainbow looms, songwriting, playwriting, sign painting and imaginary worlds. I watched her help herself to physical space — in the house, in the garden — and re-purpose the bedding, stuffies, food, furniture and my laptop. She cajoled the pets and neighbours into theatre characters, choir members and gallery-goers. She seemed to rejoice intuitively in who she was.


“I struggle with enormous discrepancies: between the reality of motherhood and the image of it, between my love for my home and the need to travel, between the varied and seductive paths of the heart. The lessons of impermanance, the occasional despair and the muse, so tenuously moored, all visit their needs upon me and I dig deeply for the spiritual utilities that restore me: my love for the place, for the one man left, for my children and friends and the great green pulse of spring.” — Sally Mann

Not long ago her mother, too, had been an artist. When the baby came she pivoted, as most new parents do, morphing towards the all-consuming calling. The artist portion of herself was squeezed into supplemental minutes of choppy, panic-stricken hustle. She reported on the life-changing joy and insight and felt the gnawing guilt for stealing time for her ideas. “Kids,” joked Louis C.K., “they break your stuff and eat your dreams.”

“The goal is to remake the world so that our choices are not so stark,” wrote Naomi Wolf. But even with more balanced support, less stigma and better help, there remains a conflict of two internal worlds: Art is a vocation of solitude, privacy, rumination and patience. Parenting demands that we eschew solitude for nurturing. Those artists willing to leap and straddle the twin passions of art and motherhood blaze a trail with their defiance. “Motherhood,” said Gilda Radner, is “the biggest gamble in the world. It is the glorious life force. It’s huge and scary — it’s an act of infinite optimism.”


“It’s always been my philosophy to try to make art out of the everyday and ordinary… it never occurred to me to leave home to make art.”
Sally Mann



PS: “I am wearing dark glasses inside the house
To match my dark mood.

I have left all the sugar out of the pie.
My rage is a kind of domestic rage.

I learned it from my mother
Who learned it from her mother before her

And so on.
Surely the Greeks had a word for this.

Now surely the Germans do.
The more words a person knows

To describe her private sufferings
The more distantly she can perceive them.

I repeat the names of all the cities I’ve known
And watch an ant drag its crooked shadow home.

What does it mean to love the life we’ve been given?
To act well the part that’s been cast for us?

Wind. Light. Fire. Time.
A train whistles through the far hills.

One day I plan to be riding it.” (Suzanne Buffam, Enough)


“Unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art.” — Sally Mann

Esoterica: Pamela Tanner Boll’s 2008 documentary, Who Does She Think She Is?  follows the lives of five artists as they try to reconcile the disconnection of mothering and creating. Part of what is discovered is that the conflict between mothering and making art can serve as its own fuel and inspiration. These days domestic experience, ever more visible and a growing subject for art, is expanding in cultural value. “We’re fed by love. The multiplicity of our lives is, in the long run, going to enrich our work.” (Pamela Tanner Boll)

Trailer for Who Does She Think She Is?

sally_mann_at_twelve_05Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“You have no obligation other than to discover your real needs, to fulfill them, and to rejoice in doing so.” (Francois Rabelais)



  1. Love the Sally Mann quote. The post speaks loud and clear to me….having turned away from painting for the challenges and demands of child rearing. But still that creative spirit came spilling out in many ways. I see life as the canvas. Gardening, decorating, child rearing….all of it an art. I made my living in textile designs at that time, being a single Mom and needing to work from home. Children adults now and I have returned to that first love and impulse, compulsion….painting. What a joy. I wasn’t sure this would happen except in my head. I’m so grateful! Never to late to get going!! As always, Thank you!

    • You are right – the creative spirit seeks out ways to express itself regardless of your activities. I had 3 children and found that waking up at 3am was the only way I could get my creative things accomplished as I worked full time. That creative spirit just needs to be expressed and won’t let you ignore it unless you turn off a part of who you are.

  2. Omy can I relate! I entered motherhood early, earlier than planned! Only now, after children are grown, husband is retired, am I painting and travelling to my hearts content. Life is wonderful.

  3. As a grandmother with a view to the past, I can see that my art evolved because of my children. Looking for an occasional class as a need to have some personal time, I started taking art classes. I did not embrace the idea of being an artist until the children were in college. Now at 71 I can call myself a successful artist enjoying all the pleasures that come with the endeavor. I sometimes play “what if” and try to imagine a life without the children and given completely to art. Perhaps my career path would have been different? I will never know and imagining a life without my children is very sad. Also of note is the fact that my son is a professional artist and because of his flexible hours is often the caregiver for his daughter. What a blessing for them both. Not always easy and sometimes he has to have some extra time to catch up, but he and his wife are very supportive of each other. She is a teacher. The creative process calls on all of who we are. Our life experiences are part of what comes out at the easel.

    • “A Question of Balance not only celebrates the achievements of mothers in the arts, but also reveals some of the difficult choices and painful losses they have faced. Whether confronted with the everyday frustration of being interrupted or the unimaginable sorrow of losing a child, these extraordinary women have held fast to the thread of their creative spirit, inspiring others with their determination and perseverance. And as they explore their own maternal experience, in paintings and novels, sculptures and poetry, these women are creating works of art which widen our perspective and deepen our understanding of this most complex of human relationships.”

  4. kathryn taylor on

    Excellent! The words of Sally Mann, Suzanne Buffam and Pamela Tanner Boll are quite profound, artistic, inspiring and encouraging! Each of your Painters Keys blogs are interesting and thought-provoking, but this one, I think, is excellent. Thank you, Sara.

  5. Fathers turn away from art too. I have always been an artist, but it was always secondary to keeping the lights on, the house warm, the car running, the timeclock punched. I was lucky to be able to incorporate a bit of creativity in most of the jobs I have had over the years, for that I am grateful. Its only now that my son is grown, doing well, that I have the leisure to say at last that I am an artist first.

    • I think it’s a good thing for the guys to comment on this post as well. Marvelous letter Sara! Parenthood definitely changes your perspective and alters the amount of time and energy available. I was the painter in the family but my art languished for most of the years our daughter was growing up. What little art I did was only possible because of the efforts of my wonderful wife who shouldered the major load of parenting. She does to this day; God bless her!

    • You beat me to it. Yes, it isn’t only women who are the martyrs to their creativity. It wasn’t until my own son (raised with my mostly stay-at-home wife) was in his early teens that I, too, was able to allow myself some creative freedom and start painting again. Respect to ALL who have juggled raising children and plugged their creatives urges. This is NOT just a female trait.

    • Yes. It take two to raise a child. In fact it takes a whole village. Perhaps it is in the struggle to put food on the table and a roof overhead the best art results. Perhaps having a steady income for creatives would spoil the quality or the expression. I would like to try it sometime….

  6. They would ask, “Do you have children? Surely you will!” then, “Why not?” So quickly that time passed me by. It was never meant to be. At one time I would look at my work and say, “These are my children, this is what I nurture everyday.” Creativity has always directed me as a child, teenager, grown woman. I am blessed to be a daughter, wife, teacher, cook, decorator, traveler, medicine woman. With dynamic female energy, driven by the beautiful images of my life that have always surrounded me, I walk confidently and with keen expectation of divine good manifesting itself in my life. One time many years ago I had a panic attack when I realized that door of child-bearing and rearing was closing forever. I cried. Shortly after, I had a dream just before waking, I was standing in the middle of a path, that split in two directions. An androgynous being standing on my right lifted its arm, pointed and said in a commanding voice I will never forget, “Stay on the path you are on!” It was the last thing that helped me to let go of that anxiousness that I had forgotten to do something important in my life.

  7. I’d just (literally) been flipping through a book about artist Rosalyn Drexler I received for Christmas titled Who Does She Think She Is? when I saw your email with the same phrase in the subject line. I’m loving the serendipity!

    Your observations about the difficult choices women artists often feel they must make when they have children are right on point. But I also notice that women who come to my workshops–mostly retired with plenty of free time to make art–also feel torn between giving time to their art and the obligation they feel to babysit their grandkids.

    Not having had children myself, I’ve not walked in those particular shoes. But I can’t help but think that, at a certain stage in life, art-making may be more important than taking care of other people. After all, if you don’t make your art, no one else will.

    (Drexler, now 90, was the mother of 2, and was apparently one of those who found a way to make art and kids too. Google tells me she currently has a major retrospective on exhibit in St. Louis. I’d very much like one of those when I’m her age!)

  8. Wonderful! I toast all women artists and – from this article – a special salute to this who have nurtured and brought up children while pursuing their passion.
    The making of your art, whether you are female or male, seems always to be a struggle of some sort – we’re always in struggle with something – but when it comes together it can be like a smiling, laughing, happy child who has just chased a butterfly through green fields. I can remember those times – and my wife smiling contentedly in the sun.

  9. Great observations and conversation! I think it is important for all of us to note the changing times and that many men are also trying to squeeze in art making time while staying at home to raise their children. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this. Thanks, Sara!

  10. Beautiful photos by Mann, thank you Sara. I don’t know how this came about but somehow I’ve always known that I had to make choices, that I shouldn’t want what others have, and that I can’t get all the good stuff there is. This affects man, women, artists and non-artists. Of course, art and motherhood hold elevated positions, but still, they involve choices. It’s tougher for some than for others, and I feel for them. The theme of motherhood vs art is fascinating, especially because one can be a metaphor for the other.

  11. When the babies came along, I merely changed the nature of my creating. Instead of paintings, I made fabulous birthday cakes; instead of photos of landscapes, I photographed their milestones; I sewed costumes, made them coloring books, wrote them stories, created parties, made pickles, carved pumpkins . . . the creative urge never seems to sleep, it just reimagines itself. And now my daughters have become my patrons, hanging my paintings in their homes.

  12. yes this got too long, but it is a gift for “all the kidz who follow”…..My late husband was liberated two generations back – Gramma was a Suffragette…so the combat was long over and the romance and creativity and communications soooo good for it.. He was neither dom nor dominated…so good.

    We knew in our creativity , the most joyful days!

    My children , long ago grown and on their own, still talk about our family art projects – “sneaky snake” for young Peter and Luke
    Skywalker suit; Princess Leia hamburgerbun hairdo for Amy and the dollies with the All American red,white and blue school pack and her special hexagon crochet afghan.

    Young Peter’s first oil paintings,and so much more! Amy’s paintings showed in high school while Peter went to film.

    Lucky me! Visiting the latest school chidren’s artshow to find their work in it…surprize. Mom! Oh yes. They are all gone but I am happy and full – all those years of endless goodness of the sort – most don’t get that.

    And HE was at the root of it – god and my husband. He met me doing some art for his Jesuit men’s college and soon we were working partners. He was the partner , the Lieutenant who put me up to smokeshow installation at Fort Knox during his military service and later we’d partner in tons in the schools and community . A few of our projects are still there thirty years later.

    I fell so blessed in these gender role challenged times to have lived in the future with him with role issues resolved and our partnership free and closer because of it.

    Such a miracle! I did not need to leave my husband to experience freedom or creativity – I never had to do any thing special to enjoy Me-ness.

    So, We helped others with their rights- we had that to share.

    Together the children and I celebrated him and every moment – since he died young suddenly, I am doubly glad of that, too – I sleep well, knowing we did all in best pathway – and once the sorrow passed, my heart could still rejoice at the memories, and date and find new love. ….or let it find me.

    Thank you.

    • Lovely story Elle, your optimism and unselfish attitude with yourself and continued sharing creative times of your life without fear, is refreshing in spite of some sadness. We all walk an uncharted path, don’t we?

  13. I am an artist and writer. I wanted five children. After I had two rambunctious boys, I IMMEDIATELY got on birth control. I realized that having children interfered with my needs to be creative.

    I did the best I could to be a good mom, but I was limited. I used to rationalize that in order to have creative people on the planet, some children would have to have artists for mothers.

  14. When my four children were young, I carved out a space in the basement to paint….got up early and stayed up late. To a great extent, they were my living inspirations and my support system at times. . Today I have a daughter who owns a lovely gallery and one who writes wonderful books about “family.” Their homes are all full of my work.
    I gave up the careers I was trained to do to paint instead and I have been blessed to earn a living doing so for 23 years!

    Every day I pick up my brush I realize I am so fortunate. Thanks, Sara, and thanks for all the wonderful comments here.

  15. A powerful set of ideas to munch on, Sara–and meaningful for us women artists (with child or not) during Int’l Women’s Day/Month. I especially covet Suzanne Buffam’s poem…

  16. I enjoyed the post and the comments. I wasn’t able to have children, but when I was younger I think just expecting or hoping for them created a weird void that consumed creative energy. Now that I’m in my mid 40’s I’m finding it easier to find a balance. I really loved reading the different ‘artist as parent/mother’. It’s given me a new perspective of my own mother, who’s also an artist. As a teenager I used to feel sad that her paint brushes would sit gathering dust, until she needed to dash off a painting or two to sell to earn some money. She always seemed to have this weird relationship with her art, but like other artists here she did fill her life with creativity. She’s finally painting again and that makes me happy for her because making art is now something she can do for pleasure and I think that’s lovely!

  17. Well aren’t these letters the best dose of inspiration one could hope for before going into the studio to paint. Today a few weeks after the loss of my husband, I am motivated that my grandchildren are creating furiously at their older age. Art lives on in families because they were privy to their grandmother trying to fit it all in. Eventually it comes home because it’s meant to be. Thank you everyone and especially Sara.

  18. Even as a child I always loved to doodle, paint, create…I grew up and loved having four children. They brought out the creativity, spontaneity, stepping out of the box art that I have been creating for most of my life. Being an art instructor(oils and acrylic, in Canada and abroad, from 1×1 inch paintings to full murals, for almost 30 years) I am astonished at the negative contemplation you are living as to weather or not to “raise a human”.
    Possibly a look in a child’s eyes will awaken to new ways of painting twinkling eyes, smiling expressions, joy of life. That is what I put on canvas then and now after 40 years. I love what my children have taught me to create! It comes from within and they bring it out in me. I never felt limited. Creativity comes from within, where ever you are in life. An artist, a mom and a memere.

  19. Art always played a part in my life, from my earliest childhood memories, throughout the school years and into homemaking, motherhood and teaching. The most valuable tool I know to help with every aspect of life no matter how busy. As the young mother of two, always found ways to express my creativity, involving my children in the process. Today, adult daughters have careers both in fashion and the fine arts. Grandchildren follow the tradition while I, now retired paint regularly as well as giving support and encouragement to local artists and art groups in my area.

  20. Wow….this one hit a nerve! I haven’t read all the comments here, but I do relate to the subject in an altogether consuming way. My adult son is severely Autistic, which means the parenting, nurturing and need will never end. My husband and I have sacrificed normalcy in every facet of our lives to help our son remain in his/our home and live as happily as possible. We can’t travel, can’t dine out, can’t deviate from rigid routine and basically can’t partake in simple activities that most folks take for granted. BUT….I still make ART almost every day….often with my son….who enjoys the creative process even though he cannot initiate it. “Art + Autism = AUTISTS”
    We’ve all been dealt a hand in this life, the lesson is to learn how to play it without letting ego interfere. Makes for less whining and more appreciation of the blessings we do have. Life is BIG….make ART!

  21. Dear Sara,

    Thank you for reminding me of those fun crazy times! My children were very busy creative people with all the messy messes that come with that activity. And then there were three more. Woven from the same cloth. I gave up my studio so that my step children would have somewhere to sleep. But I continued to produce paintings. I remember making paintings for a solo show in the driveway of our Woodstock home. I had the hours they were in school to work and I tried to make the most of that. The light was not ideal for a plein air painter, but in New England we have trees and shadows.

  22. I am late reading this one. In my early thirties, we adopted twins. It was the beginning of my storing up images for art later in life. I became a painter of portraits and figures. I could not do both vocations at once until after they were about ten. Then I started classes at a museum and it went on from there. I had my retrospective last October at age 83. It was a second half of one 16 years earlier. I still paint and dream of more painting. I love to read about art and just look at master works. Art has sustained my life though I never made a living at it. Now I am painting my grandchildren’s portraits as they grow in age. I really struggled in the early years before I had time to paint. Wished for books on how to be an artist and a mother at the same time. Both seemed all consuming. I wrote a lot in those early years. still do. Donna Veeder

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Zidonja_Magnolia-Joy-wpcf_300x217.jpgMagnolia Joy
11 x 14

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I am a self taught artist, I work in oil, Acrylic and watercolour also in Pastels. Started painting In Ashcroft with Mr. Campbell. I taught my self how to paint by studying professional artists’ work through reading, TV programs, educational DVD and work shops.


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