The Art/Life Balance

Southern Vermont artists reflect on juggling their creative pursuits and the realities of parenting

By Arlene Distler

In the first four days after The Atlantic published “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” a remarkable essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter, an academic, foreign policy analyst, and public commentator, in its July/August 2012 issue, the piece whipped through the social media sphere and was debated hotly — among friends and in top periodicals — around the world.

Slaughter’s intent was to reveal that “having it all” is a destructive myth, certainly a jarring idea to many women professionals working to juggle families and careers.

Destructive? I was intrigued. Setting aside boardrooms and aprons, how do Southern Vermont mommy and daddy artists balance art and family? Can they have it all?

Renee Bourchard: Letting it be

ReneBouchard1Visiting the studio of Renee Bouchard started the wheels of this project in motion for me. I’d come to know Bouchard as a painter of luminous abstract oils: their dense surfaces often inspired by nature, but when I arrived at Bouchard’s new studio — a room on the second floor of a house she and her husband had recently bought in Bennington — I found big pieces of thick Arches watercolor paper decorated in sweeps and bursts of watercolor.

Among them were lively images of her 8-month-old, Ensor, which stared out in purples, oranges, and blues. One painting showed a swooping arc inside plump curves of arms and legs.

Conception Renee Bouchard 20x20 inches Oil on canvas 2013

“Conception” by Renee Bouchard — 20×20, oil on canvas, 2013

“I did that from an ultrasound when I was still pregnant,” said Bouchard. She explained she’d embraced her baby as a muse, and that her change to watercolor was a return to her artistic roots. A six-week class in watercolor portraiture at a New Hampshire artists’ retreat was her first formal training in that medium.

Watercolor is perfect for the mommy (or daddy) artist. Paints can be left out, dried, and used again, blooming to life with just a dip of brush into water. And cleanup is a “non-issue,” Bouchard says with a smile.

“We’re good if I have time to change the water,” she tells me.

Another plus of her studio space: access to water in the adjacent bathroom. “I wet the paper and begin working right away. This gives me the soft washes and puddles I like. My one rule is, Let it be,” she says.

For Bouchard, gesture — the way a mark is made — is the poetry of the medium: “It’s like a dance performance: there’s one chance with it. It is what it is. I really appreciate that.”

She also relishes not having to worry about hustling back to finish a piece while she’s attending to other, livelier works of art — her family — as it’ll be there waiting.

“Baby Ensor: Recent Paintings” an exhibit by Rene Bourchard will be on display in Southern Vermont College’s Burgdorff Gallery in Bennington through December 2013.

Jason Alden: Short bursts

Jason Alden teaches drawing and painting at the River Gallery School in Brattleboro. He co-parents his 3{1/2}-year-old, Louie. Jason knew he would have care of his baby for long stretches. In anticipation of his art-making coming in short bursts, Jason bought six or seven sketchbooks and resolved to tackle a drawing a day.

“I had them everywhere. Wherever I was, I would grab one: on the night table, all over the place. Drawing is the best. You can do something in 20 minutes that has meaning for you,” he explains.

He says he also prepared small panels for oil painting that he could set up for plein-air work: “I figured if I was driving around waiting for Louie to fall asleep I could just go out to paint nearby while he was asleep in the car.”

He also painted from the window of the art school where he teaches, while Louie sleeps in his carrier — and discovered he liked painting the same scene multiple times.

“I learned the structure of what I was looking at,” he says.

And so he’d work on each one for only an hour and a half at a time, painting the waterfall, rocks, and trees of the Whetstone from the fall through winter and on into summer. Alden shared these paintings in a show at Amy’s Bakery Arts Café on Main Street in Brattleboro.

He also booked a show of drawings at the Latchis Gallery when Louie was months old: Having a goal helped, Alden says.

And as necessity is the mother of invention, this father quickly sought out a solution to a problem he now had to contend with: using oil paint in short bursts — it dries quickly — wastes a lot of expensive paint. His research led him to clove oil to retard drying, which saved the day.

With Louie now in daycare, Alden is back at work on larger paintings in the studio, and with much more to paint about. December, 2013 – Mocha Joe’s Cafe — Main Street, Brattleboro

Margaret Shipman: Time management

Margaret Shipman is mother to Lewis, a very active toddler. Heading up the organizing and management of exhibits at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC), Shipman comes pretty close to what some would call having it all.

The historic farmhouse in Vernon that she and her husband recently moved into has Shipman’s oil paintings hung throughout: magical realism fantasies of flowers and people. How could young Lewis not grow up to love art? Or not have an admirable work ethic, taken in with his mother’s milk?

Shipman was warned by many peers that she would never paint again after having her baby, and was determined to prove them wrong.

“When I first had Lewis, I’d lay down with him for his naps, but I couldn’t sleep. I’d paint instead. I was really sleep-deprived for a while,” she recalls.

Once her son started taking regular naps for more than an hour, she ran to the studio. “I was able to turn it on and off like I never could before: As long as Lewis was asleep, I could forget everything and paint,” she says, smiling.

She notes that Lewis loves to get his hands in her paints. She’s has had to block off her studio, which is in a bedroom.

Fitting in work for the museum mostly during Lewis’ half-day a week in daycare, and leveraging nap times as new shows approach, Shipman found she always had to choose how to divide her time. “It’s clear how difficult that decision can be,” she says.

Things are about to change on several fronts for Shipman. By the time this magazine rolls off the press, she’ll be back at work for regular hours. Moreover, she’ll tack on to her duties events manager for the museum.

That’s made possible because Lewis will be going into daycare three days a week. “I’m going to have to start giving him something to do; he’s begun to resist his naps,” Shipman says. And that bears out: during my visit, rather than nap, as was scheduled, Lewis showed off his mattress acrobatics.

What these artists have accomplished may not be “having it all” as we think of in the corporate sense. As all parents know, parenting is compromise, and much is demanded. These artists, and many others in Southern Vermont, are finding ways to stay true to their muse.

Many artists struggle to stay in the moment with so much depending on them. Waiting for inspiration is a luxury artists with babies can’t afford: Subject matter is what’s at hand, whether it’s a baby’s pleasantly round form and bright eyes, a stream out the window, trees on a walk.

Or, as in Margaret Shipman’s case, when you know where you’re going, and are familiar with the territory, it’s all about the execution. Parenting and art have that in common: Whatever works, works.

*Margaret Shipman — Margaret sells her work from her home in Vernon, Vermont





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