New Interview : SUSAN SILAS

November 21, 2011

How did having a child influence the way you create and sustain your work and how has it evolved?

It is still very complicated to talk about what it means for a woman to both have a child and have serious ambitions as an artist. I would qualify this somewhat by saying that it is easier if money is not a consideration but to be a mother, to earn a living, and to continue to make work is daunting and many women give up in the face of these demands. We all talk about how much more efficient we’ve become and how focused we’ve become, and all of this is no doubt true but it is also true that making work requires a certain amount of unfettered time and that becomes more and more difficult to achieve in the context of parenthood and for most women the demands are far greater on them than they are on the men. I don’t know how this falls out among same sex couples with small children but in my experience the women still did more of the parenting, shopping, cooking and cleaning, and this was true even if both partners worked outside the home and even if they both had creative lives. I don’t know that having a child influenced the content of my work in any way. I actually doubt it, although I can’t know what I would have made in her absence. I do know that one makes many sacrifices to raise a child properly and that sustaining one’s work requires serious determination. Having said all of this, I think having my daughter was the best thing I have ever done. And I say this looking at the long view, because my child just left home this fall to go to college. I miss her intensely but I also see more open space in front of me.

How do you see your work being influenced as a direct influence of becoming a parent? (i.e. Moral choices? Time choices? Etc…)

In terms of content of my work, the choices were delineated before she was born. On the other hand, my work did change at around the time she was born and continued to evolve in striking new ways. I think of this as having been the consequence of many factors, including the collapse of the art market around the time of her birth and I would probably attribute my career development to those historical factors too, so it would be difficult to sort out how much had to do with having a child and how much had to do with a material reality that had nothing to do with motherhood. Those realities affected how I used my time but also gave me a great deal of freedom to develop without ever considering the market place. And the work was shown primarily in institutions and not-for-profit spaces. On the other hand, these same issues meant having to spend a good deal of time making a living and this meant time away from her and from my studio. I will say that I think that I am making the best work I have ever made and that perhaps she has influenced me in ways I don’t even understand. She is a very special creature with a strong moral compass and someone who enriches my life every day, so it’s hard to know.

Has being a parent affected the way other people see your work or your identity as an artist?

Despite all the lip service that is paid to “equality”, women who choose to have a child or children are thought to have chosen motherhood over their art careers. No one ever thinks this about male artists who have children. When I was in graduate school the women who were becoming seriously successful were all childless and still are. Over the years, I have listened to shockingly nasty comments from other women artists who don’t have children and I even have friends who seem to think that I stopped making work to be a parent and then resumed working when she was grown, which is not the case. Part of this was of course, that I worked more slowly when she was small because the demands on my time were greater but part of it was also just rebuilding momentum after the collapse of the market in the early ‘90’s. When my career began to recover the work was being shown in Europe and not in the United States and I was less visible here. I’m not sure that would have been so different had I not had a child. I did have many friends who gave up and stopped making work in the aftermath of the disappointment created by the crash of the early ‘90’s.

How do you handle traveling and exhibiting internationally for your career?

I never didn’t travel because I had a child. When my daughter small, even as young as 14 months, her father looked after her if I had an exhibition in Europe. It was difficult to arrange but it got done. Now of course, I no longer have to worry about it. But I wasn’t able to take advantage of residential fellowships until she was old enough for sleep-away camp and those residencies have proven extremely helpful and would have facilitated my work earlier had they been possible.

What practical advice, crazy story or your favorite tip, would you give to other artists that are parents?

The one time saving advice I have is don’t worry so much. Worrying is time consuming and it doesn’t help or change anything. It’s one less thing to do when you need uninterrupted time more than you need anything else.

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