Redefining danger as a ‘softer but more durable quality’


Natasha Rivett-Carnac is an American writer and mother based in Bath, UK.  Her first career was as a Professional Violinist in Minneapolis, after which she worked as a Producer of contemporary performance art projects in London.

 


Three years have passed since my second child, my son, was born, and I found artist Ann Truitt’s artist journal “Daybook” at my local bookstore, The Community Bookstore, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It’s hard to reconstruct just how profound it was for me to see situated alongside each other, in direct but not opposing, relationship, the making of “a poem or painting” with the making of a bed or a meal. In the belly of early motherhood — with a toddler and a new born — I would wave goodbye to my husband in the morning and wonder what had happened to my own “public” life. Already a precarious high-wire act when my first child was born, I felt the thud of a severe, and what seemed to me then, shameful, fall. An audible tear had opened in my mind and my personal, mother self, severed from my professional self — perhaps the fault line, the rift, the crack was already there but the heat of motherhood made the break. Truitt’s words were a single stitch on the journey toward sewing back together what had been torn apart.

Truitt taught me that being a mother with aspirations may be entirely natural but it’s also dangerous. “Daybook” is a record of her artistic practice. It often intersects with personal philosophy or professional problems, she puts her own aspirations under a microscope, and reveals the unsettling feelings her double life as an artist-mother engendered. In one characteristic passage she reveals her intimate feelings that surrounded the external manifestations of her artistic ambitions:

…just a week or so before my first New York exhibit was due to open I had a moment of panic. I saw clearly that I could have lain low, snug in my marriage and motherhood, and I most profoundly wished I had. No one would have faulted me there, would not even have been much loss of face, as I had rarely let on that I was doing anything beyond being a housewife.

The gentle nod at duplicity — “I had rarely let on that I was doing anything beyond being a housewife” — captured my imagination when I read it shortly after the birth of my second child. What intrigued me is how dispassionate Truitt seemed to be about the performance of being an artist. The worldly game of art-making seemed not to ruffle Truitt. On the one hand, her ambitions met with real-world problems, but on the other hand, her core identity as an artist seemed unperturbed by the prejudice she must surely have faced as a woman artist. It’s a testament to her inner-strength that her identity as a mother was never sacrificed at the altar of the contemporary art world.

She dedicates long passages to the process of her methods, obstacles she faces and overcomes, or perhaps, where she could have improved or failed. She wants passionately to make manifest how she sees and thinks and goes to great length to prove the validity of her aspirations. Her maternal life and her artistic life of course conflict at times but on the whole she sees the entirety of her life as being the object of the same force. She writes:

The ideas in my head are invariably more radiant than what is under my hand. But something puritanical and tough in me won’t take the fence. The poem has to be written, the painting painted, the sculpture wrought. The beds have to be made, the food cooked, the dishes done, the clothes washed and ironed. Life just seems to me irredeemably about coping with the physical.

Her skill in marrying her personal and professional identities, whilst never subjugating one to the other, impressed me greatly as a new mother. It seemed to me at the time an irreconcilable problem. “How could I respect and honor my new responsibilities to my children whilst nurturing my own nascent ambitions?” I thought to myself repeatedly, in various forms, as I nursed one child and attended to the divergent needs of my toddler. Truitt’s integrity as both a mother and artist was the voice I needed to hear. She seemed to answer, “Your aspirations are part-and-parcel of your maternal work. Continue laying the ground work for both to flourish.” In a world in which maternal love and artistic ambition seem incompatible, that groundwork she laid for me was the dangerous, necessary road I knew lay before me.

I live in Truitt’s physical world now — the dishes, the food, the furniture, the bathrooms — sit more comfortably alongside the abstractions, the ideas, the invisible inner-conversation that is the writer’s life. As I continue on the path that Truitt laid out for artist-mothers, I often recall her words, the texture of her aspirations, and the warmth she brought to both the gallery and the home. Truitt saw clearly how to stay on the line of her ambitions, but never betrayed her maternal and womanly self; She seemed not to need the personae we all wear as women that compartmentalizes our professional self from our personal self. In order to achieve that synthesis she probed the depths of what it means to aspire to something beyond what she lovingly called “the cave of womanhood”.

A dangerous woman is not always what it might appear on the surface. One needn’t blaze a trail that betrays one’s biological longing for children. One needn’t turn away from the feminine warmth of family life for the heady world of aesthetic ideals. To tenderly marry these two faces of one’s identity is perhaps the most dangerous path to blaze. In a world that takes pleasure in dividing professional women from home-makers, Truitt’s life and work represents a middle way. It may be less loud, less glamorous even, but it is certainly no less necessary. Truitt re-defines danger as a softer but more durable quality, one that speaks to integrity with intensity, vigor, and inner-strength.