February 2016 – Megan Vossler

The Stats

Name: Megan Vossler
Current Location: Minneapolis, MN
Education: BA Brown University, MFA Minneapolis College of Art and Design
Preferred Art Medium(s): Drawing: graphite, inks, charcoal, video, digital media
Children (age and gender): one daughter, age 2.5
Website Site(s): www.meganvossler.com

The Questions

What is your background (where are you from, education, important details, where are you now, etc.)?

I grew up in southern California, then I moved to the East Coast for college, and then to the Midwest for grad school. I had the amazing experience of studying in Italy as an undergrad, and then I returned to Florence several times for workshops with an incredible group of international artists. My education was multi-disciplinary in the sense that all of the programs I attended encouraged some degree of cross-pollination between media, and also included a exposure to a lot of art history. Attending a research university (as opposed to an art school) for undergrad was also very important for me, because I was able to pursue multiple intellectual interests that informed my artwork’s content (I was very nearly a religious studies minor).

Studio Shot (older work)

Studio Shot (older work)

After grad school, I stayed in Minneapolis and got various teaching jobs. I’ve pieced together a living in many different ways. In between undergrad and grad school, I had a brief stint as a graphic designer. I’ve taught drawing, painting and art history at many schools since getting my MFA, and am now teaching drawing full-time at Macalester College, in Saint Paul.

Was there any part of your formal (or non-formal) training that prepared you for being a creative maker and a mother simultaneously?

In terms of formal training, definitely not. In grad school, those things really weren’t discussed – artists talked with us about their work, but the topic of work-life balance really didn’t come up (or if it did, I tuned it out. I don’t think it interested me at that time, anyway.) The whole culture of grad school, at least in my experience, assumed a 24-hour workday, late nights, the living and breathing of your work and not much else. Maybe that has changed. I’m not saying it wasn’t a valuable experience: it was a privileged experience, and it taught me a lot about what I am capable of and where my limits are. But it certainly left me floundering when it came to negotiating the demands of family, teaching, and studio practice.

Megan and E

Megan and E

I have a few close friends who are artists or writers and also mothers, and I observed them much more closely when we were planning for our family, trying to see how they managed it. But I think there is a tendency to downplay the overwhelming aspects of motherhood, the struggle for creative time and focus, when talking to someone who hasn’t yet gone down that road. It’s like talking about childbirth: there’s almost an unspoken agreement that you don’t want to scare the other person off. I think reading a blog like this would have been helpful preparation.

Are there any women that you find to be an inspiration for you as an artist/mother?

Since having my daughter, I’ve benefited immensely from the constellation of artist/moms who I know on social media. Even though actual socializing is rare, just knowing that they are out there, being able to see what they post about, and knowing that they will pop up with advice if I ask – that’s been so reassuring. It helps to see that productivity comes in cycles for other women, too. And I have a new respect for the artists I know who are moms of wonderful older kids: I can see that their children’s lives were enriched by having mothers who were also working artists.

Social media has also been how I’ve been introduced to how these questions are discussed in a broader cultural context. It is energizing to hear women refute the idea that motherhood makes creativity more difficult, like Zadie Smith recently did here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10116709/Motherhood-is-no-threat-to-creativity-author-Zadie-Smith-says.html

Other articles like this one helped me to see what’s possible beyond the “struggle” mentality: < http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2015/05/21/why-cant-great-artists-be-mothers/> And locally, photographer Carrie Thompson conducted an excellent series of interviews with women photographers a few years back:

https://littlebrownmushroom.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/on-being-an-artist-and-a-mother-a-conversation/. I also just read Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson, the anthropologist (and daughter of Margaret Mead). She describes motherhood and creative life as continual acts of improvisation. That’s certainly what it feels like to me: an improvisation that’s always in motion.

Can you talk about how you balance your role of artist; and the role of mother? Did you take time off after the birth of your children? How did that work? What about childcare?

 My husband Brett and I were really fortunate to have jobs with good parental leave options. We were also doubly lucky, because our daughter was born in the late summer, neatly coinciding with the academic calendar. Brett took six weeks off, and I took a full semester off. I had a solo exhibition that had been previously scheduled for that October, so I used the summer to make a ton of work, essentially finishing the whole show before E was born in August. So I felt pretty good about going into the fall and winter knowing that I wouldn’t be making much work. It was a huge gift to have that time to begin to figure the mom thing out, and I just put the artist role on the back burner.

During that first year, we had a lot of childcare support from friends and family. I went back to work when E was 5 months old. For the first several months, my mom took care of her while Brett and I were at work, which really helped ease the transition. That semester was a big adjustment period, and my non-teaching days were usually spent at home with her. I didn’t want to miss out on any more than I had to. During that first summer, I tried to get back into a studio routine, but it was pretty erratic. After E turned one, we began full-time childcare at an in-home daycare in our neighborhood. She loves it: she has great friends there, and is genuinely happy to go. We’ve become friends with a few other daycare families, and that has really amplified our support system. We realize how fortunate we are that we can afford full-time daycare, which means that, depending on teaching schedule, Brett and I each get one or two days per week where we can work in our studios.

Studio Shot Work in Progress

Studio Shot Work in Progress

I would say that even with all of this support, I’m still finding the idea of “balance” challenging. I think my old idea of balance was that it was a long-term state of equilibrium, that once you had it it would just kind of maintain itself, unless something big happened. Life with a child is much more of a moment-to-moment kind of balance: a constant improvisation, with lots of small moving parts. I’m still honing those skills, but they are getting easier.

I hear that you took an extended retreat to the great north woods. In all seasons, but especially in the winter it is a quiet place in this world. Was this a postpartum retreat? What was the rhythm of your day? What did you make? What did you take away from this experience?

It may only be in the context of parenthood that the retreat was an extended one – it was just 3 nights. But having that degree of solitude, in the midst of parenting a young child, felt incredibly luxurious. I now have a goal to do this every semester. I go to a beautiful retreat center called the Shire in the Woods (http://www.shireinthewoods.com/), just about 2 hours north of the Twin Cities. They have individual cabins, fully equipped, reasonably priced, in the middle of a state forest. It’s remote, but not rustic – every cabin has wifi.

Cabin at the Shire

Cabin at the Shire

I’ve gone 3 times, and each time has been a little different. The first time, E was 15 months old. It was the first time I’d been away from her for more than one night. I battled with some guilt, but I was also so excited that I way over-estimated what I’d get done. I brought 15 books, several sketchbooks, my knitting…. basically everything that I’d been trying to get to for the previous year and a half came with me. I did do some drawing, and some reading, but I also just did a lot of staring at the fire, and thinking, and not thinking. My days just unfolded organically and were perfectly boring.

I think it’s been important to remind myself that these are not studio residencies. These are retreats; they are for self-care. The emphasis is less on productivity and more on giving myself a little space to breathe. I might come back from these retreats with some new ideas, but more importantly, I’m just more relaxed. And I’m such an introvert, I need to know that silence still exists. Being a mom just means that now I have to schedule it in.

I know that you were a recipient of a 2015 Minnesota State Arts Board Grant? What has this grant allowed you to do in with your work? When/Where can we see this work?

Yes: the grant I received last year covered many of my studio, materials, and working expenses for the year. (I applied for and received an extension on the deadlines associated with the grant—I’m learning to take advantage of flexibility wherever it is offered). The artwork that I’ve been making will be shown this fall in a solo show at Augsburg College. I’ll be giving a talk at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and one at MCAD, in April, so I’ll be talking about this work then as well.

The other part of my grant proposal was to organize an event dealing with the intersections of art and narrative. For this, I’m curating a drawing exhibition at Soo Visual Arts Center in Minneapolis. It will be an exquisite corpse style collaborative drawing project, with the drawing growing exponentially each week and the resulting narrative interpreted by a few local writers. We will have a closing event toward the end of May, with a conversation between artists and writers – and the drawing process will unfold over April and May, and will be open to the public. I’m really excited: there are 15+ fabulous artists signed up so far, and the process should be really fun to watch.

Your Minnesota State Arts Board work deals with the intersection of art and literature, and specifically the words in Dante’s Inferno. Aside from the Inferno what other literary works have influenced your visual works? What else are you currently reading?

I like dystopian fiction; I’m often drawn to darker narratives. Right now I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel with a ravaged planet, decimated population, and genetically-engineered mutant animals.

Artwork Detail

Artwork Detail

My work in the past has been loosely inspired by other art or fiction, but usually in an oblique way that maybe only I would recognize in the end. This one is different: I’m currently working on a large-scale drawing in which I’m trying to follow the structure of Inferno – this is the first time that I’ve tried to work so directly from a narrative, and it’s a challenge. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would to figure out which parts of the narrative to stay faithful to, and where I wanted to depart. I’m departing from it more than I originally envisioned, but that’s okay. It’s like a conversation. And the story is so rich that I have to keep dipping back into it as the drawing progresses, and each time I find something new.

Your drawings are beautiful and say so much about land through your attention to detail. When I looked at your video work the first thing that struck me was the vividness of the color in comparison to the drawings. Can you talk about the relationship(s) between your drawings and videos? Is one a study for the other? Are they Complementary?

I tend to lose myself in details and find them much more enjoyable than the big picture (in my life, too). In drawing, those are the moments of greatest bliss for me. I guess I approach video in a similar way – I’ve always used it to linger in a particular moment. I’ve never made a video piece in which the camera moved. It’s facilitated another way of being still and watching.

Video Still

Video Still

I view everything I make through the lens of drawing. It’s all drawing to me, because it’s all about finding (subjectively) the most direct means toward working with a particular subject. I don’t think of drawing as a practice that is confined to certain two-dimensional media: I think it’s much more of a way of interacting with the content with an immediacy of response (even if the execution takes a lot of time).

Working with video, and to a lesser extent, with digital technologies like tablets, has been a way to experiment a bit with color. For whatever reason, color is still outside my comfort zone; it feels unwieldy to me, like there are too many choices. It’s something I’m still playing with.

Are there any projects, hobbies, or activities outside (ex. running, knitting, tea connoisseur, arts organizations, etc) of your artistic practice that you feel passionately about? What are they? Do you find them feeding your practice and if so how?

My biggest passion outside of art is gardening. I used to start all my own vegetable and annual flower seeds in the basement each winter – I’ve had to scale back on that in the last few years, but I am so excited that this year E will be old enough to help plant, weed, and harvest. Working with plants is such a full sensory experience, and it gets me out of my studio and into some color and beautiful weather. I also knit, mostly in the winter, and I’m really slow and so rarely finish a project. I suppose both of these things feed my practice in that they are more tactile and physical than my usual studio activities, and are much more relaxing mentally, and less results-oriented (though I would like to finish a knitting piece someday).

Anything else we should know?

There is a lot of research coming out right now about the importance of fostering open-ended play, risk-taking and joy in early childhood education. Whenever I read these articles, I think of E, but I also see the relevance to my studio practice and my teaching: how we all need those things, and it’s so easy to neglect them when you spend all of your time with grown-ups. Having a child has brought play back into my world.

Finally just for fun. If you were to make a playlist today what would be your top 5 favorite songs?

These are some songs that have made me really happy in the studio lately:
“I Am Goodbye” Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
“Lived in Bars” Cat Power
“Halfway Home” TV on the Radio
“Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” Lauryn Hill
“Sleeping Lessons” The Shins