Name: Mary Trunk
Current Location: Altadena, CA (Los Angeles area)
Education: BA in Dance, University of California, Santa Cruz. MFA in Film, San Francisco Art Institute.
Preferred Art Medium(s): Film/Video, dance, drawing
Children (ages and genders): 15 year old daughter.
Website address(es): www.maandpafilms.com, www.maandpafilms.com/lostinliving,
What is your background (where are you from, education, important details, here are you now, etc.)?
I am originally from Long Island, New York but my family moved to Southern California when I was 11. I still feel like a New Yorker in a lot of ways. The Long Island accent returns very easily when I visit my relatives. Moving to California was probably the best thing that ever happened to my family and it was also the worst. My parents broke up, my father lost his job, my mother almost drank herself to death, we were living on welfare in wealthy Santa Barbara and we were barely surviving. It was the early 70’s. I had to grow up fast and so did my six younger siblings. We were exposed to a life we could never have imagined. We came from a fairly conservative Irish Catholic family and were thrust into difficulties that broadened our experiences. I hated it back then but I’m grateful for what it taught me. Twenty five years after that period, I made my first documentary feature about it.
Things improved for our family after my mother stopped drinking and got her first job. We were still poor but we hadn’t lost our house and I was eligible for all kinds of financial aid for college. I attended UCSC hoping to study painting. I always loved to draw and figured I would forego anything practical and do what I wanted. I’m not sure why I felt so strongly about that. Possibly I saw that the safe route – getting married, having children – obviously didn’t work for my mother.
When I arrived at UCSC, I immediately got myself into some drawing and painting classes. I loved it but I also felt a little out of place. Maybe I was too young or maybe I wasn’t mature enough for the art department. One evening while eating dinner in my dorm dining hall I happened to catch a dance performance at one end of the room. It was modern dance with about six dancers in street clothes moving about in ways that completely excited me. I had danced a bit in school but I couldn’t afford real classes so I never pursued it seriously. I watched these dancers and somehow found out there was a dance department at the school. Not just in the PE department but in the theatre department. So I auditioned.
I have always loved dancing. The first dances I learned were folk dances in my junior high PE class. I managed to scrape together some money from babysitting jobs to take a few ballet classes and thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t have a typical dancer’s body. I’m not very flexible, my body is more androgynous and muscular than lyrical and lithe but I have great feet and I am coordinated and I love to dance.
Once I was admitted into the dance department my life seemed to change completely. I have never loved anything more than that experience of dancing every day and creating and choreographing my own work. I committed myself totally to all of it. To this day I look back on that time and see how it influenced and still influences and inspires all of my work since. I am now working on a new documentary hybrid project called Muscle Memory about my time as a dancer/choreographer. Many of my former dancer friends are participating as well.
Was there any part of your formal or non-formal training that prepared you for being a creative maker and mother simultaneously?
I’m not sure anything can truly prepare you for being creative while also parenting. I’ve always been someone who signs on for way more than I should. The busier I am and the more I have to do, the better. Which doesn’t mean I don’t freak out on occasion. I’ve just always been that way. It probably has something to do with residual Catholic guilt about not doing enough and the need to push away the darkness of self-doubt. (I’m an Atheist now but I’m also incredibly superstitious – more Catholic residue!) What strikes me most about being a mother is that it’s not at all a reality until it actually happens. There’s almost no way we can prepare for it. And that’s what makes it so wonderful, frustrating, maddening, joyful and crazy!
Possibly my creative process somewhat mirrors what parenting is like – at least for me. I like to choreograph and make documentary films without knowing everything ahead of time. I enjoy the surprises and the problem solving – sometimes only after the fact, but it’s that kind of experience that I feel I really grow from. Parenting is all about being in a position of not knowing. Sure we take all the breast feeding and parenting classes, we attend mommy and me meetings and we talk to other mothers but we still end up with these unpredictable human beings in our care. We have to simultaneously teach them how to survive and let them go do that without our interference. It’s incredibly frightening in some ways. I find my superstitious tendencies really come into play with my own daughter. When I drop her off at school, I don’t drive away until I see her walk through the front doors. As if by doing that she will be safe until I see her later that evening. I know it’s foolish but it’s how I cope with the fact that I’m responsible for this lovely, mysterious person and if anything happened to her I don’t think I’d survive it.
Everything I have experienced, including the poor choices I’ve made and the mistakes I continue to make, teach me how to be the parent I am. I honestly did not think I was cut out to be a mother and an artist. I put it off for many, many years absolutely convinced I’d never do it. Suddenly in my late 30’s I had this urge and after talking to a therapist about my fears of never being an artist if I had a child and realizing that maybe I could still have a child and just be a different artist, I tried to get pregnant. I got pregnant right away but miscarried. Then my mother died suddenly and two weeks later I became pregnant with my daughter. Superstition? Of course.
Are there any women that you find to be an inspiration for you as an artist/mother?
There are a lot of women I’ve come to meet and know because of my film Lost In Living. And they all inspire me with their dedication and commitment to both their children and their art. The four women I chose to be in my film have inspired me the most because I spent seven to eight years with them documenting their journeys as they navigated how to make work and raise children. I got to see it first hand as well as hear intimate stories. All four women are still very close friends and I am in awe of them.
When women reveal both the rewards and disappointments, the mistakes and accomplishments of working as an artist and mothering, I feel less alone. It underscores the fact that we are all doing this for the first time without any kind of standard blueprint or rule book.
I would say what inspires me the most is when mothers don’t deny themselves the time and freedom to create. When they understand that by committing themselves to this practice, they are modeling something quite extraordinary to their children. I think they are showing their children they have depth. They are searching for meaning in all parts of life, not burdening their children with having to provide the only meaning in their lives.
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? How did you navigate making artwork?
After I had my daughter I was in the midst of trying to edit my first feature documentary (The Watershed). I had been writing many grant proposals and was in negotiation with various funders and a PBS station in San Francisco. Having the baby did slow me down but not because of her. I was sort of in a state of wonder and suspended time. I couldn’t stop staring at her. But I was fortunate and she was a good baby. As my husband puts it she was like a piece of luggage. Before she was crawling and walking she was fairly content to be wherever we put her. Scratch that – we did do some sleep training which was not fun. Although oddly I got more used to it before my husband did even though he was the one who instigated it.
The fact is that in hindsight I think we had a very good baby. We were lucky. No colic, no illnesses or complications – or just mild ones. At the time some things seemed enormously insurmountable – breast infection, constipation, sleep issues, weird rashes, potty training (almost the death of me), colds, fevers, sleep issues, oh and sleep issues…but now they have disappeared into the murkiness of memory and have become good anecdotes to retell over and over.
I continued to work when I could. I edited, wrote grants and took care of my daughter. My husband works in the film industry and his hours (he went back to work a week after she was born) are horrendous. 12 to 14 hours a day at least five days a week. I was on my own a lot. I did (and still do) have a great friend who had a baby at around the same time. She saved me from losing it. And she is also an artist – someone I admire and love deeply – Jona Frank. (www.jonafrank.com)
At times I had a babysitter come in when I had meetings and other situations when I couldn’t bring my baby. That was a little hard at times trying to find people I trusted. But I did.
The main thing was that I allowed myself time with my child. I just decided I wanted to be with her. Which meant that sometimes I put her on the chair to sleep while I worked. Like I said she was a good baby. I was VERY LUCKY!!!!
Then we moved to LA when our daughter was 1 and a half. That was hard because my husband was still working in San Francisco. I knew no one and I was lonely. Having work helped.
Can you talk about your film Lost in Living? As you reflect on it was the making of the film more about learning from other mother/artists or was it about depicting the conflicts and struggles as these women strive to create?
I left off saying that we moved to LA and that’s really how Lost In Living began. My good friend, Jona, was still in San Francisco. I wanted to meet other mother/artists and I wanted to know what the conflicts and struggles were that other women experienced.
I managed to finish The Watershed during the first year living in LA and as I mentioned earlier I need to be super busy. So before the film was completed I started researching Lost In Living. I made notes and wondered how I could make a film about this particular situation. I was living it and I needed to know how others were living it.
At first I spent an entire year videotaping myself for ten minutes out of every day doing anything and everything. It was like a daily practice of getting in shape, of figuring out what I was going to focus on. The footage is informative although only watchable for me and my family but it led me to the idea of finding subjects for my new film. I interviewed many different women and learned a lot about how they navigated their parenting and creative lives.
My husband came up with the brilliant idea of trying to find women who were pregnant and documenting them going through the transition to motherhood. That’s when I really saw how the film could possibly be structured.
I was very fortunate to meet two of the women in my film, Caren and Kristina, who are best friends. There were also both pregnant at the same time. (Kristina’s husband, Nick, introduced me because he was helping me make DVD copies of The Watershed.) Eventually I decided that I would contrast the younger women with two women who were older and had adult children. I wanted to explore what it was like being an artist/mother from a different generation and also talk to their children about what it was like growing up with a mother who was also an artist. I found Margie in Fargo, North Dakota where I was screening The Watershed and I met Merrill through a local Arts Council. Both struck me as perfect for my film.
Spending so many years with all four of these remarkable women taught me so much more than just how to reconcile motherhood with a creative life. The revealed their most intimate moments, thought and feelings about every aspect of their lives – divorce, friendship, marriage, depression, parenting, rejection, fear and love.
In the end I guess you can’t really separate all the experiences you have in your life. Creating art, mothering and all the rest become interconnected. Some feed into each other, some conflict with each other but all of it informs who you are and how you express yourself. In the end, that’s what Lost In Living ended up being about.
Your films The Watershed, Lost in Living, and the most recent The Past is in the Present: At Home with Gunther Schuller takes the viewer inside the homes and private lives of your film subjects. What is it about this setting or the “private” side of our lives that you find intriguing? What have you learned from making films about domestic/home/family experiences?
Making documentaries is kind of scary. I never know what to expect even when I feel as if I have everything planned. I’m basically asking people to reveal to me, someone they hardly know, some of their most vulnerable feelings and thoughts. And yet, it can also be the most satisfying experience I’ve had. There are times when you reach a place of such intimacy so quickly and everything else falls away. It’s a connection that can possibly only occur in that moment. I’m intently listening, which many people rarely experience, and they seize the opportunity to talk and often say things they’ve never voiced before. It’s quite remarkable when it happens and I feel quite honored and grateful when my subjects feel they can trust me.
For me it’s the “private” side of our lives that ultimately defines us. To get access to that is why I do what I do and what makes films intriguing and compelling. I think that when people reveal their most vulnerable moments viewers feel a deeper connection. I want that when I see films and I hope I can bring that to my work. Home, family, ordinary experiences can offer more drama than one expects. Also it seems most of my subjects are more comfortable and more open when they are surrounded by what they know.
Can you talk about your interactive project, This Woman’s Life? What types of stories are you hoping to feature in this project? How will it work?
This Woman’s Life is going slowly. I’m working with a few friends and we all have a lot of other things going on. We did make one video which we haven’t posted yet and we’re still looking for more subjects.
Basically we are interested in telling women’s stories that are more invisible than others. People who have led unusual lives or not. Women’s stories are still pushed to the side in our culture and if we don’t tell our own stories, who will?
My newest documentary hybrid project is called Muscle Memory. Over 30 years ago the University of California Santa Cruz dance department was a thriving, rigorous and innovative program. Guest artists such as Robert Ellis Dunn, Meredith Monk, Gus Solomons Jr., and Betty Walberg visited, taught classes and choreographed on the students. I was lucky to be a part of that time and so were some of my closest friends, specifically six of them.
Muscle Memory, is about a return to that time as best as our middle aged bodies can take us. The interactive project will be a combination of interviews, archival video footage and photographs and current footage of us dancing choreography that I have created.
I am exploring the exact time between 1980 and 1985 which the founder of the department, Ruth Solomon, calls the “golden age.” I felt this period propelled me into a creative life like no other experience could have. The film will explore how that experience may also have affected the dancers that I knew well during that time, how they felt then and how they feel now.
All of us are in our 50’s and 60’s with the keen awareness that we can no longer move as we used to. Some of us have serious illnesses and ailments, some have had to make life decisions we regret, some have already passed. This film is an investigation into how meaningful dance was for us then and whether it still is now. It is also an opportunity to dance again with the aging bodies we are presently living in.
Are there any projects, hobbies, or activities (ex. Running, knitting, tea connoisseur, arts organizations, volunteering, etc.) outside of your artistic practice that you feel passionately about? What are they? Do you find them feeding your practice? If so how?
I still like to draw and I try and do that as often as I can. Usually at night on a shitty little card table crammed into my office. I’m mainly interested in abstract drawings and I use chalk and oil pastels. I don’t show them to many people because most of them are crap. It’s useful to make a lot of work and not be precious about it. My state of mind while drawing is very similar to any kind of art work I do and if I’m not working on a film, I need to have something else that puts me in that state.
I’m also taking advantage of instagram. I create these very quick manipulated abstract photographs and I post one every day. I love that I can use an app to make something in about five minutes. I have to make quick decisions and I post one every day so there’s nothing precious about them. I also enjoy how they look on the grid of instagram. It’s one area of social media that I find refreshing, fun and creative.
My job as a film instructor definitely feeds my art practice. I work at various universities in Los Angeles and I teach film production, documentary film and dance video. Most of the time I thoroughly enjoy it. I’m constantly thinking about art, I have to learn new things, I have to talk about what I know and figure out what that is and I always get ideas for my own work by engaging with my students. I learn a lot from them too. The only drawback is that I sometimes have a difficult time setting boundaries. Students need a lot of attention and it’s too easy to forego my own work to help them. I’m getting better at it though.
Anything else we should know?
I really don’t think there’s one way to navigate both being a mother and an artist. I mean that is pretty obvious. But I find that many of us can often get into this mode of thinking we’ve figured it all out. And we want to pass on our knowledge to others. One of the most important things I have learned raising my daughter (who is now 15) is that she is not me. I think it’s natural as parents to want to protect our children from the pain and trauma we experienced growing up.
We want them to be happy. But my daughter is not going to experience the same pain and trauma I did. She is her own person and I can’t protect her from everything. She’s going to experience things I can’t even imagine. Every phase of her childhood has helped me understand that I know so little about how to do this. Just when you think you have it figured out with your kid – whether it’s potty training or getting homework done – they grow and develop and suddenly you’re faced with their wonderful mystery once again. I both love that experience and it frightens me to death. But I’m so grateful I get to see her become who she is and I hope that I’m a decent model for her.
Finally just for fun. If you were to make a playlist today what would be your top 5 favorite songs?
- Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
- The Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras
- The Here and After by Jun Miyake
- Human Behavior by Bjork
- Rolling in the Deep by Adele
I have to say that my music tastes are all over the map and this list could be quite different if you asked me tomorrow.