Name: Lee Nowell-Wilson
Current Location: Baltimore, MD
Education: BFA in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)
Preferred Medium(s): painting and drawing
Children (ages and genders): one 18 month old daughter, and one on the way!
Website address(es): Leenowellwilson.com
What is your background (where are you from, education, important details, where are you now, etc.)?
I was born and raised in a small town in southern Maryland. I attended college at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore City and graduated in 2011 with a BFA in painting. After graduating, I moved to Honduras, C.A to teach 1st grade and art, but ended up coming back a lot sooner than I originally planned. Upon returning, I jumped into a job with a local muralist, and that muralist actually ended up passing her whole client base on to me and another MICA alumni. From that, that fellow alumni and I went on to form our own mural business, called Blue Lined Designs, that focused on commercial murals for local businesses and homeowners.
But, like many things in life, you realize what you truly want and don’t want as you walk out different opportunities. After 2 years into it, I realized commercial mural work wasn’t my passion. So, my husband and I took a big jump and moved to France in 2015 and I participated
in an urban arts residency in order to develop a mural portfolio that aligned with my personal aesthetics. We did a 2 year stint between France and Norway, and then returned to Baltimore.
Now, with our 18 month old, we are still based in the city, but my work has really changed since 2015. Currently, I’m working more in the studio on large scale paper with graphite and charcoal. I adore painting, but I don’t want my daughter around toxic oil paint (and she is my permanent studio partner). So instead, I’m having an amazing time exploring the weight, texture and movement of graphite. For an upcoming project, I’m hoping to start experimenting with ink paintings on large panels of silk in order to conceptually and literally play with the idea of transparency + vulnerability.
Absolutely nothing. I’ll be blunt and say nothing prepares you for being an artist and mother simultaneously. It’s an intense, beautiful and wordless experience that is different for every mother and every artist. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve even heard people talking about the two in the same conversation, so there was definitely no informative training on “how” to do it when I was in school. Most of the time, my encouragement and “preparation” has come from other moms and my husband who are in the same boat as me.
Are there any women that you find to be an inspiration for you as an artist/mother?
My best friend and illustrator, Jacqueline Oliver, is one of my biggest peer inspirations. We had our daughters at the same time, and have been together in the thick of wrestling with the balance of it all from the beginning.
My own mom is my closest inspiration and example of how it is possible to be an artist and mother together. She was an interior designer working specifically in upholstery, and had her workshop in our basement. I loved going down there as a kid and watching her work, and knew I wanted to do the same with my own practice. I wanted to have a giant studio like her’s, with my children free to explore around it. She’s also extremely entrepreneurial, so the idea of starting something new on your own has never intimidated me because she would do it all the time!
Other big inspirations off the top of my head are Senga Nengudi, Katherine Tzu-Ian Mann, Mary Cassatt and the Procreate Project that is connected to Mother House Studios in London. There are a slew of others though – message me personally if you want my whole list 😉
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?
These are all questions I’m currently still figuring out, haha! I’m constantly combing through different stories and testimonies from different artists who openly talk about motherhood in order to navigate the “how” of balancing it all. One time Katherine Mann, who I mentioned as a peer inspiration, told me that navigating a practice with a baby vs. a toddler is very different – which I’m finding to be true. I also had Maren Hassinger encourage me by saying being both an artist and mother means things come in seasons, but to remember that luckily being an artist doesn’t mean you have to make something everyday. Know you are an artist, identify with that always, and then let each day be what it needs to be.
“Taking time off” is also a subjective idea when it comes to being an artist. Some artists treat their practice like a classic 40/hr/week job. I never did (except when I worked in the commercial mural field). My work has always been a processing tool for my mind – so after giving birth, even creating a 20min blind contour of my daughter breastfeeding in order to capture/record our daily movement as mother and daughter was considered “studio time” for me. I also created my most in-depth body of work immediately after her birth. I drew while she slept or while carrying her in a wrap. When she learned to walk, I set up obstacles and interactive barriers around my studio that she could explore and be distracted by. I did take a few months off after my solo show in March of this year, mainly because it was a huge production of work and I needed time to breath.
I never wanted to do childcare simply because of my own priorities. Nothing against childcare at all. My main reasons were the emotional and mental benefits of exclusively breastfeeding and as much skin to skin contact as possibly during the first year. So I chose to have my daughter with me. But decisions on all of that really depend on the priorities of your family, your lifestyle, your faith – anything that informs your daily decisions. For example, much of my “balancing act” comes from first looking to my faith to learn what being a mom actually means. It’s not just a task, and many of my daily decisions stem from the broader question of who am I meant to be?
You are the child of a mother/artist. How did this inform your thinking about being both a mother and an artist? What do you hope to do differently as a mother/artist?
The main way it informed my thinking was to show me how well motherhood and artistry could work together. They didn’t seem like opposites stealing from each other, but compatible parts that could operate simultaneously. Now as an adult I also realize how integrated every aspect of my life is: being a mom, an artist, a wife, a daughter, etc., all make up my person-hood. They’re not separated tasks I complete at different times.
Because of this way of thinking, and the example shown to me growing up, it was very jarring when I became a mother to realize that the art world at large still currently pushes the two apart. One informs the other so evidently, why are they considered a threat to each other? For someone (the art world at large in this case) to imply that I have to choose between having a family or having an art career, is to assume an authoritative position they doesn’t deserve. It also creates a very one dimensional industry – for everyone to be a single, no-strings-attached type of artist with no relationships is unrealistic, shallow and void of diversity.
But, I’m starting to get away from your question. What I mainly want to do differently as an artist/mother is show through example (and following the footsteps of my own mom) how to not be dictated by an industry trying to tell me who to be. I want to be a mom and I want to be an artist, so I’m going to work hard to do both.
You proposed a show in conjunction with a 2017 fellowship application while you were pregnant. When the fellowship did not materialize you made the work anyway and the culmination was the Project1628 exhibition titled Full Communion. The work explores the intimacy and exhaustion of a mother’s first year. How did you feel about what you wanted to accomplish as you wrote the proposal while 8 months pregnant? What did the work look like then? What did you learn through the process of this series? How did the work shift over the course of the year?
Well more specifically, the work explores the idea of relationship through the lens of motherhood. Intimacy, exhaustion, deeply complicated emotions and the wrestling tension within human-to-human interaction are all subcategories of a broader investigation of relationship as a whole. That was my main hope as I wrote the proposal while 8 months pregnant. I was 6 weeks away from an event I knew would be a powerhouse that would change the whole make up of my understanding towards relationship. I wanted to record the whole year, but also use the drawings as a processing tool. Much of the work was very congruent with
the daily realizations of what motherhood was, but the work was not solely about motherhood (if that makes sense).
The work definitely shifted as there was no preconceived concept of what the work would look like. One thing I noticed was I usually work very realistically and formally within my drawings, but I ended up yearning for abstraction and deconstructed form because everything within that first year of motherhood felt formless. I constantly felt like I was gaining structure as a mom at the same time as totally losing it. Each emotion sat directly next to its opposite, so the drawings I felt to be most successful from that series portrayed softness and structure immediately next to messiness, unraveling lines and abstracted form.
I mostly learned that the purpose of my work, and its success, is based on pure honesty, vulnerability and the revealing of my insecurities. I’m so tired of work that is trendy and hip and easy to sell. If your work is a true expression of the wrestle happening in your mind and heart, but you don’t sell anything until you’re dead, I still consider you a bigger success than the artist who sold hundreds of drawings a year but revealed nothing of their true life.
When I look at your work it is evident that you are pursuing an idea that connects deeply with you. I see this in the authenticity of the work and quality of mark making. What did you gain by opening yourself up to motherhood? How has it changed you? What would you tell other makers that feel you need to put art first? Where do you feel the experience of motherhood taking you next?
Wow, you could write a book on answering these questions. I’m very passionate about the rawness of humanity and cutting the bullshit. The quality of my mark making is a direct metaphor of different, complicated emotions that I’m sure most people deal with in their life. My work is an open exposure of my inner wrestle. That, I think, is what you say you can see so evidently. I feel the same about how I operate as a mom (openly, honestly and with intention), but I’ve never seen opening myself up to motherhood as my own choice. I see it as a purpose and an intentional gift given to me as a biological woman.
My choices lie in how I steward that gift. What I’ve gained by submitting my will to that stewardship is an increasing depth in understanding the “other” over myself. I’m gaining a true understanding of what sacrifice is; I’ve said before that as a parent, you are pushed to the end of yourself but you can’t crash. Obviously, take breaks. Oh man, do NOT try to be super mom or dad. But I’m learning where both my strength and endurance truly come from. It (motherhood) has also made me eternally grateful for my husband – so much of my ability to be a mom comes from his willingness to be a dad and his sacrifices as well.
I guess what I’d tell other makers who feel they need to put art first is to simply ask yourself, are you subconsciously pinning the two against each other? If so, why? Motherhood and fatherhood do not need to be combative with art making. Yes, your daily schedule will be more complicated, and your definition of flexibility and “freedom” will change. However, children are not an inconvenience to the advancement of your life. They are life. I think our culture needs to re-realize that. Family is not a barrier that stops you from optimizing your career opportunities. There are plenty of women artists out there who have won revered fellowships or awards after giving birth or adopting. There are also plenty of male artists out there who are wonderful fathers and value family – it’s not all about career.
Where is motherhood taking me next? I have no clue. Nothing about parenthood feels predictable ;).
In your interview with Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann you describe the experience of motherhood accurately. “….I’m sleep deprived, I’m running at a pace that I never could have imagined before. You’re pushed to the end of yourself but you can’t crash. It grinds on you, and no one really tells you that.” Why do you think we talk about this exhaustion? How do you choose to represent the physicality of this feeling in your work?
I think we talk about it simply because we need to. Self-expression, either verbally or visually, is innately natural, don’t you think? Who wants to keep everything bottled inside? Companionship, and knowing you are not alone in any life experience, is one of the most comforting elements we have to offer another person.
The physicality of emotions in my work is mainly represented through how I handle different materials. I think that’s true for most artists; each building their own language and recipes of mark making. To play with an emotion conceptually, I start to think about composition and the sitting positions of my figures.
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 that they feed your practice? If so how?
I really love languages. I’m fluent in Spanish, partially French, I once knew Italian but that one faded, and I would love to learn Norwegian because I have family in Norway. I do love knitting actually, and have knitted a few stuffed animals for my daughter. And I love rock climbing – I
haven’t done it in a little while, but my husband and I rock climbed a lot together with friends in years past.
Anything else we should know or be on the look out for in the near future?
I’ve dreamt about starting my own arts publication for a long time now – maybe you’ll see that happen one day. I’m also starting to push my work into new mediums that include installation, so you can look forward to that when I start sharing that body of work publicly.
Finally just for fun. If you were to make a playlist today what would be your top 5 favorite songs?
- “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
- “The Resistance” by Josh Garrels
- “Evlogetaria For the Dead (Tone 5)” sung by Fr. Apostolos Hill
- Anything by The Ramones
- “And I Love Her” by The Beatles
Those top 5 never really change 🙂