August 2018 – Brooke Rothshank

The Stats

Name: Brooke Rothshank
Current Location: countryside of Goshen, Indiana
Education: BA
Preferred Medium(s): watercolor and egg tempera
Children (ages and genders): 9 year old boy, 5 year old boy, 2 year old girl
Website address(es):

The Questions

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

I grew up in  Goshen Indiana surrounded by a Mennonite community that places a high value on work ethic and quality craft such as quilting, woodworking, and ceramics. I attended Goshen College,  a small Mennonite Liberal Arts college. I was an Art major with a focus on painting and a vague plan for what I wanted to do after school. I ended up moving to Maryland to learn production glass blowing with Simon Pearce and then on to Pittsburgh where I did a variety of jobs, including teaching basic glass skills to high school kids at the Pittsburgh Glass center, trimming handmade ceramic tiles in a small tile studio, teaching at Manchester Craftsman’s Guild,  and as activities director at a nursing home. I didn’t attend an MFA program but was fortunate to be able to take workshops at Pilchuck, Penland and Anderson Ranch. Those places opened my eyes to a broader arts and crafts community experience and made successful artists accessible as mentors and eventually friends and peers.

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

I would say that both of my parents are very creative people. My mother was a teacher before she had kids. When my oldest brother was born, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that caused severe physical and mental disability for the 19 years he lived. My parents went on to have another son in the next year and then me, 7 years later. My mother stayed at home as a caregiver while my father was a professor of Biology  who also briefly taught photography. He also started and ran his own business making and selling a product he invented to test bacteria in food and water.

During a time when there was no internet and very few helpful resources for severe disabilities like my brother’s, my parents found ways to channel their creativity while being severely limited by their family life. Looking back, I have a different appreciation for the physical and emotional effort of caring for three kids and find it hard to imagine coping with the knowledge that one of them would never grow out of the night wakings and endless needs of an infant despite his growing body. Even so, I experienced my mom as an ever creative and detail oriented presence in her story telling, french machine sewing, tatting, elaborately decorated doll cakes and pinatas, flower arranging and home design. She maintained a positive attitude during extremely difficult conditions and continues to be a model for me of a creative maker and caregiver, two roles essential to healthy communities but so often undervalued.

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

Yes! I have been fortunate to have many women in my life who inspire me but in the most recent years I have been especially drawn to those who are in a similar phase of life, balancing creative energy and kid energy.

Not long after I moved to Goshen, while my first son was 6 months old, I connected with a group of creative women to meet on a regular basis for artistic support and accountability.  There was a writer, two jewelers, two painters and a graphic designer. At the time, there was only one other woman with a child in the group. Since then, 7 more children have been born. That, along with new jobs and moves have  made it increasingly difficult to meet. Even so, I still consider this collection of women to be a creative inspiration and resource I can rely on in times of need.

As a result of a two different experiences at Penland where we were able to teach and bring our family, it has been my good fortune to become friends with textile artist Dana Fehsenfeld and potter Courtney Martin who live in the area.  Both women have children a similar age to mine and they both welcomed us into their lives during our Penland stay. The chance to talk with and observe other women who are making a career as artists while navigating the logistics of family life with small kids in a thoughtful community was validating and continues to be inspirational.

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?

When I was expecting my first child, I was still searching for clear creative goals. Even though having a baby was exactly what I wanted, the transition to life as a family of three was challenging to my identity, especially as an artist. Once I began to adjust to life with a newborn and the realization that my time was no longer only my own, my need to paint and goals for creative growth came into much sharper focus.

I am still working to figure out what it means to balance my role as mother and artist. Both of those titles are so integral to who I am as a person. When I am active as Mother, I am less active as artist and vice versa. There is always some overlap and both roles inform each other, but I feel a constant push/pull between these two primary parts of myself.

I would add, the partnership with my husband is a third role that requires maintenance for all of us to flourish and is a vital part of who I am. The care for our relationship has often taken a backseat during these young family years to immediate child needs and studio deadlines, but it is something I can depend on, find strength in, and strive to nurture.

We have tried to be deliberate in taking time off after each of our children was born. Each birth was different and our business was at a different place since the kids are all about 3 ½ years apart.  It can feel scary to plan for time away from work when you run your own business. But breaks are needed, especially with a new baby or any major event. Justin took about 2-3 weeks off with each child. I began adding some studio time after  6 months with each baby. I often found a new energy for the work in front of me after a studio absence. It has not been uncommon for me to have conflicting feelings about being in the studio and being with family. I have always felt like the early baby  and childhood time is so fleeting and changes so fast that even though it is good to have a break, I really don’t want to miss any of it. That said, I am a happier mom when I have time to be in studio. We are lucky to be close to family and friends who are like family and have been able to help with early childcare needs. That part of our community has been vital for us.

My husband Justin is a potter and we both work from home. Before our kids were born, we had saved up a financial cushion to experiment with a year dedicated to being full time studio artists.  We made a similar effort to save and work ahead as much as possible before each child was born.

This did not work as well with our third, as she arrived 7 weeks early and required an almost month long stay in the NICU about an hour away. I also had two miscarriages after our first son was born. There was a considerable amount of unplanned recovery and healing required then too. It was one of those vulnerable experiences that reminded us we can plan, but life, especially in relationship with family, is often out of our hands. Being a parent has forced me to think about the example I set by challenging my need for control,  ability to allow vulnerability, and response to life not just my reaction to what may happen.

Both you and your husband have vibrant studio careers. How do you do/did you manage raising a family and being studio artists simultaneously? Do your feed off of each other in the studio? Can you share tactics that worked for your family and studio?

Ha ha. I feel like that is a constantly morphing part of our lives. We go through phases where we have found a great groove and everyone’s needs are being met and then something changes, someone is sick, there is a school break, a baby is born, a big order comes in, childcare is unavailable and we can be thrown totally off.

Our oldest is now 9 and I have a different idea of how things may continue as they all grow and become more independent but our youngest is just 2. Even though she and the 5 year old are able to be in the studio with us, it is far less productive when we are all together.

During the rare times Justin and I are in the studio at the same time without kids I feel like we do feed off of each others energy and ideas. We have started to experiment with some collaborative work, Justin throwing pots and me decorating them. When we have consistent childcare, I have found it’s ideal for us to share a walk where we catch each other up on what we are making, potential plans for new work or suggestions for the business. It is some of the only uninterrupted space for conversation since we work at home and at least one kid is usually around.

It’s been one our biggest challenges as a couple to prioritize that time together when we are both aware of the constant pull for our attention with the business or family. It’s been a personal struggle for me to find ways to feel ok with prioritizing my own needs or my marriage. Intellectually I completely believe that self care is both responsible and required to care for others and be productive. In practice, I catch myself feeling inadequate for needing a break. I have supportive community that certainly encourage self care but I do believe there is still a strong  message for women of praising or even insisting on self sacrifice. The times I am able to consistently address my own needs and my marriage, even at the cost of studio productivity or at the protest of kids wanting to be included, we have all benefited.

As I understand it your work would classify you as a miniaturist. What does this mean in terms of scale? How did you get into miniatures? What do you find most enjoyable about working on an extra small scale?

I started painting miniatures after an introduction to 1/12 scale painting through the International Guild of Miniature Artisans (IGMA).  1/12 scale minis are considered dollhouse miniatures similar to the collection in the Thorne Rooms at the Chicago Art institute.

I began working in oils  painting reproductions of old masters and learned about the importance of scale for the texture of the surface I painted on as well as the appropriate finish of the frame and backing. Once I had my second son, I was frustrated with the amount of studio time I had and how difficult it felt to complete these time consuming paintings. I pulled out my watercolors, simplified the composition and began to paint  daily paintings that fit within a 1 inch border. The subject matter was heavily influenced by my family life.

I committed to starting and finishing a piece a day for a year. It was refreshing and freed me to play  with my work differently. I was able to take myself less seriously. I felt the satisfaction of completing a painting and was able to let go of the work that felt less successful in part because I knew I would complete something else tomorrow. Painting small the way I do is currently key to allowing me to be present with my family but also having a studio practice that feels healthy.

I began to view my paintings as a body of work instead of putting so much weight on each individual piece. I also began sharing them on instagram for accountability which felt very uncomfortable to me initially.

It’s wonderful to work small when it comes to material costs, traveling with work and the  freedom to experiment knowing neither too much time nor materials will be lost when things don’t work out. Many people are drawn to miniatures when they see them but in general, popular culture seems to equate bigger with better. Learning to market small works to people who are not miniature enthusiasts has been one of the challenges of working in this scale.

I read a quote in which you describe yourself as your own worst critic. “It is not uncommon for me to finish a painting and groan…….”, this perfectly describes a feeling I believe is common for many artists (see the December/January 2018 interview with Daneielle Krysa author of Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk). Do you listen to this voice? How do you quell this voice? Have you found any tricks that you would like to share?

I don’t know if it is possible to find a way to not hear this voice at all. I do believe that the more I paint, the more I am able to be gentle with myself when things flop. I also find, with larger work I tend to spend more time overthinking what is happening. It’s harder for me to take risks. With the smaller paintings, I may still groan or feel disappointed but it is far easier for me to move on, try again or laugh at what happened. I would also say it has been my experience that when I am consistently making smaller work, I am simultaneously better at larger projects.  The biggest trick I could share would be, find a way to be accountable in making work often. The more you do, the less you are tied to just one thing and of course, the more your work improves.

In your practice, you aim to complete a painting a day. I admire the commitment and consistency of your practice. Could you talk about how you arrived at this process? What are the pros/cons of working this way? Where do you find your subject matter for each painting? Do your children influence your subject matter?

I mentioned earlier how I started daily painting after our second son was born. The daily work became a practice of letting go of perfection and strengthening my commitment to production, consistency, the work as a whole.

The daily instagram posting was its own experience. I am usually alone in the studio and making posts felt exposed, even risky, but allowed me instant feedback on what I was doing and connected me to other supportive artists as well. Overall, sharing my work on instagram has been very positive for me.  Making sure the post happened was sometimes stressful. There were days when kids were sick or we were traveling or something unexpected came up and I still needed to paint and post.

In the beginning this was especially challenging. Justin pointed out that there was no penalty for missing a post  and that I was the one making the rules in this situation. I decided to make an extra painting during the weekdays so that I would not paint on Sundays and still have something to post. I also allowed myself to work ahead for vacations and keep one or two images on hand for emergencies keeping me from the studio. For the most part, I was painting every day but life with children is unpredictable and one of the lessons of the daily work was finding ways to allow myself some grace and to make changes without feeling like I had failed. After our third child was born, I took a break and cut way back to only a couple of paintings a week. I’m looking forward to starting a daily painting project again in 2019.

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?

We have a wooded space behind our house. Spending time there, going on walks and the occasional yoga class are things that make me happy. I like to bake. I love to read. Before our third child was born I became a hospice volunteer. I have not been very active but hope to start participating more as the kids grow.  Aging, death, grief, memories and their relationship to the quality of our daily lives are things I am curious about. Not in a morose way, but in a way that wonders how sadness and joy can go hand in hand. How do we embrace change or loss so that it doesn’t consume us? I paint a lot of nostalgic images or miniatures that have a personal meaning for people.  I feel like there is direct a connection to our relationship with the transience of life and the intensity of our desire to hold onto what matters most. I like the idea of painting something meaningful in miniature to honor its place in our life and simultaneously acknowledge it’s separateness from ourselves.

Anything else we should know or be on the look out for in the near future?

I have a book coming out with Parallax Press in October called Tiny Gratitudes. It chronicles a year of weekly gratitude paintings from 2017, my version of a gratitude journal. It was an attempt to refocus my thoughts and energy in a positive direction after a challenging year globally, politically and personally. As I mentioned earlier, I have plans to begin a daily project Jan 1 2019. Both of my oldest kids will be in school and my youngest will have part time childcare which will mean consistent studio hours for me! I’m looking forward to  seeing how it unfolds.

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

In truth, I listen to more podcasts than music. I especially love On Being.

If I had to choose, some of my favorite songs are:
Ben and Ellen Harper – A House is a Home
Brandi Carlile – The Joke
Andrew Bird – Beyond the valley of the three white horses
Asaf Avidan & The Mojos -One Day
The Steel Wheels – Scrape me off the ceiling