Name: Janis Mars Wunderlich
Current Location: Monmouth, IL
Education: BFA Brigham Young University, MFA The Ohio State University
Preferred Medium(s): clay, printmaking
Children (ages and genders): Margaret, 26 F (assistant gallery director and sells my art, in a way she is my boss), Xander, 22 M (just graduated from college and got his first job as a computer programmer), Izak, 19, M, (graduated from high school and living in Ghana as a missionary for the last year and a half) Emma, 17, F (high school junior), Eliza14, F (last year of middle school)
Website address(es): http://www.janismarswunderlich.com
What is your background (where are you from, education, important details, where are you now, etc.)?
I’m from OH. BFA BYU, UT and MFA, OSU. Currently, I am an assistant professor of art at Monmouth College, IL, where I teach ceramics, foundations, and art history.
I spent the last two decades focused completely on making and exhibiting figurative ceramics and parenting my kids. I would often teach workshops and give visiting artist presentations, but tried to fit it into my family life.
As my kids have grown largely independent, and my own life circumstances have shifted, I am now teaching full-time, and making art at every possible moment in between.
Was there any part of your formal or non-formal training that prepared you for being a creative maker and mother simultaneously?
I grew up in a very large family, and while my parents had traditional roles (dad-engineer, mom-stay at home) they taught us to approach all challenges in creative/non-traditional ways.
My plan early on was to finish my MFA, find a gallery, make art, and become an art professor. Becoming a mother brought a surprise twist to my plans, as I unexpectedly fell completely in love with being a mom. I became unwilling to give it up, even partially. The tricky thing is that I felt this way about being an artist, too. So I knew I had to figure out a way to balance both. So I forged my own path, which included creative ways to balance parenting and art-making, with occasional opportunities to teach.
Are there any women that you find to be an inspiration for you as an artist/mother?
My professor at BYU, Von Allen, was not a mother, but she put her whole self into her art and into her teaching, and I was inspired by her zeal.
I’ve met so many inspirational women over the years. The group of women I met while filming WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS were particularly motivational. It was transcendent to know that there were other passionate women out there trying to passionately pursue an art-mothering balance.
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 art work?
When my kids were small, they were in my baby backpack on my shoulders. When they grew, they moved to a swing I installed in my studio space. Eventually they had their own corner of my studio where they would do their own “creative work.” I let them work with materials as soon as they were old enough to understand not to eat the art materials.
Having them in the studio with me meant long hours of minimal productivity, but I did make incremental progress on my work. Slow progress is better than no progress. Over time, my tiny bits of time add up to be significantly detailed works of art.
I had to learn patience while having kids in the studio, and flexibility when things didn’t go exactly as I had hoped.
I was always anxious to get back into my studio to make work after having a baby. It is such a powerful experience to labor and birth a child, and the imagery and emotions just spin around in my mind until I can creatively release it. Newborn babies are so time intensive, that I had to learn to work with the 25 minutes or 1 hour I could squeeze in. I became efficient with these small time segments in my studio. Over time they add up, and eventually I finish a piece.
It is clear that family and relationships with children are central to your work. Your source material was always around you. Family and kids in particular often segment our time as we care for them, transport them, feed them, bed them. Do you feel your work has been dictated more by the circumstances of children (feed, care, transport, etc) or by the observance of them? How has this changed as they have grown?
I learned to benefit from the segmented time. My figure groupings are so complex that the small segments of time actually benefit me, as I can’t build too much too fast. I have plenty of time to think about my next move, and time for the clay to stiffen a bit. I often looked for inspiration during my non-studio time (dinner, while doing laundry, while dropping off kids, etc). I always kept a sketchbook near to record inspiration for later when I finally get to go back to my studio again.
As my kids have grown, I have much longer amounts of studio time available, although now my challenge has become balancing professional/professorial duties.
When children are babies or small kids it is hard to imagine them one day leaving for their own independent lives. How has parenting changed you as your children become teenagers and begin to leave home? How did it impact your professional practice? How has it shaped the work you are making?
Three of my five kids have become adults and have “launched” into the world quite successfully. My two teen daughters are the only ones left. So, things have shifted dramatically over the past few years. I also got divorced and took a job as a professor quite a distance away, and my daughters didn’t want to change schools. So, for now I am “distance parenting” them, as they are with their dad for the school year. Now I measure my time between trips to Ohio to see them. It’s strange to realize how much life can change over just a few years.
My imagery, by the way, has turned into visualizations of birds leaving the nest, boating and swimming in rapidly moving water, kids swimming through me and launching off to new adventures.
The 2009 film Who does She Think She is? is screening in March at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. The film is nearing its 10-year anniversary and it is still as relevant as the day it was released. Can you talk about what has changed about your Artist/Mother life balance since the filming? How did the film impact your career? Why do you think we make women feel they must choose career or family?
The film helped me realize that I had value, my story had value, and that my habit of making art was okay. So impactful!!! One of the women in the movie mentions that she felt like the struggle of balancing mothering and art-making was “her little problem.” When I heard this, I felt a rush of powerful camaraderie and realized how much we need to seek support from each other.
My biggest frustration is how we as a nation put such value on some occupations, and completely undervalue others. Being a mother is highly undervalued, and being an artist on top of that, and a teacher… all critically undervalued but crucial roles. It was made clear during my divorce, as we divided assets and looked at salary figures, that my artistic and mothering skills of the past 25 years resulted in very little economic benefit.
As I interviewed for teaching positions, many people undervalued my “non-traditional” career path. Certainly no one took my mothering role as experience that would add to my qualifications or credentials; they only saw a strange gap in my resume. For a long time, I found myself teaching adjunct, making the same salary as a graduate student, even though I had accumulated years of teaching experience (workshops, lectures, adjuncting) and all sorts of volunteer and committee experience as a parent volunteer in the public schools.
I have seen many examples lately of women and men balancing family responsibilities and approaching their creative careers in new ways, and this makes me happy.
Crowns Is a traveling exhibition featuring the work of eight women reflecting on the experiences of motherhood. Can you talk about the impact that comes from women discussing this subject in the gallery setting? What kind of ideas were you working with in the work you will be showing in this exhibit?
I love that this exhibition celebrates mothering in every stage. I want to tell every mother how much I value her, how much I understand her struggle to balance. I want to cheer all women on who courageously approach mothering and art-making at the same time. I want every mother to see her immense value.
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?
Running! My daily run gives me time to mentally focus on art-thinking, and I have extra energy and physical vitality from my habit of distance running every day.
Finally just for fun. If you were to make a playlist today what would be your top 5 favorite songs?
Secret admission: when I am in the studio, I often listen to progressive/punk rock from the 80s.