‘The Artist I Left Behind’

We couldn’t help but share this incredibly moving reaction from the mother of one of our crew members:

I really enjoyed Who Does She Think She Is. I related on so many levels. When Maye spoke of her divorce, I cried with her, having gone through a similar experience. At the time of my divorce, I was an artist making art quilts. During the marriage, I stayed home with my children and my art felt seamless from my life with them – they loved art and we did it together – their art influencing mine, my art influencing them – we drew inspiration from nature and stories and from one another. Our art was about us.

It was during the divorce that my real conflict between motherhood and art began – now I had to support us with my artwork, which was all I really knew how to do. But I managed to turn even the divorce into art, making a large quilt I called “The Divorce Quilt” and putting it out there. Selling our house and moving to a condo, I was able to live off that money and sporadic quilt money for awhile, but even with going on talk shows, and with my quilts in traveling Smithsonian shows, and making it into People Magazine, Harpers, and a tabloid, and even though I truly felt my artwork was my calling, I didn’t find a lot of support for what I was doing. My own mother, hearing that I’d sold a quilt for more than any other I’d ever sold, said, “Well, she’ll have to sell more than one quilt to put a new roof on the house.”

I will never forget the day my ex stood on my front doorstep and handed me papers claiming that I was an unfit mother. I felt like I had been laid on my back on an altar with blood of the sacrificed running down the steps and my heart was being cut out; I felt the knife plunge in, I felt the prying open of rib cage bones, and I felt the fingers close around my heart and tear it out of my body.

What I ended up doing was getting a full-time job. The problem: motherhood is a full-time job, art is a full-time job (it occupies much more than the actual hours that you can scrape together to make it, because making art is a way of being, a way of seeing life), and then add a 40 to 50-hour a week paying job and you’ve got three full-time jobs going simultaneously. I couldn’t do it. So the one to go was art. I had to pay the bills, had to feed, clothe, and take care of my kids. My number one goal was to make sure that my children had what they needed. I figured, well, this must be what it’s like to grow up; you have to give up your dreams to ensure that others can have theirs. I tried to become really “normal” like the other mothers.

Over the years, the children grew up and, one by one, left the nest. The last child is now at RISD, studying art, which thrills me because she gets a chance that I never did – she gets to take her art seriously  and not question whether pursuing her dreams is selfish. As for me, I don’t have what it takes to do the kind of quilts or drawings I did before – my hands aren’t as steady, my eyes aren’t as clear, and I can no longer sit for ten hours at a time hunched over artwork with a needle and thread. I went back to school and earned an MFA in creative nonfiction, so that I can start to channel some of my creativity – which I’d abandoned all those years ago – into writing.

What I love about this documentary is that it inspires me to continue moving back into creating a life that actually fits not only the woman that I am becoming, but also the artist I left behind. And come to find
out that, hey, she still has some sass left in her. After several decades of creating a safe and secure world for others, she’s done with fitting in for fitting in’s sake. She wants to bust out. She wants to travel and have adventures. So I recently booked a ticket to Tibet, and come the winter solstice, you can find me in the Himalayas with my laptop, drinking yak butter tea.

–Katharine Brainard


5 Responses to “‘The Artist I Left Behind’”

  1. What a powerful and affirming reflection. Thank you so much for sharing this, Katharine. I applaud and admire your trip to Tibet! will look forward to seeing your work when you return.

  2. Katharine: Oh my, this is a very powerful message. Thanks so much for sharing with us. I am so happy that you are able to pick up and GO on an adventure. Be Well!

  3. what i really want to know is how many man get the same ultimatum to choose between their children and other pursuits (including careers)? i’d venture to say the number is much smaller than for women.

    dearest Katharine: i am so heartbroken for you and the rest of us who would be your audience when i read this. i speak as a woman who was issued the same ultimatum as you and as a mother who had to fight for her children. it is completely the worst kind of heartbreak a woman could ever know.

    i lost my fight because i didn’t have as much money as my ex-husband and i didn’t have a new-fangled spouse. i spend my time now preparing myself for the next leg of my children’s lives: adulthood. in the meantime, i’ve been blessed enough to use my art to build a legacy for my children.

    i will pray that you find a way back to your art, even if it’s in a way you’ve not imagined before. a woman who makes the kind of sacrifice you’ve made deserves at least that.

    in kindred spirit,
    ~Cherryl Floyd-Miller

  4. Elizabeth Brainard Says:

    I (hope) I am really not a bad mother. I just wanted my daughter to have a roof over her head.

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