Working Artist Mom Life So much has happened since last I wrote. The biggest change that 2018 brought was having the incredible privilege of learning how to be a working mother. You may remember that in 2016, my husband and I suffered the devastating loss of our son, when he was stillborn at the 37th week of my pregnancy. I write extensively about this in a previous blog post if you’d like to read more. In May, 2017, we welcomed our daughter, Ayla Akemi to the world and I am now in the community of parents who work every day to find some kind of healthy integration of cultivating a family, making art and making a living. I am fortunate that I love being a mother. It isn’t the case for everyone, and am not inclined to judge or begrudge anyone their feelings about motherhood. It isn’t easy, even when it is as wonderful and tender as I’ve imagined. I remember one mentor of mine talking to me about how when his son was born, his son became his greatest creative challenge. In those inevitably difficult moments, that is the spirit I work to channel. It is a work-in-progress. At a project last year in Detroit, I found myself in the driver’s seat of a parked car beside my mural, staring at a flashing taco truck in Southwest Detroit, windows sloppily covered with random scarves, pumping breastmilk as I watched my team work away. I am pretty sure the pump was plugged into the cigarette lighter. How much paint/grime is too much when it comes to breastmilk? Ah, motherhood. I am, at once, incredibly lucky that I could breastfeed my daughter as long as I could and . . . There really is no dignity in any of this, is there 🙂 The mandatory “wellness room” or otherwise named place for nursing mothers to pump milk in the workplace has not yet made it onto the mural scene.
Shield of Peace and Non-Violence, Southwest Detroit with Vito Valdez That project, “The Shield of Peace and Non-Violence” was a mural that Vito Valdez and I envisioned in 2015, but suffered multiple delays from challenging moments in our (my) personal lives. Vito and I won the Knight Arts Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation in 2015 shortly after we learned I was pregnant with our son, so that presented its own scheduling challenges (besides the fact it was in Detroit). The project was initially delayed from the pregnancy, then my crippling grief, then my subsequent pregnancy with Ayla and the leave that followed . . . It took a LONG time. But through those three years, we worked on the project, having workshops with the community, trying to get at the heart of problem and the healing of/from gun violence in the Southwest Detroit community. We had beautiful workshops and community meetings, and did the best we could through challenging circumstances. I now know how hard it is to travel for murals with small children and I am incredibly grateful to Vito for carrying the load on so much of that project. (“Scaffolding in this picture is not OSHA approved LOL).
NoVo Foundation Mural Project In general, though, my first year as working mom with a baby-now-toddler, was great and hard. For most of 2018, I worked on a massive mural for the NoVo Foundation. 8 walls (1 of which will be done this year), a team at times of 8 other AMAZING painters, and every weather extreme you can imagine spanning from July-January, when the scaffolding came down. The process of planning this mural was expansive, as NoVo is a progressive foundation that works with hundreds of grantees around the world. Their main strands of work include: Ending Violence Against Women and Girls; Advancing Adolescent Girls’ Rights; Supporting Indigenous Communities in North America; Advancing Social and Emotional Learning and; and Supporting Thriving Local Economies.
Finished imagery of this mural will be available later, but I just wanted to share a bit of the process since it swallowed 2018 whole. To develop the concept for the mural, I worked with diverse members of the NoVo community’s staff and grantees. That meant I got to meet and have extensive conversations with people doing transformative work globally in areas that matter so much when thinking about the just future of the world we are charged with creating. Here are some links to (just a few of the) organizations whose incredible work helped impact the mural design, but more importantly they are all transforming and healing society in more ways that I can try to be concise about. Check them out! http://gedakina.org/ https://womenandjusticeproject.org/ https://www.highlandercenter.org/ http://www.alongwalkhome.org/ http://www.soulfirefarm.org/ https://aich.org/ http://nolliejenkinsfamilycenter.org/ https://thelifestory.org/ Before I had children, I wondered how I would do murals with children of my own. I had seen it modeled really only by male muralists I know, but very few women, particularly in the United States where maternity leave for artists is not a thing. I always thought, when I have kids, I will focus more on the books as there is more flexibility. And then I found myself with Ayla and with the biggest mural I had ever taken on. And I wondered how it would work. And I really have one main answer. Team. An incredible team who was reliable, consistent and absolutely devoted to doing beautiful work. The original team consisted of 6 artists: Anagh Banerjee, Colin Verdi, Kyung Chyun, Adan Palermo, Jess Poplawski and Shin Moon. When we needed to finish and call in the backups (seasoned mural professionals!), Eric Okdeh, Kien Nguyen and Crystal Bruno (Clarity) came through in a big way for me.
The team showed up early on 98 degree days and on days below freezing when we had to use heat guns. They stayed until the job was done. They put their egos aside as we worked to figure out the best visual solutions for the concepts we were communicating. They treated the mural with the love and care that you put into your own, most personal work. That is a central reason the reason the project succeeded. And the reason I could have a team that deep was because NoVo was willing and able to pay all artists a living wage for the time we were working on the job. So often, with every single muralist I know and every other project I’ve worked on, murals need more time than there is money. So, we always find ourselves scrambling to finish a project so we can move on to the next thing that will pay the next set of bills. This project paid in a way where our work felt valued in that we did not have to rush like crazy or compromise the collective vision. It was an incredible project and NoVo was an unusual, wonderful client. When the Cousins Came School Visits
Another big moment of 2018 was the publication of “When the Cousins Came.” I talk about making that book in my last blog post, as the book was created in the unusual state of deep grief, as it was my first project back after our loss, and then excitement/anxiety as it also overlapped with my pregnancy with Ayla. Somehow the book turned out well, even though when I look at some of the pages now, I have almost no memory of making them. I have been so honored by the starred reviews and incredible feedback and am no wondering what will happen when Lila, our protagonist goes to visit her cousins in the city!
One of my favorite parts of having a book out is getting to do school visits. I taught in public schools for 14 years (art and Spanish) and I love being around big groups of kids. When they are excited about a book I made, it is all the more wonderful. When the Cousins Came seems to have a pretty broad appeal and I’ve been fortunate to visit very different types of schools with this book. That is also to say that I have visited schools with incredible disparities this time around. I’ve found myself one day at a school in the South Bronx, poorest congressional district in the country, across from the most violent housing projects in the city (the school was thriving, by the way). The next day I might be at a prep school on the Upper West Side with an annual 1st grade tuition of $48K. There are lots of feelings. I’ve been to schools in DC where the classes are run by long term substitute teachers who literally don’t know the children’s names. Also to schools where senators send their kids with a maximum class size of 14 kids. Some schools don’t have full-time teachers, much less art class. Other schools literally have classical music appreciation where a classical pianist will just come and play for the children to listen and cultivate their ears and brains. Some schools find incredibly creative ways to make due with less- they partner with non-profits who provide extra staff and have principals who work from 7am-8pm every day. (See photo of Principal Ortiz below).
Any way you look at it, it is jarring to see children separated geographically by less than one mile having such vastly disparate educational opportunity and access. “Savage Inequalities” and School Visits I feel incredibly fortunate to have these wonderful exchanges with children of all walks of life, also inspired by the creative solutions educators apply to near-impossible situations, also infuriated by the gross disparity. There is certainly enough to go around, but somehow it just doesn’t. School visits are in some ways like reading and re-reading “Savage Inequalities” over and over again. It is an unusual glimpse we authors/illustrators have into the educational system and it’s a conversation in which I hope I can somehow, someday be useful.
Behind The Book Foundation One of my most moving set of school visits has been with the incredible Behind the Book foundation, which plans curriculums around specific books and has the author/artist come and work with students around particular themes. In 2018, I worked with the amazing educator, Denise Cotton at MS 328 in Washington Heights with a special education ESL unit of middle schoolers, using Fish for Jimmy as a way to teach empathy and encourage students to put themselves into the emotional experience of one of the characters in the book.
This spring, we are using Fish for Jimmy once again to talk to students about the detention of children at the border. We will be doing art workshops to them where the students will create drawings of objects of comfort and love that they will then send, with accompanying letters, to children in these detention centers. I have been so moved by the work Behind the Book does to reach kids where they are and connect them, through literature, to what is happening in the world today. I’m so honored to be included in their programming. “God’s Big Plan,” Flyaway Books
Illustrating a religious book was definitely a departure for me and I still find myself feeling the need to explain myself every time the book comes up. That is so interesting to me. That said, I was raised in the Catholic Church and come from grandparents who met at a Catholic Worker house run by Dorothy Day- supposedly she introduced them! My mom was raised on a monastery run by French nuns in Western Connecticut. The book makes sense to me in terms of who I was raised to believe God was. I know my grandparents would have loved it. That said, in my adulthood, I’ve distanced myself from the church and still haven’t landed on clear ground in terms of religion.
It’s complex and I’m so curious to see what kinds of conversations and book visits this project sparks. The book is refreshing in terms of God not having a gender (God is just God) and I got to make all the people from Noah’s family have the complexions of people from that region of the world #noahwasntwhite.
Baking, Gentrification, Grandpa (works-in-progress)
So, now I’m working away on some new books. I’m so excited to be making a book called “Dad Bakes” with Holiday House. It’s a simple book, an easy reader that is inspired by the work of places like Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and On the Rise Bakery in Detroit. These are places that provide employment and other services (therapy, education, housing, etc.) for people who are rebuilding their lives after incarceration. I’m also working on a book for Norton called “Everything Naomi Loved,” co-authored by Ian Lendler. It’s a book about a young girl who notices her neighborhood changing (being gentrified) and what she does to cope creatively with the changes. I’m thrilled by this book, by its relevance, and by its devotion to the point that in every neighborhood that is “turning over,” people, and all their stories, live there now and likely have lived there for a long time. And their stories matter. I am thrilled to be working with my new editor, Simon Boughton, who was the editor of one of my all time favorite books by one of my all time favorite artists, “Tar Beach,” by Faith Ringgold. I’m also finally working again on my grandfather’s biography, which has been on a bit of a hiatus since originally contracted in 2014. His story, of growing up in an immigrant community and growing his art and vision in spite of the institutional racism, profiling and poverty he experienced is (unfortunately) more relevant now than ever. My hope is that with the book, I can share effectively how his experiences of oppression inspired in him the desire to make spaces where people felt their greatest uplift, where they could do their best work and coexist in peace. We will see how it goes. So, here we are. The end of another super-long blog post. If I can manage my goal of 3 posts a year, I can definitely cut down the length! If you are one of 2 people who made it this far, thank you for spending time with me. I’m looking forward to sharing the next chapter of this (hopefully warmer) journey with you (hopefully) soon.