"How to Change" is a limited series for "Southland Sessions" exploring the most critical issues facing Southern California culture makers in this pivotal historical moment. Each column will explore a question posed to a range of artists and culture workers, and include recommendations to address these concerns from a practical, action-oriented perspective.
Parenting and Making Art?
For the seventh installment of "How to Change," I asked, "How are artists who are raising children adapting to the pandemic?" This is a two-part article.
The experience of bringing work and child-raising into the same space has been tumultuous for families. Parents who are working or looking for work are hard pressed to attend to children's needs and provide learning support for classroom activities. National headlines have made this a women's issue — the New York Times' "The Primal Scream" series is anchored in statistics that show women are the hardest hit. The typical image of a family is fraught with unpaid, invisible labor by women who resent their male co-parent's far more casual involvement. But, this is not the whole picture of what parenting during the pandemic has involved. Twenty-first century families of artists follow conventional and unconventional structures. Artists, being creative problem-solvers, develop skills that help them navigate their family lives. I turned to them for examples of parenting that challenge the "women's work" narrative so popular with American media. Fathers, queer parents, single parents and parents in multi-parent situations all shared their experiences with me.
Conceptual artist Aaron Gach is raising a 12-year old daughter in the Bay Area with his partner, a high school art teacher. "We don't generally have a lot of conflict in the household about people holding up their end of things or performing their duties," he reports. Gach also teaches art at California College of the Arts and in the Alternative Art School program, both part-time. He describes their pre-pandemic routine. "My partner would leave early in the morning and head off to school. I would be getting my daughter ready for school and getting her over to school in the morning." Gach did most of the cooking in his household, including shopping for groceries several times a week.
With the closures, "All of a sudden everybody is home, all the time, and that was up until this fall." Middle school, high school and college classes were all taking place in the house at the same time. The workload was intense: "In addition to teaching from home, also doing tech support for everybody, making sure that everybody's online when they need to be and that everyone's Zoom works, then on top of it going from cooking a simple breakfast before school and then dinner, to oftentimes prepping and cooking three meals a day." For Gach, who works as The Center for Tactical Magic on project-based artworks that require coordination and planning, this means many interruptions during the day. The schedule has been rough on his artistic production: "When I engage in my practice I like to have long stretches of time to actually contemplate things, to write things out or to engage in some sort of process of inquiry, and that doesn't always work in 45-minute blocks." Gach's art often happens with or near a public that has been restricted under COVID, so he's been using this time to make plans for future work.
For Los Angeles painter Amir H. Fallah, life before the pandemic was a challenge of balancing preschool drop-offs and pickups with his partner's work in the fashion industry and his own studio practice. When the closures occurred, Fallah's nanny initially did not feel safe working outside the home. "We kept paying her all the way to September," he confides, "more than half a year just paying out money for no services." This was a predicament they shared with many families whose caregivers were put at risk by the pandemic.
How can I make something to leave behind for him, that would be some sort of entry into who his parents are, what their beliefs are, because everything that we teach him describes who we are.Amir H. Fallah, Los Angeles painter
For several months, Fallah and his partner would take turns structuring their work days around their son's care needs. "We would switch off, so let's say on Monday I would watch Julian 'til 1 p.m.," he explains, "and Jessica would work from the moment she woke up straight 'til [1 [p.m.], and then she would watch him and I would go to the studio until 7 [p.m.] and then I would come back and then we have dinner, and pass out." They would alternate these half-days with full days where one parent would work until 4 p.m., and the other until nearly midnight. In September, their nanny was able to return, "so now it's kind of a normal schedule, except that we never have a break." With his partner working largely from home, Fallah found himself practicing art at the dining room table in a busy, full house.
Fallah paints in a studio in Alhambra, not far from his home in Highland Park. With limitations on the amount of time he could spend there, he began to make work on a small scale while spending time with his son. "He would do little drawings or color or do a craft project, and I brought some small works on paper," he describes. "It was nice because I felt like at least I was being productive." Fallah's 2020 exhibition at Shulamit Nazarian, "Remember My Child..." reflected the influence of parenting as a subject in his work. Fallah's paintings drew from his son's books and interests along with a range of other sources. "It actually ended up leading to a whole new body of work and a new way of working," he reveals. Fallah's recent large-scale paintings are run through with messages to his son: "How can I make something to leave behind for him, that would be some sort of entry into who his parents are, what their beliefs are, because everything that we teach him describes who we are." Compositionally, a work might include "a children's book about a puppy, but the puppy's gesture or pose might fit into this line of text that's dealing with our complacency about racism." Fallah has always addressed the complex formation of multicultural identities in his paintings, although rarely so personally.
Washington D.C.-based choreographer and dancer Daniel Phoenix Singh found that the pandemic exacerbated challenges he was already confronting as a gay single parent. Singh is the father of twin toddlers born through surrogacy. "Ideally, I would have had kids when I was in my late 20s, my goal was by the time I'm 30," he laments. As an artist, "Surrogacy and adoption costs are incredibly expensive, I couldn't do it." Singh spent those decades developing his company, Dakshina, which blends ballet, modern, Indian and Latin American styles of dance.
When Singh finally had his twins at age 48, he was reliant on the support of friends. "For the first six months I had different friends that would come and stay with me for a week to two weeks just to help me get back to work and get back to dance," he explains, laughing, "My mother was 84, moved in with me, she had difficulty with my sexual orientation, but when the grandkids came around, she was willing to put it aside." Even with help, parenting as an artist has been a struggle. "There's a price you pay for trying to cobble together things individually for something that should be provided as a society, through your workplace," he inveighs. "If I were being paid decently as a dancer, I wouldn't have to have a day job." The double shift of paid work and creative work that many artists experience is another hindrance when they seek to make family life a priority.
Since the pandemic, operating a dance company has become even more challenging. "As a dancer, they have really strict regulations in our county where we rehearse because we are breathing so hard and we're exerting so much," Singh describes. His company lost their subsidized rehearsal studio when the owners felt financial pressure to book more lucrative classes into the space. In the interim, the dancers have been planning future projects and Singh has been developing his poetry practice while his children are asleep. "I found a teacher in India, who was willing to teach classes for me at 10 p.m. at night my time," he reports. "It was 7:30 in the morning for him in Bangalore." While local interactions have diminished during the pandemic, international connections have potentially increased. Singh's child-care help is international as well. He has hired au pairs through an agency that sponsors international students to learn English through placements with U.S. families, in a structure similar to an internship or a study-abroad program but with no formal educational component and significant domestic responsibilities. This arrangement is substantially less expensive to the parent than a daycare center or full-time nanny. "If I could afford daycare it would give me freedom, with an au pair I'm tied to this person for a year and I don't have an easy option of backing out of it because I've signed a contract that sponsored the visa through an agency," he explains. He struggles with the ethics of this reality: "I'm in this weird position where I am taking advantage of someone else who is in a vulnerable position and willing to work for a lower amount." Singh is painfully aware of these compromises that allow him to rise on the backs of less privileged immigrants.
Many artists are LGBTQIA+, and queer parents often experience the difficulties of a legal system that hasn't quite kept up with fast-changing family structures. David Rios Ferreira, an artist and Director of Public Programs and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Children's Museum of Manhattan, adopted his daughter this past summer, during the pandemic. Rios and his partner had already been through an extensive vetting process with an agency, which enabled their daughter's birth mother to select them as part of her adoption plan for her baby. "The amount of writing me and my husband had to do about ourselves, we have our memoir ready!" he jokes. Even on Zoom, "You meet the birth mother through the process, and she automatically felt like we were family," he describes. As soon as the child was born, the adoption began. The couple picked up their new infant curbside at the hospital, signing paperwork in the street on a cold September day.
The museum has recently reopened with new protocols after months of closure due to the pandemic. After ten weeks of family leave, he had to return to work at a museum that was preparing to welcome back the public as COVID-19 cases were spiking around the holidays. "Right when she arrived, I was already on the task force to reopen the museum," Rios reports, "so when I got back from leave, I was doing a lot of in-person work." Rios and his partner both work outside the home, so his partner's parents have been doing a lot of the daily child care.
For a while, this enabled him to put time aside for making his art, drawings and sculptures that mix references from west African religion to children's books and cartoons. "When I started to come back to the studio, and my husband and I were finding a rhythm with it, with his parents and stuff, I still wasn't going as often and also New York's numbers at the time had shot up," he recalls. Going to work was equally risky: "I'm on the floor with families with children, and we have the mask mandate, we developed new signage, we updated our HVAC system, so many other precautions to make sure that those families are safe, and the staff." Even limited to 25% capacity, "the issue that I actually had and my colleagues had was a children's museum is just a different monster than a museum that's going to have stuff on the wall," he points out. "We made private bags, so your child will get a bag of a sampling of [manipulable] items and those are sanitized, the toys are sanitized, and then throughout the day we're also doing experience tours" that limit the number of children in any given exhibit.
Artist and writer Irina Contreras, who lives in Los Angeles with their toddler, has found it challenging to make her socially-engaged performance work during the pandemic. She shares how she "heavily relied on [her] consulting and arts administration [income] to produce the kind of work that I want to produce" before the shutdown. "When they're so little," she admits, "for me it was easier to plan an exhibit, performance any kind of project." A toddler is harder to work around for events and meetings, including our interview, which was interrupted several times. Still, Contreras is relishing this special period in her daughter's life. As their child grows, "I feel like I'm always learning and it feels like a really funny adventure." Her sense of humor and her resilience has served her equally as an artist, activist and educator.
Contreras' child's other biological parent lives in Oakland, which means custody visits every two weeks on a schedule that keeps her family from putting down roots. When Governor Newsom restricted statewide travel at the start of the pandemic, "there was no stipulation that child custody cases were considered essential travel," Contreras states. "With the second one, he elaborated to make sure that it was included, so that set up the mechanism that we needed to travel constantly," she continues, "and that meant for a while we were in perpetual isolation, because we would go into isolation, but then we would come out, there'd be another visitation." Family court and custody arrangements can be uniquely hard on queer parents. Contreras, who identifies as polysexual, lives in a cooperative household and spent much of the last pandemic year co-parenting with others.
Los Angeles Pierce College professor, painter and mixed media artist Monika Ramirez Wee played the part of a traditional straight wife in a previous marriage, pressured by the demands of a Roman Catholic Latino family. Now married again, this time in a same-sex partnership, Ramirez Wee has a teenage son "who came out as transgender and gay when he was in eighth grade." Their complex family life often runs afoul of the legal system as it is currently set up now. "My spouse now [my same-sex spouse] is not the biological parent of my children who are from my first marriage, and in our current family court system, biological parents are the top," they state. Custody hearings have taken place on Zoom, but also in person at the start of the pandemic. "I would say that family court is probably the most not-looked-at interest issue in LGBTQ rights," they lament. Biological parents can leverage outdated legal precedents embedded with anti-gay beliefs and values that aren't outwardly visible at first glance.
Los Angeles dancer and choreographer Heyward Bracey is co-parenting in a two-household situation with his daughter's mother. "Me, being the artist, over the course of most of my life, I have to protect my time in a certain way," he explains. Bracey's choreography blends Japanese butoh, African diaspora and Indigenous American forms. His ex-partner is a therapist who works outside the home, seeing clients remotely from her office or in face-to-face meetings outdoors. Because he favors flexible work opportunities that leave space for his performance commitments, he finds that "the artist ends up being the parent that ends up being with the kid, doing most of the domestic stuff for most of the day." His process involves "Cycles of starting projects, and then finding a way to make time for it, fund it." He earns income from dance projects, but not in a regular stream. "I divide my time between design and dance, that's how I keep things happening," he details. In the pandemic, dance has been more coordination than rehearsal, and Bracey has been planning for future opportunities while taking more design work to make ends meet. His daughter is attending school from home, which also makes demands on his attention.
The demands of a dance and movement-based activism practice compete with family for artists' time and mental space. "Many people in our business, we think of ourselves as needing to be essentially selfish somehow," Bracey admits. This is due to the lack of remunerative value that American society puts on experimental culture. Of the struggle to maintain time and focus, he laments, “It's the usual artist's life on Turtle Island," referring to the Indigenous creation myth. As a Butoh artist, Bracey believes that art plays a role "to thread a connection or route back to people's Indigeneity." He is raising his daughter to understand her mixed heritage and the radical political traditions that underpin his artistic work.
Artists' family situations are as varied as those of our larger culture writ large. Their experiences show us how our society still needs to change to ensure that the important work of raising future generations is treated with the value and the support that it deserves.
In part two, artists will share their perceptions of parenting in the arts before they became parents. They will discuss how being an artist has made them better parents, and how they bring their artistic know-how to their family lives. Finally, they'll share with us the insights and personal gains they have made during this pandemic year that they intend to carry forward as we resume regular life.