I often get asked how I make time for art when I'm busy with four very small children. It's a legitimate question, because it's definitely a challenge. I was at a lecture recently where the artist talked about how he goes and disappears in his studio for hours and hours and hours when he has a deadline and only comes out for meals.
As a mom artist, it's hard to have that luxury. I don't have a nanny or day care or any other professional child-care help. We're in the middle of summer right now, which means we don't even have school to break up the day. They are all mine, all day.
Any time I think I have a good workflow figured out, it inevitably changes because something else in our lives changes. There's always a new schedule, new routine, different developmental stages that all influence our flow. They go from two naps down to one. They're awake earlier, hungrier throughout the day, bored, cranky, needing me to spoon-feed solids... all kinds of variables that change what my day looks like from month to month.
So, here's a trick that I've found to be successful even through all these ups and downs: Embrace the 15 Minutes. I used to think I needed hours on end (like the artist from the lecture) in order to be productive at all. While that definitely can be more ideal (there's a good rhythm from uninterrupted work time), it's not the only way to work. The fact is, it's probably gonna be another twenty years before I really have completely quiet hours to myself to work. I could wait and pursue my dreams then. Or I can find ways to embrace the interruptions and be productive in the meantime. Embracing the 15 minutes windows of time I do have, has allowed me to stretch myself creatively in ways I never knew I could.
Here's what it might look like. I get through the breakfast rush, get everyone fed, dressed, settled, etc. I might throw in a load of laundry and then look around and everyone's content for a few minutes. So I go put a layer of paint on one of my paintings. Side note, this is why I love working in acrylic because it dries so fast and is so easy to set up/clean up. I work in layers constantly on my paintings and they're all in different phases. So maybe I gesso some new boards, add an underpainting to a sketched board, put the lights and darks on an underpainting. That's all I can get in before someone needs me, so I stop and attend to the kids (it should be noted, that I never leave my smallest kids completely unattended. The playroom is next to my studio, so if I put up a baby gate I can feel confident that they're playing safely near where I'm working (sometimes at my feet) and I can still hear/see them. This proximity to my kids while I work/they play was a must when we looked for this home, especially while they're so small). So, I stop, let the art dry, and go get on the floor and play trains with my two-year-old son.
Sometimes, my kids are begging me to play with them, and the best I can give them that day, is the 15 minutes while I'm eating lunch. So, out comes a board game and we all sit and wonder if Gabriela is really gonna land her date with Troy, while I scarf down my salad (why we have the "High School Musical" board game is a story for another day...).
I'm amazed at how much 15 minutes of concentrated play in their world buys me as far as them feeling loved and valued. As the day goes on, it's a balance of that. I go work for 15 minutes-- put some lights and darks on that underpainting, add a layer of actual colors, put in detail work, varnish finished paintings-- then I go back to the kids/home responsibilities (make guacamole for dinner, feed the baby solids, change diapers, throw the whites in the dryer). Sometimes, I'll take advantage of 15 minutes while they're playing in the backyard to sit at my computer (right by the back door, where I can watch them out the window) and respond to emails, update the website, or get a reference photo ready for the next painting. My most productive time is usually in the afternoon, while two of my kids are sleeping. If I can get my older girls occupied with something (or better yet, hanging out in the studio with me, creating art themselves), then I can get an hour or two in. I'm pretty lucky to have a husband who comes home from work mid-afternoon, and, depending on the day, he'll sometimes take over the family responsibilities and then I can work a little more focused.
But here's where I think mom artists are pretty lucky. Interrupting my work to go play creatively with my kids, doesn't kill my work, it enhances it. Unlocking that door in your head where you have to improv new ideas and stories and funny situations and sound effects and flow with the play helps me not get so stuck in my adult boxes. Being a kid, thinking like a kid, playing like a kid brings such a fresh energy to my work, that I feel like I come back to it with a whole new angle. It's also such a healthy outlet for some of that pent-up work energy when things just aren't coming together the way I want them to. Have you known the joy of making a kid laugh really hard? That feeds the very best part of your soul. And that good energy flows right back out in awesome ways.
I once read an article about meditation. It said if you have trouble embracing the silence (me!), embrace the noise. Pay attention to the hum of the air conditioning, the pitch of traffic driving by, the sounds of the people around you. Breathe it all in and breathe it all back out. I use this same technique as I work from home with small children. Art is a loud, fun, energetic work anyway. I usually work best listening to my favorite music and singing along as I dance in front of my easel. My kids just become part of that harmony. So when I have to set down my brush, to help bend a barbie to fit in a car, I embrace it. Maybe it saved me from over-working a spot on the painting I was fiddling too much with. Sometimes I look up at my paintings from a whole new vantage point from that angle on the floor, and see things I didn't see from eye-level.
Clearly, every art medium might not be as flexible as this (firing up a kiln is obviously a little longer than a 15 minute job), the point is start with what you can. Embrace what you do have. Don't think the circumstances or time always have to be perfect for you to just start. How can your big job be broken up into smaller jobs? How long do those smaller jobs take? How can you fit them into the busy day you've already got? Where is there flexibility in your schedule to allow for artistic progression? I tell myself all the time that progress is progress. As long as I'm going forward (however slow the pace), that means I'm still progressing and I count that as success.
I've learned that there is a lot of power in 15 minutes of focus. I can have my whole kitchen sparkling in 15 minutes. I can gesso several new boards in 15 minutes. I can blow a whole bottle of bubbles in the backyard in 15 minutes. I can add incredible detail to a section of a painting in 15 minutes. While it may not be the industry norm, it can be a really beautiful, fulfilling, creative way to work as an artist even while taking care of kids full time.