Parenthood: “The Best Crash Course In Humanity.”
The creative nature of motherhood in Cristie Henry’s Mythomenial polyptych, and an interview with the artist.
by Lisa Haugen
The paintings Sensamenial and Philamenial are depicted on this issue’s cover art. Henry attended the Parson’s School of Design in New York and obtained her Fine Art degree from Bristol University in England. She is a mother of two homeschooled children and lives in San Francisco, where she co-founded a chapter of Attachment Parenting International. Her featured polyptych series is still in progress, and rather than offering her work through a gallery setting, she has elected to feature these paintings, free of charge, to families who wish to host them in their homes for six months at a time. For more information about the paintings themselves, pictures of work in progress, or information about hosting, please see Henry’s website, http://www.cristiehenry.com/.
Though the domestic sphere and motherhood with it have traditionally been positioned marginally, considered inferior—even “banal,” as artist and mother Cristie Henry puts it—relative to the political and economic structures that are most often credited for both giving our society its shape and holding it fast, the Mythomenial polyptych nevertheless expresses the creative potential in child-rearing and homemaking, conveying the sense of a deeply humanitarian art. It celebrates the domestic sphere and family life as a multi-dimensional whole with depths of shadow and light, corporeality blended with divinity; and it offers a radically balanced expression of motherhood in bold conversation with both contemporary depictions of motherhood and the historical images of the Madonna that inform them. Additionally, the series centralizes children without displacing the parents. In a culture where categorical imperatives perpetuate stark divides that create mainstream stereotypical depictions of adults as either domineering authority figures or the butt of a joke in relation to children, Henry’s work offers another expression of radical balance that announces children—also marginalized and subordinated by the structures of our society—as full partners and creative agents. In this way, the series recognizes both the reality of marginalization, but also the essential co-centrality of the domestic sphere, motherhood, and children alongside a society that, both in practical and abstract terms, typically imagines itself without them.
The five-panel, 5’x7’ painting series depicts contemporary domestic scenes on individual aluminum panels, arranged in a polyptych roughly reminiscent of Renaissance era altarpieces, though each panel can be displayed separately: each panel is itself a self-contained individual unit, and in this way departs from the formal and symbolic codependence of the traditionally conjoined polyptych altarpiece. The form thus invokes both the sense of the sacrosanct and the establishment of a communal narrative referred to in its titles, even while maintaining its distinction as a relatively modern and more secular play on the traditional form. It also speaks, both in form and in content, to the post-modern focus on fragmentation and the de-centralization of the traditionally patriarchal nuclear family, without losing its overall sense of the family itself as a cohesive whole. In this way, it challenges what might be described as an essential limitation in the post-modern imagination. Its very form speaks to a dialogic and organic concept of deconstructed reality, rather than the binary split view that post-modernism’s practically medieval tendency toward synthetic dialectics must perpetuate. The way Henry plays with the presence and absence of parental figures in the scene allows her to consider the father as patriarch and breadwinner of the family as both figuratively central to the piece as a whole collection, and yet also absent, even as she considers her own central position as primary caregiver for the children throughout their early years, and the role of her own artwork as both marginal and central to all of their lives. Art itself in these works is expressed both in terms of literal painting, her own and the works of other artists, but also the art of creating a home, rearing children, and creating a family itself—a living network of connections and relationships—as a cohesive and dynamic entity. The whole collection plays decidedly with a sort of false contradiction between what is centralized and marginalized not only in its perspectives on the mother’s relationship with what society recognizes as “proper” art, but also in the roles of the family members themselves within the family. In this way, the series offers some bold commentary on the idea of the home and the domestic as marginal to society.
In many ways, Henry’s work takes the next steps Derrida urged and many post-modernists neglect; that is the recognition and reconstitution of essential wholeness from which truly new forms can spring. In this way, Henry’s work embodies the sense of creative presence often absent in postmodernism’s focus on the past-and-post-historical. By recognizing the mother as a whole creative agent, both a painter of and co-creator of her family life, Mythomenial enables all figures to be recognized in the light of mutual interdependence. Henry’s unique decision to have her series lent out to homes for temporary display, as opposed to being displayed and sold through an art gallery, serves too as a formal community binder—an affirmation of the diversity of forms and their essential interconnectedness. Her generous and communal mode of display also becomes part of the expression of the form itself.
Henry’s paintings, directly inspired by 17th C Golden Era Dutch still life, celebrate a profusion of detail and creative abundance of home life. Named in whole as “the story of the domestic,” each panel is also named individually, contributing toward a recognition of the multi-faceted dimensions of a sphere often regarded as flat and lifeless: Philamenial (love of the domestic), Sensamenial (feeling of the domestic), Sacremenial (worship of the domestic), Miramenial (wondering at the domestic), and Vivamenial (living the domestic). All the names suggest that far from “banal,” the domestic sphere, and motherhood with it, is not only as worthy of the deliberate attention we give other subjects in art and academia, but that it is also the heart of all human life—all human matters, all human subjects, and all human forms originate and begin to aggregate within the scope of that sphere. In Henry’s work, the domestic, the story of living and growing and being human at home, of a mother’s choice to live and grow at home with children, too, becomes a self-sustaining creative, humane, and intellectual enterprise—a far cry from the trivial sub-fragment of broader social order it is more often than not both imagined and practiced to be.
Before we move on to the interview, I simply must add that there is a video on Henry’s blog which shows one of the paintings in progress on an easel in her living room, surrounded by her boys and their friends engaged in a nerf-gun fight. It really gives you a sense of her as a mother and an artist, and the interstitial, living role both play in the overall picture of her life.
Q: I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on the way your method of exhibition—hosting in people’s homes rather than in an art gallery—speaks to the subject matter.
Cristie answers, laughing. “So here I am choosing to do this unpaid, literally domestic exhibition of my work, which happens to be about unpaid domestic work. I didn’t plan that, consciously. But something in my psyche moved me towards it. A funny thing about art, or anything, is that the meaning coevolves with the making, in my experience. When I made the decision to have the artwork hosted rather than using the relationship I had with the gallery, it wasn’t an intention on my part informed by the subject matter. I paint really slowly and it takes a lot of time. The last painting I sold, before this series, I made about ten dollars an hour. Emerging artists, as I was informed by the gallery owner, cannot expect to get anything near a reasonable hourly rate for their work. I’m really fortunate that I’m not using painting to make a living right now, so I can make a different choice about it. I decided to do this hosting thing so I could get the opportunity to show the work in my home and then offer it to anyone who wants to host it in their home. I wanted something that was more nurturing for me. More people will get to interact with the paintings, and I will get to interact with more people. I get to talk to them before they hang it, even during if they want, and when taking it down I get to have a long conversation with them about what the experience of this painting has been like, for them. That’s really important to me. Normally when I’ve sold work with the gallery, I don’t meet the person who buys the work, I don’t get to speak to the person who’s purchased the work—I may not ever speak to anyone who has a strong connection with it.”
Q: Can you say something about the complexities of the word ‘menial,’ especially as it relates to the concept of motherhood as a sort of menial task? What are the myths of the menial?
Cristie: “Right! I chose and loved the word ‘menial’ in this context because I loved the fact that it actually is essentially, home—work around the home that is focused on making the life. And yet it has obviously gained very negative connotations culturally. Currently, it obviously means unskilled, unfulfilling labor, and I think that’s a fascinating shift. I imagine that it can’t have always meant that. It actually does take quite a lot of skill to run a home, and all the different aspects of running a home, and raising children, caring for people, [etc]. I’m going to go on a tiny tangent, but I read something just recently where someone was talking about the word ‘labor,’ that people also have a similar kind of misunderstanding about the word ‘labor’ itself. People would probably say that they don’t want to do ‘labor,’ but that’s because we don’t understand that labor is just activity that results in something. The words ‘labor’ and ‘menial’ often go together as well, with this idea that doing things that need doing, that are essential and important is somehow not important or not worth aspiring to, not worth putting time and thought into—or imagining that you could even enjoy them. The person’s perspective on labor was that we’re so used to our own labor being exploited, that we think of labor as a bad thing. And I think that’s such a great parallel cause, um yeah—“exploited” may not be the exact word I would use, but it’s related to motherhood in that it’s not paid and it’s not appreciated in the way that it seems like it ought to be. Most of society seems to view motherhood as a relatively mundane, rather than creative task.
I think one of the things that can also make a thing seem laborious or unrewarding, unchallenging, is not putting yourself into it, not investing in it fully. Kind of like, it’s drudgery because you aren’t even looking for how its meaningful. You’re like it’s the thing I have to ‘get done.’ What I was doing with the paintings, what I really wanted to show was that it’s not like there aren’t a million tasks—there are! It’s completely overwhelming in some ways, and yet when you choose to invest in it, in the way that you’re like, this is my thing, I’m going to give it myself, it can be something more. And I think people are really frightened of that, especially around motherhood. There’s a lot of negativity around this idea that—you’re giving yourself to motherhood and that’s bad. Even people who make art, I feel like they have this thought like 'I have to keep the art separate and it can’t be about my motherhood because then I have nothing left that’s me.' And to me, motherhood is just me right now. It’s become a primary part of who I am.”
Q: I’d love to hear more about the background paintings. I know you get a lot of questions and observations about the man’s looming chest in the background of Philamenial, and it brought up a lot for me to think about as well. Overall, I was most struck by the fact that, not only have you painstakingly replicated others’ works in the background, but you’ve also foregrounded your own work, your own labor, not only as an artist but also the literal work of being a mother. What more can you share about your relationship to the paintings in the background?
Cristie: “One of the things the paintings in the background are doing is standing in for painting itself, and creative pursuits. They’re really carrying a lot of weight, actually, because they’re standing in for my own really intense attachment to making visual art and to looking at visual art, so it’s a big part of my psyche and how I move through the world, actually. I love to look at images and I love to think about, what are people saying with their images and what does it mean now to look at these old images? I genuinely enjoy looking at all of that. And so there it is in the background as a sort of part of me. With the male figure specifically, it’s almost me, back there, too, but the part that’s more subconscious and informed by all of this dogma, if you will, about what art is and what it should be and what it should look like. I mean, people can make whatever they want of it, some people look at it and say it looks like Christ, but it’s not and I didn’t mean it that way, but I also cannot escape the way that there is a ton of religious symbolism in this painting that was not intentional. I can’t help the culture I was steeped in and it’s there because, well, it’s in my brain.
One intention of having it there is wanting to have a masculine presence, because Eric, my husband—I chose on purpose to not have Eric in three of the five pieces, and that has to do with my experience of motherhood, and probably the experience of most of the women I know who are mothers, which is that they spend the majority of their time mothering, alone. I mean we try to make community but motherhood in contemporary America is a pretty solitary experience. So I wanted to capture that sense of ‘there’s a man, in there, but he’s just not around that much.' So I’m doing this on my own. And I’m not. But, I am, you know? I’m making the decisions on the ground, day to day, moment to moment, without recourse to another person there to even just, run the ideas by. But also, in the domestic space you get to make your own little world. In some ways I feel really privileged to have been allowed to be at home with my children. I feel it very strongly, in fact, because it’s not something that everybody gets to do. I got to spend so much time with them and get to know them in such a profound way. And it meant I got to really own this occupation, this calling, to just figure out, and invest as much of myself in, my mind and my thinking, reading and talking and discovering—with them, and also without them—and reflecting and just figuring out how to make this the best that it could be for all of us. So I feel really, really lucky.”
Q: These paintings express a sort of seamless integration of yourself as both mother and artist, and yet they are also clearly the product of a lot of labor—can you shed some light on your experience of yourself as mother and artist, and some of the ‘labor’ or ‘work’ that goes into becoming a person who is more harmoniously both?
Cristie: “How do you not be who you are? Part of me wants to call attention to a false dichotomy here. Part of the harmoniousness, if you will, comes from adopting a sort of non-antagonistic or non-scarcity model of my own resources and my own attention. The time I invest in whatever role I’m investing in serves any other role that I’m investing in. I know that I will have painted fewer paintings in my lifetime because I chose to put more hours into mothering than painting; and I also know that the paintings that I have painted, because of the time I spent mothering, are far greater than anything I would have painted if I hadn’t put that time in. And it isn’t just because it was mothering, necessarily, but it was another practice where I put a lot of hours and put my full self into a thing and learned a lot of skills about slowing down, about being present, about being honest, about being curious, and all of that is something that I use in all of my paintings, all of my artistic endeavors, now. With this series, I’m using this style of painting that requires terrific sustained attention and patience, just like parenting; and while I’m painting, I’m also practicing that very same practice, and then I bring what I get from that back to my mothering—which is key to getting through all of the hard patches.
There’s this thing I developed very consciously with my first kid, which I used to call my molasses reflex, it's been a helpful way to hold on to that idea of trying to train myself to slow down, not to be reactive, but to be able to take things in, consider, and then act. That slowness combined with an openness feels like its been really instrumental to really being able to tackle these paintings because they are technically really hard and sometimes I really don’t know what I’m doing, and having so many at bats at motherhood and feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing really helped. I’m going to try my best, and I have some ideas, I’m going to keep my eyes and my ears open to how is it really going, and getting that feedback and then trying to adjust. It’s amazing how many times I’ve started part of a painting going, “I have no idea how to paint this… here we go.” And you’re going to wade in and its going to look bad for hours and hours and you’re just going to have to have faith and keep on doing it, and keep on keeping your eyes open for any hint about the direction that’s working. And it’s so like motherhood. So they both are feeding me, and each one is feeding the other discipline.”
Q: For my last question, I’d love to hear more about the “ostentatiousness” of the still-life form you’ve used, and how you feel that relates to motherhood.
Cristie: “It isn’t so much the ostentatiousness of the paintings, though I did want them to be chock-full, really brimming with stuff and mess. I’m friends with a woman who does these amazing paintings, clearly about motherhood, and she’s having a really different thing to say about it. In her paintings, she might be on the floor in a little dress and an apron, and surrounded by cheerios and mess and food and plastic toys and it definitely has this feeling of malaise and consumerism and banality. I really respect that is a thing that needs to be talked about, that she’s processing with her art. And it’s also not what I wanted to say. I wanted to say, “Yes, it is full of mess and darkness, there’s a ton of darkness in these paintings, they’re mostly dark. And there’s hopefully also a communicated sense of being able to lavish a kind of loving attention on all of it. That has to do with the technique, the Dutch Master’s technique. When I look at their paintings, I feel the very visceral sense of the attention of the artist on the objects that were painted. To me, you can’t do that without love. That kind of attention is just love. So I wanted to just lavish all of the mess—not just the mess, but also the mess—but also nursing and playing and cooking and doing things that are kind of, banal-seeming to loads of people, things that are domestic and repetitive—and just lavish them with this attention and this love, and render them in this way that shows them as being beloved. I don’t care if people think it’s a “great” painting, I don’t care if people think I painted it well. I want people to feel like there are other people out there that see them and love them and are like yes, me too, you and me, we're human.
It was also really important to me that it feel messy and chaotic because I do find my experience of motherhood to be messy and chaotic. To some extent I feel like that’s what’s partly required of being a parent—being able to raise your level of comfort with chaos, and change, and ultimately with death. It’s a big ask, honestly! The more comfortable you are with all of that, the more comfortable you are with children in general because they are little vectors for unknown and if you let them be, vectors for mess and chaos. And it’s funny because there are so many things I picked up along the way while being with my kids that ended up informing technically how this work got done, how it got done psychologically, what came into it and made it as rich as it is that wouldn’t have happened if I had started it when I first had the idea, back when my oldest was two. Cultivating that willingness to be patient and allow things to marinate and grow and have fallow periods—that is really a gift from motherhood to my process and my painting.”
Lisa Haugen "Parenthood: 'The Best Crash Course In Humanity.' The creative nature of motherhood in Cristie Henry’s Mythomenial polyptych, and an interview with the artist." Interdisciplinary Humanities Volume 37.1 HERA Spring 2022