My Time in Wassaic
I'll be honest — when considering the family residency — schlepping with my two year old from Oakland, California to upstate New York in February, I was more than a little nervous. But I make paintings, websites, and performances about making care work and parenting more visible, so I figured no matter what happened I could art my way out of it, or through it.
The best way I can find to describe my experience is "positive happy meltdown". I was able to access deep recesses of my creative being and mind. I planned, typed furiously, painted into the morning hours, and remembered what making art before kids felt like. For two years I have been making art in my home studio with my kid in tow, so the validation and community of other makers was game-changing for me. I loved every studio visit, lecture and event because it lifted me out one of the harder realities of being a full-time artist and mother: isolation. The weight of my own house, social responsibilities, to-do lists were all lifted. My only job was to parent and make art about it in the magical hamlet with fresh farm eggs and horsies my son could visit in between waving to the tchoo-tchoo-train.
At open studios, I received valuable feedback and was able to connect with some people who really valued my work and my vision. The sales I made were a cherry on top — something that made me realize how important it is to put myself out there, even if that means relocating my entire family to a remote hamlet in the dead of winter... totally worth it.
With Joe Brommel, April 2019
What did you work on in Wassaic?
The initial idea was that I was going to track all of the time of me mothering my son, which is what I usually work on when I’m at home. But because I had so much time without him I ended up going a different direction, instead trying to map what the carework web between my mom and I looked like. I created a series of paintings that showed, 24 hours, seven days a week, who my son was with, what state of mind he was in — was he crying? was he awake? was he asleep? — and then what category of domestic labor either me or my mom were doing at that time — cleaning, preparing food for him, comforting him, things like that.
The question that I wanted to answer was: what is it like to be a family resident? What does that mean? If I'm in my studio painting, that's because my mom was with my son — and if I'm with my son, that means I'm not in the studio painting. I want to be doing both things all the time, but I can’t do both of them all the time. It's this really intense back and forth, so I tried to show what that pendulum looks like in a painted form.
I ended up working on several different pieces. One of them, I took an afternoon and tried to find all the mothers in the Wassaic Project’s library. Of the 750 books, there were 21 mothers, and three of them were mothers of color.
I took all of those books and I used them in my open studio installation to hold up the work and to show that I am here and making things because somebody else is taking care of my son. Of the 21 books in that library, those mothers were able to create those works because somebody else was looking after their children.
I also did a lot of strategic work and planning on the next phase of my community-based project www.billthepatriarchy.com to expand its reach and impact.
Can you talk about Bill the Patriarchy, then?
Bill the Patriarchy is a survey to account for how many hours a week you spend on unpaid labor such as caregiving, domestic labor, or emotional labor — and sends an invoice with an estimated annual salary for that work. On average it is over $100,000 a year, but some people like grandmothers — who have taken care of their kids and now are taking care of their grandkids — would be millionaires.
It’s a tool that allows any caregiver to have the realization that I did, which is: “I do so much work. Nobody cares, but it's really valuable, and this is how valuable.” Our culture is deeply capitalistic in the way that we measure our self worth — we feel better when we get raises, we feel better when we get promotions — so when I created my first series of invoices it felt like I gave myself this raise.
With this project I made a conscious decision — and this is what I’m asking other people to do, too — to be seen and acknowledged. I've been making artwork for 10 years, but nobody really seemed to care or notice because I was just in my studio, and I’m not the most outgoing and social person. To get this project going I actually invested in a PR campaign. It was very radical for me to believe in myself that much, but that's what got the Bill the Patriarchy project out to tens of thousands of people. I realized that what’s important is being able to say with a straight face, “I think my ideas are important, I think a lot of people should see them.”
Thinking of it less as an egotistical art thing and more as a marketing project has been really helpful for me. I worked in startup marketing for a couple years, so I'm able to separate the artist and the marketer and treat the ideas behind my work more as marketing problems. Because none of my work is super original. People have making work about wages for women's work since the 60s, and there have been feminist economic forums about measuring the GDP of care work. But how do you get these ideas into the mainstream? It’s a marketing problem. It's not marketed correctly to America. That's the bigger idea that's pushing all of my work.
That’s actually something I wanted to talk about: the art world's natural aversion to marketing, or at least certain kinds of marketing. Can you expand on that, having gone through a successful marketing project for your art?
The art market is very niche, and it has clear rules. An art dealer friend of mine said it feels like I’m devaluing myself when I sell my prints for so cheap. But people take my prints and they put them in their office cubicles — that is so powerful, that Bill the Patriarchy exists as an idea in the world. That is so much more important to me than creating this false aura of scarcity.
It feels so backwards that you have to justify why marketing your projects isn't egotistical. Why isn't creating artificial scarcity egotistical? Because that’s a choice that's being made in the art world — maybe a passive choice, but a choice nonetheless.
Right. And even at Wassaic I felt pressure to perform as an artist and make paintings. I spent two weeks on my computer writing out what my plan was going to be for this year, creating marketing plans, creating content calendars, creating campaigns around International Women’s Day. A good chunk of that work you can't really show in a studio visit, but I felt like I couldn’t just show up to open studios with my laptop. So the paintings I showed were things I spent literally all night working on.
I enjoy making the paintings, but the practice is really both of those things — marketing and strategy is as much a part of the work as different ways of showing it. When people ask if I’m a painter, I struggle to say yes because painting is just one expression. I also write about my work, and I try to get it out in the media. Those are also important display mechanisms and display strategies for the work.
Can you talk about your work as data visualization? I feel like in documenting your time the way you do you're claiming — or reclaiming — that math-y domain as an artistic space.
One self-deprecating way that I describe myself is: I make really shitty infographics. But I’m intentionally making it look overwhelming because the experience of living my life with my child is overwhelming. The dream is to put all of them in a big room one day.
I'm really inspired by this artist, Danica Phelps, who made paintings that kept track of all of her finances with little green lines. Part of it was for her, and part of it was creating this aesthetic and this world around it that felt very unique and believable. Or On Kawara: who just painted the date every day for 40+ years. There's something very powerful about the archive, about deciding to track something in a manual way. And about the durational performance, too — the Marina Abramović version of it. Like, it hurts my body to make these paintings. They're huge. They take a long time. I’m categorizing every 15 minutes, often while holding a child.
In a way, there's a masochism in that. The number one reason I do this project is because I struggle with my own self-worth as an artist and a mother. Again, under capitalism, we're taught you should get a good paying job and support your family. While doing this work, there’s an aspect of me that wants to prove to myself that I'm working hard, that I'm doing a good job, that I'm valuable.
Photos by Verónica Gonzalez Mayoral, courtesy of Working Assumptions