Art and Motherhood on the West Austin Studio Tour

Four WEST exhibitors reveal how their work is informed by being a mom

Photo by John Anderson

Virginia Fleck

When I mention to artist Virginia Fleck that, due to the proximity of Mother's Day, the Chronicle is sparking its West Austin Studio Tour coverage with a look at artists who are also mothers, she smiles.

"For this year's WEST," she says, "for the first time I'm partnering with another artist, Yuliya Lanina, who is the mother of 3-year-old twins. And those kids, they're always in tutus, they wear wings, they speak Russian – two little girls babbling in Russian, playing house and going 'Da! Da!'"

Fleck laughs, because how delightful is that? But being a mother isn't always just tutus and wings – whether the children are somebody else's or your own.

"I'm not officially parenting anymore," says Fleck, "because my daughter is 22, so the parenting is more stealth. But it takes even more energy than the former parenting style. Stealth is really hard because there's a lot more restraint, you have to look like you're not giving advice. Looking back over the years, being a mother and being an artist – a fairly busy artist – the amount of time each thing takes was always challenging. And I chose not to go away for residencies, although that's a solution for some working mothers, because I like being at home. So I just divided up my day. When my daughter was at school, I was an artist; when she came home, I was a mom. And if she stayed overnight at someone's house, I got to be an overnight artist, a stay-up-late artist. I just did the work so it revolved around the mom schedule. The mothering came first, and I knew when I was having a child that that's how it would be. So, timewise, I was at a disadvantage."

Each choice, as any decent parent (or artist) will tell you, comes with consequences of one kind or another. And some of those consequences can be positive things.

"I also feel that I had, and I still have," says Fleck, "an advantage that my daughter provided. Having an infant, then a toddler, then a child – being around that beginner's mind? That was always fascinating and hilarious. There were always these flashes of genius that came out of the mouths of my daughter and her friends, when children play and socialize. And that was all inspiration for me."

For Fleck, whose work recycles used shopping bags into brightly complex patterns, the influence on her art was tangible.

"I was inspired to do the work that I'm doing now because I saw how my daughter was being marketed to. I was just getting kind of pissed off about how they were marketing, especially to little girls. And I noticed there was a real nostalgia for Sixties and Seventies psychedelic, hippie graphics, and I started working with the actual bags that my daughter and her friends would bring home from the mall – I used them to make those first mandalas."

Seems like that old making-lemonade-from-life's-lemons paradigm, doesn't it?

"That's the great thing about being a mother and an artist," says Fleck, "about protecting your child and following your heart: these little unexpected journeys that no one's gonna tell you about in art school. I feel like the bill of goods that was going around when I was in art school, about what your life would be like; I jokingly call it the Three Bs. That was Beret, the Bongos, and the Bare lightbulb. Yeah, the romantic artist life of living in a flat, and – well, I did marry a jazz musician, and I do have lots of berets. But I'm way too sensitive for the bare lightbulbs."

Virginia Fleck and Yuliya Lanina are showing at tour stop 172, Fleck's home, 1900 Larchmont.

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