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Happy UK Mother’s Day – Body of a Motheress

Flaps of fabric at the mercy of a relentless wind or the invariable fluttering of ample bird wings. That’s what I heard when I listened to my son Enlai’s heartbeat for the first time while eight weeks pregnant.

I imagined his tiny heart beating inside the echo chamber that was my womb, thinking about how for a time my body would be host to two heartbeats, each beating at its own rate. Eventually, my frame would accommodate two of every organ, four eyes, eight limbs, and countless veins, arteries and capillaries.

The woman-to-mother metamorphosis, with panoptic physical changes, made me observe and appreciate my own form as I never had before. My wonder and respect for the female body’s capabilities has grown as I have grown, from being barely pregnant to a mother of a six-year-old and a 20-month old – its ability to conceive, to house and nurture, to deliver, to feed, to care for, to soothe.

I realised that I and my fellow pregnant women were all too oft required to surrender our bodies during pregnancy, not only to our unborn child, but also to doctors, midwives and nurses, to passersby on the streets. While visiting my midwives during the last trimester, I remember on several occasions having my legs open to their easternmost and westernmost points with my knees north, allowing latexed hands inform as to whether all was okay. As I walked along streets, into shops or onto public transport, strangers would touch my belly. My bump was no longer mine; it seemed to belong to anyone who found it fascinating. I never minded; I was touched by the touch.

While pregnant with my second son Lumen, I was more attuned to my body’s adjustments. I knew I was pregnant before an early predictor test could tell me I was. When I began bleeding in my first trimester and assumed I miscarried, my body was hinting to me to go slow, to perhaps listen to more of Miles’ Kind of Blue, less of his Bitches Brew. I learned that I developed a subchorionic haematoma, which the outer fetal membrane eventually reabsorbed. It is at this same time that a friend told me she had miscarried and another friend divulged that her son and daughter were conceived via a donor.

This is a woman’s body, when she decides she would like to have a baby, until the time her body says to her she can no longer have a baby – her blood speaks to her like the hands of a clock speak to the rest of the world, her fallopian tubes may reveal to her that her uterus will have to welcome the eggs of another woman, her abdomen may hint at loss of life, her skin may become discoloured, stretched, freckled, moled or swathed in bumps, her hormones may wreak havoc, her breasts may swell to the size of watermelons and then become saggy apricots, her hair may become as full as the girl’s in the shampoo ad and then fall out en masse. Her hairline might change altogether. She may be confronted with haemorrhoids, spider veins, or varicose veins. She may get a tingling in her breasts when it is time to feed her baby or a throbbing and fever when the baby wasn’t hungry. She may suffer pelvic organ prolapse, she may urinate without knowing she has. She may welcome prominent biceps from carrying this, and back pain from carrying that. Her foot size may increase. She may have new curves, loss in muscle tone and changes in fat deposits. And when her body wants to say to her that she can no longer bear her own children, she may cry, she may scream, she may be grateful for what her body has already given her or mourn what it could not.

Contemplating the body of a mother, I embarked on a project which entailed photographing mothers’ body parts. The initial concept was to document a change in identity when a woman becomes a mother, highlighting the forgotten, whether they are body parts consigned to oblivion by a partner or the woman herself when she became a mother. I gave them the option of telling me which part of their body they’d like me to photograph or allowing me to choose.

As projects do, this one evolved. While some moms offered their Caesarean section scars and the stretch marks on their breasts, bum and bellies, others asked if there was a way I could photograph their insides – “My insides are ripped apart when I see my child hurting. How do you photograph this?”

Throughout my sessions with these moms, I was reminded of Robert Frank’s words – the eye should learn to listen before it looks. My eyes listened. Just as my heart listened when I heard my son’s heartbeat. And when the eyes and heart listen, stories unfold. Stories of life lived and given. Given and lived.


My Breasts Are Better Than Kate Upton’s

With the amount of breastfeeding news stories in the media, what else could there be to say about the topic? Compare my mom boobs to a model’s jubblies? Maybe. Add that to a few other observations about the sweet suckledom, a subject which seems to invite the most opinionated, some of whom shock the bra straps right off me.

The first person – an elderly gentleman – to provide a mouthful on my own mammary glands proclaimed, “Oh, this is most inappropriate. You should cease this nonsense immediately.” I was in an embassy, and I began to breastfeed my 12-week-old son in what I thought was a discreet manner. Mind you, I never used a nursing cover – an apron-like garment that conceals the feed. I assumed that if I wasn’t keen to eat under a blanket during meal time due to a feeling of suffocation, my son probably wouldn’t be either. This gentleman – or not-so-gentle man – made me cry with his unsolicited comments. Due to still-settling hormones, and what felt like a betrayal by the breast is best campaign, I wept, tears falling on my feeding son’s cheeks. I said nothing to the man, but I wanted to say, “I make milk. The boob juice feeds my child, best stuff on the planet for him right now. It’s a bit of a superpower I have. What do your man-boobs do?”

The second time I was the recipient of comments of the anti-boobs-au-lait-in-public variety, I was having dinner at a local pizza joint with a friend, my five-year-old and my five-month-old. There were two other diners – a man and a woman – across the room from us. My friend asked if I heard the comments the man just made: “Oh that breastfeeding is putting me off my food. It’s outrageous.” I’m happy I hadn’t. What I found odd is that this man’s back was to me. The woman he was dining with felt obligated to inform him that there was a semi-visible breast in the vicinity. The man kept turning around, and it was after the fourth or fifth time doing so that my friend was tempted to say something. I finished feeding my son, we got the bill and we left.

There were other times when observations voiced were kinder, more innocent. When I fed my son Lumen in the playground, a handful of my older son’s friends felt compelled to gather around me as if I was Santa redistributing gifts that the naughty kids never received. Some giggled, others asked why I was doing this, and one young boy asked, “Does it hurt?” I answered honestly, saying that there were times when it was painful. He then asked, “Then why don’t you stop?” I responded, “There’s a little thing called sacrifice that mothers do for their children. And of course the meta-analyses of scientific studies of this milk that’s coming out of my breast and into Lumen’s mouth right now prove that his immunity is being boosted and that feeding anything else to him right now is more likely to make him ill.” The bemused little youngster ran away. One young girl, part curious, part frightened of cannibalism, shouted, “He’s eating her. Aaahhh. Run away before he starts eating us.”

While spending time with my fellow moms, one remarked on my “milk sprinkler system” as I brought my son to my breast. And I told her that I was going through a box of disposable breast pads quicker than Kim Kardashian can post selfies. A couple of additional moms made note of the way the veins on my mama melons pulsated as my son was feeding. Like a lactation landscape of blue roots throbbing under pale, rolling hills. If only JMW Turner were alive today.

Chest chatter aside, there are other things about breastfeeding that I was unaware of until my moment arrived. I was incredibly fortunate that both of my boys latched on with nay difficulty. Despite this, I was ill-prepared for the letdown sensation, often referred to as the milk ejection reflex – the tingly, pressurey pain in breasts when the milk lets down, set off by hormones to stimulate the melon muscles to squeeze out the goods. If my sons so much as cried, letdown occurred. And if another baby cried, if I simply looked at a letter showing a hungry child in an impoverished country, if I heard a machine whose sound resembled my breast pump, letdown followed. Loony boobs, perhaps, but I’d like to believe mine were breasts of the hyper-empathetic strain.

As well, I was ignorant to how using a breast pump can be considered practice for a mammogram. The machine manages to serve as a flower press for the boob blossoms, with a noisy suction attached to it. The noise frightened my breasts on occasion, and letdown became letmebackup. I had to use my iPod to drown the noise, and the milk flow got its groove back.

I learned that breastfeeding on demand is no joke. My younger son has had an appetite from the day he was born, and I was supplying the nipple tipple about every two hours, including in a moving lift/elevator, on trains and buses, on the floor of many a shop, at art exhibitions, on curbs/kerbs. I had a tremendous amount of gratitude for shops that had breastfeeding rooms or WCs/restrooms that didn’t smell like toilets.

With breastfeeding on demand came the realisation that breastfeeding sucks sometimes. Literally. With my Enlai, we both had a bout of thrush/yeast infection – he in his mouth, and I in my breast. Common during breastfeeding because it thrives in moist, warm, sugary spots – which is exactly what a baby’s mouth is like during breastfeeding – the infection can then pass to the mama’s mamilla. Fun, fun times, but easily curable with prescription cream. With my Lumen, I had mastitis five times. Because he was feeding so often, my breasts were always full. If he overslept or decided he wasn’t as hungry one day, this was enough for a bout of mastitis – inflammation or infection of the breast. Imagine a hard, burning, throbbing baseball under a breast, making it tender to the touch and giving the body to whom the boob belongs a fever, chills, aches and pains. Now imagine breastfeeding with that same breast, up to 12 times a day. Admittedly, I do not have a high pain threshold, but mastitis was agony. Agony.

And although my personal feeling that once a woman becomes a mom, she loses a lot of her inhibitions – with doctors, midwives and nurses checking out her girly bits and asking when the last time she had a roll in the hay was, how can she not – I was still keen to keep feeding time a private party. To this end, I was ecstatic to make the acquaintance of breastfeeding tank tops/vests, especially while breastfeeding during those cold winter months. Those vests answer the call of modesty, and truth be told, they look less pornographic than some of the breastfeeding bras.

To those semi frontal feeding faultfinders, I have this to express: I am most proud of being a mother and of trying to give my sons the best possible start in life. I am swollen with pride that I persevered in breastfeeding, and perseverance is the correct word. Despite the fact that only 25% of six-month-olds in the UK receiving any breast milk at all, and with exclusive breastfeeding rates running at less than 1%, I managed to breastfeed both of my sons exclusively for at least six months. I say that those appalled with breastfeeding in public may want to have some words with the Department of Health and its “breast is best” campaign. Might I suggest you ask these lactivists to change the slogan to the less-catchy “breast is best, but only behind closed doors”. And while you’re speaking to them, you might also want to ask them to curtail their somewhat aggressive campaign, so as to not make my fellow moms who are not able to breastfeed feel like they’ve let humanity down. I want to ask you what you think of the da Vinci, Rubens and Picasso paintings, among the hundreds of others, depicting breastfeeding, some with – shock, horror – milk dripping from the nipple. Or even the Victoria Memorial right outside Buckingham Palace, whose statue facing the palace shows Charity, a seated figure breastfeeding a baby while placing her arm around another infant and with a third infant at her feet.

I want to say to these folks that I’ve no doubts that, given the chance to stare without anybody judging you, you have probably admired Miss Upton’s and her well-endowed contemporaries’ jubblies. And these jubblies may be the jubblies that helped sell a thousand copies of a certain sports, fashion or obscene magazine, but my bosom, my smaller-but-still-perky, vein-mapped, subjected-to-thrush-and-mastitis bosom is the bosom that helped launch two little ships.

Snapshot on Suzy Flood

Having been exposed to the work of photographer Suzy Flood and thinking it something very special – beautiful, sublime, haunting, timeless – I found myself asking her to photograph my son Enlai.

Her photographs of young children stayed on my mind days after looking at them.  I could see these children’s faces everywhere I looked.  Their gazes seemed to be fixed, and collectively, it seemed as though the children were amongst a group that perhaps lived in the woods, laughing, playing, singing, running around barefoot and climbing trees.  And they only stopped long enough to take a photo for Suzy.  Because of this, I imagined she had some sort of magical power over them.

Of course the children she has photographed are not Children of the Woods, nor is Suzy a magician.  What she is is a photographer who knows what she’s doing and, upon meeting the child, realises the image she wants.  She gets a feel for the child, allows him/her to reveal themselves and is patient for that revelation.  I asked Suzy if I could interview her to gain insight into her and her practice.  Below is an excerpt from this interview.

Despite W. C. Fields’ advice to never work with animals or children, you have chosen to.  What made you decide to start photographing children?  Crazy, I know but I think that’s the draw for me.  The challenge, the unpredictability and the amazing little people I discover during the process.  Kids are just incredible.

Can you remember what initially made you decide to try your hand in photography?  My mother had an old brownie camera and I was completely fascinated by it.  Most photographers say it was the magic of the image but for me it was all about the machine, the rest came later.

Do you think having a child had an impact on your approach to photography and the subjects that you chose to photograph?  Completely.  If you showed me a crystal ball ten years ago (my daughter is now six) I wouldn’t have believed what I saw — me photographing children?  Life is very funny.

Were you exposed to art and/or photography as a child?  Yes.  Mostly film and some photography, again from my mother.  Lots of Italian and art house stuff.

When I first saw your photographs, I thought of Julia Margaret Cameron photographs.  What or who inspires your photography?  Where do I begin? August Sander and Rineke Dijkstra for their direct formal approach to portraiture.  The many anonymous Victorian photographers for their romance.  Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange and Sebastião Salgado for their heart and dedication.  Many more but I won’t bore you.

While working for Condé Nast, Hearst, Time Inc. and The New  York Times Magazine Group, did you ever run into difficult situations over creative differences?  Nothing major, although I remember once I had a camera malfunction while shooting Joanne Woodward at her home.  I was gutted and they couldn’t use any of it.  And she was so lovely she brought me sandwiches!

Do you prefer to photograph in a studio or outdoors?  Definitely outdoors.  There’s something about children in nature that I find really compelling.  And those grey London skies couldn’t be matched by the most expensive studio light made — although it gets a bit tricky for me when the sun comes out!

What camera(s) do you shoot with?  I miss my film cameras greatly but when they stopped making the films and papers I liked I spent many hours perfecting a digital process that would meet my vision and quality standards.  I now happily use a Canon 5D Mark II mostly with a beautiful 50mm 1.2 lens.

What do you require, if anything, children to bring to one of your shoots?  Bring themselves and some patience, maybe a small treat to “make the magic happen”.  Sometimes a prop, a toy, hat, or costume can add a little something.  I generally tell parents to keep clothing simple and not too dark (no stripes please).

How much input do parents have during a shoot?  It varies.  Most parents are pretty hands off, which seems to work well with most kids.  Sometimes I have them hold the reflector, which keeps them on the scene but busy.  My best pictures happen when it’s a collaboration between me and the child.  Having said that, some parents have proved incredibly helpful and artistic.

Why do you think parents would opt for you to photograph their child(ren) as opposed to a more commercial photographer?  That’s hard for me to answer without embarrassing myself but some clients have said they liked the timeless quality of my pictures and could see them hanging in their homes beside ancestral photographs.  I’ve also been told that they look more like something you might see in a gallery and that really appeals to some families.  I don’t know, I guess they’re just different.

Suzy will have a booth at Cabbages & Frocks Market in London this Saturday, 26 October from 11am to 5pm.  She is offering 20% off her session fee for all November bookings.

Brain Frieze: The Art Edit

It’s no big secret that I love art.  I’ve put pen to paper – or fingertips to keyboard – about a variety of art-related topics, about how my father exposed me to art from a very young age, about exhibitions my sons and I have been to, about teaching art to little ones.

So it comes as no surprise that come October every year, as a Londoner, I get this giddy feeling in my belly.  I anticipate all the works that I will be able to see, all the art my sons’ pretty little eyes will be able to take in.

It’s not all about that miniscule art fair in Regent’s Park every tenth month of every year.  Frieze, I think it’s called.  It’s about the air in London for those whole 31 days.  It’s autumn and chilly but the sun still comes out.  There’s rain, but there’s a crisp day not too far away.  There’s half-term and Halloween, but above all, there is art.  It’s everywhere, hiding under burnt-orange and red-yellow leaves, beneath the tyres of black cabs, ebbing and flowing with the Thames, splashing on brollies, lurking in old stairwells and inside gargoyles’ mouths, and hovering in Turner skies.

The Frieze Art Fair is like the patriarch who invites his entire family of galleries – the distant cousin in Bogota, the grandchildren in New York, the aunt in Beijing and the nephews in Paris – to come to town wearing their best garb and showcase themselves as if they were Prince Harry’s “crown jewels”.

And like patriarch Michael Corleone, Frieze can be intimidating.  Especially if you’re a parent with a child whose attention span is…oh, did someone say pizza?  Or if your child is having a tantrum and in so doing, about to knock over an £8,000 sculpture.  This year, while I would like to take my boys to Frieze, I think that for health and safety reasons – my health, their safety – I’ll opt to take them to the Frieze Sculpture Park, as well as expose them to art at different white cubes around town, on alternate days.

It’s good for their being, this art stuff.  While at the “Photography, Motherhood and Identity” exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery (which runs until 5 January 2014), my six-year-old Enlai asked a lot of questions and made a lot of comments, including noting that Ana Casas Broda’s body was different than mine.  We talked about female bodies and how they may change after giving birth, and I reminded him that this is often how humans learn and make sense of the world around them – by comparing and contrasting.  And this led to a conversation about balance, about responsibility, about unconditional love.  All this from looking at one photographer’s project.

Here are some local exhibitions I think my and your youngins might enjoy:

Some sweeties for your sweeties

Pop over to Blain Southern on Hanover Square to see Candy, a show highlighting Damien Hirst’s Visual Candy series alongside Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ candy sculptures.  Children will likely appreciate Gonzalez-Torres’ candy spills made of candies individually wrapped in coloured cellophane.  They are allowed to “interact” with these candy sculptures, choosing to touch, take or eat the candy.  Hirst’s colourful paintings, two entitled “Some Fun” and “Dippy Dappy Dabby”, set out to question the implication that aesthetically pleasing art is inherently insignificant.  This, from an artist who said “…art is about life – there isn’t anything else.”

Lots of flashing lights

I took my 14-month-old Lumen to see Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima’s I-Model at Lisson Gallery, and he seemed completely fascinated.  Perhaps it’s because light itself is his namesake, but it was as though he was hypnotised by the glittering panels of coloured LED numbers and the connected wires that were sculptures in themselves.  We stepped into the domed “Life Palace (Tea House)” structure after taking our shoes off and sat – mesmerised – by the constellation of blue lights, with numbers glowing and blinking in the dark space.  The fact that it is highly unlikely that Lumen understood the concepts and years of research behind these pieces is no matter; he was intrigued by what was in front of him, and this is always enough for me.

A sort of anti-painting which includes painting

In all honesty, I’m eager to take my little fellas to this show, The Show is Over at Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, for the sheer amount of artists exhibited, several of whom are some of the most remarkable artists of the 20th century, including Willem de Kooning, Yves Klein, Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke, Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol.  While I imagine Enlai and Lumen might welcome the diversity of works on display, I am fascinated with the concept of the negation of painting.  These works show punctures and slashes, monochromatic planes, and anarchistic symbols, all of which aim to confront the limits of painting.

Ashy phones and radios

Similar to the relics our children may have witnessed at the British Museum, Daniel Arsham’s ash- and glass-cast treasures – Polaroid camera, film projector, radio, Mickey Mouse telephone, microphone, and locks – provide an entry to conversations with our precious little people about history, civilisations, technology, and materials.  A relatively small exhibition by Arsham, who is a sculptor, painter, filmmaker and architect, #recollections at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery also includes a life-size cast of broken glass and resin of himself.  He looks like a contemporary version of a petrified Pompeian who is shielding his eyes from something.  I will ask Enlai if he thinks he was shielding his eyes because he was appalled by the threat of technology, was he making a gesture of denial about what was happening around him, was he trying to pause for a moment to make a mental note of all his surroundings, or was the sun too bright that day and he forgot his sunglasses.

Tutankhamen’s tomb and cloth sculptures

There are not one, but two exhibitions worth taking the munchkins to at Annely Juda Fine Art just off New Bond Street.  Yuko Shiraishi’s Signal show features eight paintings and the installation “Netherworld”, the latter of which I’m most enthusiastic to expose my boys to.  Inspired by the thought that death and stars are related, and influenced by the structural design of Tutankhamen’s tomb and the cycle of a star’s life, she created the installation – placed in a closed off section of the gallery, which is tinged in blue to resemble the night sky – to depict the numerous layers in an Egyptian tomb.  The early works of Japanese artist Katsuhiro Yamaguchi are on display in Imaginarium, his first show in London.  A member of Experimental Workshop, whose philosophy was to treat experiment as if it were as important in art as it is in science, he wants viewers to interact, even involuntarily, with his works, which in this show include light sculptures, cloth sculptures, vitrines, drawings, photographs and videos.

Human and computer collaboration on abstract paintings

In a space between analogue and digital lives Jeff Elrod’s art practice.  His show at Simon Lee Gallery, which includes large-scale abstract paintings, explores late 20th century abstraction and the emergence of sophisticated software and print technology.  His pieces, with such titles as “Sock in the Eye”, “Orange Julius” (oh, the memories of having an Orange Julius at the local shopping mall are rushing back to me!) and “I Can’t See Neon” include blotches, scribbles, doodles, spots, flecks, streaks, sprays, and frazzled lines.  I imagine my boys will be inspired to create their own versions of Jeff Elrod pieces, minus any help from technology.

An electric alphabet soup

My sons will have no idea of the history, the three years behind Shannon Ebner’s The Electric Comma show on at Sadie Coles HQ and a parallel project Black Box Collision A which is on view at the gallery’s mews location, but they don’t need to.  While my little guy is being exposed to letters in books and my older guy is busy studying for spelling tests, I think they’ll both appreciate and feel a sense of familiarity with Ebner’s letters and words.  The show features six black-and-white photographs depicting portions of The Electric Comma, which began as a 13-line poem, as well as a video that animates photographs of the portable changeable message sign (usually used to inform of accidents, road closures or detours) the artist rented, taken in 15 different positions over the course of one day.  Black Box Collision A is made up of 13 large-scale photographs of the letter ‘A’ which were found on walls, vehicles, electronic surfaces and building façades.  I think Enlai and I will attempt to come up with words or cities or countries that begin with the letter “A” for each of the 13 photographs.

Pop goes the art show

There’s something in this exhibition – Pop Imagery at Waddington Custot Galleries – for every child.  The group exhibition of painting and sculptures by such artists as Patrick Caulfield, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Rauschenberg includes objects easily recognisable to children, including flags, targets, maps, colour pyramids, robots and a giant meatball on a spoon.  I’m guessing it might be a bit tricky to keep small hands off of some of these pieces.

The Mother Load of Art

While I have no burning desire for my four-year-old son or the sweet pea in my belly to be artists, I want them to know art, to feel art, to rely on art if they need to, to trust art when they feel they can’t trust humans, to mistrust art when their instincts tell them to, to crave art – more than salty or spicy thises or thats, more than chocolate – to find art and to allow it find them, to look for the chords, the dissonance, the obsession, the adoration and the repulsion, and the constriction and the breath in art.  I want my children to have the intelligence which will help them decide when an artist is being true.

My son Enlai and I have been to exhibitions aplenty.  There was the time we went to see Sigrid Holmwood at Annely Juda Fine Art, when Enlai in his baby carrier kicked his legs feverishly in front of one particular piece with fluorescent lemon yellow and lead antimonite among other media as I considered Van Gogh’s influence and started thumbing around my bag to find my sunglasses.  It was bright in the gallery during Holmwood’s occupation.

While we’re on Mr. Vincent V.G., there was the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition “The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters”.  Upon walking into the first room, with wall-to-wall paintings, drawings and letters, Enlai surveyed the space and in the same shouting voice he uses at the playground to get my attention when he is competing with the volume that accompanies after-school energy he declared, “Oh, great, I love Picasso!”  The gentleman a few feet away was not amused.  I was.

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Five Favourite iPad Apps for Munchkins at the Mo

I used to travel heavy.  By heavy, I mean when my son and I travelled to the US last year, three of the carry-ons were full of his toys, books, markers, stickers, and puzzles.  It wasn’t that I thought he actually needed all of this for the 11-hour flight, but I was concerned for the welfare of our fellow passengers.  I didn’t want any of them to be privy to a meltdown in the skies.

On the way to the flight gate – a beast of burden carrying my son and these huge bags (so colossal that they didn’t fit in the handy “check if your carry-ons are small enough to be considered carry-ons” guide near the check-in counter, but I winked and smiled at the counter attendant and managed to finagle my way through) – I vowed to find the toy of all toys.  I was on a quest for the ultimate all-in-one little darling’s doodah that didn’t require me carrying half our home, the toy that came complete with bells, whistles and foghorns, with cry-proof gadgetry (for the little guy and me), with harm-proof gadgetry (for passers-by and passengers in the seats near us), and with educational gallimaufry.

A few months after this trip, my son was in hospital and a friend of his let him borrow her iPad.  Complete with games, books and movies, this little rectangular piece of technology became the Apple of his eye (amusing myself with that pun, I am).  This book-sized piece of modern machinery was the toy I had been searching for, the holy grail of playthings.  This extraordinary curio eliminated the need for me to carry 30lbs worth of child amusement accoutrement.

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Wherefore art?

“Let’s go back to the other art project, let’s go back to the snow,” my little guy said over and over.  While some parents dread hearing “Are we there yet, are we there yet?” I was starting to develop pleadstoreturntothisparticularartpiecephobia.  The “art project” he was referring to was Oliver Guy-Watkins’ installation entitled “Technicolour Process”, created with wood, resin, wax, reclaimed furniture, salt, Dacron, shredded poly, rockwall, spray frost and LED lights.  I could understand his desire to continually go back to view this work; he was afforded his own mini winter wonderland.  I too was intrigued by what I saw to be a slice of our modern age viewed through an apocalyptic filter.

For sale at the bargain price of £22,500, this piece was one of over 400 pieces on display from nearly 80 students at the Central Saint Martins MA Fine Art degree show.  It was especially important for me to view this exhibition as it is the last show to take place at the historical Charing Cross site.  So long Soho, hello King’s Cross and Archway, the two locations to which the programme is moving.

When my son was not even a week old, I took him to see a previous degree show there.  Well, I didn’t really take him to “see” the show as his eyes were barely open.  And I may or may not have had my own yearning to see the exhibition.  I think I secretly hoped that all the energy and creativity in the works would  somehow affect my breast milk production, and by some osmosis-like process find their way to my son’s psyche and bones when I gave him the boob.  High hopes, you say?  Okay, I’ll give you that.  Delusional, freakish mom?  Fine.  You can have that, too.

The institution that is Central Saint Martins holds a distinctive place in my ticker.  More important than it being the establishment from which I received my degree, it represents a wish I had that I was determined to fulfill, and it represents the mother of all psychological experiments.

In my final year as a US college student, I decided to study in London.  While studying abroad – at a school that was a two-minute walk to the British Museum – one of my professors was keen to introduce us to different art schools throughout London, giving us their respective histories, telling us of different alumni, and explaining the schools’ diverse curriculum.  Of all these art schools, Central Saint Martins is the one that stood out for me.  There was an odour of  imagination and authenticity, and a stench of sweat, acrylics, and varnishes that took hold of me and never loosened its grip.  I told myself I would be back in London to attend Central Saint Martins one day.

Fast forward a decade later, and my husband and I were now living in London.  There we were on a lazy Sunday, and out of nowhere, he declared that he was going to apply to get his Master of Laws.  I told him that if it would make him happy to obtain yet another degree – he already had three – and if he thought it would improve his chances of being accepted into the Overachiever Hall of Fame, he should go for it.  And then it happened.  The thought.  The thought of me realising my own dream of going to Central Saint Martins.  I asked my husband what he thought, and he said, “Apply today!”  He suggested I apply to more than one school, to which I responded, “There’s really only one.”  So I sat down, filled out the forms and wrote my statement.  That statement is an assemblage of the most honest words I’ve ever written.  I started to write it, with words, sentiments, and examples pouring out, and I finished it in about ten minutes.  And I felt strongly about not wanting to edit it.

When the letter arrived saying I was accepted into the programme, there may have been some yippeekayaying, some yahooing, some jumping on the bed.  There is a possibility that I may have headed to Cass Art, Cowling & Wilcox and London Graphic Centre that same day to peruse some goodies.  A slight possibility.

I met some exceptionally intelligent and ingenious artists on the course.  I even asked one of my fellow artists to be my son’s godfather.  That said, the experience wasn’t an all together affable one.  In fact – probably because of my emotional makeup – I felt like the course was a psychological experiment of gargantuan proportions.  Freud and his buddies would’ve had a field day, with the egos, screams, crying, grunting, perversity, and other unmentionables I witnessed.  But with art and artists, as with almost any endeavour or occupation, there will be neuroses.

As my little fella and I walked from floor to floor to view this year’s degree show, memories of being there in my pre-mom days surrounded me.  I was  reminded of critiques from tutors and fellow students, of visits to certain exhibitions together, of discussions about Frieze and Art Basel, and of smoking Zhong Nan Hai reds for the first time on the stairwell (not me, of course, but my fellow students).  Nicotine is bad, I tell ya, bad, bad, bad.

There were several pieces that both Enlai and I were captivated by, among them Pallas Citroen’s “The ecstasy of Saint Theresa” and Tan Peiling’s “Room with a postcard on floor”.  The latter explores how visual media informs human perception and understanding of reality.  While I was fascinated by how Peiling challenges us to reassess how a visual-biased culture shapes our attention and experience, my little prince wondered what the heck was going on in the space until he saw a portion of the postcard and said, “Ma, it’s a mystery.  Let’s ask Scooby and Shaggy to help us solve it.”

Rock on in your new digs, Central Saint Martins, and if you happen to come across an application years from now from one Enlai Rooney, I can attest – with a tiny bias – that he’s an extraordinary artist, and you’d be crazy to not admit him into the MA Fine Art programme.

I Heart Art


Art streams through my arteries and veins and swims through my synapses.  The smell of paint and darkroom chemicals have claimed their permanent spot in my ol’ olfactories, and the sound of nails being hammered through canvas into a wood stretcher are locked into my auditory system.  From a young age, art has been a fixture in my life. 

My art inoculation, administered by my dad (aka Dr. Ihavenochoicebuttocreateandcreateandcreate), was the most gracious gift.  And it is a gift I have chosen to give to children.  When I was offered the opportunity to teach art to young’uns, I was over the moon and Jupiter and Saturn and (insert planet of choice here).    

I genuinely believe that all children have an innate ability to be creative and that this ability should be nurtured.  In teaching art classes, I have generally taken an anything goes approach, with the classes designed to allow the munchkins to have fun while exploring drawing, painting, sculpting, collage and other media and activities.  My hope has been that the children enjoy learning – sometimes subconsciously – about artists and the elements and principles of art while experimenting with art materials.  Simultaneously, I wish for parents to appreciate that art education can play a major role in social and academic development, teaching little ones about problem solving, improving their cognitive and fine motor skills and sensory awareness, and giving them a means of self-expression and confidence in their own creativity. 

Over the last two terms, I have aimed to teach the mini artists about the seven elements and nine principles of art by introducing them to abstract art, pointillism, still life, text in art, sculpture, portraits and other art styles and movements.  We’ve painted with spaghetti, marshmallows and toothbrushes; we’ve painted on mangoes, bananas and apples; we’ve painted with our eyes closed; we’ve sculpted with corn flour and glue; we’ve weaved hearts with paper and ribbon; and we’ve ripped, stuck, pounded, blown, fanned, tied and pinched. 

It was important to me to expose children to a variety of artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louise Bourgeois, Chuck Close, Mona Hatoum, Anish Kapoor, Frida Kahlo, Cy Twombly and Lucien Freud, among several others.  I felt torn when the latter two artists – both of whom were incredibly important to art for their commitment, approach, and prolificacy – passed away last month.  There is consolation in knowing, though, that art survives the artist. 

During one of the earlier classes, which fell near Valentine’s Day, I was keen to teach the children about line, form, colour, space, and rhythm by exposing them to works which incorporated hearts.  After asking them to view a variety of pieces by Banksy, Brassai, Jim Dine, Damien Hirst, Keith Haring, Salvador Dali and Jeff Koons, I showed them how to weave different coloured and textured ribbons and paper through their own 200gsm paper hearts. 


Banksy, Untitled, Undated


One of the little ones was drawn to the Banksy work and didn’t want to let go of the laminated reproduction for the duration of the class.  As he held tightly to the piece, I couldn’t help but think about Banksy sponsoring free entry every Monday to the Art in the Streets exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.  He provided a chance for visitors who may not have otherwise been able to afford to view the graffiti and street art exhibition – a show which has attracted a record 201,532 people – a chance to observe the works.  For this, I Heart Banksy.  And I Heart my budding artistes. 


Jim Dine, Johnny Boy, 2009


Jeff Koons, Hanging Heart, 1994-2006


Brassai, heart graffiti, 1933


Damien Hirst, All You Need is Love, Love, Love, 2008


Salvador Dali, Study for the jewel The Royal Heart, 1953


Keith Haring, Untitled, 1984

Silent Sunday

Very quietly, tiptoe over to mocha beanie mummy to see the rest of the entries.

Silent Sunday

Very quietly, tiptoe over to mocha beanie mummy to see the rest of the entries.