Suzanne du Toit
I was supposed to hand this writing in a week ago. I didn’t get it together, so I can add not doing this to the list of unmanageability that seems to grow longer each week. Before I explain why I chose to interview Suzanne du Toit, I want to give you all my excuses. I want to tell you that it was half-term, and my kids (three of them, all under five) were all around, and my husband and I were trying to juggle our schedules between work and pick-up and drop-off for holiday school and spending quality time together and - I don’t know - eating and peeing - and I just missed whatever window I might have had to sit peacefully at my computer and write. So I am writing this with what I feel is half a brain, trying to explain why Suzanne’s beautiful series of paintings called Motherhood resonated so deeply with me. I wrote some more below, but if you want to stop here, this is why I wanted to interview her: her paintings show a side of motherhood that is not generally exposed. The parts of motherhood they show are honest and intimate, and seeing them feels like a tall drink of water in a desert.
The paintings in Motherhood are all about the moments that are often edited out. They are the bits of time that are lonely and tiring and intimate. I keep going back to the word intimate because most of the expressions and representations of motherhood out there currently are anything but. Intimacy is sharing a vulnerability, a mess, a dark or low moment, a moment that would feel embarrassing if anyone else saw. It is not sharing a 'struggle’ that is below a beautiful image that supersedes any vulnerability one can write about. Sure, I’ll show you me and may kids dressed perfectly with some good light, or when they are playing nicely with some wooden toys they touch once a year, but am I going to show you breastfeeding at 2 am when I am exhausted and my nipples hurt and I’m in a milk-stained rocking chair? NOPE. Suzanne captures these moments beautifully, and in these she captures what the real moments of being a mother are - the repetitive nature of raising children, the deeply moving moments that are also tinged with sadness, such as cutting your child's hair, the lonely moments that I never saw as beautiful, and the real strength of mind and body it takes to care for others. She focuses on the areas most people are too scared to expose, and unsure that they would want to show. And why? Why do we have these censors around how the motherhood story is supposed to be shown, curated, and told? These were the questions I had in mind as I sat down with Suzanne to speak about why she created this series, and how motherhood - indeed womanhood - has affected her as an artist, and as a powerful, inspiring female.
ELIZABETH SORENSEN: Let’s discuss your series of paintings and drawings called Motherhood, which you exhibited last year (2017). The images you create, while being stylistically very beautiful, expose the less, shall we say glamorous aspects of being a mother - the exhaustion, the isolation, the sadness, etc. What inspired you to create a body of work focused on this part of motherhood?
SUZANNE DU TOIT: I can remember the utter turmoil of motherhood so clearly. For me, and for many others I’m sure, having children was a decision I made freely but could never quite reconcile myself with. I certainly don’t regret it, but being a mother and being an artist are two very different realities which I found to be in constant tension with one another. For many years this led to a profound dualism in my life and now I can see my daughters facing the same situation. I find this interesting because I do not try to portray motherhood this way. I express what I experienced, see, know, and felt. Obviously, the happiness is also there but that does not inspire or move me in the same way. Looking back I often had a strong undercurrent of exhaustion and melancholy reflecting the epic, amazing and difficult nature of motherhood itself - the conflict because the incredible beauty of new life and the sacrifice made by the mother to enable it. I was able to dig deeply into these feelings because in a sense I was reliving my own experience through them. Could I say the happier aspects of motherhood would be boring and trite to paint? We always see the happy aspects of motherhood in public and that is somehow misleading.
ES: What is it like painting your children? Do you think bringing them into the creative process was your way of connecting your art to your family? I wonder how often those two aspects of a woman’s life are compartmentalised.
SDT: From the outset I was painting my family. I was drawn to representing these people because I have deep, complicated relationships with them; the richness of the shared experience. These family relationships had always been tangled with my life and career as an artist. I come from a background where there was never any question that my biggest responsibility was to be a wife and a mother. From the start I had to juggle my responsibilities as a mother with my artistic desires and ambitions. There was never any doubt for me that my family came first; I wanted to raise my own children. I can't imagine an alternative reality where I had prioritised my art. But it is impossible to engage fully with being an artist and pursuing a career when you have a family. So inevitably these sacrifices created some tension and resentment. I went to American to study an MA, and I can remember in the class being the only parent. And we always had reading to do at night and I never did the reading because I was in class during the day but when I came home I was with the kids. As a young mother my art and motherhood were totally compartmentalised. I found it impossibly difficult to focus. The lack of head-space was frustrating. As adults I feel this is now a journey my children and I are on together. We share the same interests, excitements and disappointments. We know the feeling of utmost satisfaction, elations or frustration in our work. My children are now creators and they totally get me now, and that makes me very happy. I think today, being creators, they are happy to have grown up in a creative household. I did not grow up in an artistic household. Someone the other day mentioned that “You are an art immigrant. You came into the art world as a novice,” whereas I think they (my children) grew up in it, they are natives and happy to be. And because my art and my family were so separate, so compartmentalised, it was almost a shock to me when they wanted to be a part of this world.
ES: I believe you have always painted those closest to you, but was that the case before you had children?
SDT: Before I had children I worked in a non figurative way - abstract and I had a few turning points. My perspective changed in a meaningful way, it was a new phase of my practice when I started to paint people. I went to art school in the 70s and 80s and was seduced by the more formal aspects of art making like composition, no narrative, colour, that kind of thing. I realised the personal is a source of unique inspiration after I became a mother which was a big discovery for me. I discovered that art could be a way to interpret, make sense of, respond to the world around me. Suddenly an exciting link appeared between my passim in life, art and other things I cared about i. e. my family. This forced me to ask myself: was I painting for somebody else’s wall, or from conviction, which is now my life. For if a subject doesn’t inspire you, how will you be able to inspire others with it?
Your personal experiences or personal angle on a more common theme provide you with materials that nobody else has. Equally you cant ignore or suppress that personal perspective or your work will be inauthentic. I think my work got a deeper meaning when I had children and started to paint them and my life.
ES: How did becoming a mother effect your creativity? (Neg and pos)
SDT: It killed it. At first it killed creativity - totally. I had no headspace and the time constraints and the demands made it impossible to think creatively. I was anxious and worried, and exhausted. But today motherhood inspires me in every way. Having perspective on motherhood and not completely drowning in it - not immersed in the young experience - I appreciate and see the human aspects more. I am free.
ES: Did your passions, inspirations, what matters to you change when you became a mother?
SDT: Yes, undeniably so. Becoming a mother made me an anxious person, I have to say, almost overnight. I was always worried something would happen to the children. But that is not a good answer. I think when you are an artist life inspires you, which has not really changed.
ES: Do you think your work has influenced your children?
SDT: Very much so. We are similar in the way we like to spend our time, that awareness of how I spend my days, influenced them. I think my sensibilities helped them see things through an artists eyes.
ES: How has simply being a woman informed your work and choices you have made as an artist? It’s a strange but interesting thought to think about how your work might have been different if you were a man.
SDT: I can be very negative about this in the sense that I see my contemporary male artists look rather fancy free. Perhaps not so much these days as in the past. A female artist had to forfeit a lot, either choose not to have children, or have this struggle which I talked about. There is this saying “when the pram is in the hallway the art goes out the window” (taken from Cyrcil Connolly’s famous quote “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”) which I can completely understand. But you know there are these artists like Barbara Hepworth who had triplets and didn’t raise them herself for the first two or three years of their lives. She did that for the sake of her practice and her career which at that time was necessary to show you were a serious artist, but is a sacrifice I could never or would never be able to do.
ES: Any advice for women out there who feel pulled in more then one direction and are worried how motherhood/womanhood may effect their creativity?
SDT: Well this is a personal perspective. To understand that with the maternal instinct, which is huge, there is also the creative urge which is just as strong. To completely neglect or throw away the creative side of oneself means also loosing ones identity. But I think today there is more of a focus on the wholeness of being a woman so somehow these parts are more connected.