Whitewall first interviewed Julia Chiang in 2013. We visited the Brooklyn-based artist—known for her ceramics, drawings, and paintings—in her studio for our Winter 2014 issue. There, we talked about her practice and how her work comes out of the personal stories she collects. Several months later, Chiang gave birth to her daughter Sunny with husband Brian Donnelly (the artist known as KAWS).
Since then, we’ve followed along—via Instagram—as Chiang introduced Sunny, and later her second daughter Lee, to art through studio visits of friends, art projects at home, and many trips to galleries and museums. Their energy around art is contagious, and as a new mom myself, has encouraged me to bring my young son Royal out, too (to mixed results!).
This past September, her solo exhibition “Pump And Bump” opened at Nanzuka in Tokyo. It was her second show with the gallery, and her first since becoming a mother. On view were paintings featuring Chiang’s signature patterns and forms created by repeated marks, as well as ceramic letters reading “YES YOU CAN,” and bulbous vessels that are reminiscent of the body, especially the female figure.
For the latest in our “Art Mamas” series, we reconnected with Chiang to talk about what it was like for her to become a mother, the difference between her two postpartum journeys, getting back into the studio, and how it’s all a constant work in progress.
WHITEWALL: When did you become a mom?
JULIA CHIANG: In 2014—seems forever ago but also just like yesterday!
WW: Were you able to take any leave?
JC: I was fortunate in that a year or two before becoming a mom, I was able to stop the juggle of day jobs and just focus on being in the studio and my own work. I had envisioned this flexible situation of having the baby in the studio and doing everything with me—to do it all, you know? I can hear you laughing as I write this! But it didn’t go down quite like that.
WW: I’m laughing with you, I promise! I thought the same thing…
JC: Sunny was a chill happy baby and I was able to keep up a part-time juggle in the studio (with an amazing woman helping me) so I never really took a real “leave”. But after our second in 2016, that changed everything for me in terms of having a sense of juggle and balance. She was super tough, and I barely slept for her first four months, so I couldn’t really focus on how to get back in the studio. I couldn’t even think straight. I kept making little things to keep me feeling sane, but I wasn’t really regularly back in the studio until about a year ago.
I think about how different it would be if I had a set time with the babies as newborns and a date to go back to work. For some people that date to get back to work is a ticket to sanity. And I get it. For me, I really wanted to be with my little ones—to figure out how to be a mom abd spend time together. I never thought I’d be a mom so when we decided to try for a family, I was surprised on many levels.
I fully recognize what a luxury it is that I had the choice to make time and have time—our world doesn’t support that time and doesn’t give women much of a choice when it comes to work/childcare/family.
WW: I hear that. So, you said that about a year ago you were able to get to the studio more regularly. What’s that transition back been like?
JC: After two kids it definitely feels different and I’m much more efficient with time. I’m never in there just daydreaming. The daydreaming has to happen now when I’m putting Lee to nap or prepping meals, or after the girls are asleep. I go in with a plan and sometimes it’s a wreck and I scrap the whole day but sometimes it works and I get to have my time, then hustle to school pick up. It’s messy and it’s a constant work in progress.
WW: Time is everything! You said that you never thought you’d be a be a mom. Given that, has surprised you most about motherhood?
JC: The lack of sleep you need to function! No really, I had no idea how much I’d love being a mom. The hard days and the awesome. The level of love and vulnerability is something I never imagined. Because you think you know that love before kids. Then you have kids.
WW: The lack of sleep was something I never could have imagined. Right now, we’re doing better, but who knows how long that will last. And I feel you on the awesome. My husband and I talk about how the “fun” we’re having is a totally different kind of fun than what we had pre-baby. It’s pure and yes—I just love our little guy so, so much.
We’ve been lucky to have a great support system of friends and family, but also people I didn’t expect reached out to me with incredible words of comfort. Who have you found yourself connecting with since becoming a mom?
JC: My partner isn’t bad 😉 I have had the same core crew of friends since way before kids that stuck with me through all the disappearing acts of struggling as a new mom. They remained there for me and never made me feel bad that I didn’t show up for them. Not once but multiple times. It’s like, you have this time and you’re struggling to have the time you want with your baby, your partner, yourself, and then your friends are there on that text when you’re nursing. Just reminding you it’s all ok. It’s all gonna be ok. And you just feel fortunate.
WW: The texting while nursing was such a huge comfort for me, too!
JC: And new mom friends at the playground were awesome. We shared a lot of stories and there was a freedom of getting into things with strangers in a way. There was no catch up, just this spewing of, “Oh man, I’m fried!” “Me too!”
WW: Yeah, I feel like any playdates I’ve managed to arrange are mostly for me and the other moms, less so our babies.
How would you describe your community of mom friends?
JC: We’ve moved a few times and it’s changed a lot since baby days and now school days. Some of my oldest friends had babies way before the rest of us and they have remained a guiding light. They’re far from New York but always part of my immediate community in the realm of love, example, and support. A little crew of us became moms around the same time and they’ve become my lifelines. I’m so thankful for all the moms I’ve met at parks, classes, and school. How many moms have I ranted to that barely knew me? And they listened! And teachers that just knew I needed a hug? Love them. I’m gonna cry just thinking about it.
WW: And now I’m crying…what has the biggest misconception about motherhood been for you?
JC: I was given a lot of hard truths before having Sunny so I don’t think I had ideas that were shattered, but having an unplanned C-section was really tough. I never felt so scared and powerless. And no one could’ve prepared me for that feeling.
WW: And crying some more…that was one of the biggest things I had to come to terms with being pregnant and giving birth, and yes now in motherhood, that my body—and my baby, too—was out of my control.
I’m curious, did becoming a mother change how you viewed your role as an artist?
JC: I don’t think so. More my role as a person. Becoming a mom has definitely made me ask myself many times why I do what I do? And is it enough? Because it’s time away from them and I want to know it’s not lost. I’m not sure I’ve answered my own questions, but I think I’ve always loved making things and it’s been a way for me to work through my stories without telling a story, so now they’re part of it too.
WW: What was the first art outing with your daughters?
JC: Sunny’s first art outing is hard to remember because it was so long ago. I think Lygia Clark at MOMA. She was in my and Brian’s studio since birth.
And Lee was born into our studios, too, but I’m thinking her outing may have been Sunny’s dance classes! But her first real art trip was Brian’s show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth—first flight, first art trip all in one. I think she was two months old.
WW: Wow! What’s it like to experience art with them?
JC: I try to do everything with them. Aside from dinners and late stuff, I try to take them with me. I’m sure some people are over the arrival of our crew, but I love taking them with me to openings, shows, performances. It’s challenging sometimes but I want seeing things and experiencing newness to be second nature. Part of it is that I wish I got to do it as a kid! And I love to hang with them!
We make stuff together in some way together every day and we definitely look at art every day. They’re a restart when I feel defeated by the artworld or even exhausted from making—they get excited or confused about something and keeps me on my toes.
WW: I love following your outings with them on Instagram. It’s inspiring for me as a mom to be like OK, he may cry, but we can also maybe enjoy this.
Has motherhood changed your creative interests?
JC: I don’t think so. Maybe in the past I was more drawn to darker stuff. But also just with age and seeing more I’m learning more and getting turned on to new things all the time in part because of them. They’re openness to everything is truly contagious.
WW: I’ve noticed (and maybe this is just because I’m hip to it now) more artists becoming comfortable talking about becoming a mother, and including it in their work even. What has your experience been as an artist?
JC: It’s crazy, when I was a student I saw and heard about artists being told not to have kids because it would be the end of their career. In all the things I was passionate about growing up, having a kid was a real challenge in a woman’s career. I worked with horses then fell in love with snowboarding and skateboarding and always made art, but in my mind that wouldn’t be a career.
Making art and having a baby seemed really easy compared to athletes I knew making it happen! But I think not just the art world, the world in general is having to take notice and change. I remember when I was in school, I was making these bodily large ceramic sculptures and I had a crit and he really wanted to make it about the woman’s body and the womb etc. I kind of laughed and was like, can’t it just be about sex?! I was really annoyed that it had to be about a woman’s role as baby maker. I’d probably be less annoyed now, but I think it goes hand in hand. We make what we make but we’re not always the ones telling the stories of what we make. And it feels like there are louder voices on both sides now which is great.
WW: What is something a mother has shared with you that’s really resonated?
JC: It’s just a stage! It will pass!