Lia Chavez is not interested in hiding the fact that she is a mother—professionally or otherwise. Since giving birth in 2017, the New York-based artist continues to fine tune the way in which she integrates and shares art with her daughter Ocean.
Chavez is a multi-media artist, known for creating installations and performances that explore the phenomenology of light. As a visiting artist-researcher at Goldsmiths College, she is currently investigating superconscious visual perception with a group of neuroscientists, specifically, what does creativity look like on a neural level? This year she’ll launch two major projects: an architectural commission with Revolution Precrafted and a new body of light sculptures.
In this latest conversation for Whitewall’s “Art Mamas” series, Chavez shares that while she’s remained as committed as ever to her practice, her understanding and appreciation of the bigger picture, as well as the preciousness of meaning and time, has greatly evolved. She rejects the notion that motherhood diminishes a person’s capabilities, as an artist or within any other role.
Below, Chavez discusses motherhood as a reflection of one’s self—rather than a societal projection—and what that means for the next evolution of feminism.
WHITEWALL: When did you become a mom?
LIA CHAVEZ: February 2017.
WW: Were you able to take any leave?
LC: I committed to spending the first 40 days of Ocean’s life to deep rest and recovery at home. I did nothing except bond with our daughter, learn to breastfeed, eat nourishing food, and sleep. Such ritualism takes loads of planning and preparation, mind you, but it was worth it. That kind of deep rest is a discipline, but once the period of time was over, I felt energized and ready to re-enter the world with gusto.
WW: How special! And yes, so intentional. While I took several weeks off, my husband only had one week off from work. So, we made that first week being just us a priority. We had to explain to our parents, family and friends, that they could not visit until after. And I’m so glad we did! You don’t get that time back.
How was your transition back?
LC: It’s been a primal learning process. I marked the beginning of the transition by taking a trip abroad at the end of Ocean’s first 40 days—traveling to London with my husband, David, and our daughter where I eagerly got back into the neuroscience lab at Goldsmiths College for an ongoing research project. My philosophy as a new parent has been guided by a vision of integrating Ocean into my life and sharing my world with her as fully as I am able. Not yet quite sure how that’s accomplished, but I do know that realizing one’s purpose, exploring the world, and nurturing creative passions are edifying practices I wish to model for her. Understanding that life is a newly expanded thing and accepting the challenge to compose life in the present has been key to navigating the transition back.
I’m constantly adjusting and fine-tuning my schedule as needed to nurture my interlocking passions: art, my beloved, our daughter, family, community, and spirituality. Days begin earlier than they did prior to becoming a mother, so being disciplined about going to bed early has become essential for this former night owl. I’ve shifted my schedule so I can meditate early, often as early as 4am. Contemplative practice is central to my creative process so creating time for stillness and silence is indispensable. Accepting help, engaging presence-focused childminders, and having a hands-on partner have all been critical to transitioning back to work.
WW: I am trying to embrace early mornings, as well! Even if just 30 minutes before I know my son will wake up, to take that time alone for myself has been crucial.
Accepting help—and asking for it!—has been a learning curve for me, as well. People I didn’t expect reached out to me with words of comfort. Who did you find yourself connecting with?
LC: I’m fortunate to have a strong community of friends—men included—who checked in periodically to see how we were doing and if anything was needed. The smallest gesture of kindness or presence can mean so much to a new mother. Ironically, my postpartum was such an intimate with our daughter, yet also deeply solitary time for me, personally. Those quiet early days prompted a profound reevaluation of my life, and new degrees of attentiveness and patience were forged in me.
WW: What has surprised you most so far about motherhood?
LC: The love for sure. Giving it and receiving it. The transfiguring power of the love has most surprised me. It has ushered in an expansion of my humanity in every direction.
WW: How has your relationship changed with your parents since becoming a mother?
LC: I have a whole new degree of love, gratitude, and reverence for them. And a new kind of awe for my mama and her mother. The fierceness of love that I have for my daughter has opened my eyes to the continuum drawn through the generations—love from grandmother, to mother, to myself, and now to my daughter. We have all physically dwelt within one another at some point. It’s a mystifying connection.
WW: How do you interact with your community of mothers and parents?
LC: Cultivating creative community has been one of my core values since graduating from art school. I’m thankful to have a community of women around me who are talented creative practitioners across various disciplines. They inspire me daily with the wisdom and intelligence they bring to their mothering and I am constantly taking valuable lessons from them. We celebrate harvests, holidays, and life transitions together, create art and community initiatives together, and teach each other new skills, such as farming and healing modalities. We have a running date every Tuesday evening, which helps us to prioritize our time together.
I’ve also been hosting curated monthly salons for a group of brilliant women artists in New York since 2011. These gatherings are primarily focused on the discussion of creative process, new artwork, and rigorous critical feedback. Many of us, including painter Jenna Gribbon and musician Erika Spring, are now mothers, and others are on the cusp of becoming mothers, so we get to evolve together in myriad ways, which is an immense privilege.
WW: What was your first art outing with Ocean?
LC: Our first art outing was the Michelangelo & Sabastiano del Piombo exhibition at the National Gallery in London. I will always delight in the fact that Ocean’s first encounter with art was through these great Italian masters.
WW: How do you experience art with her?
LC: Ocean’s life is steeped in the arts. For starters, my studio is attached to our home and she can pop in periodically throughout the day to say, “Hello,” so she gets to witness firsthand what a creative process looks like in media res. I take every Thursday off so she and I can have an art day together. This is our special day to play, learn, and see the shows. On the weekends, I like to set out large canvases for her in the studio and she loves to paint, Yves Klein-style. We are fans of various children’s programs including the LC Kids season at the Lincoln Center, Art Production Fund and Fort Gansevoort’s Art Sundae program, Little Guggs at the Guggenheim, and kid-friendly programming at the Metropolitan Opera.
Ocean has traveled all over the world with me for various projects. I try to take her with me whenever possible, because I believe travel is the best education, so she has experienced a great deal of art—how it’s developed, presented, collected, and supported. Along the way, she has visited some of the most fascinating art venues in the world: the Biennale in Venice, the museums of Paris and London, the Prado in Madrid, M+ in Hong Kong, the Louisiana in Denmark, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Uffizi in Florence, the Vatican in Rome, the Acropolis in Athens, Tokyo National Museum in Japan, MCA Sydney, and Teotihuacan in Mexico.
We’ve also visited more unusual places together such as Arcosanti in Arizona, Kettles Yard House in Cambridge, England, the Luis Barragán houses and Museo Frida Khalo in Mexico City, the Gaudí works in Spain, Chateau La Coste and La Colombe D’Or in the South of France, MONA in Tasmania, Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, the Capuchin Crypt in Rome and Campo Artfest in Uruguay. The most memorable of these was La Specola in Florence where Ocean saw the wax anatomical mother with a baby gestating in utero.
WW: That is incredible! You and Ocean are seeing so much together. I’m inspired!
What is something a mother has shared with you that’s really resonated?
LC: My grandmother shared this with me before I became a mother: “You define what motherhood will be, not the other way around. Just as you’ve embraced every experience in your life as yourself, you will bring all that you are—your character, passion, and wisdom—to motherhood. Your motherhood will be a reflection of you and not the culture’s projections.”
WW: There’s always a point in these conversations where I tear up. And here we are. Those are absolutely words to return to. Along that idea of defining your own way as a mother, did becoming a mother change how you viewed your role as an artist?
LC: Yes, it has strengthened my call of service to humanity and to the Earth.
WW: Has motherhood changed your creative interests?
LC: My creative interests remain laser focused on an investigation into the phenomenology of light, the radiance of being, and the edges of perception. What has changed, however, is that my understanding of the big picture has become more sophisticated. Motherhood has initiated a new appreciation of the preciousness of both meaning and time. I’ve become more acutely attuned to the experiences that give my life and my art genuine meaning and have become skillful at editing out the rest.
One really needs to make peace with the unidirectionality of time in everyday experience after becoming a parent. Each day, Ocean moves through miraculous new phases of her development and there is no guarantee of experiencing these moments again, so the invitation is to the intent practice of presence. I am keenly aware of the fact that, in motherhood, new foundations for living life and art to the fullest are being forged in me each day. I am reminded of the words of Rainier Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet: “Think, dear Sir, of the world that you carry inside you, and call this thinking whatever you want to: a remembering of your own childhood or a yearning toward a future of your own—only be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything you perceive around you. What is happening in your innermost self is worthy of your entire love.”
Of course, Rilke is speaking about art, but the same applies to motherhood. Being a professional artist and a mother are both challenging vocations, but I think they fortify one another.
WW: I’ve noticed (and maybe this is just because I’m hip to it now!) more artists are talking about becoming a mother, and including it in their work even. What has your experience been as an artist?
LC: Yes, personally, I’m not interested in concealing the fact that I am now a mother, to colleagues or others, because it is one of the most fascinating and enriching experiences of my life. I regard inhabiting the Mother archetype, and having access to all the rich paradoxes which lie within it, to be a tremendous advantage to my creative practice. It has rendered me a more aware human and a more ardent artist. I wish someone had alerted me prior to becoming a mother about how compelling this phase of human experience is, but I guess therein lies the frontier of feminism. Each generation of feminists makes meaningful progress.
I think one of the most important ways we can express our debt of gratitude to the women artists who have come before us, who belonged to generations where one could not speak about being a mother and be taken seriously, is to do so today.
WW: You’ve just given words to an idea I’ve been trying make sense of since becoming a mother. We must speak to it—because we can. And we are speaking to it now—because we can.
What, do you think, is the biggest misconception about motherhood?
LC: The biggest misconception about motherhood is that it diminishes a woman’s capabilities. This depiction originates from the patriarchal agitation that a woman is advancing through an existential threshold which men cannot pass nor comprehend. The narrative construct that a woman’s efficacy is compromised with motherhood is incorrect, for motherhood presents a progressive convergence of experience, self-knowledge, and, indeed, creative passion. The knowledge acquired through motherhood is embodied, instrumentalized, and innately synthesizing in nature, hence it presents a vital opportunity to recalibrate the cerebral hegemony of a disembodied, reductionist culture by utilizing energies more holistically and economically.
The idea that has circulated within the art world that women cannot be artists par excellence and mothers is also illogical. The essence of the motherhood experience is characterized by the very grit and virtue required for mastery itself. The challenge lies in rehabilitating the imagination of our culture to a richer and more abundant notion of what it means to be human. Equal participation of female artists and artists who are mothers in the art world is ultimately a philosophical matter for all involved—are we willing to know ourselves fully, as human beings, and to engage directly with the astonishing reality which we inhabit, and do we possess the courage and curiosity to pursue this treasure?
In passing into motherhood, a person draws nearer to the seat of creation—an embattled site of ontological becoming where love and fear, security and passion, knowledge and mystery, creation and the void meet. As we advance the next evolution of feminism, the pursuit of a sober philosophical meditation upon motherhood—with all its embodied intelligence, competency, and metaphysical substance—will need to be incorporated into a challenge to patriarchy’s systematic trivialization of the female.