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We are about to get personal here. This is the first conversation in a new series on Whitewall.art called “Art Mamas.” In it, we’ll be speaking with artists, art professionals, designers, collectors, curators, and more, about what it’s like to navigate the art world with children. We’ll discuss things like maternity leave in the creative industry, finding support from other parents, expectations and misconceptions, transitioning to work postpartum, maintaining a studio practice with a baby, as well as how we hope to share our life in the arts with our kids.
I gave birth to my son Royal this past March. In those early days of little sleep, nursing around the clock, and a hormonal tumult that left me feeling anxious and like I had no idea what I was doing, I found great comfort in hearing from other mothers who reached out with words of encouragement and shared experience. Often, this happened via text or Instagram. I was on my phone a lot in order to stay awake for middle of the night feedings and the hours upon hours Royal ended up just sleeping in my arms. Through those messages, I found immense relief in knowing that I was not alone, that I was capable, and that we were all struggling to figure it out.
One of the mothers that reached out to me during this time was Helen Toomer. She had her son Harry several months before. That newborn stage I was in, still felt raw and real to her. Toomer told me, “You are doing great. Just be kind to yourself. If you are happy, your baby will be.” In that moment, I needed to hear exactly that, and in the coming months it was something I repeated regularly to myself.
From that incredibly kind note, came the idea with Helen to create a community among mothers in the art world. In this ongoing series, we want to offer a space of connection, support, safety, strength, and hopefully a little inspiration. I’ve learned that a lot of the clichés around becoming a parent are true. And with good reason. It absolutely takes a village and we’d like to create our own little village here.
So here is our first “Art Mamas” conversation with the incredible Helen Toomer. She is the Co-Founder of STONELEAF RETREAT, an artists residency in the Catskills; Co-Founder of re:source, a community of innovative leaders formed to support the growth of women-identified creatives; and Fair Director of the IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair—which is open this week in New York through Sunday. She spoke with me about her experience becoming a mum to her son Harry.
WHITEWALL: When did you become a mother?
HELEN TOOMER: September 17 of last year.
WW: Were you able to take maternity leave?
HT: I was upstate and we just finished the second year of the residency. So, we were between residencies and I knew I was taking time off to be with Harry. I was hunkering down here at STONELEAF at first, then we went to Miami for a month because Eric’s company produces Untitled there in December. I was really lucky to have that time with Harry. And then when he was six months, I started working at the IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair—which is this week!
WW: What was that transition back like?
HT: It was a lot of back and forth, organizing the residency upstate at STONELEAF that was starting in June and working part time in the fair office in Manhattan from April. It was more difficult than I had anticipated, trying to organize traveling and working so much and to be frank, after having Harry, my mind got super fuzzy.
HT: I had heard the term baby brain. And I was like, oh, yeah, sure, whatever. But it’s a real thing. It’s legit. I literally could not remember the word for “kettle” one day—that drove me insane!
WW: Yeah, I have no recall.
HT: So, I found that really, really hard because I was trying to navigate being up at STONELEAF to organize the residency, then being in the city and being present at work, and then also arranging childcare, and time for me and Eric. I’m an A type person. I like to think I’m an organizational machine. And it was hard to deal with the fact that I wasn’t as on it as I used to be…
WW: Yes, I’ve been finding myself making stupid mistakes, and feeling ashamed.
HT: Yes, totally. Because you’re like the baby’s out of me now—so come on, bounce back!
WW: How do you interact with your community of mothers?
HT: I was really touched by the amount of people that reached out, sending text messages or emails, saying, “I’m here for you…this works for me,” or even just sometimes, “How are you feeling?”
I found it really useful because in the beginning, when I was breastfeeding and awake all the time, stationed in this one chair, texting with friends, who were a huge support.
I called up my dearest friend Adira—she has a little boy, Oliver, who is six now. She was the first of my friends to have a baby. I was around when he was born but when I had Harry I realized I should have been there more. I called her and said, “Oh, I’m so very sorry, I had no idea how hard it was and wished I’d been there more for her.”
WW: What has surprised you most so far about motherhood?
HT: I had so much time before I had a kid. I used to think, “I’m so busy. I can’t see you for three months.” Please! I was not busy! I did not know what busy was until I had a baby!
WW: Even just busy in my mind. I’ll realize at night, he’ll go down to sleep, and I’m exhausted because I haven’t stopped moving, thinking, making lists, just in my head all the time since I woke up it has not stopped.
WW: OK, what was the first art outing you did with Harry?
HT: This kid saw more art in the first three months than I had seen in a year! The first outing we went to was to CCS Bard when he was two weeks old because we were going stir crazy. When he was two months old, we went to Miami and he went to all the art fairs and museums—he loved Haas Brothers and Paola Pivi at the Bass Museum.
That’s one of the other things I love about being in this art world, is that I can share it with him—from day one. The same with being here with the residency and him being around artists and experiencing other ways of thinking and seeing and doing. We take him out all the time to galleries and museums and we will continue to do that.
And I need that connection to the outside world to feel normal because it’s a crazy thing to navigate when you become a mum. You’re excited because you’re a new you, with a new epic little being, but then it’s also this kind of like mourning for the loss of who you were. You are changed. It’s something you can’t argue with. You’re changed forever.
WW: Did it make you approach your professional role in the art world differently?
HT: I kind of felt like I went back to doing a job in a way that I’ve never done a job before—more focused in a fuzzy time. Like, I’m going to the office, and I’m going to work at these hours. And then I have to leave and go home and be with Harry and put him to bed. My priorities have shifted because he’s my priority.
At the same time, I have to become a priority to make sure that I get enough sleep. I can’t be up all night answering emails because if I’m not okay, he’s not okay. I guess I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m definitely much more empathetic to people’s times and parents in particular.
After the fair ends, I’m going to take a couple of weeks for my own mini residency at STONELEAF to take the time to assess this past year—what I’ve done and what I want to do with the residency and my time moving forward because time is precious.
WW: That’s so important. I’m definitely still figuring it out. I find that I’m more efficient out of necessity, I’ve set some boundaries, but there’s some stuff I still need to do better. I don’t want to always feel like I’m catching up.
HT: Totally. And it goes back to being able to ask for help, getting stuff off your plate. That’s not asking for help, actually, that’s just being productive. But it’s easier said than done.
WW: Has motherhood changed your creative interests?
HT: Maybe it’s sharpened them? I’m not sure yet! I’ve been working on something for the past year, with a friend, Kristi Gushiken, called re:source. It’s focused on supporting and elevating women’s growth in the creative industries through events and support online. This was born from both of us attending many #MeToo events at the beginning of last year and both feeling like there were no ‘actionable’ takeaways or follow through or continued discourse or support, so we wanted to provide a re:source.
Also, we started the residency focused on supporting women artists, and next year I want to launch a family residency. Becky Reeve, who was in residence last year, has a baby girl who is six months. She works for a gallery full time in New York and she’ll come up here on the weekends to take photos after working all week. It’s an enormous undertaking to pack up the baby, catch the train, then a get a car and drive up here, alone…and then go down into the middle of our forest and photograph…and you realize just how much of an effort everything is, after becoming a parent.
Artists are continually making an effort to make work and continue their practice. So, we really want to provide a place for families to be able to have that time to focus. Even if it’s just the physical time in nature to be, away from “real life” and have time to think.
I feel the urgency to provide that. I want to share the space with as many people as possible.
WW: That’s so important to be able to give a family both space but that chance to be together. Right now, I’m not ready to be away from my son. My world is a little bit small right now and I’m happy with that.
I also feel like I’m seeing more artists making work that touches upon their role as a mother. Is it just me?
HT: I do think that’s changing. I mean, one of the most recent artists who when I first met her and her work was dealing kind of explicitly with birth, was Zoë Buckman. And her work continues to deal with, birth, life, death, the domestic, rituals, violence.
You have to do what feels right, as a mother, artist, person. As an artist what you make and create has to be authentic, which Zoë is, in the rawest sense. I wish that there would be more of that raw and openness of works within this art market.
WW: What is the biggest misconception about motherhood?
HT: My parents have been staying with us and so we’ve had a lot of late nights talking. And my mum one night asked, “Is there anything that we did in raising you that you think we could have done better back then?” And I said, “Oh, god Mum! All I remember is being surrounded by love, and lots of it.” At the end of the day, that is all that matters. It’s my duty to guide Harry and give him all the love and hugs and embarrassing mum kisses.
WW: Ugh, that even when our parents have well-adjusted adult children, who are having their own children, they still are wondering if they did it right.
HT: It’s basically mum guilt forever. The mum guilt continues and I just wish we could let it go. I think the more you see and hear about other women struggling the same way that you are, the better. Because it can be so isolating and you think, “Oh no, I’m doing it wrong.” The more you see or even just speak about motherhood/parenthood, can be helpful. Understanding that it’s not always going to be perfect, right?
WW: I wonder, has your relationship changed at all with your parents since becoming a mother?
HT: My mum had always said to me, “I love you.” And I’m always like, “I love you more.” And she’s says, “Not possible.” And it wasn’t until I had Harry that I realized that’s true. You don’t know it until it happens. It still blows my mind!
When I think about artists who are putting together a body of work for a solo show, they have their head down for a year plus just focused on that. And when we’re pregnant, we’re getting ready, putting together this work. I used to think about having the baby as the solo show, but it’s really like installing, opening, selling, and deinstalling every day after that. So many solo shows!
My parents always say to me that me and my brother are the best things that they’ve ever done. And I understand, as Harry is my biggest accomplishment and I’m proud to say that. I sometimes equate it to being an artist. Harry is somebody that I have created and I celebrate him as a little living, breathing work of art…in progress.
Helen Toomer is the Co-Founder of STONELEAF RETREAT, an artists residency and connective space in the Catskill Mountains of New York. She is Co-Founder of re:source, a community of innovative leaders formed to support the growth of women-identified creatives. Toomer is the Fair Director of the IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair and formerly was the Director of both the PULSE Contemporary Art Fair and Collective Design Fair. She lectures on art fairs, social media and professional development at universities and arts organizations in the US and the UK and was an Adjunct Professor at Sotheby’s Institute for Art and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Toomer co-founded and managed a contemporary art gallery, toomer labzda, in New York, and graduated with a Bachelors in Fine Arts from the Arts institute of Bournemouth, England.