Can you be a mother and a professional artist? And if so, how? What are the conditions that make it possible for a woman? This week, we hear from Shanti Grumbine, a talented visual artist who has been making art for over 20 years.
Shanti transforms common items like newspapers and plastic bags into powerful, devotional objects. Her work includes drawing, printmaking, paper-cutting, and sculpture. She has been awarded major fellowships, grants and residencies. While in high school, Shanti was fascinated by a question no one seemed to be asking: “Can a professional artist be a mother?” Her own mother had been a professional artist but eventually she left the art world to become a clinical therapist. Today, Shanti is a single mom of a three-year-old daughter and lives in upstate New York. Shanti tells her unique story of dealing with a chronic illness, being a single mom and continuing, despite it all, to create.
See below for a full transcript of this episode (Episode 18).
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Content: art, artist, life of an artist, motherhood, single motherhood, single mom
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This episode was produced by Jamie Yuenger and Piet Hurkmans.
Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.
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Jamie: Hello, I'm Jamie Yuenger. And this is 'If You Knew Me', a podcast about the inner lives of women. Every week we walk into the heart and mind of one woman. Each guest can choose to share her real name or to remain anonymous. This week we hear from Shanti Grumbine that's her real name.
Shanti is a visual artist. She transforms common items like newspapers and plastic bags into powerful devotional objects. Her work includes a drawing, printmaking, paper cutting and sculpture. Shanti has been making art for over 20 years. She has been awarded major fellowships, grants and residencies.
While still in high school, Shanti was fascinated by a question that no one seemed to be asking: "Can a professional artist be a mother?" Her own mother had been a professional artist, but eventually left the art world to become a clinical therapist. Today Shanti is a single mom of a three-year-old daughter and lives in upstate New York.
Shanti tells her unique story of dealing with a chronic illness, being a single mom and continuing, despite it all, to create.
Her story is entitled: "Can you be a mother and an artist?"
Shanti: Motherhood is inextricably bound to being an artist for me in my life, in my experience, um, because my mother was an artist, and teaching art until I was around 14.
When she went back to school, so my first experience of making and creativity was with my mother. And my first association with, making in that way, in that professional way, it was with my mother. . She started her MFA when I was around four, I think, and maybe finished up around when I was six or seven. I was really disillusioned in high school my mother had started taking photography classes at, Ulster community college, nearby.
Shanti: And she thought I'd really love this one particular professor. And, um, she advocated for me to take classes there when I was 14. And, um, it was so magical. I would like go after school and they stand in this dark room and watch these images emerge. so we were like sharing with each other in that way.
She sort of, um, I don't know, it was like this omosis was just this like flow back and forth. Um, when I was young, she made these giant,charcoal drawings. Um, and she would work late at night and sometimes like, if I woke up, I'd see her and she'd be like covered in charcoal
Shanti: but even like the themes that she, Explored like she did this series of, of these charcoal drawings. Um, they were called 'Housebound' and I think it was because of having me, a young child and being housebound. And so there's all these charcoal drawings, like looking out the windows.
And then there was this other series that she did for her thesis, I think, um, Where she was walking, she loved walking and um just photographing whatever she would see on her walks. A lot of it was like road kill or an old man who was on the street or a black dog or a dead deer or a yellow wire, you know, just like the everyday and how it just sort of like seeped into her world.
Like all of those things became a part of who I was, who I became as an artist.
You know, I ended up going to art school in Chicago and, ended up winning, this award, through the, national foundation for advancement in the arts They have this like award for high school aged students or whatever
We got flown to Miami for a week and, um, we took workshops and, like hung out and there was this like fancy gala.
And we had to like get up on stage and be like, hi, I'm Shanti Grumbine. I'm a photographer from New Paltz New York. and then we were like interviewed and I didn't know that like that interview would sort of. They would decide how much money they would give us. I just was so clueless. I felt so alone. I don't know. but they like interviewed each of us. And I didn't really have my portfolio. So they were supposed to be like looking at our portfolio.
And I thought I was really, like, I was allowed to ask them questions, these like professional artists that I was getting to like share time with. I was just really naive. And my only question was like, ' can you be a mother and an artist?' Like, is that really possible? Um, and if so, like what, under what circumstances?
I think by that point, my mother. Had sort of realized that she couldn't really keep going, um, as an artist. and it was going back to school or maybe had already gone back to school to become an art therapist and then like really just working as a psychotherapist.
Yeah, it was just something that like hung over me at 18. Like. Can like a mother really maintain herself as an artist. and I remember them just like looking at me, like I was crazy, I dunno, it just a moment that I remember cause I like wanted to make that happen. Cause I knew I wanted to be a mother, because my experience with my mother was so magical and so creative. And so, um, a core of my being, and I wanted to be on the other side of that equation, but I just didn't understand how it all works together, you know?
And I was scared and, and I like knew that I wanted to be a mother. And I also knew that I wanted to be an artist.
Shanti: I continued making art. I went to grad school. I was at U Penn. I have to say that like, even then I don't think any of the women that were in my graduating class ended up having children. I felt like an alien that I wanted children.
I mean, I think things have changed. Like people were going to grad school now and like women in the art world, but I just remember like the female professors of mine were like, Either you have to marry someone rich, you have to have money. or, um, you can't have children, you know, like, and it's true, but, but just there was this very anti-child ethos, I think at the time. You know, I felt like an outsider because that desire was so strong to me and also was so tied to creativity for me.
I ended up getting, um, a tick bite when I was 29. I ended up getting acute Lyme that wasn't diagnosed and it ended up turning into chronic Lyme.
And I ended up being totally debilitated, for two years. So, I mean, then that really kind of made, the desire to be a mother, you know, like even stronger, even more fraught, so after grad school, I moved to Brooklyn. I was living in Brooklyn. I was waiting tables. I was like taking classes at SVA. I was finally making sculpture and I finally started making the work I wanted to make and then I got Lyme.
Shanti: So I made maybe two of these like giant sculptures that I was like finally excited about. and then I, had to just totally like drop my life in,Brooklyn and move back in with my parents at 30, um, and, lie bed. And I have to say, I can say that I had Lyme and I can say that it was just debilitating.
And I also know that it's impossible to sort of communicate or like explain what that was like, but it's part of being an artist for me, um, because that began 10 years of being symptomatic and having to sort of be alive anyway, like insist on living and making anyway.
you know, whatever, like that experience of having to slow down and, and like the experience of excruciating pain and cognitive difficulties and, and like physical difficulties, like, it definitely affected how I made work, you know, once I started making work again. I found a way of continuing was, um, through artists residencies I started to, applying for residencies and because I, I just couldn't control my body and
I couldn't really hold a job. So that was a way of sort of living the art sort of got bigger, even though my capabilities got smaller. Um, and then still like, will I ever be able to have a child, you know? so it was like an eight to 10 year journey of that.
When I was 36, I, I started to, you know, just feel slightly more functional. And I, I ended up meeting, um, Beatrice's father, through a mutual friend.
Shanti: We became friends and talked on the phone as I was still going to these residencies and, ended up, dating and, uh, I made it really clear. I want to have a child I'm 36, like, and it doesn't mean that you have to have my child, but like, I need to know that you're somebody who's interested in having a family in general, you know?
Cause if not like this, isn't gonna, it's not what I'm looking for, you know?
We were together, but I ended up doing a year long residency in Roswell, New Mexico.
I was like making art, but I was also preparing my body.
Shanti: I bought that book, owning your own fertility or something like that. Tracked my cycle every, you know, just like, learned about my body. And like I felt, I was just like preparing my body. I wasn't even near, you know, Beactrice's his father was like was still in Brooklyn and I was in Roswell
um, and that Thanksgiving, my mother never, oh God.
And then my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma. I mean, like so many things were, were happening out there. so I came home for Thanksgiving and I saw.Parker, Beatrice's father, once we had sex once. and you know, and we were, we knew that we were going to try when I got back or whatever, but, um, I went back to New Mexico and, um, I was pregnant.
we didn't know what was going on. my mom she like ended up going into emergency surgery, like the month before I was supposed to give birth. And, um, Parker's musician, he was away on tour. So I didn't know if he was gonna make it to the birth. And I didn't know if my mom was gonna make it to the birth.
Then I was feeling really, I don't know, alone, freaked out, you know? They removed like a football size tumor from her stomach. and, uh, she was healed enough by the time Beatrice came and yes, Parker was still on tour. Beatrice was early, but at least my mom was there with me.
I'm separated from her father and, um, An adjunct teaching at this point, I'm 43 and you know, I was sick for so long. I didn't build up that resume.
I, you know, I just don't think that's like viable for me
And, I don't have those things that my professors said I needed, you know, like the super rich partner or the trust fund or the, you know, and I'm going to be going back to school, to become a psychotherapist in the fall, because I have to provide for my daughter And I'm just at this crossroads, where the making is strong inside of me, like that desire.
And yet I'm moving into this other territory with a hope of holding onto both, but wanting, you know, wanting to be stable and, and be a provider. so there's this repetition with my mother's life. And yet, like she stopped making art and I am committed to, um, keep going
I just feel like motherhood, I didn't want to live a life without that experience. And I feel like making art is just my way of processing my life. And if. I didn't get to live the life that I wanted to live. Like what would I be processing,
after becoming a mother, the studio became absolutely sacred. Like. The angst of it fell away my time there is sacred and it's rich and it's deep. And I think that's because of motherhood. And I don't know how to explain that completely.
Shanti: I think that living with, chronic late stage Lyme, um, you know, something that limited my life in this significant way prepared me for the difficulties of motherhood.
especially single motherhood or co-parenting, um, before being a mother, I had all the time in the world. but I was limited by extreme pain and fatigue and, a lot of other, symptoms, neurological and physical. and now I'm mostly symptom-free, but I don't have any time. Um, so I've lived this really, really narrow life for a long time.
Shanti: I've been separated from my daughter's father for a little under a year now. my three and a half year old daughter, and I live in this small apartment in my parent's house, in new Paltz New York, where I grew up, And it's hard not to feel, ashamed or feel like a failure when I'm observing, other people's lives, upstate, specifically artists, that I know, um, coupled artists that I know, um, you know, knowing that I'm 43 and I'm still dependent on my parents right now.
Knowing that I've had long stretches of capable parts of my life, you know, but this is where I am right now. and despite all that, or because of that, I have to kind of live in a place of hope and gratitude.
Shanti: for now I just keep my needs really simple. my social life involves play dates with other mothers of three and a half year olds and studio visits with, um, this all women's Hudson valley studio group
and I probably also do too much social media scrolling and I like, see my friends who are just rock stars and like making it happen. you know, I have to just like temporary. Um, and when I have time to myself, I clean and I go to therapy and I go to co-parenting therapy and I go to the studio.
because I remember when I first got sick and like my body failed me and I just, like I realized I just had to let go of everything.
I just had to let go. I couldn't like use that energy to like, fists clenched hold onto things and just let go and whatever stays and whoever stays. Stays, you know, and I have to say that back then, I'm shocked that art stayed. but it did. and now I'm letting go again and like in a few years, I'll see what stays,
Beatrice is in preschool. Tuesday through Friday, basically from nine to three. Now that's new. Um, you know, she had a lot of separation anxiety and it was, it was just like a slow thing slowly. Um, to get to the, to the fuller days. it's like Groundhog day.
Um, you know, like we wake up together, make breakfast, she watches, you know, On the screen more than I would like to. Um, although, you know, sometimes she'll like make Oobleck or something and play with that on the floor, get her snacks in her lunch together, eat breakfast, get in the car, hopefully closed, hopefully intact.
Um, sometimes not, um, you know, drop her off at school. Um, we have our. Kisses, nose kisses, eyeball kisses, forehead. We have this whole routine. Um, you know, and then I, and I'm dressed like every, you know, all the other parents are wearing nice clothes and I'm like wearing my shirt with holes in it. And I get in the car and it's a 15 minute commute to the studio.
And, um, and I drive over the mountain, um, to High Falls and it's a beautiful drive. And I feel like that transition over the mountain is sort of like. it's like this shift, the movement of the light through the trees and like watching the yellow line, like the yellow line is showing up in my work actually.
Um, and, uh, just very Monday. But also it's like the sacred journey. It's like the sacred pilgrimage to the studio, over the mountain, and then I, I work on a bunch of different things and I have my plan and I get done what I get done, you know, she could wake up sick and then that week has gone, you know, or, um, Then realize it's Spring Break, too.
And then, you know, that month has gone or, you know, I can't have too many expectations. and like my deadlines, like I'm going to have a group show or three person show at the end of September. So I need long deadlines because of you know, the unreliability of the schedule.
Usually like go home at around to shove some food in my mouth, put a, fill a sippy cup of milk. Cause that's key and grab something that's sweet. Cause treats after school seemed to be a thing. even though I didn't think I was going to give her a sweet stuff, and then, I pick her up and if it's nice out, sometimes we'll take a walk or something and then hang out for like an hour.
Shanti: And then at four, I start making dinner for four 30 and we eat dinner at like 5, 5 30. We play a little bit, we wind down, we read books together and I try. To have her asleep by like 7 30, 7 45. and then sometimes maybe I'll like work on an application for something or I'll do emails or I'll zone out and watch Netflix, you know, I mean, it's really repetitive.
And, um, and I don't exercise, you know, I know that that will find its way back in, but I just haven't found space for it yet. I just haven't and that has to be okay for now, you know? And then sometimes I can't make it to the studio cause I have to go grocery shopping or I have to like meet with someone or, or I have to like go somewhere and pick up cardboard so I can box up some sculptures, you know, it's just like, um, or I have to document work or I have to de-install or, um, you know, Uh, yeah, it's, it's pretty repetitive and, um, yeah.
I think what I realized is that I neglected to have a vision for what my life would look like in any way. I really just didn't have one.
realize I probably should have had some kind of goal or vision for like, much more logistical. Um, I wanted a child and I don't even know if I had a vision of having a family. I should have, Or maybe I took it for granted just because my family felt so so solid and safe, so it just didn't occur to me that that wouldn't repeat itself. Yeah, know, I don't know, but, I think I have an odd.
It's been hard. It's been really hard. Um, and there are definitely times where, you know, like, um, my mom sees what I'm going through and she's like, man, like maybe you need to go on medication just to get through this period of time. Just cause she sees the stress on my body and like I've lost weight and you know, like it's, I don't know.
I just feel like Beatrice came out exactly who she was supposed to be. And I feel so grateful that I have a child. I remember when I got pregnant, I was like, holy shit. I don't have to think about this anymore. Like it happened, you know, and like, especially after she was born, it was like just this thing that was like weighing over me for so long that I, and especially like getting sick and just, I don't know, like she's here.
I had like an emergency plan with my parents. I was like, look, I really want to have a child I'm really chronically sick. I don't even know how I could meet someone at this point. Who would want to date somebody who's sick, you know, like, can we have some kind of a backup plan? Like how much would you be willing to be a part of this child's life?
You know, if I go ahead and do this on my own, like if I. Figure out a way to get pregnant and like, just do it, you know? Cause I just, the thought of living a life without having that experience was really sad to me. I just was like, I think it's cause I got sick and I had let go of so much, you know, and that was just like something I didn't want to let go of. Um, I said, I, I let go of everything and didn't hold on to anything. But I guess I held onto that, you know, I held on to that.
Jamie: Thanks so much for listening to this week's episode. Shanti Grumbine is a multimedia artist who transforms common items into devotional objects, situated between the familiar and symbolic, using drawing, printmaking, paper cutting, weaving, writing, and sculpture.
She lives in the Hudson Valley with her daughter, Beatrice. I invite you to check out Shanti's incredible work on her website. Links to follow Shanti and learn more about her are in the show notes.
Also, I want to say a big welcome to you if this is your first time listening to the show. And if you've been listening for a while, it's really wonderful to have you.
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This podcast is produced by me, Jamie Yuenger, and my husband, Piet Hurkmans. Thanks so much for listening to 'If You Knew Me', we'll be back with you next week.