Sunday, May 13, 2012

Artist Mother Artist Son

Today is Mother's Day! As usual, let me practice a little diversion in approaching the topic.

I have a dear friend in LA who is a landscape designer or, less fancily, a gardener. She has the bizarre ability to give a random seed the squinty eye and say, "I think you need to be planted in warm moist soil," or "I think you need a couple weeks in the freezer and then a good hard tap."

Gardening runs in her family. She has an aunt who is a gardener as well. What's interesting about this is that her aunt's gardening is nothing like hers. My friend likes the wild look - huge diversity and all kinds of crazy arrangements. Her aunt gardens like the primmest of Frenchmen. They share a talent, but their instinctive styles are their own.

My mom is an artist, but she's nothing like me. Here's something of hers, and something of mine:

To Gorky, Ellen Maidman-Tanner, 1974, oil on canvas, 48"x72"
Hands #1, Daniel Maidman, 2011, oil on canvas, 24"x24"

For all that, we're both artists. If you want to know where I got my artist genes, I got most of them from her. Genes alone don't make an artist, though. Making art is kind of a stupid career to choose. Nobody needs art, and if you become an artist, odds are good you'll either suck, or starve. Likely both. It takes encouragement to become an artist, reckless encouragement. I got that kind of encouragement.

Most people want to be artists, a little bit, I think. And by and large, people should be discouraged. Art-making should be necessary; it should burn the artist not to make art. All good parents would like their children to be safe and secure - to make a living, save something for retirement. But parents have another concern: that their children should be happy.

I got the usual crayons and watercolors as a child. And then I got interested in other things, for a long time. When I came back to making pictures, my mom saw what it meant to me, and encouraged me to go so far as I could. That's a big thing.

Here's another big thing about her: while she's an artist, she had to reckon with my sister and me needing to get fed and educated when we were little. Her mothering isn't the maternal type we associate with matching hand towels and adorable clam-shaped soaps. She's more of a wild animal, and I wasn't so much a child to my parents as a small, nosebleed-prone friend. My mother is an adventurer; my father's mother was an adventurer; my sister jumps out of airplanes. We're all adventurers, one way or another, probably me least of all.

So here you have my mom, 24, 25, jazzed on graduate school and Eva Hesse and matte-finish postcards for three-person shows. It's the sort of lifestyle that doesn't involve a lot of cash flow, and like I said, we were hungry and ignorant, as little children are. It was going to take a real income from two parents to raise us, not just my dad. So my mother stopped making installations, and went into advertising. I remember her being an artist when I was a toddler, and I remember her being in advertising, and then marketing, and then executiving, when I was in elementary school and high school. It was obviously a demanding career, but we never caught a whiff of resentment; we knew we were loved.

I took it all for granted at the time, but I don't take it for granted now that I'm following the same path she started down. Once in a while, I consider getting a real job. Fortunately, I live a nearly responsibility-free life, and what responsibilities I have, I fail miserably at. It causes a lot of stress, but not so much stress as if I had to stop making art. That would break me in two. What my mom did to provide for us before we could provide for ourselves is a hell of a thing. That she neither resented nor parasitized our own creative pursuits is a part of it, a remarkable part of it.

There is good news: for those of us fortunate enough to live in the new world, life is long and resources are plentiful. There is time to put your children first, and time left to undertake the arduous return to yourself. There is room for a lot of love. Now that my sister is safely shipped off to her airplanes and motorcycles, and I to my brushes and canvases, my incredible mother is calibrating her high-powered career to allow more time to paint. She started out strictly abstract expressionist; now she's doing loose watercolors in her bewilderingly far-flung travels. On Mother's Day, I'd like to share some of her work with you:

Marrakesh, Ellen Maidman-Tanner, 2009, watercolor on paper

St. Martins, Ellen Maidman-Tanner, 2010, both watercolor on paper

Doodle, Ellen Maidman-Tanner, 2011, pen on paper

With lots of love to you, Ima, and gratitude to all of you mothers out there, for everything you do and sacrifice to raise us. It is noticed. Happy Mother's Day.


Crossposted at Artist Daily and The Huffington Post, hence the slightly different writing style. I'm working on some stuff just for you guys as well - more soon.


  1. I want to see more Ellen Maidman-Tanner!

  2. Fred - Excellent! I'm sure there will be more over time...

  3. Thank you for this post. As a mom who raised three children to adulthood, and experienced major roadblocks along the way, I too am returning to that which makes my heart sing. I hope one day my three will appreciate what I put aside for them.

  4. Robin - I wish you every success in returning to your passions; and I am sure that if they don't already, someday your kids will understand what you did for them. Thanks for taking the time to read this piece.