Can Moms Make Art?

Brilliant documentary shows real life of 4 women artists.

Posted Apr 02, 2013

artist pregnant mother

If you've ever raised a kid or two, while at the same time trying to write or make some kind of art on a serious basis, you'll relate deeply to a new documentary entitled Lost in Living. It delves powerfully into the conflicting emotions and life choices of parents, especially mothers, who are also writers or artists.

I was deeply moved when I watched it. The film's four articulate subjects kept saying things I might have said, if I'd been that open at the time of my own earlier conflicts. 

Created and directed by Mary Trunk and her Ma and Pa Films over the course of seven years, Lost in Living focuses on two painters, a writer, and a filmmaker. Two, best friends, were pregnant at the start of filming, and two already had grown children (with kids of their own).

Mary Trunk agreed to respond to my questions about her creative process. Like any superb work of art, though, the film speaks very well for itself. I can't recommend it highly enough.


Q: Mary, so many gems were spoken by your subjects. For instance, one spoke of "art as adultery," the common feeling that when you focus on your work, you're cheating on your kids. How did you get your subjects to speak so freely?

I spent about seven years filming, and in that time we established a trust and a friendship that allowed them to feel comfortable with me. I also work hard at letting any subject be who they are. With that said, I think I've learned how to create an atmosphere for my subjects to open up and feel freer to reveal and say things that are sometimes surprising to them or something they had not articulated until I started recording.

The most fascinating thing about being a director of documentary films is that I am forced to listen. Not engage in a conversation, discussion or debate. It is an act of deep compassion, I feel. How often does one get the chance to just talk and know the other person is listening with deep concentration?

I also like my subjects very much. I don't want to put them in positions where they feel cornered or betrayed. I also make sure they understand that by revealing as much as they do--their strengths and their vulnerabilities--they are presenting to viewers complicated characters with a lot of depth.

Q: What was your initial inspiration for this film?

I moved to Los Angeles when my daughter was one and a half. I was in the process of completing my first documentary film, so I was struggling with caring for my daughter and editing in small bits while she slept and napped. My husband was working out of town Monday through Friday. And frankly I am not exactly the maternal type. I couldn't help but wonder how other mothers were handling this situation.

I joined mommy and me groups, found a nursery school and tried to connect with other mothers. That certainly fed the need for some kind of adult interaction. But I did not meet anyone who was trying to make art while also raising a child. That's when I thought I should just put it out there as a project/film and see if I can find people.

My husband was the first person to say, "No one will want to see that movie." And he wasn't the last. Let's be honest, motherhood is ghettoized. Not a lot of people are interested in anything that goes on in that arena unless they are also mothers. But if an idea hits me in a certain way, I just have to make it happen. 

I interviewed many possible subjects, but I felt I was sort of exploring old territory. Then, my husband, the first doubter, suggested I find someone who is pregnant and document how she goes through the transition of becoming a mother. By happenstance, while making DVD copies of my first film (The Watershed), I came across two best friends, Caren and Kristina, who were both pregnant.

I decided to contrast the two younger women with two mothers who were of an older generation. That way I could interview both the older women and their children for a unique multi-generational perspective. By the way, my husband helped me film one of the first interviews with both Caren and Kristina and as we left Caren's apartment he turned to me and said, "Wow, you have a film there."


Q: How different was your process compared to the making of your previous films?

My process of filmmaking is actually somewhat similar for all of my work. I have a vague idea that I can't let go of, I spend some time trying to figure out a structure to start filming in and then I see what happens. One of the reasons that I'm so attracted to documentary filmmaking is that one never knows where a story or subject will take you. Certainly you can't just decide to start shooting on some vague notion, but I like the idea of the story forming itself as I go.

The difference with Lost In Living is that I filmed over a seven year period. I documented what was going on as it was happening. In The Watershed I knew the story already and then interviewed my family members about it and used a huge amount of archival super-8 footage and photographs to illustrate that story. In Plain Art I followed a project to its completion. I didn't know what the outcome would be but I knew when it was over.

Q: How many hours of film were there to be edited down to under two hours?

Close to 500 hours. As crazy as it sounds, I memorized a good chunk of that by watching it over and over. It took that to help me realize what parts were going to tell this story and what I could let go. I wanted this film to have the feeling of a novel where narratives and themes are woven in and out. Where the characters are connected by those narrative and themes. When I started working with my editor, Caren (also in the movie), I had whittled down the interviews to about 20 hours. I kept all the B-roll because one can never have enough of that. So that was probably another ten hours.

Q: I loved the way you caught the typical, somewhat naive, expectations of a pregnant artist, that tentative belief that one's life will only be brought to a standstill for a couple of months. Did you have a list of great thematic ideas you worked to pull out of the subjects?

I always had a very long list of questions and topics to discuss with my subjects when I went to film them. One we consistently discussed was "Why make art?" And honestly, I think there are multiple reasons. Margie needed an escape, Merrill wanted to make sense of the world she lives in, Caren has a strong desire to immerse herself in the limitlessness of her imagination, and Kristina sees almost everything she does as a creative act, from cooking to filmmaking.

The women are each so articulate and smart and eager to ponder and reflect on their own situations. They often added more to my questions than I could have anticipated. Sometimes I would find myself abandoning the questions altogether. I am happy that the film delves into many other ideas other than art and motherhood, including parenting, feminism, friendship, anger, loneliness, depression, age, body image, and divorce.


Q: "We're not getting any gold stars for consistency," said one of your subjects. Isn't that part of the trade-off of being a parent and an artist, that you feel guilty no matter what you're doing and try to make everyone happy regardless of the potential long-term consequences?

Guilt comes with the territory, it seems to me. And even when you try to make everyone happy you fail. I was always amazed at Margie and Merrill's ability to incorporate domestic life with their art. Margie's studio was right off the kitchen. She'd squint at a painting while stirring spaghetti. Merrill had her three daughters underfoot as she typed. Caren and Kristina were not as adept at that. Nor am I. Or maybe they just didn't accept that as much. Their husbands definitely participate in the domestic world more. And yet, with the help you can't stop feeling guilty.

Even as I write this now my daughter is lying on the couch not feeling well, recovering from a stomach bug. My husband is wondering what to prepare for dinner and he wants my input. I want to just do this and I can feel the coat of guilt creeping onto my shoulders. So what do you do? And what are the long-term consequences? It's hard to know. You just keep plugging along because this is the choice you made.

Q: Their need for external validation seemed to lessen somewhat over the period of filming. Or at least that's a place they hoped to reach. I sensed poignancy when they spoke of such changes in themselves.

Caren and Kristina had children in their late 30s, and I think they were more prepared for the changes to their careers. But that doesn't mean they didn't have expectations that were dashed. Caren especially was hoping that being a part of this film would help her career as a painter. And that didn't happen. She did become a different kind of artist and the fact that she was open to it is what is unique and wonderful about her. I would say the same for Kristina. They are both adaptable to what is coming.

It's always hard to give up something that you thought was the most meaningful thing you've ever done for something that is risky and new. I did that myself. I was a dancer/choreographer and then became a filmmaker. I still mourn my days of having a dance company but I also feel that all of that experience feeds this new art form.

I thought I'd never become a mother because I assumed it would ruin my life and I'd never do art. Until someone I deeply trust said to me, "Well, you won't be the artist you thought you'd be. You'll still be an artist but a very different one." That certainly helped me to rethink having a kid. I also think, like me, both Caren and Kristina had the taste of success and when their children arrived it didn't become too bittersweet. They made the choice to have kids and they wanted it so they had to make it work.

Margie and Merrill were a bit different in that way. This is probably one of the generational changes between the four women. Merrill and Margie stuck to their art forms, while having made choices at very young ages to be wives and mothers.

I think we all need validation and recognition. Some can handle it better than others and some need more time to process rejections and indifference. Mothers become invisible in a lot of ways and we need to be seen and heard. Our work as mothers is so easily dismissed, and that work often feeds our art.

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Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry

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