If creating a work of art were like giving birth, the creative process would go something like this. The artist would take a paintbrush, a pencil, or a typewriter, and then dab one dot of paint, draw one note of music, or type one single letter. After that, the artist would not touch the paintbrush, pencil or typewriter again. The work of art would proceed to create itself. Completely.
Not that the artist's job would be finished at that point. Heavens no! Every day the artist would be called upon to provide the art supplies — more supplies than she ever thought necessary for a single work of art. Doing so would take up much of her time and energy, and each night she would collapse onto her bed, wondering where the next day's supplies would come from. More canvases! More paper! More pencils! More paint! More midnight oil! And, of course, more studio space!
The artist would not be permitted to observe the creation of the work of art, although certain signs of progress would be evident: empty tubes of paint, distant piano reverberations, the soft scratch of pencil against paper. Furthermore, no matter how strongly the artist wished to help shape the artwork’s form, style or content, she would have no control over the finished product. Once she realized and accepted this fact, she would have to be content with providing the best supplies that she could buy, beg, borrow or steal.
Rush orders for obscure supplies would arrive unexpectedly — frequently in the middle of the night. The artwork’s world premiere would be most dramatic. As the great day approached, the physical demands on the artist would become overwhelming. The date and time of the event would be kept secret from the artist until shortly before its occurrence. At that time, she would be required to perform a great feat in order to unveil the art — perhaps carry a piano over a mountain or reshelve the Boston Public Library’s entire fiction section.
The critics would immediately come out with nothing but praise, showering plaudits on both art and artist. However, as the years passed, credit for the art's strengths would go primarily to the art itself, while blame for the art's flaws would frequently be assigned to the artist. Finally, as the artwork’s beauty and complexity deepened with age, the artist’s all-consuming act of creation would seldom be recalled, even by the artist herself. The art would truly have a life of its own.
You can create many works of art in your lifetime, but fortunately there's a limit to how many times you can give birth. I cherish every aspect of being a parent, from the first act which sets new life in motion, to the eventual release into the world of a full-grown individual. That said, if creating a work of art really were like giving birth, I don't think I would be an artist.
Copyright 2011 by Elizabeth Alexander
I wrote the first draft of this essay in 1992, the year I became a mom, after nearly a dozen child-free fellow artists told me they knew what it was like to give birth. (Ha, ha ha!)
Now, with both my children in college, this piece of writing seems more true than ever! That said, I do believe that children and art (as different as they really are!) are two of the most powerful forces in the world.