Talking Heads: Tori Tinsley and Laura Vela Discuss Motherhood and Art-making

Two artist moms, on left, woman sitting on sofa with baby on her lap and two green paintings on the wall above, and right, a woman holding her baby as she stands next to her artwork and laughing.
Left, Tori Tinsley and Callan at home beneath two of her paintings, and right, Laura Vela with her son Camilo and one of her artworks.

As if having a baby wasn’t hard enough, working women who are or plan to become pregnant are often put in the inexcusable position of having to defend their ability to create a family and still perform as professionals. Like the #metoo takedown of Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, the recent reports of MoMA PS1 rescinding a job offer to curator Nikki Columbus after it found out she had recently given birth, was another disheartening reminder that the art world is no bastion of enlightenment. We asked new moms and artists Laura Vela and Tori Tinsley (BURNAWAY’s former outreach coordinator) to talk about the emotional and professional challenges they have already faced, and whether and how they think motherhood will impact their art.

Tori Tinsley:  I was talking to [BURNAWAY contributing editor] Logan Lockner about me being a new mom, and he mentioned how much he loved your Instagram feed with all of your pictures of your baby, so that’s how we got the idea to do this. It’s been a few months since my son Cal was born, and I feel like I’m just in a daze, like I don’t know what’s up or down anymore.

Laura Vela: Yeah, I felt exactly like that for quite a few months.

TT: I want to hear more about how your process has been going. I was interested in this topic of motherhood and art long before I was pregnant, because I had a fear that I couldn’t be a successful artist and a successful mom.

There are obviously women who do both, like Marina Abramovic and Tracey Emin, but at the same time there are also all of these female artists who think that women can’t do both. There are stories of artists and writers leaving their families to pursue their art, so I had all of this dread that I couldn’t do it, but I started looking at other successful women in my life who do it and do it well, like my sister, who is a full-time doctor and a mom. And I’m like, “Well if she can do this, why can’t I?” I’m curious if you had similar reservations or different thoughts about it when you became pregnant or were thinking about becoming a mother.

LV: I’ve always known that I wanted to be a mother and I’ve always known that I wanted to be a younger mother, and that I didn’t want to wait until my 30s to have a baby, and it just seemed like the right time in my life. I’m working at a pre-school where we have a language immersion infant class so he can learn Spanish at school. My partner doesn’t speak Spanish, so that was really important to me that he be in a space where language is fostered.

But I was really scared about whether I was going to be able to balance everything, because I do have a full-time job apart from making art, so some weeks are better than others.  Some weeks I just come home and we’re lazy and just do nothing, but other weeks I have a bunch of stuff going on. I think a support system is really important, and not only from my partner but family and friends as well, and not everyone has that.

When I was in college I had this professor who had very negative sentiments against motherhood. He always said that all of the female artists he knew graduated from college, got pregnant, and disappeared. So that was a huge thing for me. But even when I was pregnant, I tried to work a lot, so I would have a little stockpile of works to pull from right after the baby was born, because I didn’t know what life was going to be like. For a good three or four months I was in babyland for sure. I didn’t do anything and I don’t feel bad about it, just taking time to be with my baby and adjusting to everything, because it’s a lot to adjust to, as you know.

For the first four months I was scared shitless and just making sure that my baby was breathing, and that’s all I cared about. But they’re so durable! I wish someone had told me that.

A woman with tattoo, holding her sleeping baby in a baby carrier as she works on a painting.
Atlanta artist Laura Vela at work in her studio with her son.

TT: Tell me more about the challenges that have come up and that you’re still probably navigating. There’s so much love and joy day to day, but I’ve been feeling unproductive in my art, even though I’m being so productive in caring for my son. It’s just so hard to juggle.

LV: Yeah, that’s really tough and hard to get over. I feel that way a lot, but I have to step back and think about it, because like I said, there’s weeks where I get so much done and others that I do absolutely nothing. It’s hard to get back into the swing of things and not feel super guilty. I figured out that if I have a week where I have a lot of deadlines, I have to get someone to help with Camilo, and my partner takes on more than usual, and then I compensate the following week and just take it easy.That’s something that’s always been tough for me, because I get depressed if I’m not productive.

TT: You have your partner, but are there other people who you’ve been getting that support from?

LV: Just family, and my job is so freakin’ supportive, it’s amazing, because it’s a language-immersion school with women from all around Latin America, and they’re all pretty much moms too, so it’s the ideal situation. If I ever have questions, I can go to them. And friends, even if they don’t know much about babies, it’s so much easier to have other people to help out or watch him, especially in those early months.

If I could give advice to any new mom, I would say don’t be scared to let people know that you want to be alone, because it’s hard to try to meet the needs of you baby, your family, and yourself.

TT: Do you know Amie Esslinger? She’s a local artist who makes beautiful work that is abstract and very layered and meticulous. She’s also a mom. When I was still pregnant, I asked her how it had been after her baby was born, and she said she had a huge gush of creativity. I’m obviously not at that point yet. Have you had any experiences like that?

A woman artist standing at a table covered with art materials and her infant son in a Bumbo seat.
Tori Tinsley keeps a close eye on her son while working in her home studio.

LV: I feel like my creativity has been pretty much the same, but what I have noticed, and which I was totally blown away about, is my motivation. I feel like I was so much lazier before. Sometimes I don’t know how I fit so many things into the day while having a baby and working a full-time job. I don’t know what happened. I guess it’s like an energy kick or something. I started listening to my body a little bit more too.

There’s only so much time in a day and I want to be there for my baby, but I also want to get shit done and still be there for my partner and still have a full-time job, and still make art, because that’s what makes me happy.

I think just understanding that you have less time makes you want everything to count. But it’s not always going to happen like that. There’s going to be weeks where you just stare at your baby for seven days straight and that’s OK.

TT: Do you see any similarities or differences in what you were working on before and what you’re working on now, and how being a mom has influenced your practice?

LV: I feel like I’m actually kind of in a rut with what I’m making, but that happens to anybody. I applied to a few different fellowships, because I feel like I can be productive. I just have to stick to something that I want to do. There’s just so much going on in the world that I feel like I’m being bombarded constantly. On Thursday I’m doing a live painting at … to help out the underserved refugees and immigrants with everything that’s going on right now.

Now that I have a baby, I just want to make sure that the work I make is reflective of the world I want to see.

TT: Did your work beforehand cover social issues?

LV: My previous work addressed a lot of social issues in the context of identity, so more of looking within my own personal story, and now I want to go beyond that now that I have a baby.

Woman sitting on scaffolding in front of a mural and holding her baby up.
Atlanta artist Laura Vela with her son at the 2018 Forward Warrior mural painting project in Cabbagetown.

TT: It’s like when you hang out with other parents and I’ve been enlightened about some things I didn’t know about, like something inside of you has been expanded.

LV: After I had a baby, my anxiety skyrocketed and everything scared me. For the first few months I was scared to even drive a car, because my brain would race through every situation that could possibly happen and it terrified me. I feel like that influences my art as well. With all of the recent family separations [at the U.S. border], that has made me realize that these moms are just trying to give their children a better life. My mom is undocumented and came over from Mexico when she was 8 months pregnant with me. So it’s just kind of mind-boggling to think about my own mother’s experience as a mother and how mine is so different, and ways that I want to honor what she had to go through.

TT: I think my own work is being impacted, so I’m excited to see how your work is going to be impacted too. What are your plans for the near future?

LV: My fellowship and making more art. I’ve been wanting to get back into oil painting for a while, so I’m researching that as well. Different opportunities pop up all the time.

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