Interview: Jennifer Reeder
Jennifer Reeder is a filmmaker and visual artist who constructs very personal narratives about landscapes, coincidence and trauma. She has made over 40 film/video projects and written 12 scripts, which have earned her international acclaim for screenings in the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center, the 2000 Whitney Biennial, P.S.1’s Generation Z, and the 48th International Venice Biennale, among many others. Meanwhile, Jennifer has been actively raising three amazing sons. We were thrilled to get her take on being an artist and a mother.
CR: Briefly describe your kids in your own words:
Jennifer: My oldest son is 9 and his name is Jedidiah. He is literal. His father is Shane, who is also an artist. My second son is 6 and his name is Levi. He is empathetic. His father is also Shane. My third son is 17 months and his name is Atticus. He is a lazy bum. His father is Nate, who is an artist sympathizer.
CR: How do you find a balance between parenthood, art making, and day job? How has this balance evolved as new kids entered the picture?
Jennifer: I was an artist before I became a parent, so I already knew how to hustle. The hardest adjustment was with the first kid, Jed. He was a tangible disruption to the creative routine but he was portable so I took him everywhere. I refused to accept the idea that I could not do it all. I got ballsy, or more accurately….I got vadgey.
When Jed was 14 months old, I moved the two of us to San Francisco for the summer to make a film via a residency at SFAI. When Levi was 6 months old, I moved the three of us to Ohio for the summer to make a film via an award from the Wexner Center for the Arts. When I returned from maternity leave with Levi, I became the Director of Graduate Studies. I made a film while I was pregnant with Atticus and just accepted the position as Head of the Art Department. In two weeks, I start post-production on another new film, which I shot this past spring. I also just founded an organization called Tracers Book Club, which promotes feminism as a means toward social justice. I am busier now with three children than I was with none.
For me its not so much about balance—that term suggests a false sense of serenity and order. The way it all works in our house is more like packing for a vacation at the last minute—we cram as much as we can into a backpack, trying very hard not to forget or damage anything (or anyone.)
CR: What has your process been like for returning to a studio practice after having a newborn? Any strategies you’d recommend to other artist-parents for getting through that phase?
Jennifer: Work your ass off while you are expecting—make a ton of work and secure some postpartum deadlines so you don’t have to rush directly back into the studio with a newborn. I nursed all three of my kids and so those first several weeks were crucial for attachment. The reward for 40 weeks of pregnancy is obsessively falling in love with your newborn without distraction—this is true for both moms and dads. If you have lined up some shows or screenings or a residency you have a deadline(s) for getting back into the studio. I gave a lecture at the MCA when Jed was 3 weeks old and resumed search chair committee duties when Atticus was 2 weeks old (I conducted Skype interviews with short list candidates while nursing off camera.) Trust your instincts but don’t abandon your ambition and do not let anyone shame you for either spending time with your kid(s) or spending time in your studio.
CR: When you were pregnant with Atticus, I remember you saying that you were nervous that there were so few examples of successful artist-mothers raising multiple kids. Some of this is surely generational and some is visibility — when successful artists do have families it’s just not something that’s discussed. What’s your take on this now? Who are your models for artist-parenting / parent-artisting?
Jennifer: I am inspired by all working moms, from my own mother to Hilary Clinton to Angelina Jolie–we are all thriving in spite of the patriarchy. For the artist-mom in particular, there is pressure to stay active and visible which is not as significant for the artist-dad. That is, from my own experience, there is an expectation that the artist-mom will take a break from her studio practice, slow down at least or quit altogether. This assumption is not made so immediately for the artist-dad. We still live in a culture which assumes that women raise the children and abandon all professional goals in the process. This is a harmful assumption which both parents are responsible for refuting. I am all in favor of a radical re-formation of the system or a bypass altogether.
CR: Has having children affected your relationship with the art world? What alternative structures might make that world more inclusive for artists with families?
Jennifer: The most successful living female artist is Cindy Sherman, and she has no children. She is perhaps from a generation of women who felt compelled to choose between an art career and motherhood and although more women today choose both, the bias still exists. Art-making can be a selfish endeavor and motherhood is the antithesis of that but they needn’t cancel each other out. We must have supportive partners, families, friends, gallerists, curators, dealers, etc. which does not always happen without a mandate. Ask for what you want, not just for what you need.
I am less social now, but much more productive. I don’t like to take my kids to many art-related events, which means that I don’t go to many art-related events. I don’t want to be the woman chasing her kids around the gallery at the opening. I also don’t like to take them bar-hopping for a similar reason (jk). I love my children and I love exposing them to art but I feel comfortable leaving them at home when I want to be seen as an artist FIRST. This still means that I have it all, just not all at once.
CR: Time management aside, has parenthood affected your creative practice / the work itself?
Jennifer: My films have always featured an unruly lone female, aggressively attempting to navigate her world and ultimately reinvent it. I borrow heavily from observation and personal experience: my work prepares me for my life and vice versa. In my earlier films, the protagonist was always a single woman, now she is usually a single mom — parenthood has entered the narrative, and I think it’s made my work a lot more complicated. Aside from that, I steal ideas from my kids — their minds are so weird and rubbery, I cannot resist.