Can a Mother Devote Her Life to Art?



“I really like how the solar bleeds out” (all images courtesy JoAnna Novak)

Once I first found my favourite author, I had a tough time separating my admiration for her work from my need to emulate her life. I didn’t simply wish to write like her — I wished to be like her, calling her “my blueprint.” Borderline idolatry to make sure, however I can’t assist trying to find steering and assurance — if she may do it, so can I — within the lives of ladies I love. This similar impulse propels JoAnna Novak’s debut memoir, Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood, which traces the arc of her obsession with the artist Agnes Martin. 

Novak, a author, is 5 months pregnant together with her first baby when she decides to spend 18 days within the small city of Taos, New Mexico — the place the reclusive Martin, who died in 2004, resided for a few years — to immerse herself in Martin’s life and work. The purpose: to harness in herself the artist’s trademark self-discipline and detachment. “I used to be right here to be like Agnes Martin,” she declares as she settles into her rented high-desert casita, the place she resolves to stay desk-bound and distraction-free. 

On the cusp of her third trimester, Novak is at a crossroads, unable to reconcile her “schismatic identification: woman-who-puts-writing-first-and-never-wants-kid and pregnant-body.” Afraid motherhood will imperil her work, she’s drawn to Martin, who shed lots of her attachments and obligations with a purpose to lead a cloistered life dedicated to artwork. “I noticed that in Martin,” she writes, “I used to be in search of a solution to see my very own life anew.” 

“Lucy crossing la cienaga on the Fred Baca Wetlands Nature Path”

Holed up in Taos, Novak undertakes an experiment in solitude and art-making. However she dooms the experiment from the beginning by bringing alongside her husband. Though Martin urged artists to guard their “quiet frame of mind,” Novak wonders, “May a quiet state embrace a lover, a toddler?” I think that Martin would have scoffed at such a proposition. But the extra Novak reads and writes about Martin, the extra she realizes that Martin was not fairly the inflexible hermit she’d imagined and romanticized. The identical Martin who declared in 1976 that “artists should of necessity be alone” additionally wrote in 1972 that “asceticism is a mistake.” 

By the guide’s finish, Novak decides that laboring to remake herself in her hero’s picture is counterproductive. “What if such extravagant pursuit of Martin’s ethos would merely maintain me impoverished from my very own?” she wonders, later admitting that this “was not the primary time I had match myself into one other lady” and that she’ll probably “be drawn to myths like Martin’s perpetually.” 

Novak is an outstanding author, and on the coronary heart of Contradiction Days is a compelling portrait of the artist as a pregnant lady whose physique and identification are in flux. But for all her admiration of Martin’s various way of life, Novak doesn’t dig very deeply into why she’s made extra conventional decisions in her personal life — the guide would have benefited from extra insights into her need to have a toddler (past a obscure concession to her husband that it “would enrich our lives”) and her resolution to get married.

In fact wifedom and motherhood aren’t at odds with artistry. There is no such thing as a single solution to be an artist. What labored for Martin doesn’t work for Novak — or for most individuals, for that matter — and her time at Taos proves that admiration doesn’t necessitate imitation, that every artist should uncover for herself the circumstances below which she will finest make artwork. There is no such thing as a blueprint. There are solely contradictions.

“View from the casita”

Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood by JoAnna Novak (2023) is revealed by Catapult and is out there on-line and in bookstores.


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