A collaborative photo essay and conversation about parenthood between siblings
May 10, 2015
by Natalie Reis and Robby Reis
MOTHERHOOD / PART 1
ROBBY: Is your current home life anything like what you thought it would be when you were first pregnant?
NATALIE: No, I imagined my life to be more mundane. While I was married, I was home with the kids and my husband worked. But now that I’m on my own, with the children, things are much different. The life I lead now is a better reflection of who I am.
Did it come naturally for you to want children? Did you always want children or did this urge come unexpectedly?
I always thought I didn’t want children. I wasn’t ready for the commitment and responsibility it required. The women in my family did everything (career, kids, home). Father’s were not very implicated. It was hard for me to imagine anything different for myself. My husband at the time always said he wanted two kids. After a health scare back in 2008, I started to look at life differently. I thought about having children and a life with the person I loved. When we decided to have children, the conversation came about very naturally, and so did being pregnant, and having children.
Would you say that you lead the life of single parent? Why?
I do and I don’t. Yes, I’m a “single mom” with full custody of two children, with special needs…but my support system is incredibly large. The father of my children is very involved, and I have been able to rely on family members and non-family members when in need.
The part I consider “single-parent” is being the main person to make executive decisions concerning the children, while absorbing the emotional joys and heartaches alone. The only other person, who is truly invested emotionally in these children, is their father and that relationship (in the conventional sense) is over. We still share a lot and communicate almost daily. We are raising our children together, while apart. So yes, I do consider myself a single parent, but that definition encompasses so many wonderful people who support us.
Describe to me an average evening at home with the kids. From the moment that you get home, what are the sequence of events until you go to bed?
Snack time for kids, park when nice out, cook dinner, feed the kids, homework or home therapist comes over, showers/PJs/teeth brushing, playtime/TV while I clean kitchen/laundry, read books, snuggles, bedtime.
Has being a mother heightened your experience as a visual artist or hindered it? Or neither?
Heightened. I’m not sure I can articulate how it has…but something changes in you physically, mentally, emotionally…even in the way I manage my time and art production. Every minute is valuable.
Do you think that being a woman and a mother pushes you to explore themes and concepts and ideas in your art that most male artists don’t tend to approach?
I hope not. Because I’m raising a boy and a girl, my feminist perspective has become more inclusive. Feminism is humanism. Compared to male artists…I’m not sure how my approach may differ. I would hope that both male and female artists aren’t afraid to take on subjects that are critical and intelligent. Maybe the use of breast milk in my work came naturally to me, since I nursed my children…but then again, I have also incorporated semen into my work.
Does being a woman and a mother make you feel like you can’t approach certain themes that male artists are free to explore without hesitation?
Never. I always work from my gut.
Has becoming a mother affected or influenced your career goals?
I think it has made me more ambitious—not career wise, but rather to live the most authentic life possible. As far as being able to go on residencies and travel for work, I’m somewhat limited, but there always seems to be a way. Nothing is impossible. In fact, I recently started to inquire into residencies that welcome children.
How do you separate your artistic life from your home life? Or do you see them as one and the same?
I think about my work all the time, at anytime. The production of my work happens in the studio. A lot of the prep work is done at home and on the road.
ART PRACTICE / PART 2
You have at times expressed to me mixed emotions about continuing to pursue your artistic career, and you have even quit painting at least twice that I can remember. What has made you question or doubt the merit and/or worth of your art practice and the pursuit of your career?
My reasons for wanting to quit are often related to the overbearing feeling that I should be doing something more substantial. Producing art is a very individualistic and isolating process. I hate that my work is about me, and what I think or what I feel. But, I also can’t escape the innate need to apply matter to a surface. Career wise, I am my happiest while producing art (painting in the studio or printmaking) and while teaching.
Does your current art practice and status in the art world reflect the vision that you had for yourself when you were in grad school?
I have gone beyond what I ever imagined. And this has nothing to do with financial gain, but rather the quality of my life, being able to work, travel, teach, and raise my children.
Do you feel marginalized or empowered as a woman in the art world?
Ouf. I had to rewrite my answer a few times…at this point, my gender isn’t a factor that preoccupies me as much as before. Authenticity is more important. So no. I don’t personally feel marginalized or empowered.
Has your gender provided you with opportunities or held you back during the development of your artistic career? Or has this not been an issue?
I think gender is a factor, as is race, religion, and political beliefs. So yes, it has an impact, resulting both in opportunities and setbacks. I don’t think I’m unique, but rather, my identity is part of a greater social structure.
Do you feel like you are treated differently than your male counterparts in the art world?
Yes. But not just in the art world, in everyday life.
Have you noticed any differences between how male and female viewers react to your work?
I have received very profound readings of my work from both men and women (viewers, collectors, and critics). At times, I have also experienced strange reactions towards my work…admittedly, maybe more from men.
You have explored the idea of women doing terrible and violent things in your work more than once. But you yourself are a natural caregiver and very motherly, where does your compulsion to explore these dark themes come from? What attracts you to these narratives?
One of the themes I explored was infanticide, which interested me because it is an act that happens across all cultures and religions. I reluctantly explored this theme. The fact that it disturbed me is what pushed me to go there. It’s how I know something is worth addressing.
MOTHERHOOD + AUTISM / PART 3
When were the kids diagnosed and what was the diagnosis?
My son was diagnosed at two-and-a-half and my daughter at two. Both of my children have ASD—Autism Spectrum Disorder. I guess you can categorize them as having “Asperger’s,” although that term is no longer used. Someone with ASD is either categorized as having high or low functioning autism. Within the high functioning range, you can either be severe, moderate, or mild, which then reflects the level of support the person needs. I would say that my children are somewhere between moderate and mild…but their level of support keeps changing. It keeps getting better, and easier. They continue to progress, and this has been one of the most incredible parts to witness throughout our journey.
Describe to me how you felt when you got the news.
I was destroyed. Lost. Deeply saddened. Your child’s entire life flashes before your eyes. The second time around it still came as a shock, even thought I suspected my daughter’s diagnosis as early as twelve months old. Despite my reactions, I was proactive and immediately found early intervention services for my children. With time, you learn that a diagnosis like autism is not the worse thing that can happen to your child, or to your family.
Having two kids with ASD has given you the extra role of being a teacher to your kids. Have you considered teaching art?
I do teach, mostly young adults at the college level. I believe that my experience with my children has taught me to “attend” better to a student’s needs.
How has raising two children with ASD influenced the content of your work? How has it affected your creative drive? How has it affected your approach to motherhood?
I have noticed a change in my work. It could be attributed to motherhood or maturation as a person and an artist. I feel like my work is simpler, less figurative, and bears more weight visually and conceptually (or at least I hope so). My creative drive has intensified mostly because of the limited time I have in the studio. Every minute counts.
My approach to motherhood has changed. I’m focused on the kids, and not what people think. I’ve learned how to diplomatically advocate for my children, and articulate their needs. This skill greatly serves me with work as well. I’m learning to share the story of my children and ASD not for the simple purpose of awareness, but instead as a means to foster acceptance. There is so much beauty in their neuro-diversity, and room for them to co-exist in this world.
What are your hopes and goals for the future in regards to your family and your art practice?
Simple. I don’t want a huge house, a fancy car, or luxury trips. I want to continue to produce. I hope my children will eventually be independent. And mostly, I hope we can enjoy the time we have together, because life passes so quickly.
Natalie and Robby Reis are both artists and siblings. Natalie is a visual artist whose work bears a feminist tone, often in reference to art history and current events. Her art practice consists of painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture. Robby is a photographer and filmmaker. He examines intimate relationships and the ambivalence experienced between reality and fiction.