Balancing Being Both Artist and Muse

For too many centuries women have been being muses to artists. I wanted to be the muse, I wanted to be the wife of the artist, but I was really trying to avoid the final issue — that I had to do the job myself.

― Anaïs Nin

Rod Jones' "Artist Muse"

Rod Jones’ “Artist Muse”

[Fair Warning: This is a personal post with a whole lot of art historical references.]

As mentioned in a previous post, I am grappling with understanding how a creative free spirit can also be a committed romantic partner.  The complexity of this issue is compounded by the ingrained cultural expectations for how I am supposed to behave in a partnership because I am a woman.

I hate to admit how often I have found myself grumbling under my breath, “I wish had a wife.”*  To that subconscious voice, “wife” means someone else to do the laundry and make sure the groceries have been purchased and make those annoying phone calls in the middle of the business day where you have to wait on hold for hours on end.

I hate to admit it because that means that I unconsciously attribute those tasks to a woman — and denigrate those tasks, and therefore the woman, as menial.  I hate to admit it because I have fallen into that role for my partners time and time and time again without even noticing that I was doing it.  It was ingrained in my head that, well, I’m the woman (who was raised in a culturally conservative area), and I work from home… so all that stuff falls on my plate.  Because, you know, I’m the de facto wife…

But on top of those subconsciously assumed domestic responsibilities, I have also always been attracted to creative men — musicians, writers, painters.  So, now centuries of cultural expectations to be that artist’s requisite muse come into play.

Let’s recap.  A single brain (and heart) feels simultaneously pressured to be nurturing, organized, doting (and yet sexy), 

as well as being endearingly quirky and blazingly passionate in equal measures to fit the contemporary creative man’s ideal muse (aptly titled the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”) —

all while still going on wild adventures to inspire my own painting and writing.

I can’t be the only artist out there – male or female – who is exhausted from being deigned as someone else‘s inspiration on top of working to the bone to insure my own creative (and financial) survival?  How do artists create balanced partnerships — especially when coming from a traditional/conservative upbringing?  Someone must know how to do this!

So I combed through notable examples of other female artists who have balanced being both artist and muse in their relationships with other artists in order to cull some inadvertent advice.  Many of their relationships ended in imbalance and heartbreak — but there are a few glowing examples, so bear with me.

Camille Claudel (1864-1943) “The Waltz”, 1899-1905

As one of the first women on the arts scene of belle epoch Paris, Camille Claudel made quite an impression when she arrived at Auguste Rodin‘s studio to work as his assistant. Rodin was quickly drawn to her as his model, lover, inspiration and artistic equal.

This intense love affair, encompassing their personal and professional lives, inspired both artists, whose works functioned as declarations, criticisms or echoes of one another.  He introduced her to famous figures in Paris; she changed the course of his work.  But the affair with Rodin both made her and destroyed her.  The destructive aftermath of the affair, when he chose to stay with his wife, consumed her to such a degree that she threw away much of her work and was admitted to an asylum, where she lived for 30 years.

Lesson # 1: Don’t become so attached to an imagined “future” with a partner that you lose sense of your own creative purpose.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner lived and painted together from 1942, when they met, until Jackson Pollock’s death in 1956.  This fourteen-year long relationship of two major figures in the the Abstract Impressionist movement points to the danger not being able to achieve a state of equilibrium.

While sharing a common living space, the two artists maintained separate studio areas.  On invitation, they visited each other’s studios to pass criticism on what went on there, and were honest in their judgments.

While the working relationship of Pollock and Krasner seemed to be beneficial to both of the artists, Krasner’s career as an artist faltered while Pollock’s continued to flourish.  She continued painting throughout her life with Pollock, but she would destroy whole groups of her work due to periods of extreme self-criticism.

As Krasner said herself in Art Talk, Conversations with 15 woman artists:

I couldn’t run out and do a one-woman job on the sexist aspects of the art world, continue my painting and stay in the role I was in as Mrs. Pollock. I just couldn’t do that much. What I considered important was that I was able to work and other things would have to take their turn. Now rightly or wrongly, I made my decisions.

Lesson # 2: Be wary of the regrets that may arise when you prioritize your partner’s career before your own.

However, there are always alternatives.  Celia Paul, who was Lucian Freud‘s long-term lover, never considered giving up her art in service to his career.  “Lucian also used to say to me that when Gwen was intensely involved with Rodin she stopped working and gave herself up for love. I think Lucian thought it would be quite nice if I did the same thing. But actually being with him made me more ambitious,” she said.

Lesson #3: Perceive your partner’s successes as inspirational encouragement rather than discouragement.

There are also many famous creative couples who collaborate on all their projects — such as Christo & Jeanne-Claude and Allora & Calzadilla.

Environmental artists Christo (left) and Jeanne-Claude (right) show pictures and maps of work-in-progress.

For their 51-year relationship, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were true and equal partners, as displayed in an interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art:

Christo: First of all, you should understand that this is not only my project, it’s also Jeanne-Claude’s, all I do myself are the drawings . . .

Jeanne-Claude: The only things I do myself is write the checks, pay the bills and pay the taxes. Everything else is Christo and Jeanne-Claude, including the creativity. It’s about time that people correct this mistake.

Jeanne-Claude passed away suddenly in 2009 at age 74 from an aneurysm.  Although Christo is continuing their planned projects, nothing is the same, as he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal:

She cannot be substituted. Cannot be revived. Cannot be reinvented.

When asked by Interview magazine how she and Guillermo Calzadilla have survived sixteen years and raising a child together, Jennifer Allora eloquently summarized how these artistic collaboration-partnerships work:

All of us is all one thing, all part of our dysfunctionality.  Everything becomes a personal problem or becomes part of our work problem.  There’s just no separation.

“Girlfriends and Lovers” by Mickalene Thomas

Even working in tight-yet-respectful proximity can create a dynamic dialogue, as Mickalene Thomas said about her relationship with her wife, Carmen McLeod, in an interview on Art Nerd New York:

We have a very close relationship that extends into our studios and a serious critical dialogue. It’s funny though, we didn’t realize just how much we extend into one another’s work until we were installing Carmen’s show at CRG in September; we realized that she had included five portraits of me in her show and that I had included my first portraits of her in my show! It was silly that we hadn’t realized until the installation date what we had done, but it just speaks to the closeness of our working relationship.

Lesson #4: Involving your partner in your creative process can bond you more tightly together.

But what if the relationships don’t last for 14, 16, or 51 years?  The Queen of Neo-Soul, Erykah Badu, has become the iconic rapper muse through her passionate relationships with Andre 3000, Common, The D.O.C, and Jay Electronica — three of which resulted in a child.

During the time Andre met Erykah, the Atlanta rapper was in the process of finding his true self.  With the help of Erykah, Andre 3000 ditched his jerseys and baggy jeans, experimented with more eclectic fashion choices, and broke his musical sound wide open.  Badu’s influence on Common was equally inspirational, as he recounts:

Erykah is a chapter in my life that resonates with me. It was a time of reflection… During our relationship, I often chose to think, I’ll chill and let other people get their way, because that’s just who I was in all of my relationships with friends and family. I’d choose to take a [backseat], and getting to see that in myself while she and I were together was enlightening. I eventually realized I don’t need to be that person. I learned to speak my mind and be the man I’m supposed to be. It was a release.

Badu has equally fond memories of these relationships, relayed through Giant Magazine:

I know about the backlash, the ‘Erykah Badu, if you look at her, she’ll make you change gods and wear crochet pants’ backlash, but nobody looks at the things that those people have given to me.  [They gave me] so much musical freedom. Common is the most humble person I ever met. Kind and generous. He reinforced that in me. Andre is very creative and artistic. All of that that you see of him, that’s all him. That’s how he is, and that gave me a creative push, too.  With Andre, we were both very young, so we didn’t know what we wanted or anything. We just knew we were in love, and we didn’t care who saw us. With Common, it was a little bit more mature.

Lesson #5: Even if relationships between two artists are impermanent, they can still be powerfully transformative — and worthwhile.

Lots of information to absorb.  So for now, I’ll eat dinner with my host family here in Hong Kong, curl up on the futon to watch Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, and then absorb myself with some late-night studio time to see how the insights percolate.

*Please pardon the wafts of privilege that shroud this post.  You are feel to think, “Blah, blah, blah, this is just a flighty responsibility-less artist complaining about how good she has it…”  Sure.    

**This frustrating concept is eloquently explored in the poem “No Muse is Good Muse” by Rochelle Distelheim.  Click here to read it.


3 responses to “Balancing Being Both Artist and Muse

  1. Why do you beat the drum of being brought up “conservative”?
    That’s not quite true…maybe 2/3ds. Anyway, you sailed of to Byzantium from conservative shores a long time ago. The issue isn’t obligation, it’s freedom. Do I find a relationship where I am free to be me AND be bonded with another, doinng good work?

    • I think that the “conservative” drum is quite accurate when considering the cultural atmosphere. There certainly were relationships that provided different options, but the overwhelming majority of examples of female-male dynamics during the time that was shaping my brain were traditional “family values” marriages. But yes, now the parameters for relationships include individual freedom and loving acceptance and support of another person — which all congeals into beautiful collaboration as a duo.

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