Sally Deskins is an artist, art writer, consultant, art model, mother, wife and art enthusiast. She is a Teaching Assistant in the Art History Graduate Program at West Virginia University. Heavily inspired by contemporary artist Wanda Ewing's work challenging society's definitions of femininity, Deskins' art explores womanhood, the body and motherhood in her life and others'. Her art has been exhibited in galleries in Omaha, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago; and has been published in publications such as Certain Circuits, Weave Magazine, and Painters & Poets. She has curated various solo and group exhibitions, readings and performances centered on women’s perspective and the body. Her writing has been published internationally in journals such as Stirring, Prick of the Spindle, Bookslut and Bitch. She is founding editor of LES FEMMES FOLLES. She has published three LES FEMMES FOLLES anthologies of art, poetry and interview excerpts can be found on blurb.com. Her first illustrated book Intimates & Fools, with poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman (2014) won the Nebraska Book Honor Award for illustration and design. Her second illustrated book, Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection, with poetry by Wiseman, came out January, 2016 with Red Dashboard Books.
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
Mostly, I have a special kinship with my art. Each stroke is a reflection of a moment in time that has passed (some of it with my children or husband, extending my roles as mother/wife) so that means a lot to me, and in fact, I price each piece based on how much it would take to let go of it for. That being said, I at the (as of now) rare moment when someone expresses their own personal connection to my work, I am happy to let go of it into their home and add new moments to its meaning (and a few $ for the next project…)! Still, I will admit, when a piece isn’t quite right, it may sit for weeks or years, with me continuing to nit-pick actively with erases or modifications, or passively, on the wall or floor as something that either will remain unfinished, or is now said unfinished “flaws and all.”
What’s a project that has been exciting you lately?
My collaborative work with poet Laura Madeline Wiseman for our next project, Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection. She eloquently describes: “Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection is a collaborative book with art and illustrations by Sally Deskins, whose lush look at the body and nature in this collection offers a rich pallet on the human form and these tall creatures that stand among us. Moving from fairy tale to children’s book, film representation to fact, it tells the love story of two trees as they fall from a growing forest into the outstretched limbs of the other. Deskins’ body and tree prints and drawings weave a rich ecology of place to show us that even when we’re reaching away from what we know, our lives are actually becoming more entwined, binding us to what we love.”
For this project I have expanded, doing more twisting abstract body printing, tree leave prints, and illustrations, a few in collaboration with my children. I debuted the beginnings of this series last year, at Future Tenant Gallery in Pittsburgh for a solo exhibition, “What Will Her Kids Think?” also including my original Voice/Motherhood series and my work with Wiseman for our first book, Intimates and Fools(2014, Les Femmes Folles Books). (Some of my Leaves of Absence works will debut this fall at Pittsburgh’s Union Hall Gallery.)
As far as someone else’s work, I just read “Unstill Life” a memoir by Gabrielle Selz, and got completely immersed in her life story growing up the daughter of a famous art critic and novelist in the 60s and 70s. Her intimate descriptions of conversations with artists from Diane Arbus to Carolee Schneeman are so powerful and engaging. The book should really become a movie.
Visually I’m always into Wanda Ewing, whose work examined femininity, race, sexuality and gender. I continuously am looking at her stellar, bright work exuding confidence, as well as her personable, artistic blog writings for motivation.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
I still can’t believe I’m a mother. I didn’t dream of becoming a mother growing up, and I’m probably not too traditional of one, (but what does that mean anymore) considering my work. Since my first was born I’ve been fortunate to be able to stay home and create alongside them. They’re healthy and good kids (for the most part of course), and I have a great supportive husband, but still, time is nil, and as I heard someone else say, I don’t have time to wait around for the muse to strike. When I have five minutes, I gotta hunker down draw some lines, write a few paragraphs or make a few prints. Motherhood for me is day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and minute-by-minute. I learn from them, they learn from me, I learn by experiencing and figure it out as I go. There is a plethora of material out there about “how to have it all,” “how to balance,” the “right” way to be a mother, and sometimes I will read that stuff, listen to that stuff, but in the end all of it drives me crazy and I really don’t have time for it. We have a blast, we get mad and have misunderstandings and make mistakes, but that’s life.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
Before kids, I used to work for hours on end, for one thing. I’d work so hard on just one line, to get it just right. Ha! That has changed tenfold. I still may erase and come back on a line, but it will be over weeks, and now I’m much more ready to be “okay” with a line that isn’t perfect—in fact, now, I like the little smudges, erases, and cracked edges in my work. That is one reason I think led me to do some body printing. It’s chance-oriented, for the most part. The beauty is in the imperfections and mess of the paint, which is what I love in its literal print of the body, the statement it makes about the body image itself. And, I do not have hours on end to work on my art. I have moments. I relish them. I sneak. I bring toys into the corner, or let them play with paint. I don’t get things done as quickly as I’d like, but I have an awesome time doing it even when its brief, and that’s what matters most.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
Quite literally, as previously stated, I collaborate with my kids a lot. We paint together, and sometimes instead of recycling all of our work (we’ll paint/color dozens of pictures a week, or sometimes every day), I will use it as a canvas. So it brings my role as mother to the forefront of my work. And, my family sees my studio as a special place. They also, of course, attend my exhibits and are supportive of my work (my doing my work; of course they don’t like every piece I make!).
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
Yes. After I graduated and before I got married and had kids, I took my art for granted and even donated all of my art supplies, saying I’m done creating art. Now that I’m a parent, I realize it is something, like exercise, that I need to do in order to be a healthy functioning person and therefore mother! Of course I’ll go days or so without working on something, but it’s always there in my mind, changing and planning. Also I realize now how much art there is in just living, in simple moments with my kids, in the scenery, and relish that.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
This is a really good question and I always wonder about that as well, like Sally Mann, Alice Neel and Tierney Gearon. I think it definitely just depends on the individual artist and their relationship with art and their children. Only they know what is best. I have been called out for having my children in photographs with me at my art shows, but ultimately this is my call, we all love and support each other and that is the end note. To answer your question, I have drawn several times their faces as babies, but nothing that I have exhibited, just for personal and nostalgic reasons. I do photograph them constantly but this is again for personal reasons. I have been encouraged to “paint” the photographs that I take of them, but I haven’t found the right fit of an expressive fashion for doing such an endeavor, to capture such a moment in my own way. A for my main work focusing on the body, I haven’t considered using my children in that way, because it is about being a woman and mother. I have, as discussed, used their fearless marks in my work, but not their imagery. In a way, this could be viewed as using them as subjects, I suppose. Some like it, some don’t, some think it’s a wonderful expression of the dichotomy of motherhood, sexuality and gender, some think its crude. But the bottom line is how I feel about it, and I wouldn’t exhibit it if I didn’t think it was expressing something important to me.
Aside from the obvious need of more time, what has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had in regards to parenting and your art?
I’m a bit sensitive, so simply having criticism in regards to my parenting and being an artist of the body has been a few humps to tackle, but I’ve become much stronger for it and come to know myself more. Without critics, we don’t grow, right? I have also gotten criticized simply for my art, but that doesn’t bother me. Also, finding childcare for events that I must make—openings, panels, readings, etc. I feel like if more galleries and art centers had these options available, more mothers (and perhaps fathers too!) would partake.
In turn, what are some of the saving graces?
All of the support I have received—not only from my children and spouse, of course—but from people—and other mothers!–in the arts! Finding like-minded mothers who are also out there being audaciously themselves and supporting them as well. I keep a blog, Les Femmes Folles, interviewing women in all forms, styles and leves of art. Hearing their stories—whether mothers or not—about how they came to creating art, always keeps me in perspective and excited about what I’m doing. Of course, my kids bringing me down to earth is always a saving grace; a glass of wine, a date with my husband, too.
How do you escape?
Exercise is a good one—though here I’m not sure if you mean me personally. I do not—or have not yet—taken any solo vacations since children (though I have with my husband). I think I’d say going on mini-vacations with my husband is wonderful. Also quite simply a good book, a glass of wine, a cup of coffee on the porch on a cool morning watching the kids laugh, is quite the fine escape.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?