The Artist in the Nursery Interview: Marian Henley
Marian Henley is a cartoonist and author who’s work has appeared in Glamour, Ms., The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Austin Chronicle, among other places. She is the author of Maxine, Laughing Gas, and The Shiniest Jewel: A Family Love Story. She lives in Austin, Texas with her family.
At 49 you were working professionally as an artist full-time, when you decided to become a mother and adopt a baby. That must have been quite a change! Can you talk a bit about the ways you had to adapt your life to having a child? Were there any ideas you had about mothering and/or having a baby previous to bringing your son home, that you found were unrealistic or at least different when you did bring him home?
Adapt my life? Hmmm. No, I’d say nuclear annihilation followed by painstaking, piecemeal reconstruction is the best way to describe the adjustment period. This had nothing to do with William – he was an easy baby and, considering the first twenty-two months of his life had bobbed along quietly and predictably (Russians believe babies do best with strict routine), he adjusted to the zip-zip, zoom-zoom kaleidoscope of life outside the orphanage – with two stranger/parents babbling at him in English – with an ease that I can only describe as heroic. No, what flattened me was the difficulty of the adoption process itself. My agency made key blunders at several points, one of which was failing to notify anyone that I was arriving in Moscow. Alone, exhausted, I waited in vain for my ride and finally consulted the information lady, who blew me off in a puff of cigarette smoke. A young taxi driver saved my life, perhaps literally, considering that dozens of foreigners “disappear” from that airport every year.
Then there was the eight-hour wrestling match on the airplane headed home with a wriggling, laughing twenty-two -month-old boy who tried to grab and dismantle everything in sight. Mind you, prior to this I had never even changed a diaper (as a teenager I’d attempted to babysit a few times but was so terrible at it that nobody ever asked me back). By the time we got home, I was a shaking, insomniac zombie. Then, a week later, William and I hopped on yet another plane to Texas where my father was dying. Oh, and I managed to wedge my marriage to Rick in there somewhere, too. My life was so different so fast it was like being air-dropped onto another planet.
The first three months are a blur. I dimly recall filling sippy cups with soy milk, pushing William in his stroller through the chilly air at sunset, reading Kitten’s First Moon in the rocking chair that came over from Scotland in 1850 with my great-great-grandmother. But exhaustion veiled my eyes and numbed my brain. I can identify the exact moment in March, three months after I’d returned from Russia, when the first layer of stress melted away. We were having a picnic in a park under a mild blue sky, William was toddling over to a big man nearby to investigate his Frisbee, and I made an unconscious motion – releasing and lowering my shoulders and extending the back of my neck. But my shoulders and neck were already relaxed, and I realized with a jolt that for three months I’d been making this motion so habitually that it had become unconscious. But now I didn’t need it anymore. I can’t describe how important this moment was to me, as if I’d glimpsed a distant shoreline from an ocean of stress. At six months the insomnia subsided, and I sort of woke up, took a look around, and realized I’d somehow managed in those feverish months to acquire both a gorgeous, bright son and a husband who was as stellar a father as he was a surgeon. Lucky me!
Despite all the stress, I enjoyed taking care of William in those days. He weighed nineteen pounds at twenty-two months and only babbled in syllables because orphanages aren’t ripe spots for one-on-one conversation. Knowing how disadvantaged he’d been, my heart swelled extra-wide when he began blossoming, talking nonstop (some of his first English words were “motorcycle,” “helicopter,”and “skyscraper”). At first, he ate everything we offered him but soon began demanding particular foods and refusing others. Rick and I realized this was the first time in his life that he had a choice. So of course we catered to him shamelessly. What might’ve been irksome behavior in other circumstances became a source of joy: he was eating!
Taking care of William was fun in many ways. Never in my life had I nurtured fantasies about motherhood. At least, not the romantic kind. Au contraire, I always feared becoming a mother – the demands, the sacrifice of self, the sucking sound of money, time, and energy down the drain! With such negative notions, the reality of motherhood could only come as a pleasant surprise, which in fact it did. Even during those first zombie months, when people asked me if it was harder than I’d imagined, I’d say no, no, it was actually much easier. Probably not the usual or expected response, but such are the benefits of extreme pessimism.
You created a beautiful graphic memoir about the experience called The Shiniest Jewel. Did you know this was something you wanted to chronicle while you were in the process of adopting William or was it something that came to you later? Can you talk about how the project began and evolved?
My first trip to Russia took place in early September, 2004. During this trip I met William (Igor) for the first time, applied for his passport, and met with the regional Minister of Education, among other more dreary things. Prior to this trip, the adoption hadn’t leaked into my work as subject matter because, I suppose, this beautiful little boy across the ocean was an abstraction. Once I’d met him, however, and emotions got involved, my creative drive spun into gear. That’s how I work. My emotions must be engaged or I lose interest. And the emotions must be baffling! Creativity is problem-solving, and for me emotions are often a problem to solve because they are not rational. I want so badly for everything to make sense that my creative work serves as a particularly useful and entertaining therapy. It”s my method for explaining and making sense of my life. So, after that first trip to Russia, I began drawing one-page pieces about the adoption with a mind to possibly publishing them as a new strip (this was 2004, and in December, 2002, I had retired my comic strip Maxine).
Three months later, I took that second trip to Russia and adopted William, which required every ounce of energy in the furthest reaches of my cellular frontiers. After that, for a few months no creative work got accomplished other than baking gingerbread and learning to think like a two-year-old in order to anticipate every possible outcome in any given situation (Turn my back on him for several seconds while I check the teakettle? Will the bathroom be glazed in a shimmering layer of shampoo by the time I turn back around? Yes, it will!). But, as I mentioned previously, after six months I felt fine again and so amply inspired by this novel experience of motherhood (as well as wifehood and demi-orphanhood, having lost my father as well) that I sent the few pages I’d done the previous fall to Betsy Amster, an agent whom I’d met years earlier and liked very much. She told me in all honesty that, graphic novels and memoirs being a fairly new and untried genre, editors at the big publishing houses would want to see the whole thing. In other words, baby, no sample pages and outlines – just a complete book on spec!
Undaunted, I told her this was something I wanted to do whether it ever got published or not. Creating for William a personal document, a “life story” as they’re called in the adoption world, motivated me more than any publishing contract. So I told Betsy, “Okay, I’ll talk to you again in a year,” and set to work. In a year-and-a-half, I shot her a pdf. of The Shiniest Jewel.
I read The Shiniest Jewel before I had a baby, and now that I have my own son, I can’t help but wonder how in the heck did you find the wherewithal and the TIME to create such a detailed and moving work? Did you have a schedule? Did you get care to give you that time? Can you talk about the practical ways you managed to draw and write this book?
Looking back, I am dumbfounded. How did I do that? While making this book, William was two and three years old – the crescendo of Childrearing Chaos, at least in my experience – where you wish your head could spin around like a gun turret. I had zero outside help other than my husband, whose help was significant: every evening when Rick came home, he grabbed William and roughhoused and played games with him while I practiced yoga and scribbled and scrawled on the book. So I crammed in an hour or two a day of highly focused work that way (funny how fast you can focus when you have to), and on weekends they usually sported off to the park so that gave me a few more hours.
About halfway through the book’s creation, I enrolled William at a neighborhood preschool three days a week for five hours. Those fifteen hours a week were plotted like a formula novel – totally predictable, no variation – getting up in the morning, brushing my teeth, clipping my hair back (the extent of my hygiene and grooming until later in the day), packing William’s lunch, making his waffle or oatmeal, waking him up, letting him eat, getting him dressed, and driving him to preschool still in my pajamas that could pass, marginally, for daytime wear. Such dual-purpose pajamas are a must-have wardrobe item for every mother of young children.
Once home, I threw an Amy’s Tofu Scramble or Veggie Pot Pie in the oven and worked for an hour or so, then ate for thirty minutes before going back to work until 1 PM when I – finally – took a shower and dressed a bit more presentably before picking William up at 2. It really was that regimented! Thinking back on that time, it seems fun, so purpose-filled. Working hard felt natural and good, pumped up with pure inspiration.
You were self-employed and independent lady of the world for some years before your family life. Can you talk about what your work life looked like before William and what it looks like now? How have things changed and evolved as William has gotten older? Do you have any set schedules for your work? What is your work life like—do you work at home or do you have an outside space?
With the exception of one year back in the late 1980s when I incarcerated myself every afternoon in a spartan studio – one table and one chair – I have always worked at home. I didn’t like having a studio that required a drive. Being at home suits me, although creating a sweet spot that’s separated from household ruckus is critical. For the past three years, as we’ve moved around (Nashville, LA, and now Austin), I haven’t had that spot. We settled in Austin two years ago and recently finished remodeling our house, so now I have that sweet spot, and how sweet it is! Windows to the woods, serene green walls, very little furniture, and a door that, when closed, reveals the age-flecked beauty of a mural my grandmother painted on it of three white cranes and water lilies. My grandmother attended the Chicago Art Institute and was quite gifted. She painted on doors, dressers, you name it, as well as the usual rectangular canvas. I’m happy to have her spirit with me now that I’m gradually settling into a work schedule after so long. I also have my little Buddha picture that a Tibetan monk gave me. So – finally – I’m all set to go.
I know for a lot of people new parenthood shifts everything around. This was a bit of a challenge for me with art, because it wasn’t just a job–it was my calling, and my mental health. Did you/do you struggle with the balance of motherhood and creativity at all? If so, how?
Motherhood did make my creative work more problematic from a practical standpoint (time, energy), but the business side of my work became a greater source of unhappiness. I retired the Maxine strip eight years ago. You are probably aware of the other, elderly and grouchy “Maxine” character created by Hallmark which is a huge commercial success. My character, which preceded theirs, has as a result been buried and retains barely any name recognition. Some of my unpublished strips occasionally appear in Funny Times under the title “Laughing Gas.” Confusion is so bad that I simply stopped using the name Maxine.
Interestingly, as my commitment to the Maxine strip sputtered and stalled, I began the process of adopting a baby. Shutting one door sent another one flying wide open! Making art and having children are often analogized and for good reason. Both spring from the same stratum of your soul, the layer of selfhood that wants to give something good to the world that might last – art and children are acts of hope – like pitching pennies into the fountain of Eternity.
My identity as an artist is changing. Ever since I was three-years old, creating art was paramount. The synonym for “Marian” was “artist.” I began drawing as a toddler. That was my way of speaking beyond words. You’re right: being an artist is not a job or a career choice. Had I felt able to make a “choice” of that sort, it would’ve been something more stable and lucrative, believe me! But as I grew up, my heart’s desire guided me, and I became an artist for better or worse. Definitely for the worse, financially. That I didn’t mind. What I do mind is the nastiness of the business world, which as I said deters my drive to create much more than motherhood. Motherhood, in fact, has filled me with new juices, more to say, more to laugh about, more to learn. Oh, children push that magnifying mirror right into your face! What more could an artist ask?
I hate these kinds of questions, but I am also dying to know—what is a typical day for you?
For the past three years, I haven’t had a chance to establish a work routine. With all the moving and remodeling, my glamorous days went like this: wake up, shower, tend to our two cats and dog, wake up William, make a cup of Earl Grey for myself and breakfast for him, take him to school, come home and practice yoga or go to the gym, then do laundry, errands, maybe slug a quick cup of coffee with a friend – then pick up William, field his requests for the next couple of hours until Rick comes home and the dinner dance begins. What I don’t get is this: how the heck does dinner manage to devour me more than I devour it? Cooking, eating, and cleaning up often takes three hours! Five-thirty or six until eight or nine o’clock at night! Every day as the clock inches towards five, I brace myself. It’s like a freight train roaring right at me.
Now, with my work space finished and William returning to school, I plan to make more use of those hours he’s away. We will see if my identity as an artist has only been dormant and is still intact. Three years is the longest I’ve gone without consistently, dare I say compulsively, writing and drawing, and I’m curious to get reacquainted with that part of myself.
What are you working on now?
Besides a few side projects – hand-painted picture frames for baby gifts and a “book” of original drawings for my nephew’s graduation – I’ve done about twenty pages of drawings over the past three years, vignettes of William’s early days with us, sort of an epilogue to The Shiniest Jewel. The pages don’t seem to be cohering as a book, so I plan to start a blog, using a graphic format rather than text, and share them that way. One of the blessings of blogs is the journal format – no need for narrative cohesion!
I also have a children’s book mapped out in my mind. Perhaps the business side of children’s books isn’t quite as cutthroat as that of graphic novels/memoirs and comics. I guess I’ll find out! Even if the public eye blinks and looks away, I want to keep myself creating. As sparse as my output’s been these past few years, I’ve noticed that every time a work session goes well and feels fruitful, a peacefulness fills me that comes to me no other way. I know you know what I mean! For the health of my soul, I need to keep working. How it’s received doesn’t matter to me much anymore. I’m older, more fulfilled, less impressed by the passing media parade. I don’t measure myself by that applause meter anymore, however delightful applause might be.
I am huge fan of your character Maxine, who was an early inspiration of independent womanhood to me. I always imagined her adventures as a little bit autobiographical—if not literally, than at least emotionally. Beyond the memoir, has having a child changed the perspective of your work at all?
Maxine is a character that has plenty of time and space to contemplate herself in relation to the world. She’s an individual and a seeker, dwelling in a kind of ashram of the mind where all manner of perceptions and desires can be nurtured, despite her actual surroundings of big city hubbub. Part of the comedy springs from that tension between internal and external realities, and this “set-up” indeed describes my former life. I guarded my independence jealously and kept my inner sanctum and self swept clean of debris – partly because I feared becoming dependent on a man but mostly because that simplicity seemed necessary in order to think and create as an artist. Obviously, I can’t write from that perspective anymore. If motherhood offers one lesson it’s that you are not the center of the universe. Children pull you out of yourself and force you to change your old shape – over and over again, leaving lots of debris in the process. A mother who is an artist must find use for all that debris! Simplicity is a thing of the past.
What would you say to any artistic parent who is struggling to figure out the balance between the parenting and doing their creative work? Any advice or words of wisdom?
On a practical level, children require less work as they get older. In fact, it’s a parent’s duty to gradually let go of them. Even for an artist who cherishes solitude, this separation process can be heartrending at times. During kindergarten, when I walked William to his classroom door, he used to reach his arms up to me and say, “Hug and kiss?” When I came to get him in the afternoons, he’d see me and shout, “Mommy!” and run to me with a wide-open smile. Just thinking about it still melts my heart. About halfway through the year, one day I came to get him and, as he began to smile and run to me, his face changed. He put on a nonchalant scowl and slowed to a pace that he probably hoped would appear reluctant. At that moment I knew I had lost my baby!
Children are gone before you know it. I would advise artist parents to remember that their work is always there, ready to be resumed, but those first few years with your child can never be replaced. Through the fog and frenzy, remember to relish the moments and not worry about being “productive” unless your livelihood truly depends on it. Children refresh us. Having them is the one truly great nearly-universal human experience. Listen to them, let them affect you and inspire you as deeply as possible, and just watch how your work takes off.