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a-n The Artists Information Company

Updated: Sep 16, 2018

August 2018

Artist parents: Sharon Bennett, socially-engaged artist

Stroud-based artist and mother Sharon Bennett discusses her work with the Women’s Art Activation System support network which she developed in collaboration with two other Stroud-based artists, taking part in Lenka Clayton’s Artist Residency in Motherhood, and opening the temporary ‘Mother House’ studio.

Sharon Bennett is an artist with a collaborative, socially-engaged practice and an interest in learning outside of institutional structures. Her work explores how the spirit of generosity experienced through face-to-face learning can create a community.

Bennett left a career as an actors’ agent to attend art school in her thirties, graduating from Chelsea College of Arts in 2010. She currently lives in Stroud with Dan McDermott, a painter, and their two daughters, aged four and 18 months.

Both artists had always wanted to be parents and Bennett wasn’t overly concerned about how it might affect her practice. “I was at the start of my career and didn’t feel as connected to it as I do now,” she explains.

Bennett and McDermott moved to Stroud, where Bennett had grown up, from London when their first baby was 10 months old. Since she had left the town as a teenager, it had developed its own artistic identity and was easily commutable to London. Crucially, extended family were able to help with childcare, which they shared between both parents and grandparents, enabling them to continue their practices and undertake paid work.

At first Bennett worked an office job part-time, but since having her second child she has gone freelance. While she works, her eldest is at kindergarten, mostly paid for through the government’s free childcare scheme, with her youngest child looked after by her parents.

Bennett, like many artists, has a relatively low income from her practice and this can be an additional pressure when seeking family support with childcare. She explains: “It’s hard to justify to myself asking grandparents to cover childcare for me to do my art practice. Somehow it has to be for paid work.”

McDermott now works as joint course leader at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College. The job has provided a stable income, but since becoming the main breadwinner “he can’t paint as much or spend as much time with the children,” says Bennett. “The impact of fatherhood on art practice is under acknowledged.”

For Bennett, time is the main challenge. “You’re always divided. In the daytime your mind is buzzing with things you need to do for your work – in the evening you have one eye on the baby monitor. It’s frustrating if you have something on the go – you feel torn because your attention is split. I have to keep pulling myself back to the present moment. Then in the evenings I want to work but there are also the usual chores to do.”

However, Bennett feels fortunate to have an artist as a partner. “He is someone who understands what is involved to be an artist and who is supportive with the children as well as with my practice and advice. I couldn’t do it without his support.”

While working collaboratively has been a way for Bennett to sustain her practice. Croshare is an ongoing collaborative project with designer maker Tom Jeram-West using crochet as a catalyst for pop-up community happenings. “Collaborating with inspiring people has kept me engaged. We bounce off each other’s ideas, watch documentaries and talk about work and other artists,” explains Bennett.

Bennet explains that when she was pregnant with her second child she began to feel balancing her practice with the responsibility of two children would be impossible.

However, a friend sent her a link to Lenka Clayton’s Artist Residency in Motherhoodand from there she spent six months researching initiatives for art parents, discovering the Artists Parents Index, Desperate Art Wives and a host of other projects.

Bennett felt that being an artist and a parent was a taboo subject. “It was as though somehow you can’t be a parent and remain dedicated to your practice. But there was all this information hidden beneath the surface and when I realised how many people were doing it, including high profile artists, somehow it gave me permission too. Phyllida Barlow has five children!”

Although Bennett doesn’t make work about being a parent, she has immersed herself in projects that address parenthood and has found it incredibly fruitful.

“My children have increased my drive to make work”, she comments, adding that “before I had loads of time to procrastinate, whereas now that I only have little windows of time. I have to fill them when I can.”

Through the map on the Artist Residency in Motherhood site that gives the names, locations, dates and websites of all current artists undertaking the residency, Bennett discovered that she was one of three based in Stroud. They met and became a support network for each other, eventually forming The Women’s Art Activation System (WAAS) collective in December 2016.

Together they hosted a seminar It Takes a Village, about what it takes to be a mother artist, and ran a wikithon with the aim of improving coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia. They have also hosted various evening talks and late night making sessions.

In 2017, Croshare ran a participatory day event, Trawl, at Aspex in Portsmouth, with Bennett delivering an artist’s talk – all with her six-months old baby strapped to her. Although she says she felt guilty and worried whether it was ok, she found that people were accepting and supportive. She adds that Aspex has been particularly family friendly, accommodating her weekend only availability for Croshare’s artist-in-residence project in 2018.

If a project involves travel, Bennett always takes her youngest in the sling, or they do it as a family so McDermott can look after the children whilst Bennett works.

In August 2017, with Rebecca Stapleford, she ran a pilot version of the Mother House – an initiative originally set up by artist Dyana Gravina of Procreate Project, London, which devised a shared studio space for artist mothers with integrated childcare.

They ran a two-week project with a childcare facilitator running imaginative play sessions, with artists able to go every day or just drop in for a minimal fee to cover the childcare and rent. Bennett comments: “It’s such an obvious solution to the problems of time and childcare – why hasn’t it been done before?”

Bennett says she is careful not to overload herself, realising it is impossible to do everything. Instead, she sets realistic expectations to achieve two or three projects a year. “It’s important to take it slowly to avoid burnout”, she explains. “I’ve become more efficient, grabbing half an hour here and there. If I waited for a two hour block it just wouldn’t happen.”

She advises other artist parents to ask for help when they need it. “Build a network of family, friends and other artist parents and support each other. Ask for help and say yes to offers of support wherever they come from.”

Images: 1. Croshare – Motherhood, Masks and Metamorphosis, Lansdown Gallery, Stroud 2017. Credit: Jill MacKeith 2. Trawl, Croshare – Portsmouth Festivities, Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth 2017. Credit: Dan McDermott 3. Sharon Bennett, Croshare. Photo: Sharon Bennett

More on a-n Resources:

Artist parents: Katy Connor and Stephen Cornford, artists sharing childcare Artists and parents Katy Connor and Stephen Cornford discuss their experiences of raising a child whilst maintaining their art practices, offering advice on how to manage time, travel and childcare.

Artist parents: Liz Clarke, mother and child live art collaborator Bristol-based live artist Liz Clarke has created a performance with her nine-month-old daughter and collaborated with her nine-year-old son to produce a work based on an idea he proposed. She speaks to Julie McCalden about being part of an art making family.

Top tips for artist parents A motivational list of practical ‘to-dos’: artist parents share their top tips and ‘survival’ strategies on raising children whilst maintaining and developing an art practice.

Julie McCaldenfor a-n resources for artist parents, August 2018