Sunday, September 11, 2011

The artist that could have been

Author’s note: My mother came to visit me last weekend. It was the first time she’s come to visit me since I’ve moved to California, and the first time we’ve seen each other since last December. She prompted this blog post.

My mother is an artist. She draws, paints, and sculpts. My parents’ house is strewn with her work. Especially personal to me is this drawing of when I was only a couple years old. Of course it’s significant to me because I’m the subject. But even more than that, it’s the only piece of art that my mother has given me.

My mother is also not an artist, at least not professionally. Despite her talents, she was never able to pursue art wholly. I had seen other local artists showing their art at art fairs and local galleries. I could not think of any reason that my mother could not do the same. Only much later in life did I learn that the artist that could have been, wasn’t, because she was a sister to a brother in Korea and later a wife to man in the Army.

After graduating high school in Korea, my mother was faced with the reality that college was too expensive for her and her siblings to all attend college. Instead, her younger brother, the eldest son, was tapped as the one in her generation to pursue higher education. At the time, parents were forced to pick among their children who would go to college. Typically, they chose the boys.

In lieu of going to college, my mother turned to her passion, art. In addition to painting on her own, my mother taught art to children. She loved the kids that she taught and her skills flourished. But, her time as an artist would not last long.

Her younger brother finally graduated high school and went to college. Just as her brother was chosen to go to college, my mother was chosen to live with him and care for him while he studied. She left a potential career and passion to cook and clean for her brother. What is striking about this is how naturally and expectantly she altered her life to accommodate his. And not just she, other sisters across Korea did the same. My mother’s decision was normal. With that decision, my mother’s life as an artist was put to rest.

Yet, years later, my mother would resurrect her art. In Korea, she eventually met and married a man in the U.S. Army, my father. As an Army wife, she moved from foreign place to foreign place, constantly uprooted. Despite the many drawbacks of being married to a soldier, one benefit was that she could do what she was denied previously, attend college. In school at the College of Marin, she studied art and rediscovered her love for it. This was my mother’s most prolific period. Many of the art works she has now is from that time. Her skills were at a zenith, such that her professor wanted her to take on a summer internship to pursue art wholeheartedly.

However, she would never take that internship. Instead, the Army decided to relocate her husband to Saudi Arabia. Naturally her husband wanted her to go with him. And again she walked away from her life as an artist to care for a household, this time her husband and two sons, including me. She would befriend many women in the same situation, abandoning their own aspirations to raise a military family. These women were the norm. My mother, the artist, was lost again.

I recently spoke to my mother about regrets and missed opportunities. Amazingly she has none. Despite having to abandon her passion of art for the men in her life, she always did it out of love. I like to think that in an alternate universe, my mother reached her potential as an artist and shared her talent with the world. Perhaps she still will. For now, I’m glad I can at least have a glimpse of what could have been.


AMA said...

I really enjoyed this post, as it is a way to make all that we talk about in class personal and human. I think it's important to note that your mother's story is not unique, nor is it outdated - today women in the US give up their careers and aspirations for roles they feel obligated to fill. I really like that you asked your mom about regrets; I think that we should talk to women more about how they really feel about their lives. Not surprisingly she responded that she was happy to make sacrifices for her family, but I am concerned that the nurturing/caretaker/sacrificial role is still a "golden pedestal" for women, rather than a true preference. Great post, and I'm happy that you chose to write about your mother's experience =)

Megan said...

This post inevitably made me think about my own mother. My mother immigrated from the Philippines to the United States to get her PhD in Education from Vanderbilt University. There, she met my father. He immigrated from Taiwan a couple of years after my mother to get his Masters in Civil Engineering. He ended up finishing school first. Upon graduation, he found employment for a large engineering firm in Houston, Texas. By that time, my parents were already engaged, and so without discussion, my mother quit school, one year shy of a PhD to move with him to Texas.

She does not hold this against him, and has never complained. The only reason I know this is because we had to interview our parents about their lives as part of a legacy project in high school. In this interview, my mother, as progressive as she is, still sees absolutely nothing strange about what she did. It was not a sacrifice; it was simply her duty as my father’s wife to go with him to Texas. It didn’t matter that she was just as educated as he was.

Today, my mom works as an office assistant for the State of California. It was the best job she could get in California after having stayed at home for most of her life to care for us kids. Again though, she is perfectly content and dislikes when I tell her that she is way over qualified, and that she should be maximizing her potential, ect. It is not that she is submissive or overly deferential to men. In fact, I would go as far as to call her a feminist, as she believes fully in a woman’s potential to contribute equally in all spheres of life, domestic and economic. And so does my father. They were just born in a culture and a time when things were different.

AMS said...
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AMS said...


I too enjoyed this post. I also love that you included an image of your mother's art. It is beautiful.

In your post, you mentioned the following:

"She would befriend many women in the same situation, abandoning their own aspirations to raise a military family. These women were the norm. My mother, the artist, was lost again."

In reading this, I immediately realized that women like your mother and her friends possess multiple aspirations. Raising a family is often one of these aspirations. Thus, maybe this explains how a talented individual like your mother can genuinely say that she does not regret her decision to focus her life on her family. She prioritized her life to reflect the importance of her aspirations. When viewed in this manner, issues arise when a woman prioritizes her list based on the expectations of another person or society in general.

I commend your mother for dedicating her life to her family. My own mother (a stay at home mom) went out of her way to make sure that I understood the responsibilities and challenges of motherhood and homemaking. It is the most difficult job I could imagine (however rewarding it may be), and I am so respectful and thankful for these women.

That said, your mother's story--and the similar stories of many other women--really bother me in some respects. It upsets me to think that a woman such as your mother chose not to do both. Was it impossible for her to find time in her life to pursue her own passion? I really want to believe that if something is really important to someone, they will find a way to make it happen.

Your mother decided not to accept that summer internship, but surely there were other options available? If not, I hope that we, as a society, can provide these other options for future women who want to pursue multiple aspirations. In doing so, hopefully we can ensure that talented people, like your mother, can share their talents and skills with society as a whole.

hanestagless said...

I really appreciate all of your comments. Naturally, your thoughts triggered my own thoughts, which I would like to quickly share.

First, I’m stunned by how much society and culture ingrains women of their “duties” and “expectations.” AMA, after reading your comment I took your advice. I spoke briefly with my grandmother about her experiences and her regrets. She told me how she walked away from her own aspirations to help my grandfather with his fledgling self-owned business and to raise the family. Yet, similar to Megan’s mother, she never framed her choices as sacrifices. To her, she did what she was supposed to do, what was expected of her.

How indoctrinated are these women that they don’t see the sacrifices they made as even being sacrifices? If I faced the same choices, perhaps I would make similar decisions. Regardless of the decision, I would certainly recognize what I gave up. I would still carry regret, even if I did what was necessary for the circumstances.

Megan, you say they were born in a different time and culture. I hope you’re right. I hope that we are producing different women today, women that know they don’t have to conform to the expectations of the past. If women cannot recognize the injustice of how society imposes these expectations upon them, how can women counter that injustice?

Second, AMS, I was also upset that my mother couldn’t pursue both aspirations: art and family. You and I seem to think similarly that passion should be enough. But, the reality for my mother is that circumstances won the day, as is the case for many women who face their own circumstances. Those circumstances are disruptive. Despite a passion’s importance, these circumstances prevent women from pursuing their aspirations.

A person could say that circumstances interfere with people’s lives all the time. But, as you note, a problem arises when those circumstances are a consequence of society’s expectations. While my mother’s specific circumstances were personal to her, they reflect the greater structural problems that women face. Together, we can address those structural problems.

Ultimately, I am also hopeful that future women can pursue whatever aspirations they desire. I agree with you that this is necessary for society to realize the benefits that everyone’s talent provides.