Sarah Lightman presents the experience of the void from the perspective of a woman who also happens to be a successful cartoonist and a mother. Having just submitted her PhD thesis, Sarah explains how she balances the needs of her son, her artistic creativity, and her scholarly output.
It has been three months since I submitted my thesis, Dressing Eve and other Reparative Acts in Women’s Autobiographical Comics, to the University of Glasgow. Since then, my busyness has been tempered by the sense of a vacuum, or, rather, a space of gestation. And in this no-woman’s-land before graduation, I have a thesis written, but not published; submitted, but not viva-ed; and I am still a student, yet am not studying. But I also planned in advance for this time, with a long list of academic and non-academic projects: books to co-edit, journal articles to finish, a beginner’s yoga class to attend, contemporary galleries to visit, and a CD of children’s songs to record for our synagogue. I have done some teaching and I continue to work with Nicola Streeten, and others, on Laydeez Do Comics, the foremost comic forum in the UK now, with branches worldwide, and I host in my home an artist salon, Salon 16, for women artists. In addition, my home life makes continuous demands on me. I still have to make breakfast and a packed lunch for my three-year-old son, and keep ahead of all his plans for the upcoming term – football, ballet, and a flu injection. So, whilst the PhD was a project, a big, important, time-greedy self-development project, it was never my whole life, and its completion would not leave me bereft.
I have wholeheartedly appreciated the breathing space after submission, a space where I can take an interest in other people’s work without worrying about my own unfinished text breathing over my shoulder. Last summer, I also traveled, in different formats that retrospectively reflect my various roles in life. On a family holiday in Crete, I ate watermelon, swam with my son and husband, and wrote academic book reviews on the beach. I attended a one-week transnational comics summer school in Siegen, Germany, where I enjoyed learning about comics from around the world, and I brought my son and nanny as, unusually, there was a stipend for accompanying children. I also enjoyed a weekend in Copenhagen with a comics friend, sharing our challenges and future creative goals and supporting each other.
One thing I promised myself in the harried days of endless thesis editing was more time to make art. I studied Fine Art at The Slade for my BA and MFA, and nowadays every morning after I drop off my son at nursery I travel to my art studio in Holborn, where I am creating an autobiographical graphic novel, The Book of Sarah (Myriad Editions 2019). To support this creative project, my day is split between making art and applying for grants and other funding for my artwork. When I started my PhD I wanted to take my writing to a new level, to be published in books and journals and to lecture worldwide–all of which, I am delighted to say, I achieved. But the cost was having less time to create. Now I am enjoying drawing and painting again after being focused on words for so long, and I have initiated a monthly art crits for the artists on my floor at the studio, through which I have developed friendships with other colleagues.
My art has always been autobiographical and now my focus is motherhood: in particular, what I term the parallel growths of motherhood–as my son, Harry, grows and I evolve as well, we produce an imperfect equation of learning and unlearning, of progress, regression and fulfilling potential. One seminal moment in my PhD research has inspired me and powered my artwork onwards: Linda Nochlin’s analysis of Berthe Morisot’s painting The Wet Nurse and Julie (1880), portraying the artist’s daughter with the nurse who was breastfeeding her. Nochlin compares this work and its impressionist style to that of van Gogh, Cézanne, and Gauguin:
And if we consider that erosion of form to be a complexly mediated inscription of internalized conflict – motherhood versus profession – then surely this should be taken as seriously as the more highly acclaimed psychic dramas of male artists of the period. (53)
The strains of women’s lives do not fill the walls of the National Gallery, but male anxieties, in contrast, are celebrated. I found in Nochlin’s reading of Morisot’s work a way to describe how I, too, have found motherhood a trial, as I hold on to myself and my ambitions when faced with the demands of a dependent child. It was particularly difficult for me to give birth when, having just edited my first book, I felt I had, finally, achieved a level of competence in so many aspects of my life. I was then thrust into a world where I was an over-tired novice–facing the bewilderment of breastfeeding, nappies, and the need to assess nannies and nurseries. Nochlin’s analysis has ensured that I feel my drawings of motherhood are not only valid but vital expressions of my time in life and the world I live in. And, in addition, as part of my research, I have been reading and seeing art about motherhood, and I even attended a session at The Mother House, an art studio initiated by Dyana Gravina, with on-site childcare. This, I hope, may be the future for mother artists.
I also acknowledge how my post-submission time has been coloured by the appearance of grey hairs, and my son’s unrelenting gallop towards turning four years old. (A bike, Mummy! When I am four I get a bike!). This general sense of time, ageing, and my journey towards peri-menopause and away from a younger body means that, at 42, part of me thinks I should know what I am doing, “I should be this by now” and “I should have done that by now.” So, on a bad day, I desperately scan for successful academics who have completed their PhDs later in life. But then, on a better day, I am excited to see what I will create when all the sides of my life are less compartmentalised, and my artistic and academic studies will be woven together in a postdoc on the representations of motherhood in comics, formatted as a graphic novel, and featuring my own son.
Read more from the series and learn how to submit your own story to “Crossing the Void.”
Nochlin, Linda. Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. Westview Press, 1989.
Sarah Lightman has contributed to:: The Cincinnati Review; Studies in Comics; The International Journal of Comics Art; The Routledge Handbook to Contemporary Jewish Cultures (Routledge); Trauma, Narratives and Herstory (Palgrave Macmillan); 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die (Cassell); The Unspeakable: Narratives of Trauma (Peter Lang); The Edinburgh Companion to Modern Jewish Fiction (Edinburgh University Press); Haaretz; The Jewish Chronicle; Jewish Quarterly; and Jewish Renaissance. Sarah is co-editing Bodies/Borders: Jewish Women and Comics, with Heike Bauer and Andrea Greenbaum and her graphic novel The Book of Sarah will be published by Myriad Editions in 2019. Her edited volume Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews (McFarland) was awarded a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for Best Scholarly Academic Work (2015), The Susan Koppelman Prize for Best Edited Book on Feminist Studies (2015), and an Honorable Mention by the Association Jewish Studies/Jordan Schnitzer Book Awards (2016). Sarah’s work and research have also been awarded numerous grants, including a Rothschild Travel Award (2017); Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Award (2016); and The Principal’s Early Career Mobility Fund to Study at Columbia University, NYC, awarded by University of Glasgow (2016). Sarah is keynote speaker at British Jewish Contemporary Cultures: An International Conference, Bangor University (26-27 March 2018).
You can visit her blog here.