How I Continued Working As An Artist While Caring for Two Small Children

Since the middle of March and the closure of daycares due to COVID-19, my 4-year-old niece and 2-year-old nephew have become my charges during the day. It’s been interesting (to say the least) trying to keep everyone alive while continuing to be a working artist. The problem can be summed up like this:

  1. Anything I do, they will want to do too.
  2. Nothing will hold their attention for long.
  3. Bored children + me not paying attention = massive destruction.

Here are 10 practices that have helped me to make art while keeping the house from getting burned down (and staying sane as well!).

1) Make Work a Shared Activity

Perhaps this approach would not suit a glass blower. But, being a painter/sculptor, there are many aspects of my work that involve simple motor skills and non-toxic substances. For instance, we can work on clay modeling together. They play with clay while I work on modeling little maquettes for larger sculptures. Anything that involves, clay, pencils, or markers, we can do together. 

My Niece Adds Eyes to the Blessed Mother

2) Make a Shared Creative Space

In our case, this “creative space” takes the form of a kid-sized table and chairs with a plastic tablecloth. This table has two important features: We can make messes on it, and it is comfortably accessible to all three of us.

Our Art Table

3) Plan in *Very* Small Time Increments

I still struggle to embrace the reality of a child’s actual attention span. On a good day, if the kids engage in a planned activity, I can count on any where from 5 to 20 minutes of their attention. It is, however, amazing what one can accomplish in five minutes. 

You will be interrupted. (But we are too cute for you to resent us.)

4) Carry Portable Work

Toward the beginning of my childcare+studio experiment, I had a transfer drawing to do for an illustration project. Ordinarily, I have a hard time not being annoyed by this seemingly tedious task that involves tracing the same lines several times. In this case, it turned out to be the perfect task to complete while watching the kids. I taped my papers to a board, put the board and my pencils in a bag, and kept the bag near me all morning. In the odd, spare 5 minutes that arose when my full attention was not demanded, I was able to pull out the board and get a few lines drawn. By the end of the morning, I had a transfer drawing completed and was able to move on to the next step in the project without wasting any of my precious solitary studio time.

Drawing at my Portable Board While the Kids Color

5) Establish a Quiet Time Routine

This is magic. I don’t know why it works, but it does. My niece and nephew instinctively respect the concept of quiet time. We have quiet time for 15 minutes, and not more than once a day. I tell them to choose an activity and a location, then I set a timer and tell them to play quietly until it goes off, and they do it. Then, I work for 15 minutes. Might not seem like a lot, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish in 15 minutes.

Alice Coloring in Quiet Time

6) Take 5-Minute Work Breaks

We are fortunate to have a gated playroom that is right next to my basement sculpture studio, but this also could work in other situations. This allows me to play with them in the playroom for 10 or 15 minutes, and when they are content and absorbed in playing (if that does indeed happen), I say, “OK, Aunt Bethany is going to set a timer for 5 minutes and go in the work-room.” And, they keep on playing. Since there is a timer, they know I’ll be back, and they don’t freak out. 

My nephew takes a five minute break to work on his model. (Just kidding, but sometimes he comes and sits on my workbench while I work.)

7) Carry a Sketchbook

In the afternoons, we have outside play time. I bring a guitar and a sketchbook with me and have the goal of spending at least 5 minutes sketching something (anything) and playing at least one song. This keeps my visual observation mind working and my fingers callused. Sometimes my niece takes a turn drawing in the sketchbook. We also have made up several very silly songs about princesses.

Pages from My Sketchbook

8) Get Help (AKA: Children Do Nap)

My brother works full-time, but he does work at home. So, when my nephew goes down for a nap in the afternoon, my brother comes out of his office, has lunch, plays with my niece a bit, and then works in the living room while my niece plays independently. This gives me an hour or two during which to work in solitude. Although, I must confess that sometime I just take a nap too. 

My Nephew Sleeping

9) Maintain at Least One Long Work-Period Per Week

There are some things that simply require long periods of undivided attention. On Saturdays, I usually go out for a nice, long plein air painting session. These work periods sustain my weekday studio time while my nephew is napping. Often, I use these nap time work periods to finish up Saturday’s work. The forward momentum produced from actually finishing pieces also sustains my motivation to make time for the 5-15 minute periods of productivity during the day. 

The Plein Air Painter in Her Natural Habitat. The Stripes and Muted Colors Provide Camouflage.

10) Engage in Creative Destruction at the End of the Day

5:30PM is stone carving time. As my nephew says I “go bang on rocks.” Caring for children is stressful. Usually, I only carve for 30 minutes, but it’s enough time to relieve some tension and to move my projects forward, bit by bit.

My Current Carving Project: Estimated Time to Completion is Approximately 50 Years.

Looking over my list, it occurs to me that doing all 10 of these things might appear to require a degree of planning that would inhibit spontaneous, peaceful creative work. Most of my day is *very* spontaneous and slow-moving. We might spend a half-hour doing the four dishes in the sink because the kids want to “help.” We have a simple daily schedule to which we loosely adhere and which includes things like snack time, a bike ride, and watering the garden. The kids seems to thrive at a very slow pace, and it is a constant challenge for me to slow down to that pace. It can actually be stressful to try to slow down! The truth is that I am grateful to have an additional challenge that adds some interest and structure to my life. And, it looks like the kids enjoy making art too. In a few years, they’ll be my competition!

For all of my readers in similar situations, please, tell me what works for you!

If you enjoyed this blog, follow me on Instagram @belfineart for more updates on my work and process. 

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