Article

Educator, arts administrator, and artist Molly Van Avery chronicles the fundamental shifts in her creative practice since becoming a parent, the unexpected gift of exiting arts administration, and the confluence of wonder and surrender when a child learns how to sing.
September 13, 2019

Photo: Molly Van Avery.

­­Dear darling Harper just now two years old,

There are truths, my careful observer, I want you to know about me. You were not my first act of creation. Before you, I wore an entire outfit of red pleather, including a beret and red plastic sunglasses, and pretended I was a genetically modified tomato longing to justify my existence. I did my fair share of stripping, humping, singing, and playwrighting for audiences full of political queers in theaters that smelled like armpits and spilled beer. Throughout my twenties I said yes to any invitation to be on any stage. I stood in hundreds of pools of light looking out and only seeing darkness while receiving the roaring laughter of crowded theaters, not really understanding how lucky I was to be in the middle of so much living.

In my thirties I became an arts administrator. That means, little one, that you go to one million meetings to organize one thousand events. You also try to help commissioned artists finish their ambitious projects, whether they want your help or not. It’s a job that makes you break a sweat jamming all the snacks and boxes of La Croix you bought from Costco successfully into your trunk for the community gathering you’ll be hosting later. Arts administrators also secretly wonder if they’ll ever be written into their founder’s succession plans. Sadly, those plans rarely exist. It’s a job where you pretty much constantly rack your brain for the ethical golden ticket that provides consistent general operating funding so you and all your colleagues don’t have to sound innovative to funders and you can just get to doing what you know works. I know, my kiddo, it’s confusing. And also…exhausting. More tiring than when you woke up every three hours. 

There is this truth that you should know now, too: I have time to write you this letter because on the edge of 40, I got laid off from my arts administration position. Turns out, those gut-clenching worries about job security were legitimate. After 1) a bruising ego death and the walloping insecurity that accompanies realizing how expendable I was; 2) the ugly bitterness of watching my organization receive funding for grants I had helped write after being told there wasn’t funding for my position; 3) surviving the strange silence around my absence from my former colleagues who I really liked, and dare I admit, even loved—I can actually say it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Getting kicked out. 

Sometimes the right decisions get made for you. Even if it is disorienting to lose the belief that you have control over your life, with time and deep breaths you can look back and see the places where grace showed up, even in the most unbearable of story lines. Weaving together freelancing, savings, inheritance, and unemployment checks is extraordinary. Liberating. Lonely. Scary. Worth it.

Because here are our days: I wake up to you yelling, “Mom!” from your crib. Walk into your room and you usually say, “I pooped.” I clap and open the curtains and say, “Hello, beautiful world.” We cuddle back in my bed for a little while, then go downstairs and you watch Elmo from the Sesame Street app on my phone. Bleary-eyed, I wait for my tea to steep and assemble our breakfast. We eat raisin bran together in silence and look at the sky out the window. Now it’s just me and just you. You hand me your soggy raisins. I eat each one.   

My dear daughter, with all your fierce determination and intensity, I want you to know something. Despite the fact that I made many, many things, I feel like I knew nothing about bringing something new into the world before I made you. Becoming a mother has taught me that all acts of creation, in order for them to succeed, must begin in the body. They must begin with giving yourself permission to trust the big, open-ended universe while also seeing what is real, what is in the room, wanting to be discovered. I see that my job now as your parent and as an artist is to create a life where I have slowed down enough to be in the room I am in. To see it and believe it when awe shows up.

You came into my life when I was perfectly ready. Before I was a mother, I couldn’t help it, my art was driven by my ambition. At my job, I couldn’t help it, I wanted to be essential. Now that I am always tired and yet somehow always amazed, I am calving huge glaciers of ambition. My joys are so small, your hand on my back, pat, pat, pat: “I happy, mama.” My life, my presence in the world of art making, sliced, divided, and whittled down to hardly a thing. I want to go see so many things, but then I usually (admittedly) forget they are happening. But still, the projects I have participated in since your birth, while fewer and farther between, are some of my favorites, my proudest, my most essential.

Because I find that I want to create not for the grant or the sold-out show, but so that you are raised by a parent who creates. I want to create so that, like you, I learn, I grow, I never give up trying to heal what I perceive as the broken pieces of the world inside and around me. I care less how many people see, like, read, or watch whatever I make. I care more about making something that honors the awe of being alive. That helps me sit in the room of all of this: the mess, the longing, the lonely, the full, the moving.   

When the struggles that I have show up, when I wonder if I am doing enough, if I have worth when I am doing so much less for and with others, I will look to you. You are learning how to sing. So in the moments when I feel that I have let too much go, when I miss all of the things I left—a job, a way of participating in the arts non-profit industrial complex—I will take a deep breath and follow your lead. Singing, like praise, like gratitude, like surrender, like creation, is both intuited and learned. Each day your songs gets clearer, the lyrics closer to articulation. We row-row-row our little boat gently down this stream.

Even though I made you inside of me, you make me, too. Because of you, I am ready to shed the role of the creator and replace it with the gratefully, profoundly, created.

All yours,

mama.

Molly Van Avery is an educator, arts administrator, and artist. She received her BA from Goddard College in Social Ecology in 2000 and an MFA in Poetry from Hamline University in 2013. In all of her work, Van Avery believes that art is an essential catalyst for connection and can lay the foundation for political change. Van Avery founded and is the Director of Poetry for People whose mission is to embed poetry into the daily lives and geographies of neighborhoods. Molly’s original performance and directing work has been presented at the Walker Art Center, Pantages Theatre, Bedlam Theatre, Pangea World Theatre, Intermedia Arts, and Pillsbury House + Theatre. She has received the Arts on Chicago Public Art Grant from Pillsbury House Theatre, the Jerome Travel and Study Grant, the Blacklock Nature Sanctuary Residency, the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, the Jerome Foundation’s Fellowship at Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program at SASE, and the Naked Stages Emerging Performance Artist Fellowship Intermedia Arts. Through her public art collaborations, she has worked with the City of Minneapolis, the National Parks, and the City of Lakes Community Land Trust. Van Avery is currently a Creative CityMaking Artist with Minneapolis.

This piece is part of a series of letters under the theme Getting Out (on the outs, and ins thereof, of art), guest edited by Moheb Soliman.

MN Artists