An insightful, provocative, and witty exploration of the relationship between motherhood and art—for anyone who is a mother, wants to be, or has ever had one.
What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge.
With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artists and writers of the twentieth century. Ursula K. Le Guin found productive stability in family life, and Audre Lorde’s queer, polyamorous union allowed her to raise children on her own terms. Susan Sontag became a mother at nineteen, Angela Carter at forty-three. These mothers had one child, or five, or seven. They worked in a studio, in the kitchen, in the car, on the bed, at a desk, with a baby carrier beside them. They faced judgement for pursuing their creative work—Doris Lessing was said to have abandoned her children, and Alice Neel’s in-laws falsely claimed that she once, to finish a painting, left her baby on the fire escape of her New York apartment.
As she threads together vivid portraits of these pathbreaking women, Phillips argues that creative motherhood is a question of keeping the baby on that apocryphal fire escape: work and care held in a constantly renegotiated, provisional, productive tension. A meditation on maternal identity and artistic greatness, The Baby on the Fire Escape illuminates some of the most pressing conflicts in contemporary life.
Critic Phillips (James Tiptree Jr.) explores the conflicting demands of being a mother and creating art in this astute look at how trailblazing artists stayed true to their craft. When people imagine artists, Phillips suggests, they picture "solitary concentration." To counter this, the author asks, "What does it mean to create, not... in a room of one's own,' but in a shared space?" She examines a wealth of artists' lives and work: American painter Alice Neel, for example, lost two daughters and was coerced into relinquishing her third to disapproving relatives and escaped to Greenwich Village, where she raised her subsequent children with other "orphans of the avante-garde" and created art that was startling in its frank portrayal of maternal unease. South African novelist Doris Lessing is infamous for leaving her children, but Phillips digs through correspondence to reveal a more nuanced account of a woman who lost the legal rights to her children after divorce. Audre Lorde's "open marriage to a gay man," meanwhile, "was a practical way to raise children as a lesbian." Phillips's sharp observations and candor add force to the survey: "Thinking about mothers awakened my desire for safety and conventionality, and some things mothers did made me uncomfortable." The result is a memorable examination of game-changing artists.