In Niki de Saint Phalle’s first major American exhibition, “Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life” at MoMA PS1, a full-bodied woman with deep blue skin dances atop a curled snake, her breasts and hips voluminous and buoyant. Many of the models and sketches at the Phalle exhibit are smaller depictions of the massive structures from her most famous work, her Tarot Garden in Tuscany, a playground befitting a children’s picture book or dream. The original installation comprises twenty-two fantastical sculptures, some the size of houses. A winged, green dragon menaces the stoically posed figure of a woman, who appears to have tamed it. Inside a buxom sphinx with flowers and hearts over her breasts is a room in which nearly every surface is covered in shards of broken mirror, a glittering dining hall. “The intention of this garden is to make a little paradise for the children to walk in, play in, and dream in,” Phalle wrote on one of the sketches displayed at PS1. She built the garden over the course of two decades, sometimes living inside the sphinx as the works came together around her.
Phalle’s park was inspired by Gaudí’s Park Güell. Like that work, much of Phalle’s garden uses mosaic, broken shards of tile constructed in new patterns, forms, surfaces. It’s a DIY aesthetic that, when employed on a massive scale, gives Phalle’s work a hodge-podge grandiosity. Phalle said she was driven by “a pressing need to show that a woman can work on a monumental scale.” She wrote to a friend: “Men’s roles seem to give them a great deal more freedom and I was resolved that freedom would be mine.”
At the Phalle exhibit, I think about my mother. I think of her studio at the back of her home in Melbourne, littered with shattered plates. Her stainless steel countertop, covered in dried chips of molding clay. A menagerie of cutesy porcelain animals lining a wall-length shelf, and below them, a collection of antique tea pots. Figure heads she has sculpted from clay strewn on the workbench — cherubic faces with extra-long necks stretched to the point of severance, like bluntly cut daisies.
Outside the studio is her garden, where she has planted scarlet mandevilla, trumpet-like flowers that flare out from a creeper vine, and violet geraniums, which sag after the rain. This garden houses her finished creations: busts of fractious women, statuesque, goddess-like. They stand serenely powerful and regally adorned: Hair composed of hummingbirds and poppies and beaded undergrowth, faces of cracked porcelain and china. They have Chinese soup spoons for earrings and headpieces of layered saucers and nesting porcelain birds. Their eyes are shaded lavender and turquoise; their noses are the turned-down handles of teacups; their cheeks are dotted with flowers.
My mum took up art-making when she retired. She had always been an artist, but motherhood and her job as an elementary school teacher prevented her from creating as devotedly as she does now. Not that she ever had aspirations of fame. She retreats from attention; when I mention my interest in writing about her work, she moves out of the video chat frame, saying: “I don’t know what there could possibly be to write about.” People who have seen her work often ask if they can buy it. She declines. She has no interest in selling her art, or in presenting it formally, no matter how many observers have encouraged her. But she has taken on such efforts of labor and productivity that it would be unfair to call this merely a hobby.
Her first mosaic covered a section of wall beside the front door of her house. She would later mosaic a part of our kitchen wall in yellows and blues, and then the entire front wall of a different house in white checkerboard, which people now slow down to admire or gawk at as they drive past. I assisted with these works at different intervals, sifting through shards of broken tile, looking for pieces to fit into an improvised puzzle.
People cringe or condescend when they hear the word “mosaic.” A bookstore clerk once sneered at me when I asked for titles on the subject and dismissed me to the craft section. Craft — a designation used to subjugate many art-making practices that have been the domain of women: needlepoint, pottery, quilt making. With their connections to the home, these mediums have been historically dismissed, supposedly lacking the rigor and intellectual complexity of high art. Judy Chicago’s feminist masterwork The Dinner Party, a collaborative work made with the help of over four hundred volunteers specializing in the kinds of art practices often considered “domestic labor,” was accepted by only two US museums on its debut tour, which began in 1979. Only in more recent decades have artists begun repositioning craft practices, taking these mediums out of the home and into the galleries. Some even employ craft on a massive, structural scale, just as Phalle did.
My mother’s husband, my father, is an architect. His art is his profession. It is large and public and functional. Her art is private, ornamental, made in and for the home. These distinctions between parents (and art) are gendered, which is to say, limiting. Countless women — Louise Bourgeois, Kara Walker, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Hepworth, Alice Neel (who called this perceived tension the “awful dichotomy”) — have rejected the notion of being exclusively mother or artist. To think of the mother as artist does not necessitate a conflict, nor does it require a choice between passive domestic surrender or total domestic rejection, although for a long time the world demanded that it did. Such frames only reinforce hierarchies, limit her to merely a fragment when, of course, she is composed of many pieces.
In 2019, I went with my mother to an exhibit of the Melbourne artist Mirka Mora’s drawings and painted dolls at the Heide Museum of Modern Art outside of Melbourne. Mora’s illustrations, often done in charcoals, have a children’s-book quality: her characters are innocent and strange; the absence of detail in their faces makes them both androgynous and ageless, defined only by wide, hooded eyes and pleasant, upturned mouths. Their plainness emanates a soulful depth. Two of my mother’s creations — winged figures with pear-shaped bodies, flowers creeping up toward their childlike faces — were inspired by Mora’s work.
Mora immortalized many children, particularly her own, in her work. “I have drawn my children and painted them endlessly and I cannot distinguish them from my soul,” she wrote in her autobiography, Wicked But Virtuous: My Life. “Once — I must have been in a kind of trance which lasted a millionth of a second — I could not understand why I was not a child at the same time as my children, same size as them.”
Mora also painted what we might poorly call “toys” — teddy bears and dolls, hundreds of dolls. “Real prams and dolls’ prams still send me into rapture,” Mora wrote. “The act of putting dolls in a pram, back on my bed and back into the pram — I can spend literally hours that way recollecting my children and being a mother and a granny. My pleasure never ends and I am puzzled by my behavior, but I call it working.”
Mirka Mora worked with a limited color palette, but she listened to colors as if to music. “High notes for brighter tones or pure color, and low notes for darker tones or colors — red, brown, black.” When Alison, my mother’s sister-in-law, died of cancer, Mum sculpted a figure of a woman with the body of a teapot, floating on a current of flowers. Alison was not an artist, but she possessed a unique artistry in the way she decorated and dressed. After Alison divorced, she painted her home in outrageous hues — each room a loudly monochromatic palette: her dining room tinted entirely in shades of sapphire, the kitchen all blood red, a bedroom of pale jades. She wore glasses with multicolored tortoise-shell frames and dressed, whenever possible, in sequined frocks. These choices were declarations of who she was, expressed through home and fashion loudly and unruly — unapologetically feminine. When Alison died, my mum, along with Alison’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter, performed a ritual of color by painting the coffin hot pink.
As I write about Mum, I think of her hands, holding a plate and smashing it on the concrete paving outside; fingers massaging grout into the sharp crevices between cracked tiles, the skin under her rings wrinkled and soft, like a bruised fruit. Her hands teaching me how to shade using a colored pencil — the underside of a lily pad, how green turns to black, the delicacy of pink in a white petal — or showing how to thread wool through tortoise-shell needles. Her hands airing a bedsheet, the sound as it flutters over an unmade bed. Hands licked with spit and sizzling on a hot iron. Hands enacting the choreography of clutter: picking up, moving, putting away random objects — a hair brush, keys, worn socks, batteries — over and over and over, every day, for years. Hands in the grit of flour rubbed into butter, or soil being pressed over new roots. Domestic events as a richly sensorial microcosm.
When we were younger, my sister and I used to purposefully take and collect bad photos of Mum, photos where her eyes were caught unevenly mid-blink, or her mouth puckered, her lips pouting obscenely, or she had a double chin, or the flash had made her look like a big, glowing moon face. Photos that caught her between her usual states of composure and rendered her grotesque and hilarious. She hated these photographs, found nothing funny in the accident of her momentary ugliness-made-permanent, actively sought out photo negatives and digital copies and deleted all the evidence. And she hated our taking such pleasure in the photos. She thought it cruel mockery, which in part it was, but it was also thrilling to see her so roughly, not so immaculately put together, not her usual combination of elegance and warmth. The funhouse photos transformed her, and our love of them attested to our want to see her messier, less motherly.
When I talk to Mum now, it is in time zones sixteen hours apart. We exchange book recommendations and talk about art, about its function, about craft and intentions. In these talks, she sometimes wonders why an artist must inhabit turmoil or drama to be taken seriously. We talk about my sister — her daughter — now also a mother. My sister’s daughters spend a lot of time with our mum. Decades in classrooms taught her how to speak to children, and as she sits on the floor amidst dollhouse parts and building blocks, She converses with them in what seems the exact right way, perfectly tender but direct, uncondescending but authoritative. She seems most in her element with children, but at no point are these playtimes not work.
Another of Mum’s pieces is a hand-sculpted statue of Frida Kahlo, one of her favorite artists, made from clay. Kahlo’s floor-length skirt is caught mid-spin, glazed and painted blue and white, and decorated with little forget-me-nots. Blue roses collar her tunic and festoon her hair. Her face remains unglazed, the sole surface without a sheen. Her expression is stern, bold, defiant. The Kahlo sculpture is distinct among Mum’s figures as a woman who is most definitely someone, not only because it is Frida Kahlo, but because the look in her face is heavy and vibrant with character; her psychology has been given sculptural form.
I went to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 2019 in order to report back to Mum. The exhibit consisted mostly of artifacts of Kahlo’s — her wardrobe, her jewelry, the contents of her medicine cabinet — and photographs of Kahlo, many of which were taken by men. Only a few of Kahlo’s own works were displayed: a self-portrait of Kahlo surrounded by black monkeys and with a single bird of paradise peaking over her right shoulder; and a still life of fruit, watermelon burst open, the fibrous hair of a coconut.
In Kahlo’s private diaries, which she never intended to be seen by anyone but which were first displayed at a museum after her death and later published at the insistence of art promoter Claudia Madrazo, she writes in an associative patchwork of words and sensations: “no moon, sun, diamond, hands — fingertip, dot, ray, gauze, sea. pine green, pink glass, eye, mine, eraser, mud, mother, I am coming. = yellow love, fingers, useful child, flower, wish, artifice, resin.” Like Mora, she pays particular attention to color: “I’ll try out the pencils, sharpened to the point of infinity which always sees ahead,” she wrote, and with each new passage picking up a different color, “Green – good warm light,” she wrote. With magenta: “blood of prickly pear, the brightest and oldest.” Brown is “color of mole, of leaves becoming earth.” Yellow: “madness, sickness, fear, part of the sun and of happiness.” Blue: “electricity and purity.” And with a gunmetal gray, “nothing is black – really nothing.”
Color was Kahlo’s spirituality; in another diary entry, a letter to her husband Diego Rivera reads, “You were called AUXOCHROME the one who captures color. I CHROMOPHORE – the one who gives color. You are all the combinations of numbers. life. My wish is to understand lines form shades movement.” Kahlo’s immersion into these formal aesthetics, into color and line, was for her a gateway to the sublime. “Revolution is the harmony of form and color and everything exists, and moves, under only one law = life.”
In Mum’s studio, there is a color wheel, the type that comes with black stencil overlays delineating and regrouping opposing and complementary hues. There is something reassuring about the color wheel: when it presents you with its combinations, it is telling you a truth, that the colors will always find their harmonies. And yet its authority is quiet — it doesn’t defend itself with bombastic argument. It is simply right that yellow goes with purple and, at the same time, goes with green. This knowledge, sometimes dismissed as merely decoration, has a wordless profundity.
Mum recently told me about another mosaic artist whose work she’s been following. The artist, Concetta Antico, spoke on a podcast about being a tetrachromat, a person who has four types of cone cells in their eye instead of the usual three — and who can, therefore, see thousands more color variations than the normal person. “Tetrachromats can see colors most people cannot, up to one hundred million,” Mum tells me over the phone. “The thing is, Antico doesn’t use bright colors. She only uses beige, bone” — colors that, to the normal eye, look uniformly dull. “But obviously, she can see other color within that,” Mum says. A private visual world unrecognizable to others, but vibrant and lively to her.
Lately, Mum has been writing. Every week she responds to a prompt about her past — questions about her favorite books and toys as a child, or her first date with her husband — to create a record of her life for her granddaughters. Many of these stories, which she also sends to my sister and me, I have never heard before. They are reminders that it is sometimes difficult for children to see their mothers beyond the maternal frame. Now I think of her in her studio, working, the care and attention she gives to each piece, the time taken, the satisfaction she gives herself in composing the fragments or shaping the clay. The work she does for no one but herself.