“stigma can also be internalized, such as when I doubt my own impulses to integrate my experiences as a mother in my work” Featured Artist: Susana Ruiz

This week we’re delighted to feature Susana Ruiz, Assistant Professor of film and digital media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s also co-founder of a design studio called Take Action Games, which in her words, creates links “gameplay and the histories and practices of documentary filmmaking and participatory culture.” Take a second to browse her work and you will see an amazing array of interactive narratives and socially-engaged games. Read her thoughts and then head on over to her site to spend some time with Susana’s work.

Could you explain what your art is like?

I’m a media artist. I make games, interactive media, and animation. My work is concerned with how the intersection of art practice, playful design, and digital storytelling can enable new approaches to social activism, aesthetics, and public pedagogy. It can be a bit tricky, actually, explaining “what my art is like.” It’s definitely cinematic, playful, and collaborative.

How has the practice of your creative life changed since motherhood?

I once wrote a Facebook post expressing (and lamenting) how little time I felt I had for my art as a parent. Numerous people agreed with the general sentiment. One person, however, went on to explain how becoming a parent had helped them be more efficient and wiser with their time, and essentially better at their work because of it. All I can say is that I certainly felt a little annoyed and quite jealous.  Thinking back to my life before motherhood, I mostly find myself wondering what in the world did I do with all that time?! My understanding and appreciation of time before and after motherhood are certainly different!

What has been most challenging about sustaining a creative life in motherhood?
My answer to this question is obvious and unsurprising: my time and my energy are not just mine anymore. My time is more fragmented than it was before motherhood. It’s not possible to put the creative mindset on standby (at least not for me), ready to be activated whenever it happens to be a good time to do so, whenever I have an hour of available time before picking up the girl from school or driving the boy to practice or getting dinner started. The starting and the stopping and the re-starting and then stopping again… this pattern of fragmentation is incredibly challenging towards sustaining the cognition and emotions necessary to develop genuine and complex art. Ursula Le Guin wrote: “The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.”

As an artist, there is no question that my personal lived experiences inform me. Motherhood is such a huge part of my existence, it would make a lot of sense to incorporate it in my artwork. However, this is a challenge. In part, it’s because of the very real (though perhaps not always deliberate) discrimination that surrounds motherhood. The stigma is nuanced and can range from the view that motherhood is not a rigorous activity with artistic or academic potential, to the view that mothers have less time and therefore are less than “ideal workers” (the term legal scholar Joan Williams uses to describe the perfect worker who has no childcare or housework responsibilities). This discrimination is, of course, an intersectional issue and it impacts different women differently – factors such as age, race, marital status, etc. can function as interlocking forms of compounded oppression and can seriously limit the capacity to earn a living and provide for one’s family. The stigma can also be internalized, such as when I doubt my own impulses to integrate my experiences as a mother in my work because I too have gotten very good at judging these experiences as less creditable.

What’s been the best surprise about having a creative life in motherhood?
The media landscape expands! As a media artist, my world has become so much bigger and infinitely more interesting since motherhood. I go through my children’s cultural preoccupations and eccentricities with them and I, too, grow. My Little Pony this month? Okay. Red Dead Redemption non-stop for the entire weekend? Okay. Kendrick Lamar last week and Public Enemy this week? Okay. Unboxing Toys videos on YouTube? Fine. I am more informed, less prejudiced, more open to the world, and more inspired and grateful because of this. Interestingly, Le Guin’s quote above continues as such: “We’re drawn in — or out — and the windows of our perception are cleansed, as William Blake said. The same thing can happen when we’re around young children or adults who have unlearned those habits of shutting the world out.” Also, I think that earnestly engaging with the media that my children find interesting serves to model critical and creative thinking.

What are the particular issues that come up as an artist in your field with children?
Well, generally speaking, we’re not really supposed to talk about our identities as mothers. We leave those parts of us at home. They cannot come into play professionally, and they certainly almost never come into play as positive factors (i.e. the ‘motherhood penalty’). Most industries – including the art world and academia – are simply not structured with adequate and ethical understandings of pregnancy or parenthood. This kind of compartmentalization and reducing of my full identity can negatively impact my capacity for reflexive artmaking. 

Writing for The New York Times in 2014, Claire Main Miller explains that “one of the worst career moves a woman can make is to have children. Mothers are less likely to be hired for jobs, to be perceived as competent at work or to be paid as much as their male colleagues with the same qualifications. For men, meanwhile, having a child is good for their careers. They are more likely to be hired than childless men, and tend to be paid more after they have children.”


What’s been the your most important source of inspiration for continuing to have a creative life as a mother?

Perhaps it’s the example that I set for my children that they can have a richly creative life; that being and thinking creatively is vital to their identity formation and self-determination.

Who are other artist mothers in your field that inspire you?
The work of artist-scholar Laila Shereen Sakr (VJ Um Amel) is incredibly meaningful and inspiring to me. Sakr and I completed our PhDs together while pregnant and the solidarity and sisterhood we shared changed my life forever. Sakr’s art work is courageous, transdisciplinary, and rich with motherhood meaning.

The work of Irene Lusztig also inspires me. Lusztig is a filmmaker deeply committed to feminist public discourse and histories of women and women’s bodies. Her feature length archival film essay The Motherhood Archives is an extraordinary look at social and historical constructions of motherhood.

My mother in law inspires me. I am constantly amazed by her creativity. She approaches ideas and materials with what to me seems like an impossibly even-tempered, self-reliant, and optimistic mindset. Her creativity shows up in her cooking, her doodling, her writing, and her sewing. I can’t help but reflect on the professional and educational opportunities she – and so many others – never had, and on the unfathomable potential that was cut short.

You can learn more about Susana and her work here: https://susanaruiz.org/

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