Can a Mother Devote Her Life to Art?

Can a Mother Devote Her Life to Art?
Can a Mother Devote Her Life to Art?

“I love how the sun bleeds out” (all photos courtesy JoAnna Novak)

When I first discovered my favorite writer, I had a hard time separating my admiration for her work from my desire to emulate her life. I didn’t just want to write like her — I wanted to be like her, calling her “my blueprint.” Borderline idolatry to be sure, but I can’t help searching for guidance and assurance — if she could do it, so can I — in the lives of women I admire. This same impulse propels JoAnna Novak’s debut memoir, Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood, which traces the arc of her obsession with the artist Agnes Martin. 

Novak, a writer, is five months pregnant with her first child when she decides to spend 18 days in the small town of Taos, New Mexico — where the reclusive Martin, who died in 2004, resided for many years — to immerse herself in Martin’s life and work. The goal: to harness in herself the artist’s trademark discipline and detachment. “I was here to be like Agnes Martin,” she declares as she settles into her rented high-desert casita, where she resolves to remain desk-bound and distraction-free. 

On the cusp of her third trimester, Novak is at a crossroads, unable to reconcile her “schismatic identity: woman-who-puts-writing-first-and-never-wants-kid and pregnant-body.” Afraid motherhood will imperil her work, she’s drawn to Martin, who shed many of her attachments and obligations in order to lead a cloistered life devoted to art. “I realized that in Martin,” she writes, “I was looking for a way to see my own life anew.” 

“Lucy crossing la cienaga on the Fred Baca Wetlands Nature Trail”

Holed up in Taos, Novak undertakes an experiment in solitude and art-making. But she dooms the experiment from the start by bringing along her husband. Although Martin urged artists to protect their “quiet state of mind,” Novak wonders, “Could a quiet state include a lover, a child?” I suspect that Martin would have scoffed at such a proposition. Yet the more Novak reads and writes about Martin, the more she realizes that Martin was not quite the rigid hermit she’d imagined and romanticized. The same Martin who declared in 1976 that “artists must of necessity be alone” also wrote in 1972 that “asceticism is a mistake.” 

By the book’s end, Novak decides that laboring to remake herself in her hero’s image is counterproductive. “What if such extravagant pursuit of Martin’s ethos would simply keep me impoverished from my own?” she wonders, later admitting that this “was not the first time I had fit myself into another woman” and that she’ll likely “be drawn to myths like Martin’s forever.” 

Novak is a superb writer, and at the heart of Contradiction Days is a compelling portrait of the artist as a pregnant woman whose body and identity are in flux. Yet for all her admiration of Martin’s alternative lifestyle, Novak doesn’t dig very deeply into why she’s made more traditional choices in her own life — the book would have benefited from more insights into her desire to have a child (beyond a vague concession to her husband that it “would enrich our lives”) and her decision to get married.

Of course wifedom and motherhood are not at odds with artistry. There is no single way to be an artist. What worked for Martin doesn’t work for Novak — or for most people, for that matter — and her time at Taos proves that admiration doesn’t necessitate imitation, that each artist must discover for herself the conditions under which she can best make art. There is no blueprint. There are only contradictions.

“View from the casita”

Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood by JoAnna Novak (2023) is published by Catapult and is available online and in bookstores.