My Mother is a Contemporary Artist

Phillip March Jones

July 18 2016

Unbeknownst to the world, and certainly to herself, my mother is a contemporary artist. For the past thirty years she has worked as a nurse at a university hospital, taking care of people at all stages of life and health. As a nurse, she is well respected, loved, and empathetic to the point of absurdity. As an artist, she is completely unknown and her practice, by design, has an extremely focused audience: my brother and me. To be clear, she is completely unaware of the contemporary works that she continues to produce. She is that rare artist whose life and work are so intertwined that untangling them is a logistical impossibility.

I witnessed one of her more ambitious performance-driven installations a few years ago on Christmas day. I arrived at my childhood home with my brother to survey the situation. Years past dictated our hopes: the infamous Taco Bell tree, a cactus strewn with barking Chihuahua plush toys purchased at the local fast-food franchise. The Snoopy Christmas: no presents. The un-themed but memorable year we each received a trash bag: one filled with paper towels, the other filled with toilet paper and were instructed to share. What could this year possibly bring?

We opened the door and headed straight for the kitchen, drawn to the smell of freshly baked cookies–characteristically burnt to perfection and filled with chocolate chips. Just inside the kitchen door, occupying the maximum space allotted by the bay window, our mother had meticulously arranged all the houseplants into a curated pile of a Christmas tree. The mostly tropical plants (a dozen in all) seemed to be growing out of the green-and-white linoleum tiles and were crowned with a small fake palm tree bedecked with large white bulbs. It glowed. The palm tree was delicately balanced on a fake piece of wood that sat upon a glass vase, which was resting on a metal shelf that was somehow balanced on another unknown thing, obscured by a rather large tuft of ivy. The whole installation was blissful in colored coordination, seemingly every shade of both green and white were represented, complemented by a single touch of red: a Valentine’s Day balloon on a stick, impossibly still inflated since 2005.

After several cookies and some brief discussion, we proceeded into the dining room, used exactly two days a year and which curiously lacks a table suitable for any kind of dining. There we found two more Christmas trees, each eight inches high and decorated according to our current occupations. My brother, the development director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Los Angeles, was awarded a seizure-themed tree complete with discarded film wrapped around it, a reference to a recently completed movie project. My tree, themed after my small contemporary art space was spray-painted black-and-white to match my business card which was nestled into its stiff, plastic branches. My mother, wearing Walgreen’s reading glasses embedded with LED lights, began to read.

I was so engaged with my mother’s performance that I did not, at first, notice the presence of two life-sized effigies of my brother and I as children sitting on a bench in the corner. The figures were cut from plywood and clothed with long forgotten items from our childhood wardrobe and capped with brown wigs. One had straight hair, the other curly. Before I could figure out which one was me, my mother stopped the poem, cleared her throat, and pronounced, “And this year I give you… your memories!” With a sweeping arm gesture, she pointed to the corner where the effigies had been installed on a bench. I thought to myself, “I used to sit on that bench to wait for the bus and…” Then I noticed the two giant Rubbermaid containers on either side. I subconsciously drifted toward the curly-headed child, unlatched the chest, and opened it to find hundreds of photographs, drawings, report cards, toys—the remnants of my entire childhood in one Walmart-purchased treasure chest. My third grade photo, the one where my friend farted just before they snapped the shot, and I laughed, immortalizing his prank and my toothy, awkward grin. It sits upon another photo of our T-Ball team, the Lions, a truly scrappy group of kids that my mom not only coached but cured of lice during a particularly brutal team-wide outbreak. A framed drawing of a monster was tucked in the corner. It apparently won me an art award in first grade that was still taped on the back. And in true holiday spirit, a Thanksgiving turkey rendered from my traced hand on top of a Santa Claus made from looped pieces of red and green construction paper, his beard a mass of glued cotton balls.

My brother and I delved into our respective pasts and, using the given props to fill in the gaps, re-constructed the richness of our relatively short lives. It would be difficult to overstate the power of her performance or the complexity of this installation. Everything in its place, perfectly orchestrated to trigger our memories at a time when the details were just starting to fade, a wake-up call to look back one last time at our youth before it forever gave way to the trappings of adulthood and our new lives. My mother watched us as we explored and dug deeper into our bins, grinning from behind those illuminated reading glasses, a mother who was always one-step ahead lighting the way forward.

Conceptual art is generally defined as works whose ideas are considered to be more important or essential than the finished product. Or, according to Sol Lewitt, “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Full disclosure: I am both an artist and gallery director in New York City, but I have rarely witnessed an artistic process so singularly driven by an idea. That idea is, of course, love. It is the kind of love that means coming home after long days at a thankless job to spray paint Christmas trees, arrange houseplants, and construct an experience so meaningful and poignant that any major art institution on the planet would be foolish to think that the essential nature of love between a mother and her child had ever been articulated so fully, so bizarrely, and so completely in a work of art.