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Mom story: This is what it’s like to be an artist and a mother

This mom grew up around a modern artistic and social icon. Here’s her unique perspective on parenting.

Yenna has art in her blood. She’s the niece of Keith Haring, whose street art became an iconic visual language in New York City in the 1980s, and where some kids of her generation grow up in a world of peewee soccer, hawk-eyed playdates and obligatory karate lessons, Yenna learned the language of creation.

Exhibitions, shows, estate sales and artistic events served as her background growing up, but Yenna didn’t come into art as easily as one might think. In fact, being “Keith Haring’s niece” made her more apprehensive about her identity as an artist, not less.

“I didn’t find myself as an artist for a long time because I was scared of being compared to Keith, or of this stigma I imagined people ‘must’ have — that I think my work is something because of who my uncle is. I’m really glad I got over that and found my line BEFORE I realized how much he has grown to be a figure of legend in the art world.”

Last year, she went with family and the Haring Foundation to open three shows of Keith’s work in Paris and experienced a “shift” in understanding:

“There were pieces that fell into place, and I understood [Keith] more than ever. I had experienced this at the Van Gogh museum, or at a Maxfield Parrish or a Frida Kahlo show, but it was incredible to finally SEE Keith in my own translation and understand that I have known what is in my blood all along. THAT BEING SAID, I sometimes find similarities to his lines in my own, but my work is purely mine. I think it’s similar to how my handwriting resembles my grandmother’s handwriting, or my mom’s, once in a while. I am also hugely flattered when people who don’t know anything about me tell me my art reminds them of his. I get the, ‘you’re so Keith Haring’ from strangers a lot. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.”

Make no mistake, Yenna is an artist in her own right, working with anything and everything in the name of frenetic creation. She paints on faces and bodies, uses acrylics, makeup, found objects, sgraffito and lots and lots (and lots!) of markers.

On bringing beauty into her daughter’s life

Now in her 20s, Yenna has another facet of her identity to curate, that of a mother. She has a daughter, Harlow Moon (4), and spoke to me about how Yenna as “artist” and Yenna as “mother” inform one another.

“I looked at becoming a mother as this breaking of a chrysalis and the imminent rebuilding of myself to support this new amazing THING. I had been working on finding my ‘hand’ as an artist since 2005, I had been developing what has now become my style since 2008/2009… and after a year of staying home with Harlow, the only fun I really had was painting in my studio after she fell asleep.”

To Yenna, art and creation are “everything” to a child. “Before I was a badass with my inventions,” she says, “I worked with children a lot… they are softer critics, especially if no one is putting art into their lives. I think giving art (all the arts… music, sports/movement, visual art, etc.) to kids is one of the easiest ways to break down barriers, whatever those may be.”

As a result, her daughter is growing up with art in her own blood, as a natural inevitability through experience, instead of expectation. “I don’t think Harlow knows how unique and beautiful her experiences are, but I’m immensely happy for her. I think… hope, that she will thank me one day. She pays me back in magic all the time.”

Yenna reminded me that there is a difference between what we choose to be and what we choose to do, when I asked her if she would want Harlow to become an artist, too.

“I want her to learn, question and try. She recently told me she can’t decide what she wants to BE: a dog trainer, a farmer or a drag queen.”

Of course, I couldn’t help but ask whether Yenna thought talent was innate or cultivated, given the family history.

“I don’t even use that word, but I receive that word a lot. I think ‘talent’ is innate, but should be held humbly. Creating is something I do as a must. Talent is what you make money off of. Everyone is going to question themselves, so when that word gets thrown at you, ‘you’re talented,’ it’s like a little star to lasso and save your day with. I don’t believe it’s going to mean anything for me to wake up each day and walk around saying, ‘I’m SO talented.’ That’s like being 6 foot 5 inches and saying, ‘I’m TALL’ every day. It’s all in how you work it… and you can always lose it.”

On how motherhood and art inform one another

“My art developed in incredible ways, and the most magical thing was discovering myself and creating such wonderful images for Harlow. I started to make these origami/found object chandeliers, and hang them from a big lamp in the center of my studio, then put Harlow on the table in the middle of these structures… dangling around her, giving her the possibility of a memory that sings with color. I have a photographic memory/synesthesia, and it took me a long time to realize that, so I want to engage her photographic memories in magical ways, if she is to have any. She influences me, but I haven’t made a painting of her yet. Just living as a parent is hugely different for anyone who is serious about doing it correctly.”

Like all mothers, there are things in Yenna’s life that are only for her, at least for now.

“I do keep some things separate from her, like going out to body paint at events at venues that could be bars/strip clubs/sideshow, I don’t like to let her see when I do nude photo shoots, although I have explained to her the difference between art and perversion. I did feel odd about her seeing big billboards of penis/vagina shots at a Jeff Koons retrospective in New York. Which was almost hypocritical, given my uncle’s background in dick drawing. All in all, I call her my greatest creation. It’s clear we are meant for each other.”

On having a parenting philosophy

Universally as mothers, we find that motherhood is full of surprises large and small, and that certainly rang true in Yenna’s case.

“I never knew how majestically the universe would unfold by having [Harlow]. How much strength and sacrifices are necessary to be a mother, and how easy it is to falter. To be fair, I’m a single mother, so as cliché as it is to hammer this point in, I am doing a two-person job. I joke about how since I’m also in the role of father I get to make all the ‘dad jokes,’ though.”

Her parenting philosophy is a mix of practicality and theory:

“I think listening and communication are really important. Remembering how you felt as a child and using that to bridge the gap between you and your kid. For the love of god, DON’T USE BABY TALK. Respect your kid. Read books. Re-learn with them. Never stop learning. Remember to put your smartphone down. (Also, tequila and wine.)”

Finally, I asked Yenna what she thinks all children need, and her answer made my entire day a little sunnier.

“Smiles. Hugs! Affirmation. Laughter. Silliness. High fives. Adults who show accountability. Respect is huge, and the biggest thing lacking for kids, I think. Less television, less plastic, more mud pies. Travel/expansion of the mind. Books, on real pages.”

You can see Yenna’s work for yourself at @imakethingswithmyhands on Instagram. We want to hear your story. Share the ways you’re pursuing your passions as a mother with hashtag #pursueyourpassion. Not sure what you’re passionate about? Try our fun quiz — what are you truly passionate about?

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