For the month of May, we are turning the spotlight on our own mothers (definitely the first iconic presence in my life). I had the opportunity to interview my mom, fine art photographer Julie Blackmon. She has achieved much in her career, but like most working moms, many of her qualities as a mother and photographer overlap and intertwine. In both roles, she mixes compassion, humor, and insight in ways that are difficult to distinguish - perhaps this is part of the reason I find her to be such an inspiring role model and woman.
You didn't fully pursue your photography career until ten years after becoming a mother. What inspired you to become a professional photographer?
I never went looking for a career. I think I realized I didn’t have very many pictures of you and that I’d better get going before you were all grown up. One thing led to another, and pretty soon you guys were hardly in any of them! Ha ha! I’m not sure what happened, but my intentions were good.
Also, I have to confess, I wanted our living room to look like Pottery Barn—you know that look—where you line up several black and white pictures (all different sizes) on a ledge. That might’ve motivated me more than anything. Remember that picture I took of you in your striped tights on the couch? That was the first one I took that I really loved. It definitely made it to the ledge. I entered a photography contest around that time. I won, (much to my surprise) and then everything seemed to take off from there.
Your work has appeared on the cover of Time and New York Magazine, and in the homes of some of your celebrity icons. What was the most meaningful recognition?
Those are the things that stand out to everyone else, and they make a good story. Having done a cover for Time always goes over pretty well. But probably the most meaningful recognitions have been more under the radar. When the famous poet Billy Collins came to town a few years ago, I was also presenting at the same event. And after my talk, I left all my giant prints in an empty room while I went out to lunch. It just happened to be the empty room Billy Collins decided to take a nap in that day. At some point he discovered my work (either before or after the nap) and asked whose it was. We’ve been friends ever since. He just wrote the introduction to my second book, which will be out this summer.
You often mention how a particular situation "charmed" you. How have these observations influenced your work?
I met with two of the curators of big museum recently and I thought it was going to be just me showing them my work, making small talk, etc. Instead, as soon as I walked into the conference room, they said they’d like to videotape my answers to a few of their questions, with the camera aimed at my face. They said, “Tell us what you want your work to communicate to the viewer.” It caught me off guard. And all that came out is, “Uh, I’m just trying to charm myself.” They gave me this look like they didn’t quite understand. They probably wanted me to say something like, “I’m interested in the intersection of art and life and what that kind of ambiguous tension this creates in the viewer.” And I beat myself up later, thinking of all the other smart replies I could’ve said. But, as for my simple answer, in a way, it’s true. In the end, I’m just trying to tell a story. It’s thinking up the little things, like the “Beware of Dog” sign or using Girl Scout cookies as the subject matter for "Thin Mints,"—those moments where I get an idea that sort of charms me—that’s my favorite part. It’s what makes it fun.
I am close to the age you were when you had me. What were your fears and dreams when you were first pregnant?
The same as any first-time mother, probably, in terms of being afraid of the actual birth. I hoped you were healthy. And then if you were, I feared my parenting would somehow screw you up. I honestly don’t know how I got so lucky. Here we are, years later, and you would never know (looking and talking to you), all the mistakes I made! Whew.
Having you as my mother makes me the lucky one.
Your work portrays domestic family life. How did your upbringing shape your creative lens?
The way we were brought up, in the late 60’s 70’s and 80’s, was a completely different parenting culture than today. In the summer, you walked through the grocery store with your mom barefoot because you didn’t wear shoes in the summer. My mom didn’t bother with car seats, helmets or seatbelts. You played outside from morning till dark without an adult in sight. So, that culture made it possible for her to have nine kids, in a way that wouldn’t work today. But the craziness, with all of these kids, added a level of stress to things, too. There was always a baby crying, or her yelling at us to pick up our shoes or to turn off the TV and set the table. But then there was the magic of it all. The Thanksgiving table would extend all the way into the entryway with all these little makeshift tables she’d put together, and you’d have to sit on a picnic bench she dragged in to have enough seats. It somehow was always beautiful, with her lace tablecloths and the bouquets she’d pick (out of the neighbors yard) for the centerpiece. Maybe that challenge, of finding the mythic in the chaos—comes from the way I grew up.
Your continual support and wisdom encourages me every day, Mom. What is your advice for aspiring artists and/or mothers?
Wow, I’m happy to hear that. Mostly you should go easy on yourself. Just do all you can do in a given day and take it one day at a time. But you know that already.
Later, when you have a family of your own, you’ll realize there’s no such thing as a perfect balance of motherhood and career. You’re always falling short somewhere. I look back on those days when I was overwhelmed by the demands of work, and you guys may have been a little shortchanged. Whether it was all those meals of frozen pizza, or forgetting to feed you at all. (I remember you told me one time, at bedtime, when you were about 6 that I’d forgotten to make you dinner!) I’m so sorry about that. Hopefully it didn’t scar you for life. Who knows, maybe that’s why you turned out so well.
I am so grateful to have this opportunity to interview you. What questions would you ask your mother now if you had the chance?
I would ask about her younger self, as a girl. I vaguely remember her telling us how she had to take care of all her younger brother and sisters on the farm, every single day, all day, while her mom went into town to work. I always wonder if that was what made her an artist. She told me she had these little hideouts she’d disappear into, and she’d make herself paintbrushes (out of horse hair), or any number of creations. I would love to ask her about those days—what her aspirations were, what she daydreamed about —what she loved.
Clementine Daily is a space for women who believe in embracing simple pleasures, setting realistic expectations and bettering their lives to better the lives around them. In your eyes, how do you fit in with that mission?
Well, after they read my answers, I might not fit their mission at all!
But, regardless, I love Clementine Daily because number one, they recognized something in you that made them want to give you this opportunity to write for them. Secondly, because they encourage women (I like how they specifically say “frenzied” and “harried” women!) to find inspiration in their lives. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? As Vincent Van Gogh said, "I dream my painting and I paint my dream.”
CLEMENTINE DAILY SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGERStella Blackmon is a senior at Missouri State University studying Professional Writing and Marketing. Her narrative sense was honed listening to her father tell fabulous worldwide adventures before bed as a child. Stella draws daily inspiration from Paul Simon’s Graceland and her espresso machine.
p.s. A few of our favorite moms share simple tips for navigating everything from early mornings to time management.