February 9, 2016 by Cevan Castle
Lehna Huie is a multidisciplinary fine artist, arts educator, cultural worker and curator, and mom to Simone, her one-year-old daughter. In the fall of 2015, she participated in a five week residency at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. I spoke with her about the transition into motherhood, the experience of a long-term residency with a child present, and her continuing work as an artist. Lehna’s daughter was present during our conversation, and along with my six-month-old son Forster, played and interacted with us as we talked.
Can you describe your work as an artist?
I describe myself as multi-disciplinary, identifying as an artist, a curator, and an activist. In addition to painting, I also work as an educator, do some filmmaking, and much social justice work.
You have described your art as multi-vocal. Can you explain what that means?
Multi-vocal– in terms of medium and how I am connecting with others. I think that my work speaks across diverse boundaries. I love to connect with people, whether it’s through visual art, or through film, or through conversation. Those connections span across generations, too. I’m really interested in sharing my expressions with multiple communities and I’m equally interested in learning from those communities about their expressions.
“I also hope to demystify the artist and arts as activism… Gentrification is real and it is a real threat to [marginalized] communities, with the reality that a growing artist community translates as a winds of change…”
And you also have a curatorial practice. You wrote that “accountability to the public continuum is an important element in your curatorial style”. Can you explain the idea of accountability in that work?
Accountability in my work stems from the desire to advocate for the unheard through positive interaction. Using grassroots organizing strategies, I create opportunities that are open to people from multiple backgrounds. It’s important to come together and share a common experience, to be in dialogue with one another, to break down some of our assumptions about one another. Art is so inherent in our culture and in our spaces. I want to provide a safe space for people to be able to come together, be together, without pressure, and develop an understanding of each other, just by being in the same space.
I also hope to demystify the artist and arts as activism. I grew up in New York City and a lot of issues such as displacement, police brutality, and trauma affect many marginalized communities. Gentrification is real and it is a real threat to these communities, with the reality that a growing artist community translates as a winds of change to the community members, the landscape, and the resources.
So, in a way, you’re interested in forming the continuum?
It’s a continuation of the work that so many of the folk I look up to have done. A lot of my work is grounded in that community aspect.
On the one hand, my personal work stems from being a New Yorker with a Caribbean cultural heritage. On the other hand, my studio practice is more personal, reflecting how I view the world, people, and emotions– especially love, loss, and remembrance. An embrace or moment in time, or maybe someone is experiencing a deep sadness. I grew up in New York so a lot of the colors and textures in my work- which there are a lot of- are inspired by some of that “concrete jungle” aesthetic… very colorful, pretty large, and very strong. The way that I use materials and tools is very much inspired by the quickness of the city, and the lack of perfection. I do some portraiture of icons that I consider to be archetypes throughout my political education. My family is from Jamaica – and is very afro-centric – so a lot of the style stems from that as well.
You distinguished your painting practice from your work as a curator and an activist, and said it was much more personal. I’m curious if you find a commonality in the professional identities that you have, perhaps a set of values that you use to guide your work across these areas?
Definitely, there are a lot of connections between the two worlds, and each informs the other in a lot of ways. The chance to explore my personal heritage and history allows me to ask some important questions, as well as to connect with the public in various communities. My community work is now shifting, it’s moving towards combining wellness and art… I’m really interested in supporting and advocating for people who are going through a huge transformation in their lives, and encouraging them to use art as an outlet. I am specifically working with women and girls who are in transition whether it’s pregnancy, recovery from addiction, or trauma. This led me to begin my training to be a doula. Last summer, my doula inspired me to explore this whole world of advocacy and support that I didn’t know existed!
“I’ve felt much less anxiety as an artist. The less time I had to work on my craft, the more I realized that’s what I needed to do! Creating…. That is what I need to sustain myself. Being a mother solidified it for me.”
In my conversations with artists I often hear concerns that the addition of a child in their lives will change their ability to sustain their creative practice, produce work, maintain focus. They might already feel stress in these areas due to the cost of their workspace, their living space, the difficulty of balancing life as a freelance worker, and so forth. Has your work or process changed since the birth of your daughter?
Yes, it has changed. I think that the biggest way it has changed is in terms of my figuring out all the parts of me that make me who I am, and having Simone really broke that open for me, in a lot of ways that I didn’t expect. It forced me to face myself and really identify as myself in a newer and different way than I experienced myself before having her… I was seeing myself from the outside because there is this new life that I was responsible for, that was kind of thrust on me in a way that you could never really prepare for, no matter how many books you read, or how many people you talk to. It’s just a journey. Stepping into that journey was a really powerful experience for me. Since then, I’ve felt much less anxiety as an artist. The less time I had to work on my craft, the more I realized that’s what I needed to do! Creating…. That is what I need to sustain myself. Being a mother solidified it for me.
It’s important to say that I have a really strong community in New York. My family is very supportive. My partner and I have a huge support network around us. That’s really important, especially in the early stages of parenthood when you’re stressed out. It’s an amazing experience and it’s filled with mixed emotions. There’s the feeling of exquisite joy; there’s also the feeling of extreme isolation. Everything’s happening at such a fast pace and it’s all your own unique journey.
With nursing Simone, I prepared as best as I could, I just had no idea how intense that relationship was going to be. And how much it would transform over such a short period of time- she’s just over a year now- and it has been an amazing experience but it was such a roller coaster, a positive one.
“I went back to work after 7 weeks – it was so bizarre for me. I was not feeling completely “in my body,” and I was feeling a bit scattered, but also holding things together in a way that was new for me.”
That’s an important example! There are few things that cause such an intense intellectual, physical, emotional, hormonal response. It really does take you over, that’s one more job that you’re doing and that becomes part of your identity, a very urgent part of your identity at times. I think nursing is one of the harder things to do. I assumed that it would just happen and I wouldn’t need to think about it too much, but it actually requires a lot of thought and preparation, especially if you’re a working mother, and/or you have a studio or creative practice.
Definitely, and a lot of shuffling around, and a lot of compromise, and patience. Even just going back to work- I went back to work after 7 weeks – it was so bizarre for me. I was not feeling completely “in my body,” and I was feeling a bit scattered, but also holding things together in a way that was new for me. Finding a support network was really important for me — other artist-parents and artist-moms who were doing it and who inspired me.
I felt like in my own transformation into motherhood, there was not a lot of support for the idea that you could be a serious artist who was also a parent (with a few notable exceptions). Some of my colleagues in the design community shared that they even hid engagement rings from employers and clients. There were many artists with children that didn’t embrace an open discussion about being parents and what that meant to their art. It seems like there is a certain amount of fear to discuss that aspect of life, because it’s not accepted as part of an artist’s identity.
You’ve stayed very active and have had a number of residencies lately, including a 5 week residency at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans in the fall of 2015. Did Simone, who would have been about 10 months old, go with you?
I went to the Joan Mitchell Center and Simone went with me. That experience was pretty amazing. It really helped boost my confidence. I was able to work, to have studio space, and to experiment a lot. I didn’t focus on a specific project while I was there. It was incredible to have Simone with me, and it made me realize how possible it was, and I think it was important for other folks to see how having a child shouldn’t be debilitating in terms of your goals and dreams.
Visiting New Orleans, folks at the community book center around the corner had a baby, a one-year old boy, so Simone had a little friend while she was there. They lent us a bunch of his things including a playpen and a baby walker. These thoughtful acts made a huge difference in terms of getting work done in the studio.
“Simone’s presence in New Orleans gave me a chance to prepare for my studio practice as the mother of a young child, to figure out a good system with her. Most of the time, it was just the two of us… I had my work, she had her work, and we worked together!”
So even just sharing supplies, such as the play area, helped significantly?
Exactly, and also, the people that I met there were all really loving and the spaces I was a part of were all child-friendly. The other residents were all supportive. So that helped, being in a really positive environment, where I didn’t have to hide her or feel that I couldn’t bring her around. She was a part of the community which I’m really grateful for.
It became so much more apparent to me how closed off residencies are to parents and how unfortunate that is, because we’re really excluding a lot of amazing artists, particularly women artists, who should be able to get the supplies needed to support their families throughout their art-making practice. It should just be a given, you know?
Simone’s presence in New Orleans gave me a chance to prepare for my studio practice as the mother of a young child, to figure out a good system with her. Most of the time, it was just the two of us… I had my work, she had her work, and we worked together! We took regular breaks, getting out of the studio a little bit. There were some challenges, but I was still able to make a lot of really great work. In the beginning, I felt a little bit of a fear, but surely and steadily, everything opened up, I let go. It was a really powerful experience and I’m grateful to have shared it with Simone.
“I kept hearing voices in my head, of conversations that I had with people who didn’t believe that I could do it in the past, “you know, once you have a baby, you’re not going to be able to do this,” or… “you’re going to have to take a few years off,” you know, to not be you!”
My phenomenal godmother lives in New Orleans. She went out of her way to make us be “at home.” She and other dear family members extended extra loving hearts and hands reflecting a multigenerational commitment to community. It’s just the way many folks live down there.
I must say how grateful I am have been raised by women, of many generations, who were strong and independent. For various reasons — including widowhood and divorce — many of them were single mothers. These women were creative, goal oriented, caring, fun, and no-nonsense. They seemed to make the impossible happen all the time. That’s a legacy I want to leave for Simone.
What was the fear that you felt, going into the experience?
Most of the fear was around whether or not I would actually be able to get this done. I kept hearing voices in my head, of conversations that I had with people who didn’t believe that I could do it in the past, and the recent past, “you know, once you have a baby, you’re not going to be able to do this,” or “once she starts moving around, you’re not going to be able to do this,” or “you’re going to have to take a few years off,” you know, to not be you! That’s what I was afraid of, and that maybe they were right, maybe I shouldn’t be here, or I don’t deserve it. But that’s false. I feel like a lot of the judgment is in your head, but it stays in your head. I mean, once people throw it at you it just stays there, so I’ve learned to kind of block it out. That experience was really empowering for me in that way, because I was able to learn to block that out. And then once I got back, it was like, cool! I can do this, it’s okay. And I had the desire to encourage others to do it too, because they can. It’s possible. I’ve seen it. My own mother did it. She’s not an artist but I am inspired by some of the ways she managed to maintain her life raising a child, while being newly widowed. Seeing other examples is really inspiring and grounding.
I like that you mentioned that it’s been done- you have your own mother as an example! And in referencing your mother and your daughter, there’s that generational continuum from earlier in our conversation. It’s also so interesting that you also said that much of the doubt or unsupportive thinking was from an external source.
Right! It’s really important to me for Simone, and all children I connect with as an educator, to see that, and for me to be that example.
“Socially, of course, life has changed in a lot of ways in terms of spaces. I experience spaces that are not child-friendly, even in activist spaces or art spaces where I always had the assumption that they were child-friendly. To find out that they aren’t, is really hard. But so many spaces and folks are child friendly!”
Why do you feel that our society withholds support for mothers, for artists?
I think that there’s an assumption that once you become a mother, you have a baby, that you’re no longer a sexual object. I think that extends to professional life. It might not be dealing with sexuality, but I still think there’s a connection there. To ownership. And feeling like women have to be contained, and once you have a child, you need to be contained even more, and just… be in a bubble. And that’s not realistic. That’s just not realistic at all. I think that [having a child] is seen as something very messy, almost like menstruation. It’s like, “stay over there,” it’s just silenced. People just assume that they just landed on the earth magically somehow without… how did you get there?
The virgin birth, with no birth, just teleportation!
Right! So I think that a lot of it has to do with ownership and containing the power that mothers have, and that women have when they get together and talk, and when they build together. In my culture, there was a point when womanhood and motherhood was embraced in a more natural way but I think once things got a little corporate or westernized, it just became something that was contained. Even in my culture, breastfeeding, is like a really big scary conversation that is not accepted as much. I come from a place that’s very empowering for women but then, at the same time, it’s not… because of the ways that it has been corrupted. I’ve always been on the outside of that because of the connections that I’ve made and what I believe in, the freedom that I believe women should have, and that I’ve experienced myself, and so I feel like it’s total crap. It’s unfortunate. It’s a policing of our bodies and even in the medical world, navigating that once you’re pregnant, it almost feels like your body isn’t your own. You must advocate for yourself or have someone advocate for you.
Yes! And I feel that’s a really compelling source of contempt for children, for parenting, for mothering, to be aware of that loss of control and not aware that there are alternative models of care for pregnancy and birth. You were talking earlier about your doula and your subsequent doula training… you were a participant in a different model.
Do you have any advice for artists, on sustaining their practice with young children?
It’s been really important for me to stay busy. Working is a part of my identity so I need to be working, and being able to work part time has been really great. Keeping busy, keeping in touch with people, asking for help, and having time to celebrate is really important. Having time to enjoy your baby, and making special time for you. I also like to journal so that helps me to clear my mind a lot.
When do you journal? At night? In the morning? That seems like a practice that could be hard to maintain.
Throughout my pregnancy I did it every day- every morning- but once Simone was born, it was really hard to find the time, so what I started doing is voice recordings because then I was still able to journal, in a way, with Simone being there and I didn’t necessarily have to have free hands to do it. So that was really great, especially in the very beginning. It’s really important for me to go outside of the house. To stay as involved as possible, but in safe spaces, where I know Simone is welcome, whether she is there or not. Socially, of course, life has changed in a lot of ways in terms of spaces. I experience spaces that are not child-friendly, even in activist spaces or art spaces where I always had the assumption that they were child-friendly. To find out that they aren’t, is really hard. But so many spaces and folks are child friendly! So just maintaining connections with them and helping out other people who need it. Travel has been really important for me, being able to explore places, just going to a new part of the city I haven’t seen, or the beach or the playground. We take Simone to a lot of sing-alongs and it’s nice to meet other parents, who all have different experiences parenting, seeing where I am with all of that and learning from other folks.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences! It has been so much fun to have Simone here and involved in the conversation. It’s exciting, too, because these little people are going to be the result of your continuum work, and conversations such as this one, so it will be interesting to learn from them when they grow up. Thank you so much!
Of course, thank you.
More information about the artist can be found at this link:
More information on the Joan Mitchell Center artist residency can be found at this link: