Through painting, drawing, performance, sculpture, installation, dance, and more, San Antonio-based artist Raul Gonzalez has long explored, often with breathtaking intimacy, his Latino identity, as well as (as contributor Gabriel Delgado once wrote) “his urban upbringing [in Houston], and his role within society, profession, and family.” Since his kids came into his life, Gonzalez has trained some of his art’s focus on fatherhood in particular. In honor of Father’s Day, we interviewed Gonzalez, to pick his brain on his approach to the work-family balance — something so many artist dads face with young kids at home.
Christina Rees: Conversations about work-life balance often focus on moms, and that’s somewhat true in the art world, too. But dads are artists, too! Or, artists are dads, too. You’ve delved into this in your work, showing aspects of daily life as a father and husband. So to start, what is fatherhood for you as an artist, and how does it affect your work; and how does art affect your fatherhood?
Raul Gonzalez: I think it’s important to share a little backstory. My mom used to jokingly tell me on a regular basis that I would be one of those clueless fathers, who who would need to call his mom all the time for advice. Four months after our first child was born, my mom passed away at the young age of 53.
Fatherhood for me as an artist is an opportunity to teach my kids all the things I would have loved to learn as a child. I went into parenthood thinking, well, if I am not going to spend my days teaching college students about art, I’m going to teach our kids as much as I can.
Fatherhood has affected my work in all sorts of ways. Like any artist-parent, it limits your studio time, which affects the studio practice to a certain extent. My studio is at home, and I work from home all day, so it’s inevitable that the two will affect each other.
It also made me re-think what was important to share in my artwork. In my head, I’m thinking of all the ridiculous father stereotypes portrayed on TV commercials, movies, and so on. What can I do to combat that?
Fatherhood gave me this role that I didn’t know I was going to take on — this role, as a voice of a parent who is an artist, and who is making it work. By creating this body of work about being a father, I think I’ve only given myself more confidence as a parent. I can look at these drawings and paintings and recall the struggles and remember how I was able to overcome them. I look at the artwork and see that I’m still teaching, every day.
CR: I feel like one of the main gifts artists tend to have is as problem solvers. It seems that instead of regarding having children as an obstacle to making work, you’ve “problem solved” it by incorporating your family life into your work, as a subject. Or is it that you simply find that vein a rich one to mine? By that I mean: was fatherhood and family life an interesting notion to you before you had kids?
RG: A few years prior to fatherhood, I was already set on putting myself in my work — more than I ever did in the past. I started doing so with endurance and dance performances, some shown as videos while others were done live.
It just seemed natural and inevitable to tell my story of being a stay-at-home parent through my artwork. Initially, I did try to separate my studio practice from my family life. To be honest, that didn’t work for me. I felt like I was working way too much in the evening and not having enough family time. I would spend the whole day doing father time, but family time wasn’t getting enough love.
I had to fix that. I made that imaginary line dissolve and let my personal life be my voice in my artwork.
I also realized I was in this unique situation. Here I am, taking on a role many choose not to pursue. Maybe there’s something to talk about here. I started looking around for fatherhood artwork and honestly thought it was shame that it was completely lacking.
CR: What did you find out there? And I realize it may not necessarily be visual artists you’re looking to — maybe writers or musicians as or other creative types as well… . But are you seeing very much? Anything that inspires you, as in a role model, or frustrates you, as in a sort of “I don’t want to do it that way”?
RG: At first, I think I really didn’t find much. It was around 2015 when I started looking online; looking at various hashtags on Instagram. I found some dads who had kids involved in their practice, some artists, athletes, and musicians. By involved, the kids always seemed to be around or the kids would sometimes work alongside their dad or parent.
I just didn’t see anyone portraying their actual life, other than posting photographs of themselves online. And, as we all know, a lot of times, that’s not reality.
I appreciated seeing some parents not separate their work from family. I know that can be challenging, but what isn’t? Maybe that’s one thing I learned — there’s no need to separate the two, if it makes sense in your life.
CR: What are you noticing about your kids and the way they see you as a working artist, and what is their relationship to art and the creative process? How are they evolving, personality-wise and creatively by having you be so present?
RG: I learned right away that my kids want to mirror everything I do. Since I work in such a variety of ways, they are really picking up on everything. When I was using a lot of duct tape in my work, every one of their drawings had to have tape on it before it was done.
Both of my girls love to use an old camera of mine and take pictures of things around the house. I think them seeing me portray family often has them creating their own family portraits on a regular basis. They take the time to explain their decisions and tell me about why their artwork is what it is.
My youngest, Cecelia, who turns five this year, has evolved into an amazing dancer. If she joined me in a dancing performance, she would steal the show. I’ve also seen both kids put together an arrangement of toys or household items to create mini-installations. And, I could encourage it. I hang their artwork around the house. I tell them that this is their art show — and sure enough, they’ll give us a tour and talk about each work just like a professional.
A little while back, I told our oldest daughter, June, that when I was kid I never got to use paint because my mom said it was too expensive. All I got to do was draw with pencils, crayons, markers, and pens. Her response: “That’s so sad. I don’t know if I could live like that.” I burst out laughing, but at the same time realized these kids have no idea how lucky they are.
CR: What do you think you’ve sacrificed in having children (and being so present in raising them), and what have you gained?
RG: There are definitely sacrifices when it comes to having children. I initially turned down any opportunities to teach at the college level. I’m still currently not applying to residencies that require me to leave San Antonio.
In the end, I think I’ve gained more. Being so present and active in their daily routines has awakened all the creativity inside of me. I can be 100% me, meaning I can be comedic, musical, and theatrical in ways that I don’t typically get to be. I’ll do impersonations of characters, make up bedtime stories, and now I can create a poem on command.
I’m ready to explore those aspects of my creativity in my art practice even more.
I’ve also gained a lot of support and respect in the art community, meaning: I receive emails, messages, and more from other artists who are parents. They tell me I’ve given them hope and that they look up to me because I’m so involved with my kids and still able to make work. That means a lot.
CR: Do you have any advice for artists who are about to become parents for the first time? Or artists who are attempting to figure out a better work-parenting balance? What should they look forward to or brace themselves for? And also: what’s the best “parenting-as-an-artist” advice you’ve ever gotten? Or just the best fatherhood advice, period? And who passed it on to you?
RG: My advice for any soon-to-be parents: start a lot of projects before your child arrives. Give yourself a lot of things you can finish. That way when you feel like your time is limited, you’ll have plenty of things that help you feel accomplished. That really helped me keep the momentum going once parenthood began. Newborns are a little easier. They take lots of naps so you can get still get a lot done.
Don’t spend all your time doing art activities with your kids. Get out. Play. Play hard and your kids will take long naps (lol). What I started doing after a couple years into parenthood was giving myself a break on my art schedule. I try to spread projects out so my deadlines don’t seem too tough. I know that’s not easy to do, but over time it can be accomplished.
Don’t give your kids things to distract them, but rather give them things so they feel like they’re doing something with you. Give them their own supplies. Occasionally, let them use your materials (if possible). They’re learn ownership and collaboration.
When your kid has a creative idea, stop and listen. Help them make it real, unless it’s not safe.
Explain to your kids what you are doing. Talk to them about your work. One of things I remind myself is: This is what I’ve dreamed of doing, and now I’m doing it. I’m working as an artist and I’m able to be big part of my children’s life.
I don’t remember who it was, because there were multiple older fathers who told me this: Take lots of pictures. They mentioned they wish they would have done that more, because time flies. I’m glad I listened to that advice because I was able to turn some of my photos into a new body of work.
And don’t put so much pressure on yourself. You’ll be an artist your whole life.
For more on Raul Gonzalez, please go here. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.