Photo credit: Kirsten Lewis.
Artwork Archive’s Elysian McNiff Koglmeier on what motherhood has taught her about the healing power of art.
I come from a family of artists and art educators. My dad, Shaun McNiff, is a painter. He established the Expressive Therapies and Integrated Arts in Education graduate programs at Lesley University in the 1970s. He dropped out of law school and committed himself to art. The creative process is his passion.
While I was growing up, seeing my dad paint, or sketch, or digitize his artwork was always just part of my daily life. He also writes books about art therapy. My mom is an art educator and an incredible illustrator. She's recently retired, but she’s been an elementary art teacher pretty much since I was born. Seeing the impact that she had on her students and seeing her commitment to her work and how happy it made her — that stuck. I wanted that. She brought art into our home.
So, I've always had art in my world.
Before becoming a mother, I had no idea what kind of mom I would be. I wasn’t sure if I would be a stay-at-home mom or a working mom — and then my son Odin flipped the script because he's medically complex. When he was born, I actually didn't think I would be able to return to work at all.
I thought I might need to be a full-time medically complex mama caretaker. Luckily, Artwork Archive came to the rescue, just like they had when I first announced my pregnancy. As a small company, I was the first employee to need a maternity leave policy at Artwork Archive and Justin and John, our co-founders, were both incredibly supportive.
They basically told me to take as much time as I needed to figure out how I wanted to move forward. I’m very grateful to them for that because not all working moms — especially in the United States — have that kind of support and flexibility, which is unfortunate.
My role at Artwork Archive is part-time right now, which is the balance that needs to happen because Odin has therapies, doctor's appointments, and, when we don't have night nursing, which is often, I'm on duty and up all night. So having that balance is really great, but I also need to work. Not only do I need to work, but I also need art in my life.
I'm an extrovert, so being able to work with people and connect with our clients is really rewarding for me. I work primarily with organizations, and it's dynamic and fascinating — I deal with art galleries, hospitals, public art programs, and academic universities during my typical workday.
Les Demoiselles d'Annisquam III, by Elysian's father, Shaun McNiff
Public art takes on new meaning
Because of my experience with my son, I have a whole new appreciation for public art, especially in hospitals. For example, the line of sight that patients have while lying on a doctor's table — you’re usually looking up at this weird, pockmarked ceiling. And when I think of my son, a toddler, lying on his back so the doctors can poke and prod him — that's a really hard thing to get a toddler to do.
In one of my work calls I learned about how Gilette Children's Speciality Healthcare installed imagery that changes over time on the ceilings of their patient rooms and I thought that was really lovely. I also wrote about the impact of art in one of my articles on our blog. The article shares why the art collection at the hospital where my son was born was so important, so invaluable to our family. But, until I spent so much time in hospitals, I didn't even realize that art can be such a wonderful distraction.
Art never really needed to be a distraction for me — it filled my cup. It was like a cherry on top of my life. I would look forward to going to museums and checking out public art when I traveled or showing friends and family the art galleries here in Denver when they came to visit. It wasn't until I was in a really deep, dark hole of sadness and stress that I realized the true healing power of art, something my dad has written about for decades. Thanks Dad.
When my son couldn't leave the tiny hospital room because he was attached to cords and monitors, and I needed a breath of fresh air, I would go and look at the temporary exhibit or go out to the sculpture garden at Children's Hospital Colorado. And that would be my release.
And then, once he was able to leave his room, the first thing I wanted to do was show him the artwork in the hall that I had walked past every morning, every afternoon, and all night, just going in and out of his room. It gave us some kind of normalcy.
When I was pregnant, I had all these daydreams of pushing my little baby in his stroller around the Denver Art Museum or carrying him around the Rino Arts District and showing him the colorful murals. And I couldn't do that, because Odin couldn't even leave the hospital for three months after he was born.
So, it was a big deal just to bring him down the hallway and show him artworks, or then go to another floor where there was more art. We couldn't go outside for the first two months of his life as he took his time to grow stronger so I couldn't show him the things I had taken for granted before – the sky or the grass. But, I could show him those things in paintings. And we could use that as an opportunity to talk about how the clouds float in the sky, how bunnies jump through the grass. I could talk to him about shapes and colors because of all the artwork that was around us in the hospital.
I also saw the impact of art in public spaces – the importance of making art accessible. Not everyone has the opportunity (or gift) to be exposed to art every day. At the hospital, there's such a diverse community that goes in and out of those doors — kids who speak English as a second language, for example. They can still go up to a bunny sculpture and know what that is and connect with it and it brightens their day.
This kind of public art also offers families an opportunity to engage with artworks who may not feel welcomed into the art museum or may not be able to get there because parents works during the day, etc. They can be exposed to art in a place that's not necessarily an art institution. It’s a bit ironic because my own background is in public art, but when I gave birth, I was actually experiencing all of its benefits every day in the hospital in a new and very personal way.
Finding beauty in the unexpected
My dad wrote a book called Trust the Process: An Artist's Guide to Letting Go. And I think that’s an apt synopsis of what I’ve learned — motherhood is a journey, and it's going to be tough sometimes. But there are also beautiful moments ... you just have to trust the process.
The other thing that comes to mind is an essay called Welcome to Holland. This essay is essentially a metaphor for raising a child with a disability and tells a story about packing for a trip to Italy, but being diverted to Holland instead.
In general, you don't have to have a medically complex child to experience that life is not always going to be exactly the way that you planned. There will be times in everyone’s life when it’s necessary to switch gears and recalibrate — and find the beauty in Holland, even though you thought you were going to Italy.
The continuation of that poem, two years later or so, would be that I love living in Holland. Italy can keep its cannoli and gondola rides because I’ve realized that the tulips and the windmills in Holland are amazing. It's a different landscape, but it's our landscape.
This makes me think of art, too, because when someone is making art, they need to process it as it’s happening. And maybe they’ll make something that is different than what they usually make because they’re exploring a new tool or a new medium. Or, because of the emotions that they’re feeling that day.
Left: Image credit 5280 Productions. Right: Elysian with Odin.
A work in progress
My advice to any person raising a child — medically complex or not — is that, similar to art, everything is a unique experience. Not only the creation of that artwork but also the interpretation of it. It will be perceived from the outside, and there will be commentary. And, that can lead to insecurities. It can also lead to growth and confidence. It's all about the type of support you seek and accept.
I see so much correlation between art and parenting, actually — you’ll have your weak moments when you're holding your child and crying, covered in vomit or whatever it may be. Everything is just a work in progress and, again, you have to trust the process. As a parent, you're creating something completely unique and you’re creating a legacy. Art can be like that too — it changes and evolves, and it may not look the way that you thought it would when you started with a blank canvas.
There are so many things that being a mother has taught me that I wish I could have known before becoming a mom — I know that my son has made me a better person. And a few things that come to mind are prioritization and taking care of myself so that I can take care of others.
I also tend to be very ‘go, go, go, go’, and one of the things that having a toddler has taught me is to just be present and relish the simple moments. If it takes my son 30 minutes to walk two blocks because he's stopping and picking up rocks and looking at airplanes going by — that's fine. We don't need a destination or a box to be checked that day.
When our son was born, our life changed — and not how we expected. There have been challenges, of course, but that’s all just part of the process. In 20 years, if my son reads this, I would just want him to know the amazing impact he has on everyone he interacts with, just by being himself. His smile lights up others.
Ever since he was a little baby, he's made people better — whether it's helping people see differences in a new light, or inspiring our friends and families to learn ASL so they can communicate with him. And I just can't wait to see what he's like in 20 years. Because the other fun thing at this age is that we're guessing — will he be in engineering, or be a composer, or an artist — there are just infinite possibilities. And we are trusting the process along the way.