The Giving-Back Series: Finding a Voice in Art and Community Through Motherhood
The aim of the Giving Back series is to provide space for the inspiring stories and good work of people and organizations in South Moravia that are creating positive change in society. The series showcases the journeys of ordinary people fighting daily battles to become the backstage heroes of local communities and their own lives, and invites others to contribute by volunteering, art, growing, healing, socializing, and committing to make the world better. Photo credit: Valentine Svihalek.
The backbone of the society is, unquestionably, mothers. In every human being they create, they influence the future shape of society, and empowering mothers in all kinds of ways means empowering the future. That is the key to building healthy, thriving and creative societies.
As all mothers embrace a big change in their lives when they bring a child to life, “…they are reborn themselves,” says Valentine Svihalek, adding, “Having a child itself is a creative process. Motherhood was the catalyst for me to connect with my artistic self and open a new chapter in life.”
Valentine, a Brno-based contemporary visual artist, international educator, podcast host, and mother of two, is the subject of this installment of The Giving-Back Series. She is an advocate for women finding their own path to success in the arts by building local and international communities, where women can find a welcoming circle of growth.
Valentine has her family roots in Antwerp, Belgium, and San Diego in the United States. Having stocked beautiful childhood memories on the Belgian side of the ocean, she spent many years of her adulthood in the American west coast, studying philosophy, pedagogy, culture, TESOL, and literature. She says, “My untamed curiosity to learn new things from various subject areas, harmonized with an inner creative drive and memories from my young ages spent by the sea… they all played a role in what I do today, and how I paint. I do abstract art, so I reflect the energies that I get from outside and inside. I am inspired by anything and everything – a little autumn breeze and leaves, a random talk with a friend, a cup of coffee and how the foam swims… But the sea inspires me the most in making art.”
Being Reborn in Brno, an Underground Artistic Nook
Nine years ago, Valentine was living in Italy when she received a job offer to be a primary school teacher at the International School of Brno. “I was in my early thirties, and any big decision I would make at that point would probably affect the direction of where I would stay for the rest of my life,” she says. “And it did. I felt pulled to Brno, I felt at home from the first day. Maybe it is due to the fact that I love those unusual, underground, underacknowledged, underappreciated types of spaces, art, and people. Brno is all about these three things. Raw and real. The city breathes art, but it doesn’t show. Everyone is somehow artistically driven, but they keep it to themselves. You see very unattractive building on the exterior, you open the door, and you find a little art gallery, a little concert, an intelligent talk, a little gem. It is about digging a little deeper. Then you find the cool stuff. And those people who celebrate those artistic impulses… really do celebrate it. People really listen to the music, really take the art in. In almost all cafes in Brno, you can hang your art, you can play your music. Art is everywhere in the city, you just need to peel the onion,” she says.
Creating Life, Art and Communities
I ask her whether painting has always been a part of her life. “It always has been, but I too kept it to myself, just like the people of Brno. I was once told that I did not have an artistic bone in my body,” she laughs. “I was not really empowered to do art before moving here. After coming here, it somehow felt very natural to focus on my artistic side. I moved to Brno, and a year later, I got married. The following year, I had my first child. A lot of things were changing… and holding onto art saved me from the isolation period that every mother goes through after birth. Especially if you are an expat, and a mother, things can get lonely. Of course you are very busy taking care of your child, but you also have more time indoors, and time to reflect on what you want to do in life, away from your family, as a foreigner. In a way, motherhood was the catalyst for me to connect with my artistic part on a new level. Having a child itself is a creative process, right? It is somehow like being reborn yourself. I used our garden as an escape to express these thoughts and feelings on my canvas. Whenever my son took his nap, I ran to the garden to paint. It became impossible to stop. In a short time, in every corner of the house, there was a painting… so it was getting out of control!”
As her friends and husband encouraged Valentine to show her art to others and started buying her artworks, she started putting on small exhibitions, starting with the first one at Duck Bar, the artistic nook in Kamenna Ctvrt. “My husband is a blues musician. He played at the opening of my first exhibition, and he still plays. Doing art as a team, in our own ways, is something so special. Involving our kids in everything we do is also very much normalized here. In my experience in California bringing your children to art exhibitions is something that is frowned upon, people start giving unsolicited advice on how you should parent and how you should work. I love that Europe is more inclusive in that sense. Because of that, being a mom, and starting a journey as an artist at the same time did not feel so hard,” says Valentine.
I ask Valentine about the difficulties she has faced in being a mom and an artist, and how she overcomes them. “Everyone has their own stories, but most common setbacks of a mother and an artist are the same, as we are creators: The perfectionism stigma, isolation, lack of community and support, and lack of sources. Starting from the first one… Everyone has an opinion about everything. “It is supposed to be like this, oh, I don’t do this like that…”. You hear this a lot. It is important to shut your ears to these comments for your own sake, and be yourself in whatever you are doing. I personally am more satisfied with my art when I see something imperfect. When I can be my crazy, fun, child-like, free self and have a good time with art, that is making art for me. It is the ‘oops’ that makes the art perfect, human and real. That is the real masterpiece. Art is very personal, finding your own perfection and imperfection is art. Our odd bits are what makes us real. Discovering mine makes me come back to painting every day, and I paint every single day. Same applies to being a mother.”
“About belonging to a community, overcoming isolation, and creating revenue sources… Reaching out to find that community is something I would suggest to every new mother, as well as every artist,” she says. “In a world where there is a lot of criticism about how to do both these very sacred things, finding a community to support you changes everything. There is always someone one step ahead of you, and someone one step behind you. People show you what has been done, and what can be done. Finding that community changes everything.” Valentine adds that she has built her own local community. “It started with new mothers I’d met at the park. We connected, needed an outlet and started meeting, even in my garden, and sharing exploration with different art forms. Eventually, as I found my path knowing full well the benefits of community, I gathered my artist friends in this same spirit and built the beginning of what is now Art Mums Europe. I became the matchmaker in the community, connecting women to help them learn from each other, so that I could learn from them too. This explains my whole entrepreneurial journey: just reaching out to people, learning from them, trying out new things, asking questions, and investing in myself. When I invest in myself and make networks, I invest in my income, which in the long run creates revenue streams for me.”
Her local Brno artist collective is Mastermind, a coaching program that fosters peer-to-peer mentoring; she has a handful of women from the Czech Republic and other countries who meet twice a month to support each other in creating a sustainable art practice and art business. Currently, she is working on putting together an exhibition of women-identifying and non-binary artists’ work at the Brno Art Gallery. The goal of this partnership is to give voice to both emerging and established underrepresented artists from Brno, throughout Europe, and internationally, through a series of eight exhibitions across two years creating space for topics from motherhood, women’s rights, and mental health.
Valentine also cooperates with other online communities where she teaches, mentors, and manages the Art Mums Podcast online. “Many people underestimate the power of online communities these days. If you commit to it, you can really connect with people. With the online community, we talk every day, and we are together in everything. You can find meaningful friendships, you can learn about how to monetize your work, you can find a silver lining when people around you do not support your art. You’re surrounded by people who walk the same walk as you do in being an artist and a mother. Great things that I did not even think of ever happening to me, happened because of the great community we have built,” she says.
Valentine underlines that being a mother is not a requirement to be eligible to join any of the communities she leads, and all women from all backgrounds are welcome.
I ask how she balances her work with her family life as a mother with young kids. “I simply create the time, because I want to. I work until late hours most evenings. When you are passionate about what you do, you just do it. I love creating, it keeps me sane. If you love what you’re doing, you just do it.”
More About Valentine Svihalek
Valentine is the founder of Art Mums Europe. Always eager to learn, connect people and make art, she leads Mastermind and collaborates with Art Mums United. Inspired by her community work, she published The Imperfect Artist Mother Journey as a reflection on postpartum experience. Valentine has exhibited her work in galleries in Europe, with the Jewish Museum Prague, Canadian BHA Gallery, curated exhibits, and The Huts Magazine. She is a host of the Art Mums Podcast and a member of a variety of directories and artist organizations such as Spilt Milk Gallery, The Art Queens Society, Create Magazine, Artist-Mother Network, ARIM, and Victory Art Gallery (NL). You can visit the collaborative exhibition where Valentine will present her art, e-book and physical book at Kavarna Era on 30 June at 6pm. For more information, see the event here.