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The Sisters Yankowitz

Susan Yankowitz is a playwright, novelist, librettist and occasional screenwriter. Her best known play, Night Sky, has been produced in many countries besides the U.S. and will open in Los Angeles this month, February, 2000.

Nina Yankowitz has had work exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney. She works big. One of her public art projects can be seen at the Lexington Avenue and 51st Street subway in New York.

Each has had to find ways of balancing motherhood with an active career in the arts. Here's what they have to say:

How did the two of you come to be artists? What was it like growing up?

Susan sees artists as people who, in one way or another, did not fit into the prevailing culture. "We needed some form of expression that our particular community found acceptable." She started to write early and had her first piece published at age 12. Her writing was her "other life," and she wrote secretly, at night. Their mother became especially supportive of Susan's work when Susan started writing for the theater.

Both sisters described their mother as a frustrated actress who had plans of going to Hollywood before she married and had three kids. The mother Susan remembers was disappointed, and sometimes even depressed, that she had given up her dreams of acting for parenthood. However, she encouraged Susan's writing and was very proud of both her daughters. When Nina was in school Mom ran a children's theater company. Susan sees their mother as a major supporter -- but also an example of what happens when people don't follow their dreams.

Nina attributes the sisters' tenacity and fortitude, as well as their sense of magic, to their father. And, as Nina points out, fortitude and tenacity are vital ingredients to being an artist. Even though he was a lawyer, their father had a "wacky side" and invested in health food, robotics and sonar at a time when hardly anyone had heard of these things. While in some ways Nina sees their father as a role model, he actually discouraged his daughters from pursuing their careers. He just wanted them to get married and have kids -- and saw their being artists as incompatible with that goal.

What do you see as the challenges of being a mother who is also an artist?

Susan said that if you love your work and love your child there's always a deep and abiding tension involved. It's "an uneasy alliance because you want to be with your child and also working." After Gabe was born her attention was always divided. Susan can work anywhere and traveled extensively before her son was born.. However, she ceased traveling for work until Gabe was about nine years old because "it didn't feel right to be away."

Nina works out of a studio with 14 foot ceilings. Her studio is part of a loft space designed so that her son can see her and converse with her from the living quarters. She found that working from home provided a great deal of flexibility. Nina also traveled to lecture and consult before her son, Ian, was born.

What did you find difficult about the balancing act?

Both sisters indicated that the early years were the hardest when it came to balancing their careers and parenting. Susan said that after her son was born her attention was always divided, even when a sitter took him to the park. Similarly, Nina talked about how she had to keep changing gears. It was hard to leave the studio, clean up and take care of "Ian's baby needs." Once he was four or five it was easier to integrate her work with being a mom.

Did your work change after you had a child?

In different ways, both Susan and Nina found that their work evolved as a result of having a child. Susan now includes children, particularly teenagers in her plays. "I always wrote from the point of view of the child before. That is, I understood the world as a daughter, not a mother. Now I see things as a mother. As a person who was not a parent there were things I didn't understand. For instance, the panic for a child's safety." She also feels that as a parent her work took on a gentler strain, that having a child "humanized" her and made her more empathic.

Nina's work had always had a playful side -- an "Alice in Wonderland " sensibility that played with perception as she turned images upside down, and explored the relationship between the real and abstract. When Ian began to play with toys, Nina incorporated their images into her work, inspired by his toy airplanes, trucks and trains. As Ian became more verbal, his comments influenced Nina's work and he often made suggestions that helped her see new possibilities. She also found that she got ideas from going to places with him that she wouldn't have visited otherwise. For instance, some of her work was influenced by the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

Do you have any suggestions for other artist parents?

Susan said it has helped that she has been able to find stretches of uninterrupted time to write by going to artist colonies where, for a month's stretch, there's no cooking, cleaning or other distractions. The rule of thumb is that one gets three times the amount of work done in that setting as in one's ordinary life. She is fortunate to be married to a "totally supportive" spouse who has appreciated and encouraged her writing all along. Despite his own busy career, he was able to care for Gabe when Susan traveled, which she began doing after Gabe was eight or nine.

Nina, working from home, discovered that she was able to sculpt if her son was occupied with his own activities. Having his friends over to play with kept him happily engaged. She too has a husband who has been supportive and, like her sister, arranged to have a sitter care for her son while she was working. Nina also said it helped that her career as an artist was well-established before she became a mother, and said that it would have been harder to launch a career as the mother of a young child.

Would you want your sons to be artists?

Both women indicated that being an artist has its frustrations as well as pleasures. It's not an easy life.They each said they want their sons to be happy and to do something they love.

To view Nina's work go to

To learn more about Susan go to Susan Yankowitz papers.

Comments? Send us your feedback!

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