leading voices

Liesbeth Den Besten

LdB met colliier Lisa WalkerMisjaB ed small

What are your observations of mothers in arts?

I know that there are many women in arts who consciously choose not to have children. If they decide otherwise they on average have one child. I made a list of 50 artists I know or have known; 27 of these have no children, 12 of these have 1 child and 11 have 2 children. So: 50 women – 34 children, the average number of children per female artist is 0.68, the average number of children per woman in the western world is about 1.5. My data is just based on an estimate, I wonder what hard data there is.


How has motherhood been presented within the discipline of jewellery historically?

Historically jewellery has been part of the crafts and was a male profession. In my country (The Netherlands), there were a handful of young women who worked independently as jewellers in the 1930s – but they were quite an exception. I knew two of them.

Nel van der Chijs, who had her own jewellery studio in the city of Utrecht, and moved to New Zealand after World War II – she had no children. She passed away some years ago. The other woman jeweller, Riet Neerincx, studied in London just after World War II, had difficulty setting up her own studio in The Netherlands after her return but she managed, she won some awards and was among the few female jewellers in the 1950s and early 1960s (at the end of the 1960s, with the increase in economic prosperity, the number of female jewellers increased likewise). Riet Neerincx also had no children, and passed away some years ago. Her wife is still alive. I wrote about both jewellers. I composed a brochure for the Silver Museum in Schoonhoven based on my correspondence with Nel van der Chijs; and I wrote an introduction in a publication about Riet Neerincx. Nel van der Chijs once said in a newspaper interview that she only became interested in jewellery when she decided she wanted to study at the IvKNO (Institute for Applied Arts in Amsterdam, now the Rietveld Academy). The director was not very happy with her choice and told her: “Well if you really want to exchange needle and thread for the hammer you should try it for some time but I don’t put much faith in  it.” She started there in 1927. She was quite a woman: she had her own studio in Utrecht, and had business cards printed. Financially it was not easy – later it turned out that she had paid too much tax for a long period of time. According to her this had to do with the fact that she was an unmarried independent woman – people, civil servants, regarded her as a suffragette. It was very unusual for a woman to live the life of a man. She organised exhibitions for other craftswomen in her studio, she had advertisements in newspapers, she participated in exhibitions, she was a very active person. As she said – she was not interested in men.                        


Have you seen any changes in recent years?

In those years being a professional craftsperson and a mother must have been a mission impossible. We can say a lot has changed because the combination is possible today but still a lot of women who are ambitious decide not to have children.


What are the issues as you see it in motherhood’s visibility within the discipline?

I don’t think there is much work about motherhood. I do know I have seen examples over the years but I don’t think it is the real issue. The real issue in arts (and maybe a little bit in jewellery) is gender.


While overwhelming percentages of women graduate into the field each year, motherhood is rarely discussed/made public. Why do you think this is? 

I think most people see motherhood as a personal choice. You have to fight for it yourself, to find your own solutions. Some people succeed very well, others struggle with it for the rest of their lives. For me personally, motherhood was never an issue, I loved being a mother of three, but I also loved my work and I never ever thought for one moment about giving it up for  even a short break. For a short period, I had to work at a slower pace but I managed to do a lot in the evenings and during the hours the children went to daycare or were with a babysitter. I was lucky to have very healthy children who slept well after their first year and I don’t need much sleep myself. Also, I was lucky to have a husband who really cared and who was willing to get out of bed at night. Actually, I think motherhood for me has always been something personal – it’s my life, my choice, my fun and my struggle, why should I share that with others? Would it help others?

Your question could also be turned around: why do girls feel attracted to art academies? Where are the boys going – all in finance, economics, business probably? I think in a period of 100 years the arts have been feminised but at the top it is still the men who are in the lead – you can see this if you look at the ranking lists for artists, professorships and other responsible jobs, though we are seeing changes now.


There is a difference in what’s important to mothers and what’s important to the field, we are looking for the place where those two sets of needs meet. Do you think there is such a thing?

What is important to mothers? Can anyone give an answer to that question? Is there an answer? I wouldn’t know. Again, I think motherhood is a personal choice. For me motherhood and work were separate entities. I wanted it like that. I had no problem closing the door and leaving the family behind for a couple of hours. My work was my escape from motherhood, my escape from home, the daily routine and all the boring things that are part of motherhood. Of course, there were feelings of guilt but that’s why you have friends and family to discuss these things with. Older women (who can tell you that you are doing well and that you should ignore the negative feelings) are especially important to meet with every now and then.

…and what is important to the field?

Is there an answer to that question? Maybe: dedicated artists who follow their own way, and try to inspire each other. Inspiration is something you need both as a mother and an artist.


What do you think needs to happen to make it easier to work for mothers in our field?

I wonder if our field is more difficult than any other free creative profession. In the creative sector it is hard to earn your money and the liberal professions rarely have official maternity leave policy. If you have a second job it can be easier because you can afford to pay for childcare.

The most important thing is that you are able to clear the children out of your head every now and then, to stop being a mother and to be an artist again – which is incredibly difficult of course. But I really think, from my own experience, that motherhood shouldn’t play the most important role in your life: that you should fight for free space beyond motherhood – only there you can start creating again.


Do you think it’s important to represent mothers for example in the gallery sphere?

That sounds interesting: to start a collective of mothers that runs a gallery space. But if you do so, should all the work presented in the gallery be about motherhood? I do think it is important that mothers help each other: you are in the same situation and you understand each other well. But I wonder if it is interesting to make motherhood your prime identity: a woman is so much more. ‘Motherhood’ lasts for a relatively short period of time, although you will be a mother until your death. So, I would say: think beyond motherhood. Motherhood is personal, precious, nasty, difficult, and lovely at the same time – but nothing unique.


Charlotte (28), Jasper (27), and Vincent (30)



Liesbeth den Besten is an art historian, based in Amsterdam. She works as an independent writer, teacher, lecturer, and curator. She teaches jewellery history at Sint Lucas Antwerpen. She is the chairwoman of the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation for contemporary jewellery, a member of the advisory board of the Chi ha paura…? Foundation, and a founding member of Think Tank, a European Initiative for the Applied Arts. Her book, On Jewellery: A Compendium of International Contemporary Art Jewellery, was published by Arnoldsche in November 2011.


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