Carving Out Time for Art with Penelope Dullaghan

“It’s taken me a long time to understand that there’s a time for everything and to really show up for whatever is needing attention at the moment – whether that’s work or dishes or volunteering at school. Everything fits comfortably if I hold on loosely.” — Penelope Dullaghan

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I’ll be honest, I’ve sat here for a couple of days trying to come up with words to explain how much I admire Penelope Dullaghan’s work and why it means something to me. I wasn’t sure if it was because she was one of the first illustrators I found when I discovered blogs back in 2006. I wasn’t sure if it was because she spoke so honestly about her own journeys and struggles at times. It could be that the art is just universally appealing — her line work, shapes, colors, and how it all comes together is so unique and fluid.

But I think it’s because I see something of myself in her work. When I look at her artwork, she has the ablility to capture all of the moments of life in a single image. There is happiness, beauty, life, vibrancy, but also a slight sense of wistfulness or fleeting emotions. I don’t know if I’m explaining this very well. When I lost my brother in 2005, and around the time I found Penny’s work, I was a bit adrift and trying to figure out how to live my life after so much had changed. Andrew had died right before Christmas, and it made me realize more vividly how life is not just happy or sad. Most of the time, life is a mix of so many emotions, just different proportions at times. You can have the most terrible thing happen, but also laugh harder than you’ve laughed before and enjoy that you’ve connected at such a level with friends and family due to a hardship. You can see the stars brightest when it’s the darkest, right? Penny’s work made me smile when I needed it, and I’m grateful to her for that. Thank you so much for being part of this interview series, Penny! Now please find someone to license your work on fabric so I can make another quilt one day!
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Tell us about yourself. How old are your children? Where can we find you?

I’m Penelope Dullaghan, a freelance illustrator who’s been blessed to work with a variety of clients worldwide. I’m also mom to a beautiful 6-year-old redhead named Veda. She keeps me on my toes creatively. Usually you can find me holed up in my studio working on a project or experimenting with a new medium or technique, walking down by the river behind our house or puttering out in my garden trying to stay on top of the weeds.

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Has your approach to painting, your processes, medium, or your inspiration changed since having children?

When I first was pregnant my creativity all but disappeared. Other artist mamas I talked to at that time said their creativity was through the roof – they’d never been more creative as when they were pregnant, but I had such a different experience. I felt like mine had completely abandoned me. And I felt like I was alone in that. And that combination was so hard.

But after I had my daughter, it ever-so-slowly started to come back. Especially as she grew enough to hold crayons or a paint brush. I saw how unencumbered she was with art – there were no rules in her head. There was no judgment about what was good or bad. She was wild and free. Seeing that helped start to break down my artist’s block and breathe new life into my art.

I started experimenting with different media, trying out different techniques and letting go of the critic in my head (as much as I could). Watching her, I realized that just playing and enjoying being in the moment was really the most important thing – especially as little eyes were watching me. It’s not about making a fantastic piece of art every time. It’s about the process – showing up and doing the work. And every now and then something good comes out of it.

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Is it easy or difficult for you to find/make time to create? Did you have to give anything up? Do you have advice on what works for you?

In the first five years of Veda’s life, it wasn’t easy to find any significant blocks of time to create. She and I did art at home together for the first few years – and that was fun! But there was almost no time for me to work by myself unless it was after bedtime, and then I was exhausted. Someone suggested I look into daycare for her, but I just couldn’t do it. I chose to let my work dwindle instead.

Then when she was four she started preschool two mornings a week, so I had those few hours to work, and I did a few more assignments during that time, but my workload, and creativity, was still not what it was.

But that was all really ok. Before she was born, I had already decided to reduce my workload significantly, so I could focus fully on being a mother. And it just so happen to line up with a major creative block.

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I knew that when the timing was right, I could step back into the freelance illustration world fully, but the first few years of Veda’s young life I could never get back. So I chose to be a full-time mom as my number one priority. And I loved it. For me, that was the best choice. It let me play with art rather than put pressure on myself to produce forced work.

When she started Kindergarten full time last year is when I really started to have real time in the studio. After a few weeks of lying around not knowing what to do with myself, my creativity came rushing back and embraced me completely. I was alive with it! And it’s been that way ever since.

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How does being an artist make you a better mother to your children? What do you hope they take away from seeing you as an artist doing something that fulfills you? 

I hope that watching me do work that I’m passionate about will give Veda permission to do the same for herself when she comes to know what she wants to do. I also want her to see that I work hard and really dedicate myself to my art, but I can also set it aside when I need to be present with her or with other aspects of my life. It’s a part of me, but not all of me. I hope she learns balance from me. It’s taken me a long time to understand that there’s a time for everything and to really show up for whatever is needing attention at the moment – whether that’s work or dishes or volunteering at school. Everything fits comfortably if I hold on loosely.

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Where do you paint or create? What are your favorite things about your workspace and what would you improve? Do you ever create art with your kids?

My studio is in my home. My space is small, but it gets great light. I wish it were a little bigger to accommodate me leaving all my supplies out at all times, but putting most things away and getting them back out as needed is a small sacrifice for no commute. 🙂 I have my studio door open to Veda all the time. She’s welcome to do art with me or in my space as she likes, but I do ask that she picks up after herself when she leaves so I can get to work quickly when it’s my time. (She’s not a huge fan of that rule. ha!)

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Do you have any tips to streamline / delegate / outsource household and childcare activities so that you can focus more time on your art? Has your lifestyle changed in any major ways?

I think that my biggest tip is to focus only your art when you’re in the studio. Use that precious, short time wisely! Turn off email, social media, etc and do the work without distraction.

For me it also helps to make sure that I’m one step ahead of the household activities – prepping food for the week on weekends (so week day lunches and dinners are easy to prepare), making sure my calendar is current so I see things coming and can schedule accordingly, having a (loose) working schedule in place for household chores, etc. I find that if I’m prepared and aware, my work time can be used fully for work instead of me playing catch-up for other areas of my life.

I also arrange playdate exchanges with my neighbors when I need extra time on a project. Having friends over to play is great – Veda loves the social time, and I can get stuff done when I need to.

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Do you have any big goals or dreams for your art that you’d like to share? What would be your dream project?

I’d love to work on more packaging projects. I think many everyday household things we use (from personal products like toothpaste or soap to food packaging at the grocery, etc) are an opportunity to bring art and joy into our busy lives! I’d also love to work with more home goods retailers making things like dishes, tea towels and aprons, etc. And lastly, I’d love to work on some art for book covers. I love browsing books at the library or book store and would love to contribute to some of the art there.

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