Suzo Hickey
"Let me Go Down in the Mud" essay by Susan Stewart, 1996

"Is not knowing the difference between the Who and the Guess Who the same as not knowing the difference between Blind Melon and the Smashing Pumpkins?"

Two teenage girls, one of them Suzo's daughter Jeseka, the second , her friend Rhea, who also happens to be my daughter, are painted beside this provocative question on a large canvas. The question is of course rhetorical, unless you happen to have a teenager, and then it becomes a question of some significance. If you can answer the first half and not the second that says something, as does the reverse. It places you inside or outside a generation, depending on what you know. It used to be called the 'generation gap' when we were kids in the sixties. Only when did we stop being kids and when did our kids start knowing more than we do?

That is one of the things Suzo Hickey looks at in her new body of work, Let Me Go Down In The Mud, seven large canvases painted in acrylic. Suzo addresses queer motherhood, the inevitable process of aging, the strange and perplexing condition of adolescence, and the cultural crossroads at which these life paths meet. Besides having daughters the same age, Suzo and I are also neighbours. Our kids like to play a game where they list their similarities: moms have same name, they live on the same street hence the same postal code, moms drive same kind of car, both kids used to have two guinea pigs and two cats, moms are lesbians.....

One of the paintings is a portrait of Suzo's sixteen-year-old son Marlon. Written on it: "I wanted to see Hole perform at Lollapalooza but ended up being chauffeur for my son and his friend. Later, leafing through the program, I saw a quiz about cool vs uncool. Topping the list of uncool was- "dropped off by mom." In the painting Marlon holds a hand over his eyes. Suzo says the transformation from young groovy lesbian to old boring lesbian takes about a week.

Suzo and I meet each other when we start our matching cars in the morning on the way to work, or in the laundry room. We always snatch a little conversation and it is usually about the kids. Suzo knows more than I do about stuff that is going on but she says that is because she has a spy (Marlon). We agree that sometimes it is better not to know.

Suzo's work is the only place I know to go that talks about being a lesbian mother. Such a relief to visit this work, to know somebody else has these experiences. These paintings are grounded in lived experience. In Suzo's earlier work she addressed issues of having an alternative family. In her painted suitcase series she looked at city/country differences, and in another series of paintings, the reality of raising kids on no money. Let Me Go Down In The Mud, deepens these conversations even further.

The largest painting in the show is a diptych she calls "Good Mother/Bad Mother." On one side is the image of a woman in an apron, the good mom redolent with flour and kitchen wholesomeness, on the other a bold portrait of a lesbian femme flexing her muscles, don't-fuck-with-me written all over her face. Suzo is talking about expectations here, of what a mother should be. She is talking about hypocrisy and social judgement, how good behaviour is expected from mothers: no cigarettes, drugs, no staying out late. A bad mother never goes to her kids' functions, never mind that she works until she drops with nothing to show for it.

When we have more time we talk about money, apartments, childcare, our jobs. Sometimes we talk about how we can't find the time to do artwork. One day Suzo said she was postponing painting until the kids finished school, Later I hear she is having a show in a few months. How will she do it, I think to myself, how can she possibly do it?

So I ask her, "How do you do it?" She says, "I'm never doing this again until the kids are gone--because when I'm working I completely ignore them--I'm never home"

Suzo goes on to say that she doesn't feel like she is doing anything right. She can't paint enough, not enough attention to the kids. When she takes time off work there is less pay but more panic. So she works more and ends up painting at night and then she feels cranky and the kids suffer and she suffers. But she keeps doing it, painting from ten at night until four in the morning. and then goes to work at nine-thirty until five. Between five and ten she spends with the kids. She tried painting after work for awhile but gave it up because she never saw them.

These are called working conditions: lousy pay, no time, too many responsibilities. If it sounds like a class thing, it is. It is also a lesbian single mother thing. These paintings get it right, using wry humour, irony and no small dose of pain.

In the painting "The Three Responsibilities" the point of view is the artist's, if she were lying down in bed surrounded by her kids and lover. They peer down at her from above, as if to say, "Get up Mom, we need you." Oh yeah, did I mention that two of these family members have disabilities?

"She was a very dangerous woman, she could really hurt me. And I realized that I wanted her fingers inside me right then. If I was honest, I would have put my arms around that thick neck of hers and climbed on top of her fingers."
Sarah Schulman, After Delores

In a self-portrait Suzo grasps a cup and gazes out at the viewer. Her other hand gently holds her sleeping lover's breast. Along with the Schulman quote, the painting states, "My desire to paint comes in a poor second to my desire to do almost anything else." Desire is the operative word here. The desire to paint only partially superseded by the desire of lesbian love.

Sometimes we talk about the school thing. "New schools are the worst" Suzo told me. The kids have to come out again to their new friends. "I stand outside my children's school looking like I'm from Mars, picking up the kids." We worry about how our lifestyles will affect the kids. I tell her how grateful I am that she is my neighbour, what a difference it makes. Twice as many lesbian moms!

A good mother should be monogamous and sexually discreet. Suzo says we are supposed to model ourselves after the hetero family structure. one lover, living together, both partners parenting. The "Heather Has Two Mommies" idea. The single lesbian mom who also happens to be an artist, into alternative music and culture, who has two teenage kids and a lover on the other side of town, doesn't fit any of the molds. It is accepted in this culture to be an artist and to be into alternative culture, in fact it is expected. We hate it when mothers do it though. As Suzo points out to me, look what happened to Courtney Love. Called way down for being sexually out there and a mother.

These paintings make connections between mothering, art practice, popular culture and sex, no apologies needed. Some of us live this reality, and remarkably Suzo has painted it for us. Fortunately for us her desire to paint is strong enough to overide any need for sleep she might have, or any of the other myriad excuses that could keep her away from producing work. What is chilling is the lack of cultural, social and economic support afforded single parents and artists. This brilliant, important body of work was produced because Suzo Hickey loves to paint and she cares enough to give this gift to her community.

Don't be fooled into thinking this effort didn't cost anything though. The title piece for the exhibit, Let Me Go Down Into the Mud, is really the final word. The image is another self-portrait, though this time the artist is sinking away from us in a bath of brown enveloping mud, sinking away to be alone, to rest and, Goddess willing, to recuperate. Don't be surprised if she stays out of sight until 2001, the year Jeseka graduates. It would be our loss.

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