Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Bri Hammond
Artist and author
Always creative as a child, it might come as no surprise that Tai Snaith has a flourishing career as an artist. But a life of art and making has created an ever-so-slight tension with another childhood ambition – to become Prime Minister of Australia.
”Sometimes in my art practice, I think what am I doing just wasting my potential as a leader, or of breaking new ground in terms of feminism or whatever I could be doing?”
Many of us can relate to berating our current careers or practices based on what we could be doing, but for Tai it is about figuring out where you feel most natural and at home.
“I feel really at home making things, and so you have to keep the confidence up to say you deserve to be making things.”
Making things spans Tai’s impressive career as an artist, curator, festival producer, writer and children’s book author. She has exhibited extensively in Australia and overseas and is a visual arts reviewer for Smartarts on TripleR radio.
Tai admits that the stepping-stones in her diverse career have been “all over the place.” Art school in particular was a knock in confidence. “In saying that, I met some of my best friends and looking back it was important, but I went five years after graduating where I didn't really exhibit.”
But with creativity and tenacity, it didn’t take long for Tai to recover her confidence. Eager to work with cultural producer Marcus Westbury at Next Wave Festival, she made up a position and secured funding to pay her own wage. Since, she has worked as a producer for Melbourne Fringe Festival, Melbourne Writers Festival, and more.
Such gusto has culminated in days spent busily working in her art studio nestled next to the kid’s playroom, weekends spent gardening, with good friends, or enjoying good food in her home shared with her partner, architect Simon Knott.
“I don’t know how I used to imagine my life would end up, but I am pretty happy to have a beautiful space to be in.”
We delve into that space and Tai teaches us about slowing down, moving on from self-doubt, and reminds us that in some small way, we are all Prime Minister of our own lives.
A day in the life
My partner gets up at about five-thirty or six and goes to the gym and my boys – Leo is five-years-old and Gil is two – will get into bed with me.
We stay in bed until about seven-thirty at the latest and get up and have breakfast, which usually entails making them toast and eating their crusts. I have my vitamins, a cup of juice and their crust, that's my diet, which is terrible!
Having children really changed my idea of routine. I used to hate routine – I would just have breakfast and would see how the day went. But when I had children I definitely had to create a routine, mainly for them but also to fit in my work.
My eldest is gorgeous, but he is a dreamer. I found myself nagging him every morning about his lunchbox or brushing his teeth. So we have just created a visual list for him with a picture of his shoes, pants, hat, lunchbox and toothbrush and he has pinned it up on his wall. Now he is so cute and he goes in and checks it by himself, and for the first time in a long time, I don't need to nag anyone.
Once the kids are dressed I’ll bundle them into the car, but if we are really onto it we will walk to school. From there, each day of the week has a very different structure.
Gil and I go to music and then we head to the toy library in Collingwood which is one of the best places in Melbourne – you can get six new toys and it means for the rest of the day my little boy is occupied.
In the afternoon I work in the studio opposite the playroom. That was thought through when we renovated the house so I could be able to do my thing while watching the kids. If it is nice weather we set up outside and I do clay, write notes or research stuff.
Tuesday is a similar day but we do swimming in the morning – we always have an activity in the morning then in the afternoon I work and he just plays.
On Wednesdays, Leo is at school and Gil is at daycare for the whole day, so I usually start by doing exercise, which is a new revelation. I find the gym really boring, so I usually go for a big walk along Merri Creek and then go to a one-on-one pilates class with an instructor and then I am set for the rest of the day.
I’ll either have meetings or work in my studio all day. I listen to a million podcasts on Wednesdays – The Moth, New Yorker fiction podcast, This American Life, TED Radio Hour, sometimes Bad At Sports.
At midday I often have to see an exhibition to review on Thursday for TripleR Smartarts – it's good because if you spend too much time inside you get bored.
I skip the exercise on Thursdays and just work flat out – I get lots of studio work done because Leo has after school care. If I ever have to review a show far away or whatever, I do that on a Thursday.
I try not to plan anything on Fridays except catch ups – it's quite nice to have a day where there is nothing planned and people can drop in or if I have to, I can pick something up from the framers. It's the kind of day where I can just drag Gil around with me, but it's better if we hang out at home and sit in the garden and talk to people.
By five, the kids and I are definitely back home. Depending on the day, I might make dinner earlier so I don't have to do it in the afternoon.
My partner doesn’t really get home till around six so we usually try and wait for him to have dinner, but sometimes the kids are just starving so he has to eat on his own. Sometimes we wait out the front, it's really cute, the boys climb the tree and once they spot him, run down the street to meet him.
After dinner the boys have a bath and my partner and I will usually just catch up, watch the news, or just take a breather.
If I’m really busy, I’ll do my emails between or just bash out whatever I need to on the computer.
When the kids get out of the bath they are allowed to have half an hour of screen time. I wish I could trick myself into that, too! I’ve been having less screen time and trying to enforce that with myself.
Recently I was trying to figure out why am I using clay, and part of it I think is that I can't touch my phone because my hands are dirty. When I am working with clay, I get really into it so it might be hours where I just don’t use my phone.
I’m becoming a bit more aware of how using a screen or answering emails can eat into my parenting time as well, so I'm just trying to be a little bit better at putting any screens away.
You might not think it's doing any damage, but kids really need that eye contact and approval and that recognition.
I usually read and sing to both of the boys, then go straight to my studio.
I often don't get to bed until 1am if I am working to a deadline, otherwise I tend to work till about ten. I always drink a big glass of water with magnesium powder and listen to a guided mediation before sleep – otherwise I lie awake until 3am! Also, I try not to have any stimulants after 5pm and at the moment I am up to five weeks without any alcohol!
Working from home as a mum and artist at the same time, there is no delineation between work and life – I work whenever I get it.
Often I get really good work time on the weekend when my partner is home. Every Saturday he gets up with the boys and they all go to the Queen Victoria Market together and I stay home and have a couple of hours to myself.
I might choose to sleep in, but usually I either go for a run or a swim or if I am really busy I’ll go straight into the studio first thing in the morning – it's sad isn't it? [Laughs]
I also love being in the garden and I spend all my money on plants and seeds, so much money on plants! It's good, better than drugs, right?
We are pretty quiet on the weekends unless we go away to Mornington Peninsula, but if we are home we tend to be homebodies.
We feel like we’ve worked so hard to make our space how we want it, so it's nice when we are all together to enjoy it and not plan too much.
We might go and do dorky stuff like go to the car wash, or the boys like going to Bunnings.
My partner is a really good cook so he does the cooking for the whole weekend and for during the week, so we eat really well over the weekend. We have a wood-fired pizza oven in the backyard so often on a Sunday we might have people over and have pizzas and wine or just make pizzas for ourselves.
Behind the scenes
On the relationship between stability and self-doubt…
Before I had kids, I used to experience lots of self-doubt and depression because I was so up and down – lots of going out and being crazy and being unpredictable because that was my life as an artist.
But you don’t have to do that to be an artist. For me now, a sense of family is really important. During my childhood there was a lot of toing and froing between parents and lot of travelling, and I really wanted my kids to have something a bit more stable.
Also just having a friendship with my partner that is not about being seen at the right places or going out all the time is important – it is just about being a good family together.
On balancing being an artist, curator, author and producer...
I used to work much more as a producer at festivals or curate big shows, but the last couple of years I’ve really tried to focus on my art practice.
It's easy when it's your own practice to let it slide and all of a sudden you're like, why I aren’t I being curated into things? Because you haven't given yourself the time!
So I go through these waves of positive affirmation and enter prizes, and go for residencies and exhibitions and some come through and some don’t – but even if they don’t I just make a body of work anyway and always get that photographed professionally to apply for others things.
On choosing a slower art form…
Working with clay is a bit of a challenge because it's a really slow process. The new book will be entirely in ceramics and so each page has different elements that have to be planned months in advance and you have to give it space and time.
It's funny because the book is about slowing down and taking time – and that is what I’m trying to understand by working with clay.
On overcoming the self-critical voice…
I’ve had a lot of luck and I have a beautiful life that I’m thankful for, but I am also really self-critical and I have spent a lot of time just trying to reign that in.
It is debilitating if you are so critical about yourself and it makes it difficult to do anything. I have just been trying to just stop that voice and tap into a quieter one that just likes making things and offers a gentle push.
On planning and deadlines…
Since having kids I am much better at prioritising what needs to be done and I achieve a lot more in a shorter amount of time. I’m pretty organised in terms of planning ahead to at least a year of what I want to achieve.
It also makes it easier to work with a publisher or a gallery because it makes their job harder if you are late – everyone becomes stressed and it's just not necessary.
On maintaining momentum as an artist…
I always have to start the next thing while finishing something else – if I have a gap I can get quite depressed.
After I had our second child I really didn't want to force myself and I listened to everyone saying give yourself a break, and it was really difficult for me. Even with a newborn baby and a toddler, I was asking myself, ‘What am I working on? Oh, nothing.’ It was terrifying.
I think the trick is knowing that you are in control of starting that next thing, and that it is what you want to be doing.
I think the thing that has enabled me to feel a bit freer is being able to say no to things, or more conscious of what I say yes and no to.
On making an income from your art…
Making a career out of being an artist is tricky because on the one hand you don’t want to make it a career because then it loses all the joy, but on the other you have to make some income and support your family.
I have lots of different strings to my practice so there is always some way to make an income – running workshops, commissions, or prints from my drawings.
On motherhood and being an artist….
There is a massive feminist issue in the arts when it comes to having children and continuing your career. You do feel quite invisible, so it is a battle.
In one of the first weeks of having my first baby when I was still in the cave of disgusting and I felt really shit about myself, a big box arrived at the front door from Beci Orpin. We had never met in person and she sent me this beautiful card that she made that said, "Keep doing what you are doing. You are worth it and don’t stop because you have had a baby."
I have done the same with other mothers so it becomes a secret club of people promising they won’t give up.