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Breakfast with Jean

I hope you have some tasty croissants on hand for this week’s Breakfast installment, because you’re going to want to surf over to Jean Van’t Hul’s blog afterward to stock up on great ideas for creative things to do with your kids. You’ll also love browsing through Jean’s terrific interviews with child-focused creative professionals. Enjoy!

CC: Please give us an intro to who you are, what you do, and your family parameters.
It’s funny how “who you are” changes so much, but right now I’m primarily a mama to one rambunctious little almost-three-year-old girl named Maia. I live with my husband and daughter in the mountains of western North Carolina where we garden, hike, camp, and generally enjoy the outdoors.

I love (LOVE!) art and especially love introducing it to kiddos, mine included. In my past I studied art history and studio art, and worked for an art magazine, as well as an art museum. But now I look for truly fun, generally process oriented art projects to share with children.

When Maia turned one, I started a Toddler Art Group, inviting other mothers with toddlers to join us for paint-filled messes and art explorations. We’ve been meeting for two years now, and I’ve also recently started offering an art class for toddlers and preschoolers.

CC: Tell us about your blog and business.
JVH: I started blogging 6 months ago as a way for me to focus more on the artful side of parenting as well as to share the art experiences we have with the Toddler Art Group. I want to parent in a way that encourages creative expression, imagination, joyfulness, and a love of learning. Blogging about it helps to prioritize that aspect of my life. And I’ve learned so much from the blog world and my readers and have been incredibly inspired by others’ ideas. It’s a world that I barely knew existed before I started mine, but one that I am glad I found.

As for my Etsy shop, I just fell in love with freezer paper stencils, stencilling almost every plain shirt in the house in a matter of days, so decided to branch out a bit and offer some for sale. I figured it would be a good way justify making more as well as pay for my crafting habit!

CC: You’re creative in many areas: writing and the many different art pieces in your Etsy shop. Can you give us an overview of your efforts in these different media?
Hmm… Let’s see. I love writing my blog. It’s been so much fun, and pretty much an obsession. I don’t think I missed a day in the first several months! After a beach vacation (and a little distance), I decided to give myself Sundays off as well as the occasional holiday. But really, blogging is fun! I love writing about what makes me happy and it would seem completely self-indulgent if I didn’t see from the comments and e-mails that I’m inspiring other parents out there to try more art activities with their kids and to be more artful in their daily life. And of course, I’m inspired in turn by all of their blogs and ideas and comments.

I also do some freelance writing. I first published an article in Mothering magazine a year ago about my Toddler Art Group and have since written a few other articles (mostly forthcoming). It’s such a different world from blogging. The turnaround time itself can be so s . l . o . w. But I’ve learned that you just have to have a different set of expectations.

As for the Etsy shop pieces, it’s nice to round out the in-front-of-the-computer work with a different sort of creativity. I’ve sewn since I was a little kid. My mom gave us needle, thread, and fabric from a very young age and when we were a little older, my sister and I shared a sewing machine. I stopped sewing as a teenager, but the nesting instinct kicked in when I was pregnant with Maia and I started again with blankets and quilts. For Etsy I mostly do a combo of stenciling T-shirts and sewing appliqués. I love pairing a stencil image with a print fabric and am currently enjoying the contrast of a girlie fabric with dump trucks and dinosaurs.

Sometimes it feels great to have so many different things going on, and sometimes I think I must be crazy!

CC: Where do you do your creative work?
JVH: I write at a laptop in our office, which was a third bedroom when we bought the house. Not too much to say about that room except that my wonderfully handy husband built a floor to ceiling bookshelf on one wall to hold all my books and magazines.

He also built the shelves in the art studio to hold our art supplies (tempera paint, paper, brushes, stickers, collage materials, countless bottles of glue, glitter, you name it) as well as some of my sewing and stencilling supplies. I sew at a desk in one corner of the studio, and recently made a wonderful hanging cloth organizer (from Lotta Jansdotter’s book Simple Sewing) to keep some of my supplies handy. The studio (which is really just a large laundry room!) looks out onto the backyard/garden and gets lots of sun, which I love.

CC: Do you have a schedule for your creative work?
Nope, no schedule. I grab the time whenever I can, whether it’s Maia’s naptime, late at night, or early in the morning, or somewhere in between. It’s not consistent, it’s not a lot of time, and it’s not ideal, but I do what I can.

I have two complete lifesavers, though. One is that my husband takes Maia to swimming lessons one evening a week and they go out with a friend or two from class afterwards—so that’s a decent chunk of time (during which I’m answering your interview questions). And I’ve also started swapping kids with friends. I’ll watch a friend’s child one day a week and she’ll watch Maia one day a week. A full day is such a luxury!

CC: What do you struggle with most?
Time. And feeling the need for a somewhat clean house.

CC: Where do you find inspiration?
My first instinct was to say media (books, magazines, blogs), but in truth, much of my inspiration comes from motherhood. As frustrating as it can be sometimes, and as starved for time as I feel sometimes, Maia is truly my muse. And not just that, but this new me—this mother that I’ve become—I really like her! Rather than sapping my creativity, I feel that motherhood has made me more creative. I love getting out the paint and encouraging two- and three-year-olds to splatter to their hearts’ content, I love making things for my daughter and for our home, and I love thinking of ways to make our lives a little more artful—whether that means shaping bread into teddy bear shapes, or taking a nature walk and finding leaves and flowers for a suncatcher.

CC: What are your top 5 favorite blogs?

CC: What is your greatest indulgence?
Chocolate and coffee. But really those are just everyday indulgences. I’d have to say my greatest indulgence is staying home with my daughter right now when I could be working and earning an income. Even though parenting is easily the hardest work I’ve done, it’s also so, so wonderful to be able to curl up on the sofa and read book after book in the middle of the day, or to cook something fun together. I get flak from extended family sometimes about staying home since we’re struggling financially, yet I still feel that I’m doing absolutely the right thing for Maia and for our little family.

CC: What are you reading right now?
I’m just finishing up Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto. I re-read all her books about once a year. I’m on a Japanese fiction kick right now. Next up is Snow Country by Yasanari Kawabata.

Other than that, I’m maxed out on my library card (as always). Some of the books I have out now, besides countless children’s picture books, are Simple Sewing by Lotta Jansdotter, Preschool Art by MaryAnn F. Kohl, Quilts by Denyse Schmidt, and The Ultimate Herb Gardener by Barbara Segall.

CC: What advice would you offer to other mothers struggling to be more creative?
JVH: If it’s a time issue (and it often seems to be), I think you just need to dive in and do it (whatever it is), time or no time—do it with your kids, do it during naps, make it a priority. If you wait until you have the time you’ll never do it and you may end up resenting those around you.

Also, there is so much inspiration out there if you just look! Get inspiration from other creative mamas, from blogs, from books…

CC: Many thanks, Jean!

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. cathy #

    this was very fun to read, and the mothering article, too, jean. it made me excited for when baby c reaches toddlerhood, and reminded me of the fun i had painting in the kitchen when my big boys were little. playdoh usually got out of hand, but we hit that occasionally, too. that whole fear of mess thing made me hide it on top of the upper cabinets most of the time.

    July 25, 2008
  2. Great interview. Jean is always an inspiration!

    July 25, 2008
  3. Jean, you’ve inspired me to do a little art with Stella everyday! Thank you!

    July 26, 2008
  4. This is a great interview. I loved learning more about Jean and her blog!

    July 27, 2008
  5. very nice to meet you jean! i absolutely love the idea of your toddler art groups, that sounds like so much fun. my dh and i just finished building our girls their own little art station and we’ve been having fun coming up with new creations. the question i’m starting to here more and more (second mainly to “can i have some chocolate milk, mommy?”) is “can we go downstairs and make some new art, mommy?” yeah! thanks for some extra inspiration jean!

    July 28, 2008
  6. If it’s creative, I love it! Thank you for sharing so much for us to grow from — and — thanks for mentioning my book, ‘Preschool Art’. If you get a chance, go to Amazon and write a review. Some very grumpy people have left some negative ones about how fingerpainting is old hat and boring. Well, maybe for them, but not for kids who have never done it before!! Thank you!Keep up all your creative work.
    ~ MaryAnn Kohl

    July 30, 2008

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