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Growing Up With Art in the Family

By Daniel Grant / July 30, 1990



KURT VONNEGUT'S daughter, Edith, spent five years wondering whether she should change her last name. She never could make up her mind and finally decided that she didn't need to run away from the fact of her father's literary fame. Jack Tworkov's daughter felt that her name problem was a ``double whammy'' since both her father and husband, Robert Moskowitz, are well-known painters, the one of the abstract-expressionist school and the latter of a minimalist orientation. She chose an in-between road, using her middle name and calling herself Hermine Ford.

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No such luck for Maxfield Parrish Jr. but, unlike Edith Vonnegut and Hermine Ford, he sought to escape his father's renown by staying away from art. He took industrial jobs but finally drifted back to painting and an acceptance of his name.

Many children of artists grow up to be artists themselves. For some, it seems the obvious thing to do, but many, reached by telephone for this article, say the hardest part is the comparisons and the internal need to live up to the success. ``Big American stardom doesn't have a lot to do with being an artist,'' says Abbie Shahn, one of Ben Shahn's three artist children, ``but you sometimes feel like you have to prove something to people, make as big a statement.''

Few children earn the fame of their parents which, for some of them, gives them an ongoing sense that they didn't live up to something.

Certainly, this feeling is not limited to artists.

But an artist's goal is more personal and internal. One cannot really carry on an artist parent's work the way, for instance, that Anna Freud could follow through on her father's. The children of artists may understand what their parents are doing and share in aspects of it, but no one can truly participate in another's creative act. That they must discover within themselves.

For these children, the choice of being an artist is rarely easy. It can be extremely difficult to contact dealers, especially those with family connections. Some find themselves wondering whether or not there is such a thing as a ``creative streak'' and if it ended with their parents. Failure can seem doubly harsh - failing both oneself and one's ``potential'' - and it raises the stakes in the decision to be an artist.

Hermine Ford stated that she ``grew up painting'' but felt terrified when she became an adult of having to decide what career to follow: ``It wasn't such a struggle for me to make art as it was for everyone else. I thought I must be doing something wrong.'' She put off the decision for a time and even debated going for a teaching degree, but finally resolved at age 30 to try to make a go of being an artist.

Children of artists often appear to take a different attitude toward the artistic lifestyle than their parents, but since they grew up in it it seems natural to them. Milton Avery's daughter, March, was born in the middle of the Depression when her parents (her mother, Sally Avery, is also a painter) were making very little money. Being an artist then meant no security but, to March, drawing and painting were a form of security in themselves.

``My parents didn't have a separate studio and worked in the house,'' she noted. ``Artwork was all over the place. All their friends were artists. When I was young, I thought that everyone grew up to be artists. Sometimes, I think it was only because of lack of imagination that I became an artist.''

In families such as these, the introduction to art starts quite early. Children are given the best tools and materials to work with almost as soon as they evince the first signs of artistic interest. Eric von Schmidt, son of Harold von Schmidt, the painter of life in the wild West, remembers making his first life drawings (from a real model) at age four.