‘Art has been my solace’: a mother’s week with the National Art Pass

‘Art has been my solace’: a mother’s week with the National Art Pass

Watching my kids respond to art is one of my favourite things. When we visit galleries, I’ll often overhear the two of them chatting about which artwork they like best (it’s usually related to whether or not it’s pink and involves a horse), or catch them using their bodies to mimic sculptures. When we took my National Art Pass on its inaugural outing to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, in West Bretton, a few miles outside Wakefield, they had a field day (quite literally), cackling away as they attempted to contort themselves into the shape of Erwin Wurm’s anthropomorphised hot water bottle and incorporeal pink suits, and, rather more disturbingly, Damien Hirst’s half-skinned pregnant giant, the Virgin Mother.

Art has been my solace for as long as I can remember. When life feels overwhelming, I take myself to a gallery and flood my brain with art. Art was a large part of the inspiration for my website Bablands, a cultural resource for Londoners with children that I set up while on maternity leave in a largely selfish attempt to keep myself sane in the absence of any other creative outlet. The name Bablands is a play on the word badlands and the idea of this unwelcoming, unchartered territory, which was precisely how the world felt to me in those bleary-eyed first months of motherhood. Galleries, in particular – once spaces where I’d always felt welcome – seemed hostile now that I had a loud, handsy milk guzzler permanently in tow.

  • Yorkshire Sculpture Park, covering some 500 acres, is very family friendly. Photographs: Joanne Crawford/The Guardian. Sculptures: Erwin Wurm, Untitled, 2018; Giant Big, Me Ideal, 2014 (top); Step (Big), 2021 (below). Courtesy Erwin Wurm, Thaddeus Ropac Gallery and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Remarks such as “please hold your child’s hand or I will have a heart attack” (from a gallery steward) and “babies don’t belong in art galleries” (from a fellow art fan) stayed with me, but also made me more determined to reclaim these spaces, and to hopefully inspire other parents and carers to do the same. Through my website and Instagram, I’ve built an incredible community of people who are as passionate as I am about finding activities they’ll enjoy as much as their kids – a desire that’s too often seen as selfish, which, when you spend every waking (and sleeping) minute with your child is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

A lot has changed since I began taking my eldest to art exhibitions. Family activities are more commonplace than they were a few years ago – especially in larger spaces. When we visited the Hepworth Wakefield, a large gallery housing many works by its namesake Barbara Hepworth, my kids were mesmerised by Hurvin Anderson’s colourful Salon Paintings, and we couldn’t believe our luck when we stumbled across the Art Pod in the adjoining gallery and were invited to create our own barbershop collages using beautifully designed packs. The gallery also offers art kits for open-ended exploration of the spaces, as well as an activity station where little ones can create their own mini versions of Hepworth’s sculptures. Both resources are relatively simple in terms of their contents, but they made a huge difference to the way my kids engaged with the artworks on display – particularly Hepworth’s more abstract forms.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is, if possible, even more family friendly than the Hepworth. Its artworks’ arrangement across open parkland makes it infinitely less stressful than most traditional gallery spaces, and the combination of fresh air and plenty to see makes it a hit with children of all ages. The park covers a whopping 200 hectares (500 acres), so you could theoretically visit every weekend and never get bored (my kids actually asked if we could move into the park – an idea I wasn’t completely against).

The Natural History Museum in London is just as popular with kids, but its maze-like halls and enduring hordes make visits rather more frenetic. Thankfully, one of its temporary exhibitions Titanosaur: Life as the Biggest Dinosaur felt more manageable than the permanent galleries, as well as being more interactive, with buttons to press, fossils to poke and an interactive platform that you could jump up and down on to make a digital dinosaur grow. The best bit, though, had to be standing directly beneath the eponymous giant (or at least a cast of it) and feeling, as my eldest put it, “like a Borrower”.

My younger daughter recently started school, and I’m slowly learning how to function as a freestanding human and not just a buggy-pushing, snack-peddling toddler attachment. I’ve always found the exhibitions at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, central London, utterly heart-wrenching, but in my newly acquired state of parental redundancy, I found its exhibition Mother & the Weaver: Art from the Ursula Hauser Collection – an exploration of the complex ideas around motherhood and identity – particularly relatable. One piece really spoke to me and my experience of maternal preoccupation and loss of identity – a soft sculpture titled Giant Woman Sofa, consisting of a featureless torso and head (the sofa) scattered with dismembered limbs and breasts (the cushions). I was the giant woman sofa.

During my first week with my National Art Pass, I also enjoyed solo visits in London to Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion, at the Design Museum, and the Frans Hals exhibition, at the National Gallery – both deeply inspiring in their own, very different, ways. The former was very much my kind of exhibition – a vibrant celebration of creativity packed with groundbreaking ensembles, original drawings and behind-the-scenes footage. I spent much longer here than I’d intended and left wondering why I hadn’t pursued my childhood dream of becoming a fashion designer (before concluding that it was probably best left to the Ashish Guptas and Matty Bovans of the world). The Frans Hals retrospective was, admittedly, not something I would normally have rushed to see, but I found myself completely disarmed by Hals’ paintings and their subjects’ frequently jolly expressions – something you so rarely see in 17th-century portraiture. Thanks to the National Art Pass, I was able to step outside my comfort zone and see a range of things I wouldn’t have otherwise.

I won’t attempt to calculate how much money I could have saved myself over the last seven or so years if I’d had a National Art Pass when I first went on maternity leave, but let’s just say that the list of places that accept it is amazingly long. Parenting is equal parts brutal and beautiful, filled with euphoric highs and agonising lows, but having access to a wealth of inspiring and affecting exhibitions can at least go some way to making it easier (that, and ignoring anyone who tells you babies don’t belong in art galleries).

The National Art Pass gives free entry to hundreds of museums, galleries and historic buildings across the UK, and 50% off major exhibitions at the likes of the V&A, the Natural History Museum, and Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum. Passes are available as individual or double memberships, and you can save 25% on your first year of membership with Direct Debit

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