DRAWING BREATH: an interview with Lily Mae Martin

Posted on January 15, 2011 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews



The life of an artist is turbulent. When we’re children we look at those that get paid to sing, who can paint and draw for their whole lives, with a delighted awe. Yet you look at a person like Cobain and think there’s few ways he could have found to suffer more intensely. There’s Van Gogh’s famous ear, but beyond the myth and its symbol, there’s an unknown painter with a commitment to living for art, and since dying for it would be easy, choosing suffering and the daily encroachment of insanity, for art. Introducing children into this kind of turbulence might be an act of incredible cruelty, though of course these are extreme examples and there’s still that child’s perspective – there are indeed days where we look with delighted awe at our lives – that we get to sing, to paint and draw for our whole lives. You recently had a child. What has that experience been like for you?


The artist as a tortured being is a bit of a cliché for me that I don’t think rings true. Though before my daughter was born, my life was a bit of a mess.

I was very destructive and my art suffered quite a lot, in that I didn’t make much work. I drew all over things, like forms that I was meant to fill out, tests in high school, documents at whatever job I had. But I was pretty stuck. In my early twenties I finally pulled my act together and got myself into VCA, and even though it was rocky at times, I eventually got it together and left that college with a degree, a scholarship and a really lovely partner. My work really begun to flourish when I had more positive things and people in my life.

When my daughter was born, I was in a dark place again – I was in another country and was pretty isolated. The birth was brutal. It got pretty scary at times and no art was made then, I can tell you that!

When things got better, I began exploring some of my darkest feelings about the birth, which also unearthed a lot of things that had happened to me in the past. I got very inspired to deal with my feelings so that I could be OK in myself as well as be a good Mum and partner. Not hold onto things. Though my work disturbs some people, I am actually a very happy person these days.

Some people have said to me in regards to birth ‘Oh well, you’re making some good art’ but I don’t think that’s an attitude to aspire too. Though I am dealing with things through my work, I don’t think going through hell to be a good artist is very healthy! I would draw and paint no matter what. It is something I love to do, it’s where I have my true voice.

I think being a parent and an artist is the best thing, I am so inspired and having a baby brings everything into perspective. I have known far too many people who believe that being dramatic is what makes a good artist, but I don’t feel that that is the case at all.


I’ve been looking after my daughter today. That takes up most of my time, though at the moment she seems content to play with Charley Harper flash cards that have designs of animals and letters on them and a puzzle on the back that will take her years to figure out. (‘When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent, perfectly balanced, without trimming or unutilized parts; and herein lies the lure of painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe.’ Charley Harper). Now she picks up blocks designed by Alison Jay, which have a surreal set of animals. A rabbit rows a boat with a rolled up parchment and a bouquet of flowers in wrapping paper.  An elephant holds a red apple, a frog plays out the line on a fishing rod and a cat (which reminds me of the Mona Lisa for some reason), looks over her shoulder as a red biplane is taking off in the distance. I read my daughter stories (that I secretly think have literary merit) and I wonder what goes into creating her dreams when she goes to sleep a little while later. I fed her risotto earlier today, though she spat out everything that wasn’t rice, and I’m worried about whether she ate enough or not. There are moments of boredom and then there are those quiet periods of joy that makes it a pleasure to feed my daughter a thimble full of rice at a time for 45 minutes. I got about an hour to write while she napped from 10:30 to 11:30. It was a productive burst. I wrote a flash fiction that had begun forming in the back of my mind as I wheeled a pram from the bakery this morning. When she has another nap at 2:30 I plan on getting back to work on a novella I’ve been writing over the last few weeks. I answer emails and continue interviews like this one while she’s content to keep playing near my desk. Soon we’ll go for another walk.

I’m wondering how much the way you actually work has changed since having a baby. Have you felt many changes in yourself as a person because of having a baby?


My work first changed due to the physicality of travelling, it became too hard to paint with moving countries and cities as often as I do. Also, to be honest, I have always been far more interested in drawing, and I only began painting in year 12 to be taken more seriously as an artist. I have always had a problem with sleeping too, so I work late at night, which is also when my daughter sleeps the longest without waking up!

However, I think it may be a bit different from now on, the first six months of my daughter’s life I have been in Wales with no family or support, now I am in Melbourne with heaps of support and I am adjusting to surrendering her to family and a new routine. It’s been five days, so I think I am going to have more time to explore my work in different ways.

What has changed within my work and within myself since becoming a mother I have realised how much of my life I have wasted on people that will judge and think of me however they want to no matter what I do. I used to get so incensed over certain behaviour, but now I really believe in the saying ‘live and let live’. The experience of becoming a Mum has made me aware of how much time we waste on judging other people and their actions, speculating, bitching. People judge parents so harshly, and you just have to ignore it.

I want my daughter to grow up confident in her own self. There are enough women out there hating themselves and doing silly things because of that self-hate and I don’t think I need to contribute another person like that to society. So I’ve really had to step up with that. I’m more confident to be honest and open within my work and my life.