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Harmonia Rosales on being a single mom, a working artist and finding her path in life

Artist Harmonia Rosales, talks to Liz about how her daughter inspired her paintings, pursuing a creative career path after having her children, and why she hopes her art reshapes the narrative of what power and beauty looks like, putting women -- and particularly women of color -- at the center. She also talks about the parallels between creating art and motherhood and encourages mothers to remember that it is never too late to pursue a dream.

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Liz Tenety: So before starting Motherly, I actually spent about 10 years working as a religion reporter and editor, and my job was to talk to the leaders of faith communities and you know, thought leaders maybe who are atheist or nonreligious about how what they believe shapes the world. And then after leaving that part of my career behind, I ended up starting motherly.

And after starting motherly one day, I actually encountered on Instagram, an artist. This artist put women at the center of these classic European pieces of art and these paintings. And when I encountered her work for the first time, it took my breath away. You know, as a religion reporter, I had spent most of my career talking to men because men lead so much of the conversation about faith and meaning and all of these institutions.

And it's been that way, you know, in large measure [00:01:00] across the world. So seeing what is Holy, what is beautiful, what is true, what is divine, be reflected in a very woman centered way. It was. It was, frankly, it was unlike anything I had encountered before. It literally took my breath away, and that's what artists do.

They give us a new way of seeing our reality and this artist Harmonia Rosales, she did that without even using words. She was using her incredible gift of painting and putting women at the center of the story and showing. The beauty and sacredness of being feminine in such a powerful way. And I love that about artists that they can inspire us to see what we see every day in a new way and give more meaning to our everyday lives.

[00:02:00] Hey mama, welcome to the motherly podcast. Honest conversations about modern motherhood. I am Liz Tenety. I'm the cofounder of motherly and I'm mom of four myself. Today we're talking to Harmonia Rosales. Harmonia is an incredibly talented artist who came into prominence with her work focused on black female empowerment in Western culture.

Her paintings replicate white men in classic European art with black women. Her reimagination of Michelangelo's, the creation of Adam, struck a chord with so many, it even went viral. We were lucky enough to sit down with Harmonia and talk about how her daughter inspires her art, the decision she made to devote time to painting after the birth of her first child, and how she stays creative and inspired as a single mom.

Following our conversation with Harmonia, some of our listeners also shared their stories about how motherhood inspires their creativity, and [00:03:00] we'll get to those after the interview. So stay with us.

Armonia Rosales welcome to the Motherly podcast.

Harmonia Rosales: Thank you.

Liz Tenety: So I always like to start out conversations by asking people what they thought motherhood was going to be like before they became a mom themselves.

Harmonia Rosales: I actually did not want to, or was even thinking about, becoming a mother.

Liz Tenety: Really.

Harmonia Rosales: Yeah. So, it was a surprise to have my daughter. Um, I guess I would say I was how some people are before kids -- kind of selfish-thinking. So you know, just about myself, I wasn't, I didn't know what I was going to do in life, that kind of thing. So when I had my daughter, so unexpectedly, it changed my entire life and it made me, I guess, view the world differently -- wanting to protect her and wanting to be a [00:04:00] better influence. So, I guess it just changed my whole perspective. It was nothing like I thought or expected.

Liz Tenety: Your mother was also an artist. Tell us what she did and what it was like to grow up with a mom like that.

Harmonia Rosales: She was at home, but she wasn't an at home mother, I should say, cause she didn't bake or anything like that.

She was always on deadlines. She was, um, a children's book illustrator.

Liz Tenety: Wow.

Harmonia Rosales: And so she was constantly just turning out the paint, the paintings. And I felt like, and I, I didn't go to any kind of daycare or anything, so I was right up under her, hopping around the house. And. I wanted her attention so bad.

Of course, every daughter wants their mother's attention. So, I was like, well, I'm going to paint what she paints. And that's how we kind of bonded.

Liz Tenety: And you said that you just, you felt like you actually became a completely different person after you became [00:05:00] a mother yourself. How, how, what changed?

Harmonia Rosales: My whole mindset. Now, I always thought painting… to me, um, coming from a Cuban background, my father, he wanted, he was strict on education. So of course art wasn't a career move. Even though, you know, he was with my mother, it was like, unless you're working on a children's book or working for a company, or in that form, it wasn't an option. You couldn't just do gallery work. And so that was strictly enforced.

I painted but never valued it or never valued, you know, artwork like that. So my mindset was, okay, well, as any 20-something year old is, I don't know what I want to do with my life. I mean, I don't want to work at a desk job. I can't do that. And, and I was all about going out.

And then, when I had my daughter,[00:06:00] it just forced me to kind of rethink everything. It's like you can tell a person that -- oh, you're responsible for another human being -- but when that baby looks at you and is dependent fully on you, it just pushes you and encourages you.

Liz Tenety: So how did that moment of, of seeing your daughter and realizing maybe you want it to be a different person, or perhaps you had clarity on what, what changes you needed to make, how did that moment get you to where you are now?

Harmonia Rosales: It was after my divorce. So, I had two small children and I wanted them to see me doing something I love. I wanted them to see me more than just working for somebody, a nine to five coming home. I wanted to spend more time with them. I was their only parent so it was solely on me -- and I want it to be a mother that bakes, but also works.

[00:07:00] And so I was like, well, I'm going to try this. I am going to try art and go ahead with it with everything.

Liz Tenety: Honestly, that sounds terrifying because I know you are this person with enormous skill and a gift that. When I first saw your work, it literally took my breath away, and yet you had to make this choice to fully pursue it knowing that these little beings were totally dependent on you, like how did you summon the courage to do that?

Harmonia Rosales: It was when you have nothing like nothing in your bank account, nothing there, the only way to go is like up. But it was so hard at the beginning, but I knew that I was going to give myself about three years. And that's what I set for myself. If it doesn't work, I will, you know, take that, you know, nine to five job. That's all I kept telling myself, you know, "three years."

Liz Tenety: So, for those [00:08:00] who haven't seen your work, can you describe, um, what it is you paint and what it represents to you?

Harmonia Rosales: Contemporary Renaissance is the best way I can explain it. And well, Renaissance work always told a story, our history, you know, religion, religious-wise, or you know, factual.

And, um, it reminded me of children's books, which I loved because, in a picture, in a children's book, they're all about pictures, and that tells a story. Not so much the text, there's a little text, but it's like every corner has something to tell every movement. And that's how the Renaissance paintings were, that these were in a way, their source of entertainment -- you know, television.

And looking at them, it was so beautiful to me. The one thing that was missing was a connection, a history that wasn't [00:09:00] following in line with mine. I have a multicultural background, so I'm, um, Ashkenazi, Jewish and Nigerian. I do have Portuguese in me as well, and you know, Spanish. Um, but that's everything.

Now my history though is America, me being what I am in America. So I have all these cultures coming at me that I identify with and how did I come about? How do people look like me? There's no story really with that. It's always literally black and white. It's kind of, you know, these specific categories.

They're either African art coming from an African artist or European art. But where are the people like me, right? So, I thought maybe if I can incorporate this, interpret these or my favorite paintings into something that I can relate to, maybe [00:10:00] others can take that and also see themselves in history and put themselves in history.

Liz Tenety: I read that a big part of what motivated you to paint in the way that you do is wanting your daughter in particular to feel seen and represented. How did that, how did that happen for you as a painter?

Harmonia Rosales: Again, when I viewed the art, my hair is very thick and curly, and in all the art, it was always flowy and people would always describe, "oh, look at how beautiful her hair was. So silky." So I never saw myself within the art and with my daughter, she actually verbalized this super young age. She wanted her hair straight. She didn't want her hair curly or anything like that. She wanted it straight and I thought she had beautiful hair. So that's what I dedicated my paintings to -- show her that, hey, your hair is [00:11:00] beautiful. Actually, you know what? Hair or no hair, you are beautiful. This is why a lot of my women have no hair.

Liz Tenety: You went viral, meaning there was just thousands and millions of shares of one specific painting. This re-interpretation of this, one of the most famous paintings in the world, Michelangelo's creation of Adam. So, can you tell us about the original and its role in our culture. And then why you think there was such a deep resonance with your re-interpretation.

Harmonia Rosales: Whenever someone thinks about God or Jesus or anything like that, you automatically are going to picture what has been shown to you throughout your whole life.

What is perceived as value and that painting is Michelangelo's creation of that, and it shows an older white male. And creating [00:12:00] the first human, which happens to be a younger white male. And with this, our subconscious is that white males are more dominant and they're stronger. And me being, a single mom and a woman, you know, I'm like, well, my daughter -- I want her to see that she can be strong too without the man. So that was my first thought. If I wanted God to be a woman, I wanted my painting to be completely opposite of the original. So, people can begin to have this internal conversation about how they perceive the world, and then, you know, themselves.

So what better than to create God as a black woman? And not only only as a black woman, but how about Adam being Eve? You know, so, being a black, a younger black woman, what would that look like?

Liz Tenety: What do you think happens in a world in which you know, all of [00:13:00] these images that we see as traditionally male or traditionally white, when they are reinterpreted and those stories and images can be told.

To represent a much wider swath of humanity. How does that change us?

Harmonia Rosales: I guess it takes down all the shackles -- you know, the box that we have been put in and it makes us really become independent thinkers. We're not following this routine (because we are very routine). You know, we kind of sit there and we accept things without knowing. Because this is what we were brought up to value. And so this is why I have to look outside the box at the whole picture -- it's like we have to tackle the roots or break down the foundation order to really rebuild.

Liz Tenety: This is the first time I'm having conversation with someone like you where I can't quite show the majesty of your work. And [00:14:00] it's hard to just put into words what it feels like as a woman to see these scenes, you know, that are all around us in our culture of what beauty looks like or what holiness looks like or what strength looks like. And realize, not only has it been a white story, but it has also been focused on men's stories So do you feel pressure or do you feel excited about what you are doing? Like where, where are you personally in, um, this responsibility that you feel to help reshape the narrative of what power and beauty looks like?

Harmonia Rosales: I guess it gets me really excited. I don't feel any pressure. I'm learning everyday, and it's almost like, I mean, some days, yes, kind of thinking back, it was nice to be blissfully ignorant, you know? But then once the doors open and you see every like thing -- I guess covert [00:15:00] racism everywhere, like it's everywhere. It's incredible. And I'm trying to tackle it, but it's not overwhelming because it's through my art. I mean, I can't write about it. I can't really speak about it. I could only show you when I paint. It kind of comes down to that -- and, and sometimes I don't even know when I'm painting. I'll have, I have a general idea and, and then it'll just flow, I guess.

Liz Tenety: Definitely. I think a lot of people, I mean, I'm a writer and I know that feeling of flow that you get into. So tell us how does this actually work for you as a mother and a painter? How do you logistically get into this flow when I know as a mom, you just have a lot on your plate every day. How does that actually work for you and how can others create that creative space for themselves?

Harmonia Rosales: Routine, definitely routine. So, the kids, the children know that I have certain times I work, so I work. I [00:16:00] conditioned myself to take them to school. You know, I don't take any naps in between, or maybe power naps five minutes if I'm up the night before, but then I'll paint until they're out of school. Then I'll help them with their homework, cook dinner, and then, you know, they do their homework and then I get to work for probably two more hours.

Then they have a bath, bed, and that's it. And then I work again. So, the weekends -- I try to not work. And if I do feel inspired, I'll work that night. But the weekends are for my kids because I do want to be there for them. Yeah, definitely… definitely routine. And those little cute faces cannot persuade me.

Liz Tenety: The reality is that when you are a mother and when you're a single mom, as you are, you know, there is a lot in the way of your creativity. Um, do you find that it's [00:17:00] more motivating? That motherhood is more motivating and giving you purpose in your work or creates more challenges?

Harmonia Rosales: Definitely… definitely. My kids keep me on task because I don't have an unlimited amount of time to work… and I, I work and my studio is in my house. I can't have a studio anywhere else because I have to live and breathe and eat with my work. Even walking past my work, I'm still looking at it. And looking at what I should change, what I should fix, whatever. So it's even subconsciously with me.

Liz Tenety: I love that. I mean, I couldn't relate to that anymore. Like I, I could do less work with more time before I had children. And now it's like you just have to figure out what it is, those routines that get you into your flow because your time is precious and yet we, you still have so much that you want to do professionally and you want to make sure you're also able to [00:18:00] be as present as you can with your kids.

What do you hope people, but especially women of color and women get from viewing your art?

Harmonia Rosales: I hope that inspires them not only to pursue any type of career they want of being an entrepreneur or whatever. But you can do it no matter how old you are, no matter if you have kids, there is time. You can make time. There's always time.

But also visually to see it and love themselves. Because it's about self love. Love themselves and know that they are enough.

Liz Tenety: I know you learned to paint or you learned about painting by sitting under your mother's chair or next to her while she was working. Do your kids do the same with you in your, your time when you're painting

Harmonia Rosales: Well, they're athletic, so they are totally opposite!

My daughter dances and my son, [00:19:00] um, basketball and that's what they enjoy. But they also see my work and it influences them, I guess, internally. So my daughter always wants her hair the bigger, the better. She wants her hair free and curly and you know, that's just, that's what she finds beautiful. And she loves it. And, um, my son, he enjoys being a young man, you know, of color. And he does understand sometimes the, um, risks there as well.

Liz Tenety: How do you talk about bias and being a child of color, a young man of color with your kids? How do you do that?

Harmonia Rosales: I speak to them like an adult. I've always done that. I think that's the best way. I don't baby them. I was babied a lot and I was sheltered a lot. It took me a while to get to the point where I am now.

Liz Tenety: What would you say to, you know, [00:20:00] a mother in the thick of it, who has this creative energy within her. And. It doesn't feel like she has the time or the capacity to create, and yet perhaps that's exactly the outlet that she needs. Like what would you want that woman to know?

Harmonia Rosales: The only thing that's blocking you is you. For example, my new year's resolution is that I want to stop saying, "I wish." It will get you off the track. And when you get off track you're either depressed or you're stuck in a whole different direction going against the grain.

You know what you love. You know what you love doing. And you can begin today.

Liz Tenety: Um, and well, at Motherly, we really like to talk about how amazing women like you find their superpowers and how motherhood in particular can help us uncover superpowers that we didn't know were present until we become a mom. So what do you see as your superpower?

Harmonia Rosales: My [00:21:00] super power is being able to teach my children. I found that I can teach them to be true to themselves. To really understand their background and understand their surroundings. And being present, always thinking about others and the next generation to help improve.

Liz Tenety: Do you see an analogy between the act of creating these masterpieces and the act of mothering and gestating and growing and birthing a child? Do you see an analogy there or do you...

Harmonia Rosales: So much! Because it's like I paint when I create these, right? And they come from me and they're growing. And I'll change, I'll change an image and then it comes to a point where I'm like, I can let you go. You know? And then it feels like, you know, it's matured, you know, and it's like, okay, it's ready to leave the nest, and [00:22:00] then I'm ready for the next one! And it kind of goes through the whole process of it becoming a baby -- you know, the blocking and the colors, and then acquiring detail and, you know, just maturing, that, and then it flourishes. So, yeah, it's that whole process over and over again. And it's so funny because once you complete the painting, you've struggled with the painting -- you get frustrated with it, just like you would a child. You know? You love that painting though. And then, then it leaves you, and then what? You have the empty nest syndrome, you know? And I feel so depressed. And then I get excited when I get this new idea and I'm like, okay, I'm ready to have this child of art again.

Liz Tenety: I love that. Do you look at your, your own children then and see the same kind of masterpiece in, in that child, in each of your two children?

Harmonia Rosales: It's that same feeling. You put all this work into it, the blood, sweat, and tears, you [00:23:00] know, and, and the result is so worth it.

Liz Tenety: Well, Harmonia Rosales, thank you so much for joining us and teaching us so much on the Motherly podcast.

Harmonia Rosales: Thank you for having me and contacting me. It was a joy talking to you!

Liz Kid Story:

Liz Tenety: so Mary, what do you like to do that is creative?

Mary: Um. I like drawing cupcakes.

Liz Tenety: What kind of things do you like to paint and color?

Mary: the sun and platypuses.

Liz: Ooh, I love it when you make me those.

Mary: What else? Mom,

Liz Tenety: anything else you'd like to do that's creative?

Mary: Um, I like apples. I like the apples and bananas. And I like watching movies. What movies do we like mama?

Liz Tenety: Oh, I know Paddington…

Mary: Paddington!

User story:

Fernanda rossi: Hello, my name is Fernanda Rossi. I'm a screenwriter and film director. I lecture internationally on storytelling of the creative process.

Sometimes as creators, we are on a [00:25:00] roll doing the same thing over and over, struggling with the material, the craft, the networking. How in a child for me, uh, has proven me that I needed to focus and yes, there is a psychological adaptation period and finding the infrastructure to go and keep doing things. In my case, I ended up doing more in the first five years of my child and the five years prior, and it was because I had to focus and there was more time to reflect before acting. There was an encouragement to experiment with new forms of working that needed to adapt. Yes, there was a loss of mental space.

Clearly you're thinking about your child and there will be no, if you have child a day. I was very consumed by the logistics of being a new mom, but that logistics then transfer very safe to me, to my work. I says to work faster and [00:26:00] better. Also realize as my child was growing, that not everybody learns or perceives things the same way.

So my communication of, I became more compassionate.

[00:28:00] [00:27:00] In my case, I learned how to focus and prioritize given the little time I had and use the other time to think I'm planning my head before I can get to the computer of my creative work. I could have learned how to be more focused before having a child, but I didn't have the motivation because I had all the time in the world, so you might it was the catalyzer to be more effective.

Other areas that I noticed only later was that I [00:29:00] was able to empathize and see things from different points of view. My characters in my screenplays became more nuanced because I had the now sensitivity to put myself in other people's shoes in a more direct way. It was an S theoretical way of putting myself in other people's shoes.

I had a crying baby in my arms. So your call for empathy in a way that, in my case it, it was slower. I had to accelerate that growth. Also when I lecture, I can, I stop lecturing by standing at the stage on a stage. I lecture now among the audience because we are all in it together. So there are many ways that I found that having a child expanded my way of seeing the world and the expanded the way I see other people. I have to bring that to the [00:30:00] screenplay.

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Hosted by Liz Tenety

Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.

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