Meet Colleen Couch-Smith
Interview by Stacey Greenberg
Colleen Couch-Smith, 30, is an artist, restaurateur, mother of three (Brendan-13, Ian-5, and Ayden-2), and newest member of Memphis Roller Derby’s Legion of Zoom. I was really excited to meet her and thought you might be too.
Stacey Greenberg: How long have you been a mama?
Colleen Couch-Smith: I've been a mama for almost 13 years. I had Brendan when I was still in high school. I went to Hernando High in Mississippi. It was a total drag. I had Brendan when I was a senior. Teen moms are real common down there, but I was determined to incorporate my child into my life rather than change my course completely. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
When Ben and I got married, we knew we wanted another kid but wanted to wait until things settled down at the restaurant. Well you just can't wait for stuff like that because IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN! We tried for a whole summer to make a baby. It wasn't until sometime around 9/11 that I got pregnant. All that staying at home watching the news did the trick I guess. After Ian turned into a toddler, I swore I'd never have another child. I finally started to regain my composure as a person. I sent Ian to Montessori school, joined a gym, and was in full swing with Rock, Paper, Scissors. I was really making an effort to become Colleen. Not "Ben's wife" or "Ian & Brendan's mom."
I was feeling incredibly sick and thought it was just unease about the life changes I was making. Then it dawned on me that I might be pregnant. Ben had recently been to the Burning Man festival and I swear he did some sort of sex voodoo while there. Let's just say I was extremely happy to see him when he got back. I can't say that I was happy about the pregnancy at first. It was a horrible time for me to be pregnant. But, I settled into it and ended up seeing a midwife instead of my OB. Brendan's birth was awesome only because I was ignorant about the process. Ian's birth was not a good experience and I knew I would not repeat it.
Ayden's birth was one of the most incredible and happy moments of my life. How is that? She weighed 10 fucking pounds...no drugs. Luckily it was only a 3 hour labor with about 15 minutes of pushing.
SG: Tell me about your work life.
CCS: I’m a bookkeeper at Tsunami, where my husband is the owner/chef. Every day is "Bring Your Kid to Work Day," which is a blessing and a curse. It's great to have them that close. They have amazing relationships with adults and they learn a little bit about being an entrepreneur. On the other hand, it sucks to have to have them that close. What normally takes me 15 minutes will take at least an hour when they are there. I handle a lot of calls for reservations during the day and often have to reassure the guest that the screaming kid in the background will not be here when they come to dinner.
SG: How did you get into illuminated sculpture?
CCS: I got into illuminated sculpture a little by accident. I had loads of papermaking experience in art school. Allison Smith (who eventually became my sister-in-law) was my papermaking teacher at MCA. I majored in sculpture but papermaking became my true love, and through Allison's inspiration I found ways to use paper in sculpture. She made the large hanging lanterns at Tsunami and after a few years of staring at those lights I knew that I could do something like that myself. I've always wanted to return to doing my art.
We opened Tsunami while I was still at MCA. Once I graduated I was working at the restaurant so much I had no time for anything but restaurant work. Poor Brendan! He spent most of his childhood evenings cooped up in the office, climbing on top of the walk-in cooler, getting into the bleach water...I should stop in case Child Services gets a hold of this! Anyway, I made a couple of attempts to "do my own thing" and it just never panned out.
Then Kelly Myers (a.k.a. Kel Diabla, also a derby girl) and I became friends! She was on a similar path of self-discovery, and one night (over several drinks) we decided to start Rock, Paper, Scissors together. It's been a blast ever since. We both needed the kick-in-the-pants that only a partnership can provide. We feed off each other's ideas and work.
Recently I got an offer to apply for "That's Clever" (a show on HGTV about quirky artists). It would have been a great opportunity but they do not accept art duos. Needless to say I didn't respond...my work would be nothing without Kelly!
The other big event that lead to this was a generous gift from my father-in-law, Dolph Smith. Dolph started the papermaking program at MCA and once he retired he moved up to Ripley, TN. He had a full papermaking set-up in his studio. I would often make paper when we would visit. For one of my birthdays he gave a card saying that he would let me keep the papermaking equipment at my studio and he would come to me if he needed to make some. I think it took me six weeks to stop crying about this! Somehow we got it all down here. The beater (the machine that turns materials into pulp) is huge, heavy and damn hard to move. My studio is split. I have one in my garage and Kelly & I share a studio at my brother's garage. He'll probably kick us out sooner or later. We're slobs and he's not.
SG: So tell me a little bit about life in Hernando and what it was like being a teen-aged mom.
CCS: Life in Hernando was boring unless you were the preppy jock-type. I spent most of my weekends in Memphis at Overton Park or the Antenna Club. When I got pregnant I was worried about how much it would change my life. But I faced it head-on and made it a part of the life I was already starting for myself. I was encouraged to drop out of school but saw no reason to. I stayed at the top of my class, kept up with the extra curriculars and headed to art school. Luckily MY family was supportive, otherwise I could not have done it. Brendan's dad was never into it and I saw no reason to force him to. It was his loss and we were better off without him.
SG: How is parenting different (or the same) the third time around?
CCS: Parenting the third time around is definitely different for me because I have a girl. A headstrong assertive one at that! I get more and more careless, which is scary. Maybe inattentive is a better word. It's difficult trying to manage all three, but Brendan is my salvation. He can help with just about anything and is almost old enough to keep Ayden so that I can go to the store or something. He's awesome. Ian just keeps me laughing, and all he has to do is smile and it turns my day into a happy, sunny one.
SG: What's a "usual day" like for you?
CCS: I don't have any usual days. I make my own schedule at work so I can go in whenever it’s convenient for Ben to keep Ayden. Typically I take Brendan to school at 7-ish and then try to go to the gym for rowing or weights. Then I tag team with Ben. He takes Ian to school around 8:30 and then tries to go to the gym. I usually head to work around 9:30 or 10 and Ben will take Ayden when he's done at the gym. Sometimes we meet up for lunch. It sucks going out with Ayden so we usually skip it or get take-out. I plug away at work until it's time to get Ian (Brendan walks home from school and has the afternoon to himself...something every boy should have while going through puberty). I grab Ian and then run errands for the restaurant. I don't get home until 6 or so on good days. Then it’s dinner-homework-bath-bed. It never fails that just when the kids are settled and getting droopy-eyed that Ben comes home! Of course they bolt out of bed to play with him for a "while."
Sometimes I try to herd them back to bed but mostly I just give up and let Ben deal with it. I'm just a bitch that way. It's just one giant juggling act. Somehow, some way I make art. Most of my best work gets done at three in the morning when I can't sleep. Now that I've thrown Derby into the mix, I'm not sure which ball will get dropped first...
SG: Tell me more about combining parenting with being an artist. Do you involve your kids in the process or do anything particularly arty with them?
CCS: My kids are very self-sufficient. Most of the time they are doing their own things. I rarely have to set them up with a project or something to occupy them. Brendan makes his own art. He makes these amazing sculptures and carves his own wands and swords. He is drawing these really unusual flowers at the moment. If he is around when I make paper, he will help me form sheets, press them and store them in plastic wrap. Seems like last Cooper-Young Fest he helped Kelly and I paint some of the finished lanterns and lamp shades.
Ian is interested in painting right now. He typically just likes to roam around the studio when I'm working. If I'm in my studio at my brother's house, the kids will run around with the dog through the bamboo forest in the back yard. It's really nice over there, as long as the weather is nice and the mosquito population is down.
Ayden's not quite there yet. She likes to "draw" on things but doesn't have enough self-control to be let loose with paint or crayons. I usually get a babysitter during studio time if Ben can't watch her.
I don't necessarily lead them towards art but let it happen if they are interested. Ben and I want our kids to figure out their own paths...so long as that path does NOT lead to cooking or being an artist!!! I love to go out to art openings when I can to sort of reconnect with that world. I'm secretly hoping to run into someone who has the perfect art job opening. I do like to take the kids out to these events. It's great when they are into the work. The "Agents of Timbre" show was a HUGE hit for them and they were well-behaved. Other shows really push their limits...and therefore mine. I often have to leave, holding a screaming little girl and dragging a five-year-old who's trying to punch his older brother. It stresses me out but it's nothing that a hot bath, a huge glass of scotch and a "Wiggle's" marathon won't cure.
SG: Are you serious about not wanting them to be chefs or artists?
CCS: We aren't "serious" about it. Of course we want them to bloom into whatever career they chose. We just would hate for them to go through the hard times we have. Doing "your own thing" is challenging and at times heartbreaking. It's parental nature to want to protect your children as much as possible. Chefs get burned and/or cut at least once a week, they get insulted by grumpy food critics, they get complaints from customers, they work at a very fast pace under extreme temperatures. It tears me up to watch Ben go through it. I couldn't bear to see my children follow his footsteps. The art world is not anywhere near as bad as the restaurant world, but it has its ups and downs too.