PROVO — Watching Caitlin Connolly prepare to paint is not entirely different than watching a surgeon prepare for surgery. She inserts her hands into gloves, turns on music and surveys the person portrayed on the canvas as she tries to determine their need. She likes to think of the characters she paints as “little souls,” and she is the one who brings them to life.
Connolly is now the mother of 6-month-old twins. But there was a time, amidst years of infertility, when the Utah artist worried that she was not enough as a woman, “not a mother, not a nurturer, not a good woman — just not enough.”
But then she began to visualize the faces she had painted in her mind.
In that moment, Connolly had a realization.
“No, I hadn’t physically born children, but I had brought into existence hundreds and hundreds of characters that wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t created them,” she said. “That changed my heart and I understood my own ability as a nurturer differently after that point. And I think that’s true for everyone, not just me as an artist. What have you created and cared for that wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t cared for it?”
Through her art, Connolly searches for answers. She chases ideas. And through each of her pieces, she tells the story of her life.
Connolly grew up in a home with all brothers. Her father was an entrepreneur and her mother a flute teacher, a combination she believes gave her a unique set of skills. Connolly began playing the flute when she was 5 years old, and it initially seemed she might be destined to be a musician. She met and began dating her husband, Robbie, a guitarist currently on tour with The Killers, in high school at Salt Lake City’s East High. The two have always loved making music together.
“We have always had a very playful and passionate relationship,” Connolly says. “I remember singing backup vocals on the songs he was making in his bedroom on one of those old bubbly turquoise Mac computers and singing in bands together."
It wasn’t until a few years into college that she took a drawing class and began to feel that she might be able to find personal fulfillment through art while also offering something outside of herself to others.
She was drawn to portrayals of womanhood and figurative art. Specifically she remembers being fascinated by Modigliani’s representation of women. His art inspired Connolly to “play with” the traditional portrayal of women, toying with proportions and depth of field perspective, until she found the women she set out to discover.
“They feel big, substantial, capable — like they can do things,” Connolly says of the women in her work. “When I go to museums, I see so many paintings where women’s hands and feet have been painted smaller, I don’t know why. Little dainty hands placed nicely on their lap. I don’t understand that or identify with that. I paint women that can do things with their hands and go places with their feet. It just feels right to me.”
In a barn-shaped studio behind her Provo home, Connolly discovers these women and in doing so, she wrestles to understand herself. She says that while she was raised a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and grew up reciting the Young Women theme’s “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father who loves us and we love him,” she has long asked questions regarding her worth.
“Mortality, I think, is a dark, hard, difficult, confusing process at times,” she says. “There’s also joy and the scriptures say, ‘Men are that they might have joy,' but what about all of the times that we don’t have joy? And what do those mean?”
To say that Connolly struggled with infertility for seven years is the easiest way to place a time frame on a period of life that she says is actually much more complicated. She often wondered if she wanted to have kids and sometimes thought being a mom looked really hard. And as she explored her feelings on the subject, they were brought to life before her eyes.
“A lot of my paintings looked at the joy of motherhood, the struggle with motherhood, and I think that was a lot of me coming to terms with, ‘What would this be like if this was my life? What would it be like to have kids?’ ” Connolly recalls.
In retrospect, she views those seven years as years of preparation, and when she and Robbie decided to do in vitro fertilization, she “felt very ready to become a mother,” a feeling she hadn’t felt before.
“One thing I have learned through exploring themes of womanhood and motherhood is that having children or not having children is such a central and emotional journey for women,” Connolly says. “Some women have children when they don’t want to, some women want to have children and they can’t, some women lose their children, some women have children and don’t like being mothers, some women love being mothers — it’s such a personal and unique experience.
“I feel very grateful for my experience with infertility and with fertility. My chapter of infertility was both difficult and very refining, and it prepared me for motherhood in a way that was very important and necessary for me.”
As the Connollys reached the decision to try the IVF process, Caitlin was working on a 13-foot painting that depicted a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother with their posterity. During the year that she worked on the painting, high on her scaffolding, Connolly spent much time looking at and thinking about this Heavenly Mother, motherhood and the beauty of a growing human family. It was as she prepared to drop the painting off after its completion that she found out she was expecting twins. The time had come for her to begin her own human family.
One of Connolly’s most recent works is a sculpture in which she captures “the intense and very new dynamic I felt being pregnant with our first children, our twin boys, last year and how I needed to lean on (Robbie) more than I ever had before.” It is titled, “Man Bearing Woman and Woman Bearing Man.”
Connolly says that she thinks that both she and her husband attribute a lot of their success and happiness to their individual endeavors, “which is kind of fun,” she says with a smile. Their latest is a joint venture that Connolly calls “a balancing act.”
Author Greg McKeown's book, "Essentialism," resonates with Connolly as she has learned the value of identifying and choosing the most essential things and accepting the "trade-offs" that come as a result.
"My husband and I both agree that family comes first. We love being together as a couple, being with our baby boys, being home, and we are also both very passionate and hard-working,” she says. “We talk very frequently about how we use our time and we try to do the best that we know how with what we have. And if things aren’t working, we pause, make adjustments, and then move forward again.”
She describes being a mother as a really emotionally and physically exhausting and draining way to spend time but says that with the help of others, she is happier than she has been in the past. And that worth she was searching to understand? Connolly spins around in a chair in her studio to face the many characters she has given life to, visibly pondering the question.
“My worth is concrete and independent of trials and hardships and also independent of achievements, even achievements like having children or being successful. My worth is just because it is,” Connolly responds, later adding, “I've also learned that mortality is difficult. My painting process reflects that experience. I work in a very subtractive and additive process. I build things up with paint and then I sand them down. I will spend hours and hours on a painting only to take it into my woodshop days or months later and sand it down (parts or the whole) to begin again. And it is this play, between the building and the removing of what isn't working, that produces my favorite paintings. It is a very symbolic and healing process for me on a personal level and reminds me that it is OK that I am a work in progress. I need experiences that sand me down and refine me, and I will have other experiences that build me back up, and I know that over time I am progressing and that is good.”