Ashley Whiteside lives in Oklahoma City with her husband Brandon and 4-year-old daughter, Nora. Ashley's husband is a local worship pastor. She and her daughter are best known around town for their art. Ashley does design and styling work through her business, Whiteside Art & Interiors. In addition, she and Nora work together to create and sell original paintings.
MFM: Tell us about your family and how you ended up in Oklahoma City.
AW: I moved here in 2009 after college. I went to college in Nashville and Brandon got a job here so I came and started trying to find a job myself. Childcare and education were what I knew, even though my degree was in marketing. I nannied for five years. I had Nora and kept nannying and took her with me to nanny. That whole time I was doing interior design and wedding work on the side.
Then I got this magical job at West Elm when they opened a few years ago. I had five stylists I was overseeing and I just learned so much there but I outgrew it. In March 2014 Nora and I painted a piece of art as a gift for her aunt. We weren't artists, but it just seemed like a fun gift. I posted that online and people just went crazy. My bosses at West Elm said they'd give us an art show and asked us to create 30 pieces in 30 days. They all sold in one night. Every one of them sold. Our most common size is four feet by five feet. They were around $900 and they sold in one night. So then everything just changed.
MFM: Did you or Nora have a background in art?
AW: I grew up dabbling in art and always wanted to be an artist. But I'm way too precise to be an artist. Nora is so whimsical, so that's how we got into a rhythm with making art. We created a process and people seem to like it. That was a year and a half ago we started an we've sold 185 paintings. Nora names every piece or I call it something based on what she says or does when we're painting it together. All the sales go to her college fund.
She goes around at all the art parties handing out cards and asking guests which painting they're planning to buy. It's ridiculous and hilarious but there's so much quirk and charm to all of it that it works. I think people find her and her art approachable and they like the childlike spirit of it. People who buy our art I've noticed they feel like they're encouraging a child to pursue something. A child artist doesn't know risk or humiliation. I see when people take an interest in her art it's building up her confidence and her personality.
MFM: What's a typical day like at home?
AW: Every day is so different with school (Ashley homeschools Nora) but we definitely try to stick to a routine. We have breakfast at 8 a.m. every day and at 8:30 a.m. we go on a walk in our neighborhood.
At 9 a.m., we have lessons, which include things like story time, handwriting, flash cards and even free play. At 10:30 a.m. we cook lunch together and eat it at 11. Then it's rest time while I work on the computer. We reserve some time in the afternoon for business appointments and Nora goes with me on those. At 4 p.m., we have a field trip, which could be a museum trip, a play date, a park or just visiting something nearby our afternoon appointment. In the evenings, we make dinner and have family time.
MFM: What do you think Nora gains out of being so close to your business experiences?
AW: I think she sees that work has power and that it can bring purpose and pride. She also sees it's not always fun, but you show up anyway. I think painting can be the same sometimes. Sometimes it feels more like work and sometimes it feels more fun.
MFM: What are some of your parenting philosophies?
AW: For me, I cannot separate work and parenting. I have to look at parenting through a creative lens or else I feel so much duty and responsibility that it's overwhelming. I have a lot of Montessori training so I draw a lot on that, especially independence-based teaching. That empowers kids. She may only be 4 but it's important for her to learn relational skills and business skills now. It's bizarre but because of her experiences with art she's starting to bring some order into her world herself and create a sense of space and identity. She understands how to improve things, which is a major concept for someone her age.
MFM: What are the best and worst parts of motherhood?
AW: The worst is that you're never off. It's a constant responsibility. It's absolutely exhausting for your brain to never, ever really be able to rest. You can be woken up 24 hours a day. It's unlike anything else in that you have this constant, humming machine that requires mom around the clock.
I took a vacation by myself for the first time over the summer. I went on an artist retreat and figured I could just take my yoga mat and my sketch book to Florida and be on my own a while. I am not a paranoid person. But I remember getting on the plane and for the first time it really struck me how frightening it would be if something happened to me on the plane. It's just a different feeling than I've ever had. It's not a complaint, it's just reality. The whole time your children are alive you're never free of that feeling. It's a good thing but it is tiring.
It's funny because you don't even want to escape it, either. For the first two years of her life I would wear myself out being with her and then she would go take a nap and all I could do is just stay up talking about funny things she did or scrolling through photos of her while I waited for her to wake up. This tiny person is so large and in charge in your life whether you want them to be or not.
The best part is that everything is completely unconditional. There's so much more grace with a child than I ever expected. I'm a perfectionist and having nannied for so many years, I thought I would bring this professional touch to having a baby. That should make me a perfect mom, right? But it doesn't. I'm not a perfect mom and it doesn't even matter. I can completely screw up and she loves me anyway. I hear it in the mornings when I pour milk over her cereal and she reminds me she didn't actually want that much milk but it's okay, she still loves me. And you love them so, so much. I feel it in every inch of my body. My bones know how much I love her.
MFM: There's a lot of talk among parents about balance. What is it and how do you achieve it?
AW: I want so badly to believe in balance. I really revere balance. It is this great, transcendent sanctification of life but I can't say I've met one person who believes they have a balanced life. So I feel like the only way to ever feel balanced is to be determined to make tiny steps toward it knowing perfect balance isn't achievable.
MFM: Nora is obviously very creative and many parents want to help foster creativity in their own kids. What tips do you have to do that?
AW: Just make it accessible. All I did was give Nora access to be creative. I didn't make a big deal out of it, I just put stuff in front of her and let her explore it. Not just paint, but dirt, Play Dough, blocks. I try to make learning happen in an exploratory fashion.
With painting especially, I've read a lot about how to talk to kids about creativity because if kids learn early on what is good or bad they will try to create what is good. Where is their sense of self in that? Instead of saying, "It's beautiful" or "I love the colors" when they bring you a piece of art, try saying "What were you thinking when you made that?" or "How did you feel when you painted that?" It sounds silly but it changes the entire framework.
MFM: How do you want other people to feel at your house?
AW: Maybe I'm a snob but I don't want people to feel like it's a house where a 4-year-old lives. I like order and I like things to be pretty so we believed in house-proofing our baby instead of baby-proofing our house. There aren't any toys out and although Nora has a lot of fun at our house, it definitely looks like adults reside there. The benefit of house-proofing her is that now we can pretty much go anywhere and she knows how to behave. We explain proper behavior to her instead of just making her environment unbreakable.
[Editor's Note: This interview was edited for style and clarity.]