I’m preparing a panel presentation and artist talk for my upcoming visit to Saskatoon. The panel coincides with the opening of an exhibition of alumni work, This Train: Fine Arts Alumni, 1990–2010. I’ve been asked to reflect on my time at the University of Saskatchewan, the benefits of my degree and the ways I’ve continued to develop my career as an artist.
My 1993 MFA thesis, Spacemen and Invisible Women: An Examination of Pregnancy and Representation, and related exhibition, Invisible/Stranger/Mine, investigated contemporary representations of pregnancy and maternity. I considered how these images increasingly excluded the subject position of the pregnant woman/mother and simplified the complexity of these experiences.
The work I did at that time continues to inform my practice as an artist. I maintain a focus on the representation of intersubjective experience, which recognizes one’s difference from the other, without assimilating or being assimilated by that other.
Invisible/ Stranger/ Mine
Each: 21″ x 25″ Overall: 25″ x 67″
In motherhood I have experienced myself as both more virtuous and terrible, and more implicated too in the world’s virtue and terror, than I would from the anonymity of childlessness have thought possible.
—Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother
I resent the pervasive sentimentality often associated with babies and their care. It may the most difficult work I’ve undertaken in my life. The daily minutiae of caring for a baby forcibly reiterates both the power and powerlessness experienced within the maternal role. Elsewhere in her remarkable book Rachel Cusk writes, “…motherhood is a career in conformity from which no amount of subterfuge can liberate the soul without violence.”
Last week I decided to pull back from my new drawing project to consider my options before embarking on another large project. At the same time a writing opportunity came my way. I’ll be taking a break from the studio to work on an essay that will be included in an anthology tentatively titled Reconciling Art and Motherhood.
I struggled with the invisibility of artist-mothers even before I had children myself. There is very little information available about combining these two roles. Stereotypical representations of artists and mothers suggest these roles are mutually exclusive.
Between 1984 and 1999 I produced a number of works that tracked my emerging insights into this complex relationship. My MFA thesis (completed in 1993) was called “Spacemen and Invisible Women: An Examination of Pregnancy and Representation”.
Recently I submitted an essay, based on an artist talk I gave in 1999, for inclusion in an upcoming book about mothering in Canada. It describes some of the artwork I’ve done in relation to maternity.
My new essay, with the working title “Exquisite Tension: The Annotated Artist-Mother”, will address three moments within my practice as an artist, represented by three artworks in which I reflect on my capacity to function as an artist-mother. The first project I discuss, Taking Care (1984) developed in response to the birth of my friend’s child. This installation questioned the possibility of a woman having a life as an artist, beyond her role as a mother.
Following the birth of my first child five years later I produced the installation Baby Food (1989) that represented my anxiety about my ability to nurture my child at the same time as I continued to work as an artist. In 1999, five years after the birth of my second daughter, my installation Toss represented the exquisite tension between mothering and art making that is required to do both simultaneously.
The expectations placed on women in relation to reproduction make the possibility of simultaneous cultural productivity nearly impossible. My art practice has given me the opportunity to re-imagine these roles in a way that acknowledges the significance of maintaining the self in relation to others. My development as an artist has not been in spite of my children, but has emerged in response to the significance of these crucial intersubjective relationships.