Sunday, November 27, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as a Mother

“While Long has portrayed women who really desired pregnancy, Page set out to make art about ‘everyone supposedly wanting a baby’.”

In 2005, Toronto artist Jennifer Linton made the trek to the blustery city of North Bay for a solo show I coordinated at White Water Gallery. On top of exhibiting, she gave an artist talk where her newborn baby was indisputably the youngest audience member, demonstrating that the roles of artist and mother are hardly mutually exclusive…though as artist Lindsay page notes, they do tend to be “in direct competition”.

Fast forward six and a half years to Women’s College Hospital, where I caught up on Linton’s work the other night, while also taking in artist talks by Page and Jennifer Long. Their panel, Portrait of the Artist as a Mother: Visualizing the Unspoken, was part of the monthly Mother Outlaws’ Speakers Series organized by the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.

The merging of art and motherhood has arguably never been more pronounced than last month when Marni Kotak gave birth in Brooklyn's Microscope Gallery, surrounded by a midwife, a doula, and a handful of gallery visitors. Bringing the focus back to the northern side of the border, what does it mean to be an artist-mother hybrid and what forms might it take beyond having one’s water break on a gallery floor?

The works discussed by the three artists cover the timeline of pregnancy, the postpartum state, and well into motherhood. Panel moderator Judith Mintz noted that they “challenge the myth of motherhood as celebration.” After finding that their peers mostly dismissed their concerns about mothering, they turned to art as a “safe place to have those conversations” (Linton). In stripping away the veneer, they are, in fact, outlaws of a sort.

Long’s MFA thesis revived the precursor to photographic portraits: black silhouettes in oval frames. In Swallowing Ice, she explored personal anxieties about being “on the…fence” about becoming pregnant. For example, a woman pulls a strand of hair insecurely beside repetitive text like, “What if I’m a disappointment?’”that spills out of its oval frame. She also photographed forlorn looking friends with fertility aids such as saliva tests. As an artist focused on the pink-blue divide, I appreciated her disdain for the gendered “colour coding” of prenatal vitamins and ovulation sticks that appear in her work. She actually found a pink paint chip called ‘doll’s dress’ that was the exact same colour.

While Long has portrayed women who really desired pregnancy, Page set out to make art about “everyone supposedly wanting a baby”. Werewolf (see image 1 under 'Spawn' in the photography section) shows the artist standing naked in a forest with a swollen belly, with an unnerving background of scraggly branches. With this piece, she wanted to convey the severing of body and mind where bodily control is lost. Linton similarly portrayed the unnatural, with multiple self-portraits in a single ominous image.She represents herself pregnant with an animal and inanimate objects, inspired by common dreams of expectant women.

Each of the artists have addressed the bodily realities of postpartum life. Linton made a largescale drawing, Breastfeeding Ridley, with “heroic proportions” to convey the exhaustion of the process and the transition to “flabby stretchy leakiness”. Page portrayed herself hunched over and naked, with her daughter strapped to her back (see image 9 under 'Spawn' in the photography section), bringing to mind a snapshot of Linton at her drafting table with her son strapped to her front. Page describes her self-portraits as a defense against the erasure she felt in becoming a mother, as her daughter’s quickly developing physicality seemed to eclipse her own presence. Seeing Linton and Page present first on the panel made one of Long’s opening comments instantly clear: “As you step into motherhood, there’s a mourning that occurs.”

Long’s newer photos, the Fold series, don’t necessarily read as mournful, although there is a sense of loneliness because the human interaction I associate with her earlier work is gone. For example, we see a woman’s arm with milk dribbling down it, without the supportive partner or the baby who make it all worthwhile. There’s a bittersweetness to these images. A photo of half-eaten grapes bathed in sunlight reads not so much as domestic chaos as serenity. (While editing this post, I realized that the grapes may actually be halved to prevent choking. Long notes that it’s difficult for people to interpret these works as anything but images from a mother’s life, and the kind of childless naivety I just revealed undoubtedly factors into that complication). She explains that like author Alice Munro, she draws attention to the overlooked but precious in-between-moments. Her own in-between-moments are shrinking, she finds. By the time she would set up her beloved 4 x 5 camera, naptime would be over, causing her to turn to digital photography, which also eliminated the need to leave the house to buy and drop off film.

Linton also adjusted her process after becoming a mother. For example, she chose drawing over printmaking for an alphabet book because of concerns about toxicity, and also because a single hour became “weighted with meaning” and drawing required less set-up. It’s no ordinary alphabet book. To cite a few examples, C is for consumerism, Q is for queer, and T is for tattoo.

Page changed how she worked too. For one thing, her daughter became a ready “prop”. She asked her to recreate a pose in which she was hidden under a chenille blanket and upended couch cushions, with one leg dangling from the couch. A second photo taken by Page shows the scene rearranged by her daughter, with her standing in front of the couch and holding a camera herself, with a man’s legs poking out from the blanket. So, in answer to the question ‘What does it mean to be an artist-mother?’, maybe, in part, it means raising children who find self-expression and creativity to be second nature.