When I became a mother, I became a landscape. Flattened and silent, I became a backdrop to my children’s everyday lives and sleepless nights. But beyond that, I also became a vast space as my body and being composed an entire world for my young children. Hence, my “motherscape” is a space of opposing forces: reduction and expansion, isolation and connection, anxiety and bliss, rage and love. Through paintings, video, mixed media and a book of poetry, this exhibition unveils hidden struggles of motherhood, explores the metaphor of mothers as beasts of burden, questions motherhood myths, and reckons with the concept of scientific motherhood. Consciously situating my art practice in a feminist sphere, I hope to spur critical discourse and genuine conversations about the very real, but often silenced or ignored challenges of motherhood. Ultimately, through this exhibition, I attempted to create an open and mindful space for challenging and contradictory aspects of motherhood to be heard and held.
Below I have explained in more detail how each piece (or series) fits into my exploration of the Motherscape.
Tired Mother, ink on voile, 60 x 90 inches
Several years ago I began to collect mother and child analog tintypes from the 1800s. Many of the photographs sit beneath a delicate paper frame which reveals only the child and covers the mother, on whose lap the child sits for the long exposure. One young mother in particular, hidden beneath a frame for perhaps a century until I found her, had a profound effect on my psyche and my art practice. I felt so connected to her. I felt I had shared her suffering, weariness, silence, and invisibility. I wanted to pay her homage and through her, pay homage to myself for the struggles I faced as a young mother. In my piece, Tired Mother (installed at the building entrance), I faithfully rendered the scratches, dust, and damage of the mother’s portrait, first as a large-scale graphite drawing on vellum - which I then printed on translucent fabric approximately 500 times the size of the original tintype. In my re-presentation and unveiling of this mother, bedraggled, raw, and vulnerable, I am not only revealing but re-asserting her presence that was supposed to have been hidden, ignored, overlooked.
Poems from the Motherscape, ink, paper, thread, approximately 5 x 7 inches
My experience of discovering the anonymous tired mother in a tintype inspired me to write an ekphrastic poem detailing the image itself, and my reaction to this fortuitous find. I was then inspired to write more poetry in which I explored my (often painful) personal experiences and memories of motherhood and motherwork. Some, but not all, of the poems in this collection correspond directly to pieces in the exhibition. Read all seven Poems from the Motherscape here.
Wish You Were Here, wood, canvas, image transfers, 8 x 12 x 24 inches
Wish You Were Here, a long scroll of transferred landscapes, winds from spool to spool and must be hand-cranked. Rather than telling a narrative story, as in traditional crankie boxes of the mid-1800’s, my scroll is a panorama of ghosted postcard memories collected from around the world by my grandfather during his time as a Merchant Marine in World War II. (This piece is referenced in the poem Motherscape.) As I transferred the images, I forced a continuous horizon line by revealing only parts of the original image, allowing portions to remain obscured or semi-obscured with the paper backing. In doing so, I am not only linking distance places, but forming connections between past and present, and forging a path from my ancestors to my children.
Holding Absence, oil on wood, 4.5 x 10 feet
Attachment and independence, oneness and separateness, self-estrangement and self-lessness are simultaneously held by mothers in varying degrees. They form the basis for my multi-panel painting Holding Absence. It is both an image of any mother and daughter, and at the same time a particular portrait of an immigrant with her daughter: my great-grandmother and grandmother. Upon becoming a mother, I almost immediately and inexplicably felt an acute connection to the painful losses and separations of my ancestors. As I have portrayed them in this painting, bodies are shifted and dislocated across the panels, but closeness is still revealed in the bond between mother and child.
Beasts of Burden Series, carbon on canvas, size varies from 48x60 to 60x72 inches
A family photograph of my great uncle as an infant, propped up on a pony, inspired my Beasts of Burden series of carbon paintings. Much as I imagined the pony must have felt, plodding each day through city streets so parents could pay for a photo of their child on her back, I found myself feeling trapped and overburdened by the physical and mental load of caring for my children while working full-time. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic, while bringing much of the world to a standstill, has brought the unacknowledged work and overwork of mothers to the forefront. Mothers often carry the majority of both the child-rearing and household obligations, whether or not they work outside the home. Similarly, in my paintings, mute animals silently fulfill their duties with babies and toddlers on their backs.
Thought Forms, vintage doll and View Master, 8 x 6 x 6 inches
Just as draft animals have been domesticated and obliged to bear their master’s burdens, I felt colonized by my children’s needs and ashamed of feeling so. How could such a small baby be regarded as a burden, or even a colonizer? And what kind of mother was I for such feelings? I didn’t fit the mold; I couldn’t live up to society’s expectations of motherhood: that I should be happily selfless and eternally self-sacrificing. Thought Forms, my sculpture of an armless doll sitting passively, her head replaced by a television set, embodies how my mind felt colonized by society’s expectations of motherhood. Additionally, I consciously stretch my personal reference of colonization to colonialism in the Beasts of Burden series with European infants on animals such as zebras, camels, and antelopes. In doing so, I point to the absurdity and damage of colonialism whether on the scale of entire populations, or that of an overworked mother.
In Your Hands Series, image transfers, book pages, paint, 14 x 20 inches
My series of mixed media works, In Your Hands, comments on the immeasurable weight placed on mothers from the late 1800s to today by our society’s attachment to scientific motherhood — the insistence that women require expert scientific and medical advice to raise their children healthfully. To this day, women are largely held responsible for the majority of child rearing tasks, yet simultaneously they are taught that they are incapable of this job without being told exactly what to do. In these works, photo transfers of my hands hold the invisible weight of responsibility while poetry muddles and subverts the advice from a popular parenting guide, In Your Hands, first published in 1920.
Oratory, video installation, 8 x 14 feet
In my video installation, Oratory, the repetition and rhythm of knitting references the seemingly endless tasks of mothering. The delicate hand gestures speak to mothers’ gentle tending and tiny acts of care which accumulate over time and amount to something much larger, like knit and purl stitches in a blanket. Along with the inextricable linking of myself to my children as they were raised, I simultaneously felt an acute connection to mothers who came before me — as if my life were simply one small stitch, intertwined in a string of lives lived. The layered imagery of trees and stream reference finding refuge in nature from the stress and pressure of motherhood. Through this video I wanted to create an atmosphere and space of contemplation, where one can return to the earth, self, body and breath.