After the birth of my son in 2007, I felt an incredible energy and drive to make art. Contrary to the popular belief that art-making is one of the things that fall to the wayside after the birth of children, I felt not just inspired but compelled by my experience of childbirth and motherhood. The creative act of making another human being awoke a creative drive in me. I also found that the time limitations involved in caring for an infant forced me to be more disciplined, eking out an hour here and there when my son was sleeping to continue my portraits. After my daughter’s birth in 2008, I embarked on a series of mother and child portraits accompanied by birth stories written by each subject. I wanted to simultaneously express the imperfection and fallibility of the mothers and capture an element of the divine in the mother/child bond. Each mother in the series shares her birth story—life-changing, beautiful, or harrowing—and these experiences unify a very diverse group with a common theme: love, self sacrifice and transcendence. The inspiration for this project is my children: their beauty, their challenges and the unique and universal bond of motherhood.
Each portrait is done in ‘conte crayon’ (semi hard pastel,) accented with a gold leaf halo in an echo of portraits of the Virgin Mary with child (Madonna Lactans) from the 15th century, as well as an early 20th century revival of the practice by such artists as William Adolphe Bouguereau. Working out the process of creating the haloes was complicated. I outlined the circular shapes and filled them in with the leaf in the first four portraits, then devised a way to make a pattern in the halo with “Gladys and Elizabeth.” I was thinking of rose windows, and wracking my brain for a way to make such an even pattern by hand with my limited math skills. Unable to think of anything, I set the problem aside and started cutting out snowflakes with my son instead. Then it occurred to me to cut an elaborate snowflake and use the radiating design for the halo. I outlined a snowflake pattern on each halo and painted the gold leaf sizing on to the ground of the pattern, but not the holes, waited for the sizing to dry, and then rubbed the un-sized leaf off to reveal the pattern.
I posted one on a figurative artists group on Facebook, and was surprised to see that it had been removed on March 27th, 2010, just a few days later. I had already posted two more portraits, so I went ahead and reposted the one in question, thinking it must have been a glitch. My new artwork was removed on March 28th, and then on March 29th the re-posted portrait was removed as well. I reposted all three in a row, as a kind of experiment, and received the following letter by email:
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A common theme throughout many of the birth stories was a sense of inadequacy. Many women felt they had not lived up to their ideal of what a mother should be, what a birth should be. There was often a sense of loneliness, as in the story of Gladys and Elizabeth. Gladys came to Canada with her Canadian husband and gave birth far away from her native Kenya, in the dead of winter. Many of us, myself included, wished to have a natural birth, and had to settle for a c section birth instead. For some women it was elating to give birth naturally after a previous c section, proving to themselves that they were capable of giving birth. For everyone the act of childbirth was a rite of passage, a moment in our lives right before motherhood, when everything changes, even one’s sense of self. I wanted to draw parallels between our own ideals of what a mother should be, and the cultural ideal of motherhood, symbolized by the Virgin Mary. I wanted to simultaneously honour both that ideal and actual motherhood in all the glory of its imperfection.