Cat Attack Collective: Painting and Installation in the Postmaternal

By Natalie Bruvels

The night we met. 

It was a difficult birth. When the doctor pulled you out, she pulled low instead of lifting you up. No “Here’s the Baby!” There were nurses and doctors waiting to work on you. For 45 minutes you would not cry, and I did not know what was happening, but I was sure you were dying.  I turned my head away so that I could not see you. Once I decided not to scream, I felt myself turning off. When they eventually put you on my chest, warm, heavy, and tightly bundled, I looked down at you. The rush of oxytocin, that opening of the floodgate of love, that sublime, incredible thrust of bonding did not come. 


My art practice and theoretical research engage the intersection of motherhood studies, representations of mothers, and contemporary art practices. The pandemic hit when I was in my first year of the MFA Visual Arts program at the University of Ottawa. As a single mother to a school-aged child, Tomson, the impact on my ability to work was significant. In an attempt to manage care, school, and creative outcomes, Tomson and I began making collaborations, painting together and in tandem. When we show our work together, we call ourselves Cat Attack Collective. This paper traces the formation Cat Attack Collective, which really started long before the MFA program.

My trajectory as an artist and mother are inextricably linked with care playing a distinct role in my creative process and even more so due to the pandemic. The connection between the value of motherwork in the postmaternal and in the art world serves as a significant research interest. Julie Stephens describes the postmaternal as an elaborate process of cultural forgetting that reveals anxieties about caregiving and nurturing. It is this forgetting that I address in my art with Tomson, where I explore the possibility of commodifying exploited domestic labour. Together, we also complicate questions of identity through painting and immersive installations. The collaborations are re-imaginings of the archetype of Madonna and Child, one that moves away from idealizing the form and focuses on the labour and bonding, the development of intersubjectivites, while giving voice to both participants. 

BABYBEAST (2011-13)

The lack of bonding with my newborn, that I addressed in the preface, was enduring. Tomson is now 10 ½ years old. When he was a baby, I would push him in the stroller for hours on end, a type of multitasking that enabled me to care for him and simultaneously indulge my fantasy of walking away from this new life of being a mother. I would take pictures of his face and, when he was napping, paint from those photographs as seen in a series entitled BABYBEAST (2011-13) (Fig.1). At the time of their showing at La Petite Mort Gallery, May 2012, I wrote a sarcastic artist statement saying that I did not understand why everyone cares so much about babies. It was a curious opinion for someone who had a six-month-old. What I did not realize at the time was that I was in the throes of a deep and dark post-partum depression and that by taking those photographs and spending time to render them in paint in colourful and gestural ways, I was studying his expressions. It was a desperate yearning to understand my child, to bond with him, to feel comfortable and confident in my newfound identity and responsibilities as a mother. 

 Going Over (2014-to the present)

Around that time, I also became a single mother, and however empowered a jilted woman is supposed to feel, especially in a postfeminist and postmaternal context, the reality was crushing. I had to find a place to live and was having trouble finding remunerative work.  I would put Tomson in a daycare so that I could look for work through employment agencies. I would pick him up from the daycare to be told that he had spent the day crying. I had spent the entire day crying too. As my ex-spouse was starting his new life, there was a storage facility filled with paintings that he had made and no longer wanted. He had stopped paying the rental fee, accepting that the contents in the storage locker, which was full of his paintings, would be destroyed. He gave me permission to do whatever I wanted with those paintings. I saw an opportunity and knew I needed those surfaces. I was going to try to paint my way out of a corner.

I slowly began my Going Over project (ex. In the Laundry Room [2014] [Fig. 2] and Hopping Croakers [2016] [Fig.3]) in 2014 and resurfaced those paintings, using them as a basis for my own new works of oil on canvas. I would begin with making outlines in black paint, analogous to creating a large-scale colouring book page for myself. I needed that visually bold framework to establish myself on the existing surface. After that, I would weave in and out of the imagery underneath with paint-filled gestures, leaving areas of the older work exposed. It is the visual searching and questioning for the viewer that is more germane to the project than the revelation of the individuated mark making.

The intention for this project has always been to manifest the impact of material circumstances post-breakup. I was also interested in the oscillation of meaning that could develop for the viewer through the paintings in conjunction with the disclosure of their history. The compositions have moments that are assertive, aggressive, energetic, uncertain, shy but rarely serene as I am illuminating and responding to struggle. The project is not yet completed and will reach its conclusion once I have painted over all the approximately 100 surfaces. It has a definitive endpoint. To transition out of this project, I knew I was going to require institutional support to pivot and set off in a new direction intellectually, psychologically, aesthetically, and materially. So, I applied to the MFA program at the University of Ottawa.

 Watermelon Sugar (2019)      

With an educational background in biology, my exposure to the act of painting had been watching my ex-spouse paint and then slowly taking it up myself. Having spent the last few years painting over existing paintings, coming into the first semester of the MFA, I had to learn how to stretch canvas, how to gesso, how to make stretchers, and buy (gasp!) the materials. And then, once the preparatory measures were completed, I was faced with the quintessential painter’s trope: a blindingly white canvas staring me down. 

Watermelon Sugar (2019) (Fig. 4) was the first painting I made in the program, and the transition away from the lamp black outlines occurred; however, elements of erotic figuration remain, this time in groups as opposed to pairs. I began the MFA program reading and thinking about women’s anger. Wanting to rail against the gendered politics of emotional control I began making large-scale discordant and jubilant paintings. I am continually inspired by artists embracing colour and figuration in their practices to deliver chromatic and narrative intensity, such as Maria Lassnig, Nicole Eisenman, Nina Chanel Abney, Dana Schutz, Cynthia Girard, and Cindy Phenix. 

Bluebird of Happiness (2019)

Bluebird of Happiness (2019) (Fig. 5) is a diptych of a daytime family picnic with cakes, confections, and foliage next to an individual looking in on the gathering. Containing abstracted figurative elements dominated by bright permanent green, cerulean, madder lake red and their subsequent tints, visual pleasure, by way of pleasing chromatic variations and intensities, becomes a formal device that I interrupt within the compositions via abrupt stops, unfinished stops, and lacunae. This stoppage in pleasure, I view as a visual hook, something for the eyes to trip over the way one’s body might trip over clutter on the floor, aiming for more of a messimalist as opposed to a maximalist feel. 

In the first semester’s “Art and Cultural Theory” class, we read Walter Benjamin’s indictment of progress in which he invokes a monoprint by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920), to make his famous metaphor that links progress and catastrophe:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

When I looked at the image of Angelus Novus, it functioned as a Rorschach for me, revealing my own projective psychology because, contrary to the title, I saw not a celestial but terrestrial boy. The importance of this pet theory lies not in its accuracy but that it made me aware of my own frame of reference, my maternal gaze. Captivated by the nothingness and possibility that surrounded the angel-boy, I wanted to make an Angelus Novus-inspired figure and throw it into the relief of opulence and bizarre joie de vivre of the picnic scene in Bluebird of Happiness (Fig. 9). Separated by the edges of the picture plane, the lone figure in the painting on the right-hand side, with their mouth slightly agape, in front of a yellow ochre and blue washed background, is the protagonist of the diptych. Formal contrasts of “haves and have nots,” evoke the question: What does it feel like to be looking in? 

Madonna and Child

In addition to looking at contemporary artworks, I was immersing myself in the critical scholarship and community that exists at the intersection of motherhood studies and contemporary artistic practices. University of Ottawa’s Professor Emeritus Leslie Reid’s own practice and research in motherhood studies and contemporary art has been a great inspiration to me. Her paper, “The Last Closet,” contends that expressions of motherhood in visual arts are fraught with belittlement and even identified as taboo. This cultural positioning of the artist-mother as taboo functions complicitly with the postmaternal: 

The forgetting of the vulnerability, intimacy, emotion and affective labour entailed by mothering is an important, yet undertheorized dimension of how neoliberal policies transform social responsibilities for dependent ‘others’ to be borne by individuals.   

Reading Linda Nochlin’s Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century (2018), I was captivated by the paintings of single motherhood that depicted the exploitation of domestic labour during the Industrial Revolution (Fig. 6).  As Nochlin’s last book, it felt like after a career of feminist art history scholarship and contemporary art criticism, she was once-again spotlighting the titular question of her ground-breaking essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971). The definition of misère that Nochlin employs is that of a form of distress with physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects exacerbated by contrast of extreme opulence and legitimate well-being.  Indeed, the iconography of misery as it relates to single motherhood remains a strong indicator of disempowerment, as seen in poster campaigns for the Salvation Army (Fig. 7), whose function is to elicit pity from viewers and, hopefully the contribution of charity dollars to their organization. The poster on the right -(Fig. 7) also depicts Benjamin’s indictment of progress with a mother and child presumed to be quietly suffering while condo construction climbs skyward in the background. I relate to the Salvation Army posters as they depict my family composition. I was compelled to engage with misery as it relates to single motherhood drawing from my own motherhood and childhood experiences. My research question became how to engage with this subject without re-enacting a visual violence rife with degrading stereotypes. From an art historical perspective, the Salvation Army posters reiterate the archetype of Madonna and Child, steeped in an ideology of sacrifice, suffering, and having patriarchal religious roots of oppression.

I knew I did not want to replicate a poster child (and mother) for misère, or to make a clearly pitiful painting, even though I was compelled to address the hardships and structural barriers that Nochlin illuminated in her essay. I also knew that between the mother and child is a whole world of integrations, mediations, animations, and affective encounters.  Motherhood scholar, Lisa Baraitser theorizes the maternal in a way that centers the mother, having more to do with:  

the way that otherness is always at work, structuring, infecting, and promoting human subjectivity. This implies understanding not only the ways that otherness figures into the developmental trajectory of the child, but also crucially in a mother’s own developmental process too. 

This was the type of engagement that I wanted in my work, one that acknowledges structural and ideological barriers but also embraces maternal humanity and subjectivity as well as the humanity and subjectivity of the child.  In addition, there was a lot to push against, aesthetically, within the advertising depictions of a contemporary Madonna and Child vis-à-vis the Salvation Army posters: the grey and drab palette, the power dynamic (eliciting pity from the viewer elevates the viewer), and the lack of voice from both mother and child. 

Tomson began coming to my studio on the weekends during the first semester, and we started making projects together, such as the Bubble Gum (Fig. 8). I was inspired by the bubble gum sculptural work of Hannah Wilke, who chewed bubble gum and sculpted vulvas repetitively to address the disposability of women. Working together and with bubble gum’s materiality (it can maintain its blown bubble formation) captured ideas of time, play, and hunger, and funnily enough, tied into my painting palette. At the beginning of the MFA program, I had envisioned more collaborations along these lines. However, almost immediately, Tomson wanted to paint. I had underestimated how compelling painting is for him; evidently, the materials and substances of painting were occupying him in ways that they occupy his mother. 

Many artists, myself included, have been interested in using children’s drawings as sources of inspiration, the resulting final product of a child’s graphic play. But watching Tomson swipe the keycard to get into the Visual Arts building, climb the three flights of stairs, unlock the code to the studio door, move around the studio, collect his paints, make his decisions, his little discoveries, complain that brushes are not easy to clean, etc., yields an incredibly rich type of inspiration – one of process plus final product. In addition to that holistic inspiration, or more precisely foundational to that, I am responsible for multiple bodily, emotional, intellectual, creative, spiritual needs of this individual. It is a balancing act that never really achieves a state of dynamic equilibrium, but the goal is a solution to the problem of how to take care of both myself and my child.

However, the grappling with my research question and production of paintings came to an abrupt halt when the lockdown from the pandemic hit. Tomson, as all pupils, did not return to school after the March Break of 2020. Campus, along with our MFA studios, was inaccessible.  Isolated, our days became filled with homeschooling, playing video games, and walking in the woods.  The snow melted. Spring and summer came and went.

Rough Around Edges (2020)

In the fall of 2020, finally gaining access to the studio space again, after so much time away, was joyous. It impressed upon me how impactful the studio space is for both thinking and working through projects. With much of our city still closed at that time, it also gave us a place to stretch out. Tomson, who now often joined me in the new luminous space, would come in and declare, “Studio, Sweet Studio!” The work that I produced during that time reflected the narrowing of my focus that had occurred due to the restrictions of the pandemic, as well as my burgeoning education in matricentric feminist scholarship. I was now focusing on the relationship between mother and child.

I began using Roblox screenshots as well as crafting and educational stencils, and animal imagery from children’s books; my previous habit of layering and Going Over (Figs. 2,3) reappears in 3-2-1 Blast Off  (2020) (Fig .9). Tomson’s avatar is preparing my avatar to launch over an underpainting of sleeping pink kangaroos from a children’s National Geographic Magazine. I was drawn to the imagery of a child happily helping his mother. I was also drawn to the imagery of anything slumbering.

Tomson and his work were becoming integral components to the activity in the studio. He was very free-spirited and painted whatever came to mind (Fig. 12). Working now as collaborators, Tomson and I butted and stacked my paintings (Fig. 10) as well as his (Fig. 12) into two individual building block-like formations. The two clusters of paintings became two figures in the room – mother (my paintings) and child (his paintings). I built wooden scaffolds to hang two of Tomson’s paintings, and it provided a more dynamic display of his young figure compared to that of the adult, which hung flatly on two adjacent walls. The scaffold also made visible a support mechanism alluding to erased or unnoticed domestic labour. 

Unifying the space were thin monochromatic plastic tablecloths sourced from the Dollar Store that covered the walls and floor in large rectangles of blue and green colour. Working alongside their materiality, one of translucency and a high degree of static electricity, we overlapped the edges of the plastic sheeting to create colour mixing and deeper hues. The result was a mix of cheap, disposable, and chromatically luxurious surroundings. Plastic tablecloths as a floor cover is not a normal surface upon which to walk. There are decisions that must be made – shoes on or off, for instance? Is the surface safe, or is it too slippery? And if it’s safe, ok then, but perhaps let’s try to not disturb it too much. I was interested in the impact of this subtle bodily awareness on the act of viewing. What does it feel like to be looking at art when one is embodying care? Does it affect the duration of looking, the experience, analysis, or appraisal?         

The congested celebratory aesthetic in Rough Around Edges was designed to interfere with expected breathing spaces of a gallery setting. A want for breathing room echoes the desires of an unsupported caregiver or any overload individual.  During one of our studio visits, Professor Cara Tierney had asked me, “What does painting do to anger?” in the context of providing an alternative to expressing anger in a painting, as had been my original intentions in the MFA program. Indeed, so much of my trajectory and the work I produced may not read as the anger or the misère that I mentioned earlier and insisted on engaging: playing Roblox and painting in the studio with Tomson. When I had presented the Roblox Paintings in class, I had said they mark a time “when play becomes urgent” because Tomson and I had started playing video games together during the early onset of the lockdown and then I made paintings from the screenshots I took. The positive feedback I received about describing play as urgent was concerning to me. I felt I was in danger of idealizing this situation of mother and child, that has been done throughout the history of Western art. I kept thinking back to the charity advertising images of single mother families (Fig. 7), and although they were deeply demoralizing, there is truth to them in terms of the struggle. The Bristol board and balloon pieces (Fig. 11) emerged with text made from stickers, wire and beads, and pipe cleaners to insert a level of directness. I began with painting words on canvas and progressed to working with Dollar Store materials to convey a feeling of protest, disposability, school projects, and birthday parties. They read:

The Gods Don’t Answer (Except to say over-determined)

Rough Around Edges 

Welfare: A Mother’s Pension

Whore Madonna and Available

Whore Madonna and Available.

For the MFA group show at the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG), Tomson and I showed our work under our collective name, Cat Attack Collective. Our paintings were together in diptych and triptych formations, as well as making and additive sculpture with Dollar Store plastic tablecloths and sheets of cellophane. Here the importance of text reappears in the SS Same Boat (Fig. 13), a joyous, celebratory boat sculpture that loudly poked fun at the oft-heard refrain that pandemic affects all equally. 


Integrating Tomson in my artistic practice was born from a need to create from realistic conditions, and to give visibility and invite discussion about the value of motherhood in art. My artistic modes are affected due to being a (single) mother, and time constraints are amplified drastically due to the lack of available childcare during this pandemic. The collaborations with Tomson are indeed his own creative expressions but also serve as indices of the care I provide. Expanding on my earlier realization of my own maternal gaze, this installation incorporates a mother-child gaze. The inclusion of our paintings together explores a relational identity, “encounters of the mutual but different,” in a way my paintings alone simply cannot do. Subverting traditional representations of Madonna and Child, which deny dual subjectivities, the immersive installation Rough Around Edges focuses instead on a co-affecting bond between two bodies in their surroundings.

British journalist Helen Lewis wrote, “Enough already. When people try to be cheerful about social distancing and working from home, noting that William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work while England was ravaged by the plague, there is an obvious response: Neither of them had child-care responsibilities.” A major draw of a painting practice, for me, is the solitude and the intermingling of an intense focus and simultaneous abandon. To be able to accept that lack of alone time in my studio when Tomson was present was going to require a drastic re-framing of what I was in the MFA program to experience and my art practice in general.  

Our collaborations aim to reconceive a child’s artwork as indeed artistic expressions less mediated by cultural forces and in addition to that, as indices of care. The acknowledgement of the labour of a caregiver in no way diminishes the individuality and preciousness of the child. It is a contention of Silvia Federici and, more recently, Andrea O’Reilly among many others, that this exploitation of domestic labor is unsustainable. The goal is to continue to implicate the space, the white cube, that has so often excluded caregivers, especially mothers. And to interrupt that exclusion with diaristic narratives of play, relational identity, awkwardness, anger, celebration, and frustration. The studio has become a place where we dream, experiment, laugh, and play.  


A picture containing text, floor

Description automatically generated
A picture containing indoor, person, baby bed, furniture

Description automatically generated

Fig.1. BABYBEAST, 2012, oil on masonite, 24 x 24 in. and 12 x 12 in., installation views at La Petite Mort Gallery; and Tomson in his crib with paintings at La Petite Mort Gallery, 2013.

A picture containing text

Description automatically generated

Fig. 2. In the Laundry Room, 2014, oil on repurposed canvas, 60 x 84 in. 

A picture containing text, map

Description automatically generated

Fig. 3. Hopping Croakers, 2016, oil on repurposed canvas (diptych), 92 x 72 in.

Background pattern

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Fig. 4. Watermelon Sugar, 2019, oil on canvas 72 x 60 in.

A person looking at art on a wall

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Fig. 5. Bluebird of Happiness, 2019, oil on canvas (diptych), 60 x 144 in., installation view, Gallery 115, University of Ottawa. Photo: C. MacLeod-Boucher

Mental Health Art History: Misère (and the Ethics of Depicting the Poor in  Art) | Sartle - Rogue Art History

Fig. 6.  Fernand Pelez, Sans Asile (Homeless), 1883, oil on canvas, 30 ½ x 53 ½ inches. (Cover of Linda Nochlin’s Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century).

35 publicités imprimées qui ne laissent pas indifférent | Salvation army,  Awareness campaign, Army
Advertising – The Salvation Army in Canada

Fig. 7. Salvation Army Campaign posters.

A picture containing indoor

Description automatically generated

Fig. 8. Natalie Bruvels and Tomson, Bubble Gum, 2019, bubble gum and wire.

A picture containing diagram

Description automatically generated

Fig. 9. 3-2-1 Blast Off, 2020, 72 x 48 inches, oil and graphite pencil on canvas.

A picture containing indoor, ceiling, floor, bedroom

Description automatically generated

Fig. 10. Natalie Bruvels and Tomson, Rough Around Edges, 2020, paintings and mixed media installation.Photo: C.Tierney.

Graphical user interface

Description automatically generated

Fig. 11. Natalie Bruvels, Rough Around Edges, 2020, installation view. Photo: C. Tierney.

A picture containing indoor, ceiling, green, colorful

Description automatically generated

Fig. 12. Tomson, Rough Around Edges, 2020, installation view. Photo: C. Tierney.

A picture containing floor, indoor, colorful

Description automatically generated

Fig. 13. The Cat Attack Collective, The SS Same Boat, 2022, installation view of Abound. Photo: Justin W Wonnacott

Works Cited

Baraitser, Lisa. Maternal Encounters: An Ethics of Interruption. New York: Routledge, 2009

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969: 249.

Chemaly, Soraya. Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. New York: Atria Books, 2018.

Cooper, Brittney. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

Federici, Silvia. Wages Against Housework. London: Power of Women Collective, 1975.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Heal, Olivia. “Towards a Matricentric Feminist Poetics”. Journal of the Motherhood Initiative. Volume 10, Numbers 1 and 2, 2019.

Lewis, Helen. “The Coronavirus is a Disaster for Feminism”, The Atlantic, March 19, 2020.

Loveless, Natalie et al. New Maternalisms: Maternidades y Nuevos Feminismos Santiago de Chile: Museo de Arte Contemporaneo MAC, 2014.

McKeon, Lauren. No More Nice Girls: Gender, Power and Why it’s Time to Stop Playing by the Rules. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2020.

Nochlin, Linda. “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” In Gornick, V.; Moran, B. (eds.) Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness. New York: Basic Books, 1971.

———. La Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century. London: Thames and Hudson, 2018.

Nussbaum, Martha. Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

O’Reilly, Andrea. Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice. Toronto: Demeter Press, 2020.

O’Reilly, Andrea. “Trying to Function in the Unfunctionable: Mothers and COVID-19.” Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement, 2020.

Pollock, Griselda. “Mother Trouble: The Maternal-Feminine in Phallic and Feminist Theory in Relation to Bracha Ettinger’s Elaboration of Matrixial Ethics/Aesthetics.” Studies in the Maternal, vol 1, no.1, 2009, 1-30.

Reid, Leslie. “The Last Closet: Leslie Reid on Her Own Work and Canadian Women Artists.” London: Make, 1997, 75: 9 +.

Traister, Rebecca. Good and Mad: the Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Stephens, Julie Confronting Postmaternal Thinking: Feminism, Memory, and Care. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

%d bloggers like this: