Mother Making: Artistic Practice and the Formation of a Mother

Sarah Irvin


List of Figures

Figure 1: The Measurement Project, 2014, Cotton yarn, 22 x 17 inches____________________________________ 4
Figure 2: The Measurement Project, 2014, Cotton yarn, 4 ¼ inches diameter__________________________________ 5
Figure 3: The Rocking Chair Series. 2014-2015, Graphite on paper, 56 x 132 inches____________________________________ 6
Figure 4: Rocking Chair Series Detail_____ 7
Figure 5: Carpet Transfer Series, 2014-2015, Carbon transfer on paper, 60 x 594 inches____________________________________ 8
Figure 6: Carpet Transfer Series Detail___ 9
Figure 7: Silver Spoon, 2016, Sterling Silver, 3 ½ x 1 x 1 ½ inches, pedestal – 7 x 7 x 7 inches__________________________ 10
Figure 8: Silver Spoon Detail______________11
Figure 9: Breastfeeding Drawings, 2014 – 2015, Graphite on paper handmade by the artist, 18 x 320 inches; Similac Paintings, 2015-2016, Similac on paper, 18 x 320 inches________________________________ 12
Figure 10: Breastfeeding Drawings and Similac Paintings Detail_____________________________________13
Figure 11: Bed and Carpet Transfer Series_ 14
Figure 12: A Bringing Forth, 2016, Video, Running time: 23 min 22 seconds, exhibited on loop__________________________15
Figure 13: A Bringing Forth, Annotated prose poem, Bed and Carpet Transfer Series____________________________________ 17

My artistic practice exists within the context of motherhood both as a lived experience and social construct. By responding to the biological act of bearing an infant and the discipline of care-taking that is the commitment to “mother” a child, I open up a dialog about the social context of these responsibilities and how actions of care shape the individual performing them.[1]

For many years, I found no acceptable model for an artistic practice compatible with the demands of motherhood. I slowly realized this notion was based on an assumption that artistic practice, the aspect that was invented by society, was the part of the equation that was inflexible. I decided to assume I was wrong and that there was work that could only be made if I was pregnant or actively caring for a child. I quickly began to develop ideas for several series I could create as a product of motherhood, and for the first time I imagined myself as a mother. It was through this imagined future that my artistic practice formed me as a mother. Though in time my practice was transformed by the lived experience of motherhood, it was the moment I conceived of motherhood as an advantage within my work that I decided to become a mother.

My primary goal was to respond to my physical and environmental changes and use these new experiences to create work as directly and in the moment as possible. I created, and continue to create, auto-ethnographic work allowing the parameters of the situation to dictate the scale, format and medium of the art object. Creating in this way became a vantage point for considering many issues related to economic, social, cultural, and biological systems.

I made a variety of series with this approach, and eventually selected series most closely related to the labor of care during the first year of my daughter’s life for my Masters of Fine Arts Thesis Exhibition, A Bringing Forth, at George Mason University in March 2016. The title of the exhibit was based on the Latin origin of “post-partum,” which references the time after birth. The Latin root parare means, “to bring forth.” By using the singular, the title, A Bringing Forth, establishes the auto-ethnographic viewpoint of the work, which explores one personal experience out of billions of births.

Many of the pieces are made through a slow accumulation of marks or forms throughout specific timeframes and circumstances related to my acts as a caretaker. The slow creation of these pieces was derived from the actions themselves, and in turn reflected the slow, repetitive aspect of care taking. I view these repeated daily tasks of parenting as actions based in intellectual decisions that shape the individual performing them[2], and therefore let the actions slowly shape my artistic practice, in some cases creating the works themselves. The result provides a visualization of the actions that slowly transform a person into the skilled laborer we call a “parent,” rather than depicting parenthood, specifically motherhood, as an innate aptitude based on a person’s biological sex. Additionally, many of the works were created using the actions of family and friends, naturally including the collaborative care involved in nurturing an infant.
Figure 1: The Measurement Project, 2014, Cotton yarn, 22 x 17 inches


Figure 2: The Measurement Project, 2014, Cotton yarn, 4 ¼ inches diameter



During pregnancy, I considered the physical changes in my body an asset and tool for creating marks or form. From the day I took a positive pregnancy test to the day I went into labor, I measured my stomach at navel height with a piece of yarn and tied the yarn off in a loop. The Measurement Project (Fig.1) is the accumulation of this daily ritual. The day my daughter was born, we measured her stomach with a piece of yarn as well (Fig. 2). The piece is a timeline of development and growth during pregnancy; a time when I was physically measured, tracked, and monitored more than any other point in my life.

Figure 3: The Rocking Chair Series. 2014-2015, Graphite on paper, 56 x 132 inches


Figure 4: Rocking Chair Series Detail


While pregnant, I established mechanisms to capture the physical actions of parenting as a mark on a page. During the first year of my daughter’s life, the glider rocker in her room created drawings as we rocked (Fig. 3-4). Pieces of graphite hanging from the underside of the rocking chair created marks on paper attached to the stationary base. I began this series while I was in labor and completed it on my daughter’s first birthday. Anyone who participated in her care by using the rocking chair participated in the creation of the work. I changed out the sheet of paper when the piece looked complete, or when I remembered to, resulting in 59 drawings that visualize a year of rocking a baby.

Figure 5: Carpet Transfer Series, 2014-2015, Carbon transfer on paper, 60 x 594 inches

During the first year, I used the area rug in the nursery to create transfer drawings as we walked across them (Fig. 5-6). Placing a piece of drawing paper under carbon paper and positioning the two between the area rug and the floor allowed our movement in the room to create these works. Each piece of paper remained in place for one month. Over the course of the month, the activities in the nursery slowly transferred a blurred image of the texture of the back of the rug onto the piece of paper. The final work consists of twelve 60 x 44 inch drawings created by the activities of a nursery ecosystem[3].

Figure 6: Carpet Transfer Series Detail

The presence of the paper under the rocking chair and carpet served as a mental support system for me as I processed the physical and emotional transformations of early parenthood as well as the extreme demands of infant care. The works were a comfort and a point of reference for me during a time of uncertainty when my everyday experiences were unfamiliar. My identity seemed to have been obliterated in many ways, but my understanding of myself as an artist served as a constant. Additionally, the work allowed for an understanding of the actions of care taking performed by human bodies in space and time rather than imagined gendered identities or roles.

Figure 7: Silver Spoon, 2016, Sterling Silver, 3 ½ x 1 x 1 ½ inches, pedestal – 7 x 7 x 7 inches

Figure 8: Silver Spoon Detail

I commissioned a reproduction of the plastic measuring scoop that comes with powdered baby formula to be cast from silver baby spoons (Fig 7-8). I displayed the work on a pedestal, the height of my nipples from the floor while standing, 53 inches, and as long as my hands, 7 inches, for the length and width. By doing this, I related the industrial object of the scoop and the manufactured product of baby formula to my body as a site of production and care taking. The piece is a starting point for consideration of the cultural, biological and economic forces at play in experience of breastfeeding and use of baby formula, which are complex commitments and decision-making processes.

The silver spoons as a material were a reference to the situation of privilege that enables my specific artistic practice and affects my decisions and actions as a parent. The same socioeconomic circumstances that afforded me the time and resources to produce the work have a significant impact on my daughter’s health, education and future opportunities. The silver scoop contextualized the work as a narrative existing within a specific social situation and personal experience, not speaking on behalf of, but rather in relation to the experience of others.

Figure 9: Breastfeeding Drawings, 2014 – 2015, Graphite on paper handmade by the artist, 18 x 320 inches; Similac Paintings, 2015-2016, Similac on paper, 18 x 320 inches

While I was pregnant, I created paper from our old bed sheets with the intention of creating drawings while breastfeeding.  I used the bed sheets for this series to reference the multifaceted qualities of my physical body as a sexual, procreative and nurturing agent. The print out of my contractions and the baby’s heartbeat during labor from the hospital provided the inspiration for the process of the Breastfeeding Drawings. I decided to mimic this record system and provide a read-out of my daughter’s actions as she ate (Fig. 9-10). I created looping marks corresponding to individual suck and swallow motions of nursing with flat lines corresponding to pauses in eating. I made the drawings when I was able, resulting in a sampling of the discipline of breastfeeding in 23 drawings visually referencing current methods of medical care during labor and delivery.

Figure 10: Breastfeeding Drawings and Similac Paintings Detail

Starting at three months old, I gave my daughter baby formula as well as breast milk continuing until she was eight months old. As I weaned her, she was becoming generally more independent, and the nature of my available time for art making changed. In a response to this, I created 23 paintings using a baby bottle and formula (Fig 9-10). I squeezed the formula onto paper that was handmade by someone else, just as the formula was not made by an action of my body. I arranged the drops of formula in rows, mimicking the Breastfeeding Drawings, but adopting the parameters of the bottle as a mark-making tool. I related the rows of marks in both series to lines of text and began to think of my daughter’s mouth not only as a way that I provided her with nurturing care but as site for the expression of language through her own agency.

The Breastfeeding Drawings totaled 23 drawings by chance, ending when my daughter was aware enough of her surroundings to be distracted from eating by my actions creating the work. Humans inherit 23 chromosomes from the DNA of each parent. By pairing the 23 Breastfeeding Drawings with the 23 Similac Paintings in two rows, the installation became a reference to a strand of DNA. Placing breastfeeding with formula feeding in a one to one visual relationship opens a dialog about the decision-making involved in early infant nutrition, the forces influencing these decisions, and the resulting cultural impacts.

I had the ability to breastfeed my daughter and my husband did not. This biological difference has shaped the socially produced gendered notion of caretaking in areas beyond infant nutrition. By presenting an act of care based in the biological system of breastfeeding alongside one that is not biologically dictated, the work provides an entry point into discussing cultural expectations and practices of childcare. How can we negotiate the commitment to breastfeed a child without excluding women from public space and without excluding men from the benefits of the role of caregiver?

Figure 11: Bed and Carpet Transfer Series

As I continued to consider my daughter’s rapidly forming independence, I wanted to find ways to capture marks through her actions alone. I placed a piece of paper and carbon transfer paper under her crib mattress and left it for one month. Slowly, the weight of her body while she was sleeping transferred the texture of the mattress to the sheet of paper (Fig.11). I displayed this piece on a metal frame the height of her bed as a reference to her presence and actions as partially separate from the other works containing my point of view as the caretaker. This piece was the starting point for considering the far-reaching implications of my decision making as a parent, and how my daughter’s opinions and desires begin to allow her to exist as an individual acting in relation to others.

Figure 12: A Bringing Forth, 2016, Video, Running time: 23 min 22 seconds, exhibited on loop

I created a video piece by playing my daughter’s toy accordion. The static shot captured the shadow of the instrument and my hands as I repeatedly played the two notes the accordion can produce. The repetition supplied an aural backdrop complementary to the minimal and repetitive work in the gallery. The toy had a surprisingly melancholy sound, which I related to the constant mourning experienced by a parent as a witness to the continual changes during a child’s development. The projection visually referenced a sonogram and an organic body moving with the motion of breathing. The sound produced a calming quiet, enabling the viewer to slow down to observe the subtle work in the gallery and take time to read the associated text.

Figure 13: A Bringing Forth, Annotated prose poem, Bed and Carpet Transfer Series

In an effort to synthesize the performances that created the works to the art objects themselves within the context of an exhibition, I created a series of annotated prose poems to be read while viewing the pieces (Fig 13). The way I thought and talked about the work constantly shifted between poetic accounts of the lived experience and analytical or process based descriptions of art making. By embracing this method of understanding the work, I created a descriptive system that would incorporate multiple authorial voices. I used the main body of the text to discuss the lived experience and interrupted this account with descriptions of process and other notes for context in the annotations. The text was printed in books that the gallery visitor carried with them through the exhibition, with icons matching the text to the appropriate work.

The exhibition provided viewers with children a method for examining their own experience through the lens of visual art, and provided exhibition viewers without children an insight into the unknown through visual art discourses. The work opens up dialogues about circumstances that are publicly debated but only privately experienced, calling attention to the mutable delineations between public and private space. This art practice is based in the everyday, but the interface of materials and processes of art making with the everyday provides an entry point into discussions of far-reaching questions.

Works Cited

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon, 1995.


Coltrane, Scott. Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework, and Gender Equity. New York:

Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Loveless, Natalie. “Maternal Ecologies: A Story in Three Parts.” Performing

Motherhood: Artistic, Activist, and Everyday Enactments. Eds. Kinser, Amber E,

Terri Hawkes, and Kryn Freehling-Burton. Bradford: Demeter Press, 2014. 149-169. Print.

[1] In Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, Sara Ruddick defines “Maternal Thinking” as a specific mode of thought produced by the rigorous discipline and daily commitment of childcare.

[2] In Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework and Gender Equity, the sociologist Scott Coltrane presents case studies describing how care-taking shapes the character and personality of the caretaker, regardless of gender.

[3] In her essay Maternal Ecologies: A Story in Three Parts, Natalie Loveless frames the daily practice parenting/motherhood as the ”ecology of care.” I have adopted this mindset, viewing the lived experience of parenting as an ecosystem, a community of interacting individuals within a specific environment.

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