What I Could Make of Mothering: Matricentric Puppetry and the Mothers of the Bestiary

Felice Amato

In a dark room, from behind a small black cardboard theater that I made with a box I brought on the plane from Boston, I start to hum. It’s a Suzanne Vega song that took on special significance after I knew what it was to be so bone-tired… mother-tired:

Oh Mom, I wonder when I’ll be waking

It’s just that there’s so much to do

And I’m tired of sleeping.[1]

A light illuminates the paper screen that separates me from the audience who are mostly scholar-mothers or mother-scholars that have come to the Motherhood Studies conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. The story I am performing for them is a story of motherhood­­­­––one that I need to tell. Behind the screen, I begin to manipulate colorful images cut from transparency paper, photos of my children and pages from Medieval illuminated manuscripts. The jewel-like translucency of the images glows through the paper, telling a story with shadow and light. I move the lazy susan with the doll-sized table and doll-sized ironing board and their shadows swing around cinematographically. I set down a small patch of marshy grass embedded in airdry clay and then alone miniature chair, suggesting in song that this could be the fabled Babylon as I slowly turn the world around in cast shadows on the screen. The performance is a deeply personal exploration that I have disguised in metaphor, allegory, myth, fairytale, and tall tale–– and confessions that might not even be true, all gathered up and loosely bound together. Even the tale of the allegorical pelican mother from the Medieval bestiaries has its place in speaking to my motherhood somehow and maybe to motherhood in general. My series, which I call the Mothers of the Bestiary, includes puppets and performing objects which are sometimes just shadows and lights and other times dolls that I made out of things I found in the junk drawer or thrift store combined with, for example, my needle felted faces and hands. I have even made colored images of photos of some of my larger sculptural figures and they show up here in the bestiary-like series which I continue to develop and perform in various incarnations.

At about forty-five years old, I went back to graduate school for art. My children’s father wouldn’t let me take them with me and so they remained four hours away and my mothering took the shape of all sorts of maternal contortions to be able to straddle state lines and to be able to be both a mother and a woman… and to be a human––all very different things. I only ever had enough time to throw together some odd objects and speak or sing some stories into my iPhone while driving or lying awake wondering at four a.m., listening to the birds begin their song in the woods near student housing. What was I doing?

I started as a ceramic sculptor but that practice went by the wayside in the frantic demands of life. I had stories and I had improvised objects with which to tell those stories—strange objects that were stories in and of themselves. Stories one tells with objects are basically puppetry, a medium I had always loved to watch and make with kids but never thought I could do as my art form. “Puppetry,” I thought, “How am I (a middle-aged women) going to claim that what I do is puppetry?” Luckily, the world of contemporary puppetry is broad and welcoming. And so, I claimed the word puppetry simply by continuing to make the only kind of work I had time to make and telling the stories I felt I had to tell, slowly realizing that performing—the hardest part– was just a matter of staking my ground, taking my time, and telling my tales.

My first bigger piece was made out of all the little the pieces of story I had gathered. The collection of layered vignettes lent itself to becoming an ongoing and open-ended creative investigation. The name, The Mothers of the Bestiary, was taken from my fascination with the animal mothers in the bestiaries, those strange encyclopedias of the natural world which have existed since ancient times. Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, for example, has endured. In the religiosity of middle ages, bestiaries became a way to instruct humans as to all our destined fallibility by showing us how we are like and unlike rocks, mandrakes, doves, and the monstrous races like cyclops, wild men, and those with faces on their stomachs. The idea that some of the allegorical pedagogy should highlight the imagined and immutable traits of animal mothers fascinated me; the construct of mother—be it in literature or at the local diner—is always didactic and always moral which is in keeping with the bestiaries. The entries follow a structure: first an illustration and then a description of behavior. Then a metaphor. Then an allegory. Like this:

The pelican mother lives in the land of Egypt. The pelican mother loves … loveth her children too much (is there ever too much?), but when the children are haught and begin to wax hoar, they smite the mother in the face: Smite! Smite! Smite! Many beaks and many smitings. The Pelican babies are never satisfied. They cry. They peck and peck at her. Until she gets fed up and she pecks them all to death. In the silence, she gets really sad. She hadn’t meant to kill them. The grief is so great (I mean, it comes and it goes) such that on the third day, despairing, she pecks her own chest. Blood rushes forth spilling on the babies. Reviving them. They rise ungrateful to cry again.

And that is why the pelican (and the mother) is a symbol of self-sacrifice and … of charity.[2]

The bestial mothers have captured my imagination. There is something about the pelican mother that, in all its absurdity, points to the complexity, power, unease, abjection, and discomfort in motherhood. In my pieces, some of the mothers I include are real––in the sense that I have taken them from traditional stories, such as the pelican, the ape mother, and the lioness. Because I am an artist and not a Medieval scholar, I appropriate them at will, craft them out of odds and ends, and create lands for them which are some mixture of wilderness and the dining room. Other characters, however, are invented ––puppet characters that seem to be of the same imagined world except they are also part me.

The roots of this series and the drive to tell stories about uncivilized mothers started before my return to graduate school, which was the final act that led to the slow disassembly and eventual abandonment of a home. It happened over years in broken spells and lurches and starts and stops. There was the divorce which had started it years before but it was then followed by being forced to leave my two children to drive weekly across state lines because their father had the power to force the impossible choice. And eventually, the house was gone too. Home became a fabled place.

I hold up the lioness and the image glows on the screen. The flashlight moves close and then far and the image grows and shrinks, becomes clear and then hazy; it’s simple animation in time with breath. The Medieval artist who painted the original image had undoubtedly never seen a lioness but showed them as the bestiary described, right down to the pink tongues.

Everyone knows that lion cubs are born dead and shapeless in the middle of the night. Some say they awaken to life with the father’s roar but I prefer the version where the mother licks them into shape and then she breathes on them and breathes on them… haaaah haaah… haaaaaaaah… bringing them to life.

It is the mother (of the bestiary) in me—my own counter-culture––that draws me to these animal mothers because I too have not been able to be that proper mother thing and so I turn to those bestial mothers for comfort (or at the very least a tribe or a species I can say that I belong to). The disgust one feels for the mother who does not perform the way she should have merged with the self for me. I am sick at my choice at times! So perhaps I look to these animals and made up mother-creatures for solidarity, as a way to cope with and claim the abjection and disgust that colors my sense of myself. Julia Kristeva, the feminist psychoanalyst, says that the mother is the site of disgust that is embedded in the Western psyche as we form notions of subject and object and of self and other. Mother is where we find the truly abject–– all the elements of ourselves that threaten our sense of the clean and proper and whole. For Kristeva, everything that is filthy or disorderly or uncivilized is left-behind by a child eventually in the unspeakable place of mother and mother’s body, in the realm of the abject.[3] Blood, afterbirth, and breast milk are easy to identify as socially unclean but abjection can be moral as well. The improper mother, then, is doubly abject.

The female ape always gives birth to twins, one of which she loves and the other she hates. When she carries her young, she holds the one she loves in her arms, but the one she hates she throws on her back where it clings to her. But the hunter comes. The ape mother, pursued, tires from running on two legs while carrying her two children; when she is in danger of being caught, she drops the child she loves in order to escape. The one she hates continues to cling to her back—it will never let go. The loved baby falls and the hated baby is saved. Every time.[4]

Culture has always laid claim to mothers. The journey of the mother once she departs from the holy and impossible path is ripe with stories but they are hard to tell and hard to hear. I would have been tempted to say that claiming failure was the primary content of my work (and I could because that is all the rage in postmodernism). But failure is a luxury that I cannot afford and, as the puppets attest, my work (and their stories) is actually about a cobbled-together persistence and triumph. After all, for a mother, just claiming the space to tell honest stories is a triumph. There are surprisingly few mother stories. Like other feminist epistemologies, matricentric feminism challenges the way knowledge is created and valued­­­­–– specifically the lack of value given to mothers’ stories of mothering as sources of new knowledge. Andrea O’Reilly points out that mothers’ stories are consistently absent and, even when women create narratives that address motherhood, they very frequently get framed or evolve into daughter-centric stories; the narrator is unable to sustain her viewpoint from inside motherhood—a mother’s subjectivity. Instead, the stories rapidly give way to the mother as experienced and as defined by others and not lived by herself. Hence, while we learn what it is like to be mothered, we still don’t really know what it is to mother.[5] This has not happened in my storytelling. Motherhood has marked me more than daughterhood. The attachments, aches of guilt, the joy and angry clashes all feel like they need to be told. My daughters have shaped me as much and in more urgent ways than my childhood did.

But how to tell these stories? The bestiaries of the Middle Ages offer visual imagery that allows me to work with the monstrous and the domestic in a fanciful way. The colorful imagining and illustrative illuminating of the body allows a quasi-cartoonish way of dealing with real pain, real trauma, real anguish … and folly. There is drama, and drama can be real. Part of mothering for me—actually many parts of mothering—are akin to wounds both metaphorical and real. By grounding painful experiences in images of a fantastical body—even a monstrous or chimeric body—the wounds become allegorical and I can abide with them.

Objects and materials are so much wiser than I could be so sometimes I let the objects that I make tell me their story. A small broken broom becomes a woman so easily because it already has the hips and skirt––already a bit like a Mycenaean goddess. It wants to tell a story about a broom woman. This particular broom woman started as a decorative broom, the ribbon is so easily torn off, with a gap in the middle of the bristles that I helped along to make two legs. And she has in an instant become the two-track trail woman, always sweeping parallel lines, never finishing the job. I sing:

There’s a woman with legs of the broom … broken bristle broom…everywhere she sweeps she sweeps a two-track trail never meeting parallel lines. She never finishes the job.[6]

Once I figure out what their tale is, I am struck by the uncanny and oddly familiar echo of some part of my own story. Because she has two legs—two lives, two destinies that never can be reconciled, mother and woman (or lover or artist or…) never meeting and always a gap apart … leaving the dirt of the world like a mountain range or a scar or a brush stroke. And what would be her soundtrack (beyond the words I have just sung you from a song I made up in a bout of insomnia); the roar of the furnace, the creak of stairs, the birds at 4 a.m., a love letter’s close, or an angry text from my daughter? All of it could be offered up to Pliny the Elder to catalogue and categorize and draw the line of distance to her lands from Babylon. How many miles from Babylon? Pliny would want to know.[7]

Even before the broom woman was animated in a performance, she had been performed through her making and traces of that performance speak materially: carved, lashed, perforated, veiled, rough-stitched, or stitched with care. Puppets’ bodies are sets of verbs (“Craft only exists in motion,”[8])—each with a metaphor and each a relic of lived labor. There is a repetitive and compulsive quality to making … the pricking of wool felt into a face, the wrapping and tying. In attaching, for example, I choose efficiency and gesture—the action itself becoming part of the aesthetic. The act of wrapping functions to attach but also connects my human hand to millennia of human activity: covering, tying on, layering, enclosing, enveloping, grouping, gathering, quantifying, swaddling, protecting, controlling, adorning, revealing, concealing, and, not least of all, redefining the shape of something.[9] Wrapping is the mother’s language: the swaddle, the sandwich, the arms. It’s not through a quest for perfection that these figures come into being but rather through sufficiency—a rightness in tactility and metaphor. The broom woman’s needle felted face has been crafted just to the point of seeming slightly more real than I am–– it is uncanny. Is it the pencil line near the eye and the patch of wool on the side of the face that doesn’t fully match the rest? It agitates a bit, a quality that is so very human.

I never thought I could perform but all it is is breath. I place my hands on the boom woman and sense the possibility of transferring my own presence over to her—through breath, through gaze, through belief. This is perhaps what Kenneth Gross describes in the essay “The Madness of Puppets”:

It lies in the hand’s power and pleasure in giving itself over to the demands of the object, the curious will to make the object into an actor, something capable of gesture and voice, with a will of its own. (I call this a madness, but it could as well be called an ecstasy.) It will have something to do with the made puppet itself, so often a crude and disproportioned thing.[10]

The power of the material and the presence it evokes often means that the puppet doesn’t have to move a lot. In our most human moments, we do not move a lot. We watch a puppet in stillness and then we watch a puppet perform, the two inform each other. Our proprioceptive knowledge of materials and gravity is activated so we can read in them what is heavy and dense, what is soft, what has the resilience of skin. What Gross describes is the same way that 20th-century German doll maker and mother of seven, Käthe Kruse described her work attempting to get the joints of her dolls to mimic the awkwardness of a real baby. I know this feeling well and perhaps this embodied, kinesthetic knowledge can make up for what I lack in manipulation skills; for those of us who have held babies, sleeping and alert, and toddlers, curious and enraged, we know the way this other body feels. When I move my puppets, I have that same feeling of self-conscious power (almost a touch of shame) that children feel when animating a doll or toy unselfconsciously when it suddenly seems public and observed by adults who have stopped to watch.

The Mothers of the Bestiary has been told in room-sized performances as well as box-sized. Each one presents a set of challenges and possibilities. The broom woman, one of my beloved characters was too tall to fit in this box, of course, so I made a photo of her into a small colored shadow puppet and found a tiny ironing board and grasses that reflected her setting when she had a life-sized world. I like the layers of variations these iterations offer. The vignettes that can be inserted and removed to let the story breathe and evolve means that I can continue it. Once this land is set though, edgy, magical, and strange, has been established even raw autobiography can be inserted into the frame and it becomes of that that world. For example, in the version of the Mothers of the Bestiary that I performed in St. Petersburg, I closed with a vignette about my daughter from our time back living together last year. It went like this:

In the dark, a light returns inside the theater, illuminating the screen. I slowly spin a lazy susan. A tiny table rotates, growing in size and shrinking—the shadow exaggerates its arc towards the audience and then away, closer then farther, larger then smaller, passing us in its orbit. With my large hands, I proceed to stack small dollhouse dishes and cups and even tiny spoons onto the table as it slowly turns. Each time it comes around, one or two more are added. The stack grows impossibly tall and precarious as the audience hears:

What can I tell you about the kitchen sink?


Except once again it has filled up.

The crowning glory: a small white glazed dish with a fudgsicle stick resting

Cocked to the side a pool of chocolate centered.

I open yesterday’s thermos.

The metallic finish holding the glare of uneaten squash and butter.

Even now still lukewarm.

I place it directly under the faucet and let the power of the hot water lift it up

and it flows everywhere. Mixes with coffee grounds, mixes with gray-tinted water.

She emerges from her room

almost six feet tall and says, “Mom can you tie these?”

I kneel down without making eye contact.

I have a lump in my throat from fifteen-minute-old rudeness

staged in that same spot

… still lukewarm.

And there I am, knelt at her feet, watching myself,

an atypical typical American mom at the feet of some adolescent queen

she has birthed and raised.


And pull the lip up … double knot.”

Then “My back hurts so much.”

Hearing that makes me soften.

Almost six feet tall her upper back and shoulders round noticeably.

And it isn’t just her back that makes her not want to bend.

She has pulled on pants she doesn’t want to stretch or crease.

They stretch smooth across her hips and belly.

Hips and belly.

I stand up. She wraps her arms around me and smiles.

What did we just perform?

I don’t know. I take the sponge in my hand and fill it with detergent

and start the soapy orbits that leave each dish clean enough.

As I reach “I don’t know,” I begin to spin the lazy Susan faster and faster. The tiny dishes, the little spoon, and miniature cups fly off and clatter to the ground. Fade to black as my palm covers the light. I sing:

Oh Mom, I wonder when I’ll be waking

It’s just that there’s so much to do

And I’m tired of sleeping.

In the exhaustion and the tenderness, the hope and the chaos, the pain and the humor, the abjection and the reconciliation, hard won stories point out possible paths through motherhood’s bewilderment and dismay. The oddness of strange puppets and bad science lends a magical quality—a dressing on the wounds few of us can escape.


Adamson, Glenn. Thinking Through Craft. Oxford: Berg, 2007.

Gross, Kenneth. Puppet: An Uncanny Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

O’Reilly, Andrea. Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice. Bradford, ON: Demeter Press, 2016.

Vega, Suzanne. “Tired of Sleeping.” Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. 1990

[1] Suzanne Vega, “Tired of Sleeping” (Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., 1990).

[2] My version of a traditional story.

[3] Deborah Caslav Covino, Amending the Abject (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004), 21. Kristeva reminds us that the semiotic and symbolic are not separate: These two modalities—the semiotic and the symbolic—are inseparable within the signifying process that constitutes language, and the dialectic between them determines the type of discourse (narrative, metalanguage, theory, poetry, etc.) involved; in other words, so-called “natural” language allows for different modes of articulation of the semiotic and the symbolic. See Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 24.

[4] My version of a traditional story.

[5] Andrea O’Reilly, Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice (Ontario, Canada: Demeter Press, 2016). O’Reilly looks at ways in which mothers’ stories are elided. One example she gives is Marianne Hirsch’s The Mother / Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, where the author draws attention to the glaring omission of Jocasta’s voice (and therefore story) in Oedipus Rex as an example of a central mother, like so many, who are silent. They are mute plot fixtures in dramas of partners and children. See O’Reilly, Matricentric Feminism.

[6] My song.

[7] In a time of limited possibility for travel, Pliny the Elder was one of the first to catalogue what he called the monstrous races, sometimes called the Plinian races. They were creatures like cyclops and others with feet in odd places and faces on their stomachs, etc. Thought to be real, their native lands were mapped in relation with an often mis-locating of the city of Babylon. See Michael Seymour, Babylon: Legend, History and the Ancient City (I.B. Taurus, 2014), 89-90.

[8] Glenn Adamson, Thinking through Craft, (Oxford: Berg, 2007), 4.

[9] Susanna Harris and Laurence Douny. Wrapping and Unwrapping Material Culture: Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives. (London: Routledge. 2016), 19.

[10] Kenneth Gross describes this in the chapter “The Madness of Puppets” in his book Puppet: An Uncanny Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 182.


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