Almost 40 years ago, critic Linda Nochlin wrote that there were no famous women artists for the same reason there were no famous Eskimo tennis players. She cited a number of reasons for this, and motherhood was certainly among them.
It’s been a subject for male artists since Egyptian times, reaching its peak from the Byzantine era through the Renaissance with the millions of representations of the baby Jesus with his mother Mary.
Then, just before the beginning of the 20th century, Gauguin caused a bit of a stir when he painted his version of the Madonna-and-child — a Tahitian woman with a brown infant on her shoulders. Mary Cassatt painted more ordinary, “civilized” Western mothers with their children: unsentimental depictions of love, caring and satisfaction. Cassatt, who was childless, wrote: “There is only one thing in life for a woman; it’s to be a mother. … A woman must be … capable of making the primary sacrifices.”
The local Mother’s Day exhibit organized by Meg Winnecour is a many-faceted exploration of this genre. It’s a loaded topic, fraught with hope, despair, joy, fear, expectation, and guilt — mothers who weren’t always there when needed, children disobedient when young and neglectful later on. And with Roe v. Wade in jeopardy comes a whole new level of concern for the well-being of children and of Mother Earth.
As a number of her friends became pregnant, Winnecour says she began to ponder the courage it took to bring a helpless new life into such a hostile environment. “I began to think,” she says, “about mothers and babies in places like Fuljia.” In her own work, Winnecour explores these endangered families. Kimberly Hodges, on a much lighter note, presents Easter-egg-hued paintings about fecundity and renewal, while Wendy Whitson shows her landscapes as “portraits of our mother, the earth.” The emotion in Shelley Pereda’s charcoal drawing “El Nino Que No Tuve” [“The Child I Didn’t Have”] is as naked as the figure it depicts. Harsh, raw lines define a crouching woman doubled in agony at her loss. The grief is palpable; one is reminded of Kathe Kollwitz.
What the exhibit lacks in cohesiveness it makes up for in variety and sincere intent. New father Stephen Griffin exhibits emotional photographs of his infant son Zasha. Performance pieces will include “Proud Baby Mine: A Mother and Son’s Journey Through Time,” a lighthearted but poignant tableau by Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood about the mother’s inability to “let go.”
New mom Ellen Landrum made her piece from her old maternity clothes. She and her husband and their four-month-old daughter live on a boat; the quilt she displays has appliques of fish, a boat and a big turtle.
Liza Gottlieb’s small works are culled from the pages of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, circa 1954. Gottlieb adds captions from other parts of the magazine to photos of devoted apron-clad housewives, urging them on toward subservient feminine perfection. These works are funny — except to those of us who lived through those days!
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer. Her work can be seen at the Meadows Museum in Shreveport, La.]
Many, Tiny, Wild, Lovely: An Exhibition About Motherhood will open Friday, May 12 from 6-9 p.m. The show runs through Sunday, May 21 at Wedge Gallery (129 S. Roberts St., in the River District).