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Mother, May I?

ae hands worryNew exhibit explores the intersection of motherhood and art

Dreams of giving birth to nine-pound pears or shape-shifting rabbit babies were not uncommon for Irene Lusztig during her pregnancy. Anxiety dreams of this nature could enter her head any night of the week. She couldn’t help but wonder if that was normal. Were other mothers experiencing the same thing?

“The anxiety dreams that women have when they are pregnant had me thinking about the things that are OK or not OK to say about motherhood,” explains Lusztig. “Almost all women experience these dreams and I wanted to collect them to start a conversation that many women feel they have to suppress.”

So the Santa Cruz filmmaker set up an interactive website inviting visitors to anonymously submit their dream anxieties and waking worries surrounding motherhood. Appropriately titled “The Worry Box Project,” Lusztig records herself handwriting the submitted worries and then uploads them to the site.

Lusztig is the curator and one of 14 artists featured in the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery exhibition, “Complicated Labors: Feminism, Maternity and Creative Practice.” On display Feb. 5-March 15, the exhibit explores the true values of care labor, the status of feminism today, and the ways in which maternal-themed work is marginalized in the art world. 

“The provocation of the show is that it is possible for motherhood to have spaces that are appropriate for creation and art,” explains Lusztig. “We’re thinking about how artist mothers put to use the everyday conditions of their lives to make work—rather than have motherhood and art be in conflict.”

Lusztig explains that there has been a long history of women feeling ill at ease bringing their children into their lives as an artist. She says it stems from a tradition of women fearing that their art as a mother will be treated as “sentimental” or “domestic” and therefore not taken seriously.

These concerns may seem antiquated, but the marginalization of maternal labor in art is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Natalie Loveless, a conceptual artist participating in the exhibit, found that many artistic spaces were hostile to her and her son after she became a mother.

“I have brought my son to opening events and had people ask me to leave, or ask me what I was doing there, or congratulate me on my gall for bringing him there,” says Loveless. “What happens when you’re in a world that says you have to be committed to your art above all else and suddenly you’re a mom? You can’t participate in all of the professionalizing activities that are your bread and butter as an artist.”

Loveless and Lusztig are some of the exhibition’s contemporary artists, who are balancing their roles as mothers and artists. But they are only one part of the conversation that “Complicated Labors” hopes to facilitate.

“Some of the artists in the exhibition are incredibly well known, foundational feminist artists of the 1970s, like Mierle Ukeles, Mary Kelly, and Mother Art Collective,” explains Lusztig. “They are paired with some younger emerging artists who are making work inspired by and in conversation with that older work, about feminism, maternity, and the changes between generations.”

The exhibition does not trace the full history of feminist maternal art in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, but rather shows how the movement was launched in the ’70s and where it is today. While the movement still hasn’t been fully embraced by the art world, the exhibition aims to bring the issues to the forefront for dialogue between artists, generations, and the public.

 “Just knowing that someone else is struggling with the same things you are, and being able to talk about it and help each other out, that kind of community is key,” says Loveless. “There is an activist underpinning to a show like this. It has aims for social awareness, social discourse, and social change.”

The exhibition has already been successful in facilitating changes in the way that some mothers view their roles as parents and as artists. Shelby Graham, Sesnon gallery director, notes that working with “Complicated Labors” has inspired her to find time for her artwork.

“As a mother and an artist and a gallery director, I never had the time to work on my art full-time,” says Graham. “Seeing this group of artists and how they had to figure out a way to integrate parenthood into their practice, it has pushed me to keep working, even if I only have a few minutes a day to do it.”

Mothers aren’t the only ones who will find inspiration or resonance in the “Complicated Labors” exhibition. The conversation is open to mothers, non-mothers, prospective mothers, former mothers, people with mothers, and those interested in the issues presented.

“The issue of feminist mothering in the arts is not in the same place as it was when it started, and it’s important to know where it began when we consider the status of feminism today,” says Loveless. “I’m interested to see where the next generation of young artists takes the conversation we’re creating in the gallery space.” 


‘Complicated Labors: Feminism, Maternity and Creative Practice’ runs Feb. 5-March 15 at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery, UCSC Porter College, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. 459-3606. For more information, visit art.ucsc.edu/galleries/sesnon/current.

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