It was the late British literary critic Cyril Connolly who famously said, "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall."
This quote — uttered by, it should be noted, a white man who was born in 1903 — has become one of more enduring (and terrifying) ones about artmaking and motherhood, setting up an either/or binary of choice between two identities that require sacrifice, time, creativity and dedication. Under this framework, not only are art and children direct competitors, they’re "sombre enemies."
A group of Winnipeg artist-mothers has been pushing back against that pernicious idea for more than a decade. Founded in 2010, the Artist Mothers group at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art has been a space to create art, exchange ideas and feedback, and talk about the group’s unique experiences.
Longtime Artist Mothers members Sandra Brown and Loricia Pacholko will be joining Free Press Alison Gillmor in conversation for this month’s First Fridays Online Art Talk on May 7 at 7 p.m. They will be chatting about these preconceptions about artmaking and motherhood (see: Connolly’s pram), the challenges — and rewards — of combining these two worlds, and the 10-year anniversary of the group.
Brown remembers when the group began, inspired by a screening of Who Does She Think She Is?, American filmmaker Pamela Tanner Boll’s documentary on this subject, at Cinematheque.
Those early meetings were small, but they steadily grew.
"We realized it was women who were in different stages of motherhood, but mostly their kids were young, and they just wanted a way to keep their hand in their artwork," Brown says via Zoom. "They wanted a place to go where someone could see what they were doing and could give feedback, and just a community of other mothers who knew the challenges of trying to do work in little snippets of time."
For Pacholko, the group was "this pillow of comfort that I could sink into."
When Pacholko started attending Artist Mothers meetings in 2013, she was going through a difficult divorce and custody proceedings — including a one-week-on, one-week-off arrangement she found particularly destabilizing.
"There’s that ‘Now you’re a mother, now you’re not,’" she says.
While Artist Mothers helped many of its members reconnect to their identities as artists, the group helped Pacholko reconnect to her identity as a mother. "I still had a place where I could go to immediately and hear other people’s stories and feel like, ‘I am a mom, even though somebody is trying to strip me of that title,’ and mentally survive through other people’s stories."
It was the late poet Ruth Hulburt Hamilton who famously wrote, "babies don’t keep." Brown’s children are grown now; so, too, are Pacholko’s. Those little snippets of time have expanded again. But the group continues. For its members, mothering and artmaking is not an either/or. It’s a both/and.
Typically, around this time, Artist Mothers would be gearing up for their annual exhibition, centred on a theme related to motherhood. Last year’s 10th-anniversary show, Earth’s Mother, was postponed by the pandemic; this year it will be on view on Instagram (@artistmothersatmawa) and the Artist Mothers Facebook page.
Showing art about motherhood is intentional, Brown says.
"I think our cultural ideas about motherhood and the some of the iconography about motherhood doesn’t actually reflect the reality, and all the nuances of complexity that that it involves," she says. "We could have had shows about anything, but we really want to have shows about the experience of motherhood — so every show has reflected a theme of motherhood, some kind of aspect of the lived experience of motherhood. That was really important to us, because we felt like there wasn’t enough said. When I became a mother, I felt like I joined this secret society and it’s like, ‘How come I didn’t know how hard this was?’"
That’s a particularly salient point during a global pandemic that has put the mental and physical burden of care work — disproportionately shouldered by mothers — into sharp relief.
"One thing I love about art is that it creates a visual about the invisible," Brown says. "Motherhood and the work of mothers is invisible in our culture. For me, it was always trying to express that I’m working hard here. And I think what I’m doing is important."
"(Art) allows you to understand something that you maybe thought about, maybe feared — it’s so emotional," Pacholko says. "Some art, you either really like it, or you can really hate it, or you’re disgusted by it. For me, the thing about creating is that emotional connection."
To attend the virtual Art Talk on Friday at 7 p.m., visit facebook.com/FirstFridaysInTheExchange/