Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Maternal Meditations

Maternal Meditations

She Nurtured Both Growth and Decay, by Carole Epp

Sleep When the Baby Sleeps, by Jessica Gardner

Internalized Norms, by Jessica Gardner

Die Mutter, by Janis Mars Wunderlich

The Navigator, by Kristen Cliffel

Passages of Transformation, by Rhonda Willers

By Tom Wachunas

“Motherhood has a very humanizing effect. Everything gets reduced to essentials.”   - Meryl Streep

“The phrase ‘working mother’ is redundant.” -Jane Sellman

“Be a full person. Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood. Be a full person. Your child will benefit from that.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

EXHIBIT: Crowns: Crossing into Motherhood / at The Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton, Ohio / Through March 8, 2020 / Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, closed Mondays. Free admission on Thursdays /

 330-453-7666 /

Exhibiting artists: Kristen Cliffel, Stephanie DeArmond, Carole Epp, Kate Fisher, Erin Furimsky, Jessica Gardner, Eva Kwong, Rose B. Simpson, Rhonda Willers, Janis Mars Wunderlich, and Summer Zickefoose

   In her eloquent statement for this exhibit, guest curator Jessica Gardner wrote, “Motherhood in our society is at a crossroads. The intersection of home, career and societal expectation is not a new one, but is now being examined through the unforgiving lens of social media and the rapid pace of contemporary society.”  Further, she noted that all of us are “… literally crowned by our mother’s hips as infants in the womb, and the role of motherhood might be described as a crowning moment for some…”

   The notion of “crowns” in this context might at first suggest a glorifying outcome - a woman’s perfectly realized aspirations to achieve a societally approved identity of the ideal mother. But navigating life’s complicated intersections can be a particularly challenging journey for a contemporary mother, strewn as it is with mixed promises of joyous fulfillment, angst and pain, failure and shame.  
    The eleven accomplished ceramic and mixed-media artists in this exhibit are all mothers who have probed their transformative and complex personal experiences of motherhood. All of them have made provocative works that are compelling not only in a formal aesthetic sense, but also in their emotional, spiritual, and conceptual depth.

   Many of the pieces are poignant symbols of fragility and vulnerability, struggle and searching for a reconciliation of conflicting ideas and forces. The woman’s face in Carole Epp’s “She Nurtured Both Growth and Decay” is eerily serene even as her flesh appears slashed by the passage of counted days. She wears a crown of blooming roses, like a bouquet placed at a gravestone, signaled by the gaping skull embedded in the top of her head. 

   In “Sleep When the Baby Sleeps,” by Jessica Gardner, the pious-looking woman delicately set on a teetering mound of pillows, plates and teacups resembles traditional representations of praying saints. A devotion to the incessant demands of domestic duty? There’s a similar sense of precarious balance in Gardner’s “Internalized Norms.”  An aura of peaceful determination seems to emanate from the woman’s head perched on a curvaceous pile of crinkled porcelain chips. They form a strange, unstable mountain of sorts, as if on the verge of collapse.

   The totemic figures by Janis Mars Wunderlich are  marvelously detailed, fantastical icons imbued with a primal spirituality. “Die Mutter” (The Mother), for example, is an intriguing representation of a mother’s fierce tenacity and resilience in raising children – an arresting meditation on mothers as sanctuaries, at once beloved and beleaguered.

   Kristen Cliffel’s “The Navigator” is a delightfully luminous sculpture that looks like something from a Disney cartoon. Here’s the proverbial larger-than-life Bluebird of Happiness - wide-eyed and plump – sitting contentedly on a nest of gold in a seemingly too-small boat. Ironically, this buoyant rendering of domestic expectancy might well be a cautionary tale. After all, can having babies really be so completely bright and blissful? 

    Not surprisingly, amidst the sheer diversity of styles in this exhibit, some works are bound to confound easy interpretation. None more so than Rhonda Willers’ “Passages of Transformation.”

   It’s a distinctly minimalist vision comprised of 120 ironed tissues hung from almost invisible monofilament threads attached to the wall with gold safety pins. Those pure white planes aren’t all uniformly flat, but rather undulating, as if caught by a wind. There’s a subtle tension, an enigmatic fill-in-the-blank suggestibility. Is this an allegory,  a terse metaphor for a mother’s accumulated experiences and memories?  Tissues. For wiping away tears, for comforting, for cleansing. Maybe they’re the soft, fragile pages of a life both remembered and yet to be written - variations on a theme of potentiality.

    Willers’ work is profoundly poetic in the way it embodies the overarching character of this entire exhibit. Heavy – and wondrously contemplative – lies the crown.