The mothers of the maternal activism in arts and academy

Procreate Project is joining the Women's History month by celebrating women who have dedicated their lives to  help raising the voice and visibility of mothers within the arts and society 

For the past 20 years incredible women have worked to facilitate other women/mother’s artistic practises, professional and personal development.

We want to tell the story of pioneers of what is recognised today as maternal feminism movement.

First interview is with Martha Joy Rose, musician, community organizer, and museum founder. Her work has been published in blogs and academic journals and she has performed with her band Housewives On Prozac on Good Morning America, CNN, and the Oakland Art & Soul Festival to name a few. She is the NOW-NYC recipient of the Susan B. Anthony Award, her Mamapalooza Festival Series has been recognized as “Best in Girl-Power Events” in New York, and her music has appeared on the Billboard Top 100 Dance Charts. She founded the Museum of Motherhood in 2003, created the Motherhood Foundation 501c3 non-profit in 2005, saw it flourish in NYC from 2011-2014, and then pop up at several academic institutions. Her current live/work space in Kenwood St. Petersburg, Florida is devoted to the exploration of mother-labor as performance art. Recent publications include the edited collection, Music of Motherhood (2018) Demeter Press.

How did you start and why?

I had my first child in 1989. My video-artist husband recorded the birth which was intervention-free and facilitated by a midwife. Copies of that video started making the rounds of lower Manhattan alternative birthing classes. That year, I started a prepared parenting class because I felt there was so much information missing from the general body of knowledge. Then, we started our own neighborhood cooperative pre-school. I had three more children from 1991-1994. During my twenties, I never imagined having a family. I was completely taken with the arts and was a New York City “Certified Artist” living in a loft in downtown Soho making music and art. As a professional musician in the downtown post-punk scene, I’d had a couple of records on the Billboard dance charts, toured, and enjoyed success. However, once I became a mother, there was no stage, opportunity, or mouthpiece for me to express the transformation I had experienced. The journey from woman to mother appeared to be completely invisible within the arts. I identified an utter lack of maternal expression in the performing arts and felt determined to change that.  I started the band Housewives On Prozac in 1997.

How did you make your voice heard?

I just kept singing at the top of my lungs. I held a microphone like a sharpened stick and carved a dream in the sky. I gave up my comfort, my home, and my safe life to forge a trail. It was hard. Everything worthwhile has been impossible. There was no roadmap. But, I grew to become committed to a vision that was greater than myself. Just a few months after starting the band, the New York Times picked up on our story. Roberta Hershenson wrote an article called “Band Sings About What its Like to Raise a Family in the 90’s.” This was the first of what became an avalanche of press about mom rock and other bands soon followed. I realized we had to leverage the attention Housewives was getting for other women to gain visibility as well.The idea for MaMaPaLooZa developed in 2001 for that purpose. The mission of MaMaPaLooZa was (and still is) as follows):

Dedicated to serving, promoting, celebrating, encouraging, inspiring, and awakening ALL women through Media, Commerce, Connection, and Performing Fine Arts.

Our mission is to enlighten and empower all women to claim their voice by:

Establishing a new art form that speaks to the unique and collective perspective of women who are mothers, while sharing this with the world.

Creating sustainable programming and opportunities through ongoing events, merchandising, and media presentations.

Acting as a resource and lifestyle guide for women seeking support in mainstream and alternative settings.

Supporting the choices mothers have made while educating and empowering them in order to support these choices.

We recognize that art is a tool for social change. Mamapalooza encourages women to use their medium to build self-esteem, break down stereotypes, create unity, encourage diversity, inspire individuality, and empower future generations.

We recognize that art elevates the spirit in times of hardship and transition, lending joy to everyday life. Our creations celebrate our humanity, define our experiences, and serve as healers and peacemakers.

We recognize the vital importance to laying a new foundation for women who are mothers and the impact this has on future generations. Mamapalooza is strongly committed to our youth and is committed to changing the perception that children are a liability in the professional and performing arts world – they are often inspiration and foundation for our creative and commercial endeavors.

Connecting Women, Mothers and Families through Music, Art, Activism, and Education for Cultural, Economic & Social awareness. MOMS ROCK!

Why you were the one between hundreds of mothers to take action and initiate a movement?

Destiny, timing, ability, and a vision for change

What did it take?

To realize the goal of maternal visibility has been an act of utter and complete devotion. For 20 years, it has been my consuming task. Putting motherhood on the map, with lyrics, words, music, paint, and theoretical knowledge has the all-consuming goal. First I squatted in the dimly lit hallways of city hospitals to birth a future generation. Then, I fed them, loved them, and found my voice. I stood on the stage, on television, and in interviews spreading a message like the gospel. Then, I opened a store called Mommy Girl-Go Go and sold women-made, mom-branded merchandise. While there, in 2003, I sketched out the idea of a Museum of Motherhood on a scrap of paper after starting the MaMaPaLooZa festival series in between band gigs, a divorce, and raising children. The festival moved to 25 cities and four countries. I was living in the back of my store, responding to an overwhelming onslaught of e-mails from desperate mother artists. The band thrived from 1997-2008. Mamapalooza began in 2002 and is ongoing with New York Parks Department. The Museum and Mother Studies are passionate callings and the annual academic MOM Conferences (now renamed the “I <3 MOM Conference since moving to St. Pete), have been ongoing consecutively since 2005.

In 2010, we slammed through the streets of Seneca Falls, New York (birthplace of the American Suffragette movement) with street exhibits featuring the “Moms of Rock” which Lynn Barbuto made possible. Then, in 2011, because of a generous gift from Deb Whitefield and Barry Hanson we were given a low-rent, gorgeous space of 2,500 square feet to launch the museum initiative. 20,000 people visited. We welcomed families from all walks of life and all nationalities. It was beautiful every day, and I have never worked as hard in my entire life! We stayed in that space until 2014. During that time I developed a course in Mother Studies and worked with amazing women, who are academics and who are still my friends, who are each doing fantastic things. They are Roksana Badruddoja (Manhattan College), Laura Tropp (Marymount College), Aurelie Athan (Columbia Teachers’ College, and Joy Baum (Queens College).  

When the lease for MOM on the UES expired, I applied to graduate school so I could study with one of the founders of Mother Studies, Barbara Katz Rothman. I slept on the floor of my friend’s daycare in Manhattan so I could pay for graduate school at the age of 56 in order to get (the first ever) masters degree in Mother Studies – there wasn’t one, but we needed it, so I made it up. from the age of 32- the present day, I have invested my personal time and all of my money into creating opportunities for other mothers. I have the word devotion tattooed on my arm. “Devotion” is a completely absorbing task: Living it, breathing it, and embodying it. Not everyone has to do that, thank God(dess). but this was definitely a calling from deep within my bones. I do this for all the women who went before: my grandmothers, aunts, and mother who did not have the opportunity to make their labor visible, and for all the daughters, sisters, and mothers yet to come. Finding a voice and living autonomously in an embodied truth equals freedom, and everybody wants to be free.

How did you make it work around your family life?

My children have been collaborators, resisters, and active participants since day one. They sang on the first record, attended concerts and appeared on stage, and even got in my car when I picked them up at school in a large van that said “Housewives On Prozac- not just a band its a way of life”. Sometimes it was hard. They hated competing for time away with rehearsals or travel. They were embarrassed to have a mom who was so visible and visibly alternative. But, feminism was a way of life for them and they witnessed the importance of authenticity and perseverance.

The Idea: The idea for the band came to me in a dream. I came very close to dying after my daughter was born. I was sleeping a lot post-chemotherapy: in hospitals and at home. I had been diagnosed with SLE (Lupus) and renal disease brought on by the Lupus. Throughout this period (and even today), I believed that the illness was part of a soul contract which brought courage and clarity to life’s path and purpose. Music and social change for mothers became my absolute passion. I wanted to be the “Last American Housewife”. I didn’t want anyone else to have to struggle with the issues I confronted through the patriarchy, through violence and antagonism against women, and through financial disparities particular to motherhood. 

Meanwhile, the work has rarely been glamorous. We sang in local clubs, church basements, and rehearsed in my attic. We played in smoky bars where patrons screamed out “Play Free Bird” and we drove through the middle of the night, hauling heavy gear, exhausted and broke. The MaMaPalooZa Festival was more of the same, only intensified. Sometimes in New York, events would go for two weeks straight and I would drag myself from rock club to concert venue, to theater, to outdoor park, to poetry slam with very little sleep. But, there were successes. Visibility was increased. The music itself largely vanished, but I see the larger arts and academic movement alive and thriving. This is what I write about in the Music of Motherhood (Demeter Press, 2018).

What are your future plans I continue the work at the (Museum of Motherhood) MOM Art Annex in St. Petersburg, Florida. There are currently several remote internships ongoing. The “Residency” program is thriving. We welcome our sixth resident at the end of March since opening our doors in January 2017. Museum tours are ongoing by appointment and I gave six tours this week! I hope to continue to grow the museum project with the long-term vision of having a beautiful, dedicated, large space to continue to curate objects and information about the science, history, and art of motherhood. I am currently looking for outdoor sculptures about mothers, mothering, and motherhood for MOM if anyone has any leads or projects they’d like to send me? Please do!

There is currently an invitation on the table to return to Manhattan College to teach Mother Studies (an incredible opportunity), and I plan on starting that in the spring of 2019. I am hopeful there is still traction for aspects of MOM in New York and I’d like to pursue that as well. 

Meanwhile, I love to travel, so moving between New York and Florida would not be a problem. The Artist Enclave of Historic Kenwood is a place where I can practice my own art and share that with the community at large while sponsoring other women simultaneously through various Museum initiatives. The St. Pete Women’s Collective is down the street from me and we are forging relationships. The ongoing online MAMA exhibitions with ProCreate and the Mom Egg Review is also very important to me. It is an opportunity for the museum to keep current with the international arts and literature motherhood scene. 

At the moment, I am in the final stages of editing a memoir, called Sing Out Sister; songs and stories from the resistance, which I hope to finish up by the end of the summer, and I’m also scribing a Mother Studies 101 textbook.

My focus for the future needs to be aimed at broadly disseminating the information I have amassed over the years and passing the torch so that the work can continue.

March is Women’s’ History Month in the U.S.A. So, I’d like to dedicate all our future actions to the women who went before. Our foremothers are our foundation and we move forward because of their precedent. Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences. Sing out, sisters! Sing out LOUD! Here’s a link to the song “Mrs. President” – for which I still hold out hope.


Mothernist II: Representation and Maintenance of Mothers' Art by Dyana Gravina

Procreate Project’s founder and creative director Dyana Gravina participated (accompanied by her 3yo son) in the ‘The Mothernist II: Who Cares For The 21 st Century?’ –conference, held in Copenhagen between the 12 -15 th of October, 2017
” I can offer my practice.
PRACTICE as making
PRACTICE as mothering
Practice as STRUCTURES
PRACTICE as FINANCIALS
PRACTICE as PRACTICAL
PRACTICE AS solutions
PRACTICE AS CHOICE
PRACTICE AS SPACE
PRACTICE as physical representation of WHAT is being discussed.”

Here is the transcription of part of her presentation.

” I am here not just as a mother. I am here today as an art practitioner producer and the founder of a social enterprise called Procreate Project. Although being a mother is integrated, most of the time, with whole the rest, by choice and due to personal circumstances.
I am not an academic, and as much as I love listening and learning just for the seek of debating and sharing ideas, I am not the right person to talk about theories or history. But, as an activist, I can offer my practice.
PRACTICE as making
PRACTICE as mothering
Practice as STRUCTURES
PRACTICE as FINANCIALS
PRACTICE as PRACTICAL
PRACTICE AS solutions
PRACTICE AS CHOICE
PRACTICE AS SPACE
PRACTICE as physical representation of WHAT is being discussed.
4 years ago I had the vision to build from scratch an institution which would support artists developing and maintaining their roles as artists within the creative industries alongside their new maternal experience, without having necessarily to compromise either of their practices.
It seems still that the only option considered, to make the ‘Making’ possible, is separation, to leave the children in someone else care and so come the struggles to find solutions around what it seems the only acceptable setting.
In response to that, and in response to urge to actually claim my rights to mother, it is a priority then for me and who works behind PCP to research and find new structures and models that can offer solutions and opportunities to choose, time time what works best for everyone personal circumstances, the flexibility and the welcoming environment to choose the absence or the presence of the children, when debating about mothering, when making art, when being part of an audience, when being women, mothers in this society.
Up until today, with PCP, we have produced several interdisciplinary initiatives, commissioned works, offered representation and opportunities for artists across all art forms, and it all has been done independently and self-funded.
After a lot of listening and a very interesting cultural exchange with international artists, Space, seemed to be what they where craving the most so the Mother House, a new model of art studio with integrated childcare, was born. How it works in practice …
Is not about giving one only answer to all the questions, but is about creating some options together with some recognition. “


Sarah Nicolls, Mother-Pianist

What your work focuses on today?
I am about to start touring my theatre/music show Moments of Weightlessness, featured here, beginning on 28th November in Oxford.  The show takes my Inside-Out Piano as its starting point and explores the metaphorical parallels of making a unique piano and becoming a mum. I push, ratchet and swing the piano during the show, using the piano as part of the domestic furniture to travel into different moments of parenthood.

How has your pregnancy affected you as an artist? Did you feel particularly driven?  How the world around you reacted?
I don’t think pregnancy affected me particularly as an artist: frankly, I was too busy trying to get all my work finished!  I did enjoy the blossoming effect. I also discovered the ‘public property’ aspect of being pregnant (my bump seemed quite large, so everyone told me I was definitely having “boy twins TOMORROW”!).  It got slightly tiring but then I tried to keep absolutely positive about that, thinking it’s nice that everyone gets excited about a new life.  Perhaps the same way we are all trained by the news to consider deaths that are not related to us.  Maybe there should be more birth stories on the news…?!

What changed when you became a mother?
After the initial period of shock/dreaminess/night-and-day blur, I became much more efficient at doing work, using nap times to quickly get on with things.  But then, very gradually, life changes fundamentally in so many ways.

What do you feel changed in your creative process?
Though at first it was about efficiency – doing more, faster – it became more about being brave enough to simply express things.  Birth itself is a dramatic experience and there was a lot to process as a result of that.  I think motherhood has made my confidence grow, has made me more political, perhaps thinking about the bigger picture more. I find I have less patience for idiotic ways of doing things (though I was probably fairly impatient before!).
I had the new piano built right when my second child, Sylvie, was born. What was surprising was that it could swing: I wasn’t expecting that at all. I had asked for the piano (a full-sized grand piano, with the strings turned vertically up from the keyboard, so 2.5m tall) to be so that I could move it myself. This meant getting it from vertical to horizontal – and that’s 180kg of piano, on my own. So the builders made a pivot frame that I could ratchet up and down, with this point around which it could rotate. The incredible wonder of seeing an entire grand piano moving freely through the air seemed to me to fit so fully with creating new life: the motivations we have to design and build something go into a new realm once the thing takes on its own life.  We imagine what life with children will be like but really there’s no comprehension of how totally and fully it will absorb us: through mad levels of exhaustion (right now for example my eyes are actually hurting, they’re so tired!), through a deep change in lifestyle: no nipping out for a pint with your partner or trips to the cinema (always the cliched example from parents when we were first pregnant); but also the deep desire to be with your kids, the feeling that if you miss a day with them you feel quite desperate to get home again, the desire to make space for just you and you little family to be together; and the amazement of seeing how humans grow and develop: how language is acquired, seeing where humour comes from; experiencing literally the insanity of the forming brain up close.
So, I began to take on this quite different approach to my own work which was much more biographical, much more explicit, using words, action, movement to investigate both the new instrument and the new lives in my life.

Do you think you gained inspiration out of this transforming experience?
Absolutely.  It would be hard to be unaffected by it!  It’s so personal yet universal and the feeling one gets from talking to other new mums is reassuring and totally levelling: everyone experiences the same things yet it’s also so intimate, deep and personal.

Strengths and weaknesses of being at once a mother and an artist.
Being tired is hard!  Creativity doesn’t fit neatly into an hour here or there very well.  The possibly selfish – or, in any case, self-absorbed expansiveness of creative exploration is very hard to do within nursery hours.  I find I really miss the unending evening work, where you could just run with an idea until midnight or beyond and that would be fine. Someone said to me recently that actually it’s better to just honour how you work best and if that means going on a 5 day residency, then maybe that’s what you have to do.  I thought this was really interesting and empowering because some mother groups look into how mothering can happen alongside or simultaneously to creativity but for me, each is more successful when fed by the other but not trying to happen at the same time!

Expectations for the future?
We hope to move somewhere with more outside space, so I imagine the kids running around or digging or climbing whilst I’m in my studio, exploring ideas..! I hope I’ll do more theatrical work with the piano but also just lots of piano-based work too: trying to see what sounds I can extract from my Inside-Out Piano. I’ve recently stopped protesting as much when others call me a composer, though starting a new trajectory is very challenging, scary, slow and fulfilling. I imagine life like a forest: a series of trees which we climb. When we reach the top of one tree and can look out on the rest then it’s at that moment that I see another tree to jump to and go there. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?!

www.sarahnicolls.com