The mothers of the maternal activism in arts and academy: Matilda Leyser

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.

Our fourth interview is with Matilda Leyser, aerialist, writer, associate director with Improbable and founder of Mothers Who Make

How did you start and why?

When I first became a mother I went along to the requisite number of mother and baby groups with my new born boy. I was struck by the fact that the vast majority of the women I met there were on a fixed maternity leave of 6 months to 1 year and were then expecting to go back to a full or part time job. There was a much smaller group of women who had given up work and were in a position where they wanted and could afford to commit to being a full time mother for the foreseeable future. I did not feel I fitted into either group.

In being a freelance performer no one was going to give me any maternity leave except myself. There was also something beyond the economics of it: I was committed to being a full time mother but equally I felt I had the kind of work I could not give up – it was part of who I am.

Gradually my sense of there being experiences and challenges specific to being both a mother and an artist grew. I noticed many parallels between the two roles: both are concerned with creativity and play, both require stamina, patience, sensitivity, both keep me up at night. At the same time I was struck by the strength of the cultural assumption that the two were incompatible and also entirely separate. I noticed that there were two distinct kinds of spaces I now had to navigate: child-centred ones in which the adults needs were marginalised (playgrounds, one o’clock clubs) and adult-centred ones in which the children were absent altogether and generally unwelcome (rehearsal rooms, meetings, offices). I felt that an integrated space was missing, one that was adult-centred but child-friendly, one in which I could be visible and valued in both my roles of artist and mother.

How did you make your voice heard and why people followed you? 
            Mothers Who Make began in London in 2014 at Battersea Arts Centre. I put out an invitation to mother-artists, across art forms, to join a peer support group to which they could also bring their children of any age. I wrote:

 …I am a performer and a writer. When I was pregnant I would tell people my plans for motherhood: “Oh, I’m simply going to pop my baby in a sling and carry on!” My son is now two years old. In some ways I was right: I have carried him in a sling since he was born and I have carried on in that I am still writing, still sometimes performing, still making work. However none of this has been done simply and everything is wholly different to before. In this sense I have carried nothing on. Rather, I have had to set down my life, my sense of who and how I am. Slowly, awkwardly, shakily I pick myself up, day by day. I would not have it any other way but it is a huge challenge.

How to carry our creative selves and our children, our work of mothering and of making, is the focus of this group. If you are a mother and a maker, and if you wonder how to do both these things with fullness, I would love you to come.

And that was enough. Initially I did not do very much – I simply put out that invite and held the group. What was extraordinary was how fast word spread. I never intended to found a national network. MWM is a response to a need. I started a small local group and it grew.

Since its inception it has reached over 3000 people and been implemented nationally in 14 venues, including The Southbank Centre, Bristol Old Vic and Northern Stage. There are currently regular peer-support groups meeting at 6 arts-related venues in different regions, with up to 20 other groups in the process of starting.

The idea and need for this initiative could have come from anyone going through the same experience, why you were the one between hundreds of mothers to take action and initiate a movement? 

There are two different ways of answering this one. The first is to say that I didn’t do it. It was the hundreds of mothers who responded to me that did it. As above, I never intended to found a national network. MWM is a grassroots initiative – that is its strength. I am a mother and I have simply done what mothers do – we make it up as we go along, we often feel out of our depth but we do what you can, we do what the next part of the job seems to require.

The other answer is not the hundreds of mothers but one mother – my mother. When I was 3 years old, my mum did a tour of playgroups in the vicinity. She did not like any of the ones she saw, so she started her own at our house. Twenty years later when the last village shop closed down and the people in our village were going to be forced to rely on supermarkets further afield, my mum started up a new shop. She taught me that if something is missing from the world, you can add it. Sometimes there are mountains that cannot be moved, much to my mother’s indignation and frustration, but many more times than most people would think, change is possible.

What did it take? 

Granny’s tireless support (the pioneering mum mentioned above)

My husband’s support – financial, emotional and professional

Improbable’s support, the company with whom I am an Associate Director

The support of other mothers, but in particular, for at least the first two years, of Caroline Thompson and Finn

Inspiration from Naomi Stadlen who wrote What Mothers Do Especially When It Looks Like Nothing and has been running an amazing support group for mothers in North London called Mothers Talking for the last 25 years

Lucy Pearce’s book The Rainbow Way: Cultivating Creativity In the Midst of Motherhood that helped me realise I was not simply being a bad mother in struggling to get the meals on the table on time

Letting my son watch youtube videos of trucks while I did MWM admin

Many meals of fish fingers, pasta or pizza (as opposed to home-made wholesomeness!)

Laundry, hoovering, tidying – left undone

My husband being social media savvy, unlike me, especially during our crowdfunding campaign

Being awake much too late and much too early, writing.

Millions of emails

30 blogs (to date)

Big boxes of second hand toys

Huge sheets of paper rolled out on the floor and many crayons

A producer that was willing to help me write a funding application when I had no funding – Thank you Liat Rosenthal.

Many hours of breastfeeding (whilst also leading groups, doing phonecalls, writing)

A transportable potty

Working on beds, kitchen tables, sofas, in playgrounds, woods, fields

My children – being patient, impatient, being themselves


How did you make it work around your family life? 

Making it work, making any work, around family life is kind of the point of the whole initiative, so I made it work by doing it. I am still figuring out what this means and it changes all the time – because the children change and so do I. At its heart Mothers Who Make is an ongoing piece of artistic research investigating the following question: mother and artist, both are creative practices – how can the two inform each other and how can this exchange in turn be fed into and inform the wider artistic and cultural landscape? i.e. instead of mothers dropping out, how can we pick up what they know/ learn? In other words I have been trying to reverse the conventional question – not how do I squash my family life into my work, but rather how do I allow my family to inform my work and how I go about it?

What does it mean for you to facilitate other Women’s art?  

That’s an interesting question because whilst it is a huge privilege and a wonderful thing to facilitate other women’s art I realise it is not my aim – it is not what drives me. I am interested, ultimately, in the process not the product. I am interested in the how, not the what. How, I and other women, do what we do. One of my heroes is an amazing writer and artist called Lynda Barry. I am going to quote from her, because she puts it better than I can. At the start of her book Syllabus. Notes from an Accidental Professor she writes this about her work:

            I wasn’t quite 20 years old when I started my first notebook. I had no idea that nearly 40 years later, I would….still be using it as the most reliable route to the thing I’ve come to call my work….a place to practice a physical activity – in this case writing and drawing by hand – with a certain state of mind. This practice can result in what I’ve come to consider a wonderful side effect: a visual or written image we can call ‘a work of art,’ although a work of art is not what I’m after when I’m practicing this activity. What am I after? I’m after what Marilyn Frasca called “being present and seeing what’s there.”

This is also what I am after in every MWM group that I facilitate – simply to be present and see what’s there. I’m delighted to say works of art do seem to come from it.

What are the challenges and joys? 

My children are my challenges and joys – over and over again.

What are your plans for the future?

In 2017 MWM secured Arts Council England funding and ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to do three things:

Firstly, to support the growth of our regional peer-support hubs – as mentioned above, there are currently 6 and in the future we are hoping there will be over 30. We aim to create hubs all over the UK – accessible to any creative mother who wants support and connection.

Secondly during the course of the coming year, we will at long last be able to build our own website. There is already a thriving community on Facebook but we want to create an online home for MWM that will connect all the regional hubs, be a resource for mothers/ makers of every ilk and also a platform for sharing work and inspiration.

Lastly the funding is enabling us to do something we have never done before- commission new work. 7 artists have received micro-commissions to explore their experiences of holding the dual roles of mother and artist. Their work is intended to act as a resource and participative invitation to others. The work will be shared on the MWM website and presented with an end of project sharing at The National Theatre. I very much hope this is not a one-off but only the start of a MWM’s commissions.

Ultimately I want Mothers who Make to become a vibrant, self-sustaining, empowering national network, both online and in person. It should be a resource for mothers at any stage in their mothering and in their careers. If you want to join us please email me at matilda@motherswhomake.org


The mothers of the maternal activism in arts and academy: Amy Dignam

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.

Our third interview is with Amy Dignam, artist and founder of Desperate ArtWives 

How did you start and why?

It was the beginning of 2011. I was looking around the net trying to find some sort of artist opportunity. By then I had two small children and by the next month I ‘d be pregnant again with my third. I felt so lonely within the art environment. All call outs seemed to be directed at artists that weren’t me. They were artists who didn’t have kids, they had a studio, they had money but most of all they had time. I had none of these, apart from kids. I had plenty of those, but I also had dedication and passion.

 

Desperate Artwives Take Over 2017

One afternoon walking down the South Bank I seemed to have suddenly unlocked something important and I thought that surely there must have been many women like me out there, women artists who were also mothers who needed that support, encouragement, conversation and exchange. I needed to find out but how?

Only a few months before I had lost my mother to cancer and after a long period of pain and grieving I felt lost. But suddenly the idea of developing this project gave me a sense of purpose and hope. I feel that I owe everything to my mother because her teachings, her words and her love were all finally taking shape. She taught me to have the strength and determination I needed to follow my beliefs, set up the group, and make it all happen. All of a sudden I wasn’t afraid to try and for the first time ever I completely trusted myself and just followed my instincts. That is how the Desperate Artwives Project came about initially.

How did you make your voice heard and why did people followed you?

Soon afterwards I set up a Facebook and Twitter account calling out to and trying to connect with, all women-mother-artists. I’d share my thoughts and sentiments becoming steadily more aware of my new status of mother and artist. Social media really helped me reached out to people. It became my amp through which my voice was broadcast to the world of mothers. As soon as my first tweet went out it became crystal clear to me, how much women needed this connection, this (virtual) space to share.

Feedback began to flow in and it was overwhelming. Emails came from women all over the globe sharing their stories of loneliness and isolation. The emails revealed women mother artist’s current making and living circumstances. They were often working at the kitchen table, in between toddler’s naps and the school run. They were frequently working in a way that included their surrounding domestic environment, making their personal everyday lived experience public. I began an online gallery by adding their names, general information and a few examples of their work. This gallery originally held over 100 artists coming from all over the world and from many different backgrounds. The collection kept on growing and at that point all I wanted was to physically get all the work together and curate a show where mother artists were at the centre of it and where they could be made visible.

The idea and need for this initiative could have came from anyone going through the same experience, why were you the one, out of hundreds of mothers, to take action and initiate a movement?

Now I can see that I have always had it within myself to be a pathfinder and an enabler. It had never been obvious to me before but now I know that’s just part of who I am. It feels like a vocation. I dedicate myself in creating opportunities for women, facilitating relationships, supporting and encouraging conversations and making things happen. Of course, mother artist collectives have happened before – I am thinking of the ‘Mother Art’ group in California which started addressing the issues of artists as mothers transferring the values of home into the public space way before I was even born , that was 1973! But back when I started in 2011 I didn’t really know – I did find out soon afterwards that great organizations such as the Museum of Motherhood in the States and Enemies of Good Art in the UK were already up and running.

I believe Desperate Artwives was back then one of the first mother artists project in the UK that launched an online gallery and started campaigning for women artists who are also mothers. Our first exhibition in 2012 took place at the Vibe Gallery in Bermonsdey London and included 21 mother artists. Since then we have had 6 exhibitions, 2 gallery takeovers, 1 public Takeover and launched a campaign (United Despite the Distance) to support the invisible and repetitive work that mothers carry out daily.   We have also provided various other opportunities including, the launch of the very first Mother Artists online Auction, and the development of workshops entirely dedicated to mothers who are artists.

Desperate Artwives exhibition - Crypt Gallery 2012

What did it take?

It has taken many sleepless nights and erratically run days. It has taken an understanding and encouraging family and good, reassuring friends who always have my back. It has taken people that believe in what I do, people who trust me and see my vision. Desperate Artwives couldn’t exist without all these people and because of this I like to refer to the project as a ‘collective’ because it’s very important to me to get people involved. I like to give the option to women to jump on and off the project and assist, take, guide, interact with whatever they feel is relevant allowing them to use the platform that I have so conscientiously put together. It has taken generous people who have offered support to the Desperate Artwives, be it an exhibition space, a piece of writing, physical help or just moral support. I think it’s important to mention them; Nadia Spita from Art Café London, Barbican Arts Group Trust, Eti Wade, Adriana Cerne at Leyden Gallery, Susan Merrick, Ema Mano Epps at Platform 1 gallery and most recently Katy Howe who has officially joined the project in September 2017. All the amazing supporters – Procreate Project, the Women’s Art Library, FiLiA, M/other Voices, Leyden Gallery, Platform 1 Gallery, Museum of Motherhood, the Guerilla Girls themselves and of course all the artists who through the years, have trusted me with their work and supported all my initiatives! Whatever it is that I do wouldn’t have had life without all this incredible backbone I consistently worked on for the past 7 years.

How did you make it work around your family life?

People always seem shocked when I tell them what I have done (and still do) whilst running a family of 5. Of course it is always a challenge to make things work around family life and the most common word that comes out when talking about this topic is ‘balance’. It is very common to think that ‘balancing’ career and motherhood is the key but this is not entirely true, for me anyway. Possibly ‘multitasking’ is more the word that suits me but the truth is, I just do it! I get on with it and do it. I often write ‘call outs’ or develop ideas whilst cooking dinner for example. I have been taken apart and put back together several times during these past 10 years of mothering. I have had periods of utter chaos where I have completely crumbled and stayed that way for a significant amount of time but now, now I have learned to work in ‘mama time’ and the people I work for and with are all aware of this and most of them also work within the same time zone! I feel very strongly about introducing this to the rest of the world, perhaps if that happened, we could break the assumption that being a mother often still means being economically dependent on men. Desperate Artwives does just that. It arranges professional art opportunities “in mama time” giving mother artists the space and time to exist and validating their work in doing so.

Working at a project whilst mothering fits perfectly.  It is also a great source of inspiration and motivation, my children are frequently included in my work, they are very often present during the setting up of an exhibition, and images of the artist’s work are always available around the house for them to look at. My kids learn from my practice and I learn from their realities and dreams. Our lives are in tune and being an artist and a feminist is certainly influencing their lives’ strategies and their interpretation and experience of life.

Bala Live - Desperate Artwives Leyden Gallery 2017

What does it mean for you to facilitate other Women’s art?

The idea of facilitating other women’s art work has become absolutely everything for me. I love and admire every single artist that has worked with me. I am so enthusiastic about showing their work just as if it was my own. Some of the artists have become friends and I’m always interested in what they have to say and want to hear their voice. I feel I deeply understand their work, their ideas and I entirely acknowledge their position in life.

However, it is not just about making mother artists visible but it s also about challenging society to come out and understand and value our role as Mothers and Artists. I find it very discouraging when I read about how it seems we as women have to pick a side, and decide whether to be mothers or artists. This is something that is never leveled at male artists. It is a suggestion that is insulting and uninformed altogether on so many levels.

So from offering a platform to mother artists the mission has now got bigger and bolder through the years. – ‘We are not trying to do both’ we ARE doing both because we ARE both, we are multidimensional human beings and mothering happens to be a part of our lives along with being artists and many other things!

A revolution is necessary sometimes to create a fundamental change in the world. Revolutions have occurred throughout human history and have resulted in big changes. Projects like the Desperate Artwives Public Takeovers organized together with Artist Susan Merrick or the ‘United despite the distance’ campaign (2017) focused on aiming to create a global visual narrative in which people can begin to understand the enormity of the issue.

What are your plans for the future?

It does seem that women artists who are also mothers are slowly becoming more visible, it’s a very slow-moving process and so much work still needs to be done, but more organizations are forming that are offering support to this group of artists. Like women’s issues in general, they are becoming more prevalent in society as a whole with far more discussions being had. This is a big step in the right direction.

However, it is hard work to keep the project going. There are very long hours to contend with and the lack of funding is especially difficult and frustrating. What keeps me going is my determination to empower and support women and this is exactly what I am planning for the future – more and continuous opportunities for mother artists and for women in general.

My ultimate plan is, and always has been, to try and find a home for the Desperate Artwives project. A gallery space where we can live permanently, a space where we could begin to balance out the gender inequality of the art world… watch this space, the future is definitely female!

Desperate Artwives Exhibition - Lower Marsh 2016


The mothers of the maternal activism in arts and academy: Mila Oshin

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.

Our second interview is with Mila Oshin, artist, poet, singer and founder and co-director of the Digital Institute for Early Parenthood (DIEP.org.uk)

How did you start and why?

The difference between my first two birth experiences (one traumatic hospitalised birth and one homebirth without a midwife present) made such an impact on me that I had no choice but to dedicate a whole new body of work to my early parenthood journey. When I had finished this work, a collection of poetry and a music album named PASSAGE, I realised I had no idea where to place it within my own artistic trajectory or the art world at large, where parenthood is still deemed taboo as a status and inferior as a subject. Still, I could not imagine there were not more professional mother and father artists out there that had made important work about the transformational experience of pregnancy, birth and new parenthood. This led me to come up with the idea for curating the first international open exhibition in the world on the subject of early parenthood, Project AfterBirth

How did you make your voice heard and why people followed you?

I literally spent months researching and networking, mostly online, to find arts organisations and artists to connect with from all over the world. It did not take long to find some great people like Joy Rose (Museum of Motherhood, New York) and Helen Knowles (Birth Rites Collection) who where very enthusiastic about my ideas for Project AfterBirth and became partners almost instantly. An exhibition like this was so long overdue and, given the fact that almost 95% of us are parents and that birth and new parenthood are in such an appalling state and given such an inadequate status in our Western society, it did not take long for the word to spread.

The idea and need for this initiative could have come from anyone going through the same experience, why you were the one between hundreds of mothers to take action and initiate a movement?

I think it was my particular experience, the two extremely opposed kinds of birth I had, in combination with my background as a socially critical artist and the many years I had already worked for other artists and arts organisations as an audience development advisor.

What did it take?

Everything! It still does. Most of the work we do remains voluntarily and because I share both my life and work with the same partner the Digital Institute for Early Parenthood (which came out of Project AfterBirth) has completely taken over our lives.

How did you make it work around your family life?

I am still not sure it works sometimes! My partner and I strongly believe in the importance of parents (or grandparents) looking after their own (grand)children in the early years and as neither of us have any family in the UK this has been really hard without any help with childcare, especially since we had another baby last year, just as our other two started school. My partner and I (Kris Jager) literally split our week in two where I look after the children and do school pick-ups 2.5 days per week and work 2.5 days, and he does too. It does not always work out and it means we live on a shoe-string budget all the time, but we do not mind the challenge and feel making a positive contribution to the world is important to us and also provides a good example for our children.

Tell us about what’s behind the scene.

Things have become quite tricky since baby number three appeared on the scene last year and I am seriously reconsidering my work/life balance at the moment as it does feel like I am putting an awful lot of work and time in and am not always getting enough back. My work as an artist has also had to take a backseat and this does not work for me and I have to find a way to fix this. Brexit has not helped either. The idea that after having lived, worked, paid taxes, volunteered and fought for important causes in this country for 22 years (all my adult life), I will soon be kicked out because I am European unless I pay for and fill in a document to prove I am entitled to settled status just feels really uncomfortable. It seems mad, especially as my partner and children are British. I have loved England all my life, but since Brexit I feel heartbroken and am questioning all my life’s decisions.

What does it mean for you to facilitate other Women’s art?

For me art, as the only universal language, has always been an incredibly powerful tool for social change. I have advocated for women’s rights through my work as an artist and curator all my adult life because I feel amplifying women’s voices or voices that reveal truths about the feminine experience is one of the most important tasks to have in a world that has been so deprived from these voices and that has suffered and caused so much suffering because of this for so long. Being a parent in this world I have now come to realise that outstanding autobiographical art by professional mother and father artists can not only be incredibly moving, it also provides truly unique and rare evidence about the reality of experiences such as conception, pregnancy, birth and new parenthood and how parents are just not getting heard and looked after in our society. It feels like a real privilege to be able to work with this art, bring it to the public and use it in educational initiatives that transform the views of those who will one day be responsible for future parents’ wellbeing such as midwifery and ob/gyn students.

What are the challenges and joys?

I think I have mentioned quite a lot of challenges already above! Funding is a huge issue, as you will know. We hear time and time again that our work is too education and research focused for arts funding, and is too art focused for education and research grants. We can’t seem to win! Still, the results of our work and the encouraging feedback we get on an almost daily basis, from parents, artists, medical professionals, students, etc. whom we work with or who have just heard about or experienced our work, makes it all worthwhile.

What are your plans for the future?

I hope to have another poetry collection and music album out soon with Drunk With Joy. Also, especially now that my maternity leave has ended, it will be an important focus of the Digital Institute for Early Parenthood (DIEP) again to curate a unique rolling programme of exhibitions, events and festivals that promote outstanding international works of art on all kinds of early parenthood experiences to widespread audiences. We will also continue to work on our EPiC project (Early Parenthood in the Curriculum) which comprises our core educational work at DIEP. Through this we are developing and delivering an art based module for medical schools and midwifery colleges that teach students about all aspects of the lived maternity experience and their influence on it. Another core element and more long-term aim of the EPiC project at DIEP is to develop an art based programme about all aspects of the early parenthood experience (from conception to the early years) to integrate in secondary schools’ curriculum to help young people prepare for this challenging life experience and to give them a better chance of retaining good mental and physical health throughout.