Collaborations in Art and Breastfeeding

Today’s post is a guest post from Rachel at http://balance.ddtr.net. Read her full bio at the end of this post. Today she shares an absolutely fascinating story of her creation of The Food Landscape, which chronicles her youngest child’s introduction to solid foods through art.

In my own experience, art and breastfeeding were interdependent. After earning a Ph.D. in art history, I made the decision to stay at home for several years with our young children. The abrupt change from promising graduate student / scholar to stay-at-home mom was challenging, to say the least. My personal and professional identities felt submerged beneath the high needs of nursing infants and toddlers. Psychologist Shari Thurer dramatically describes this phenomenon, how in some ways the new mother ceases to exist. “She exists bodily, of course, but her needs as a person become null and void. On delivering a child, …her personal desires either evaporate or metamorphose so that they are identical with those of her infant. Once she attains motherhood, a woman must hand in her point of view” (Thurer 2007, 335). While saving my sanity might be too strong a characterization, I did return to printmaking after a ten-year hiatus as a way to chronicle my mothering situation and to regain some semblance of my own separate being.

I began with a series of family portraits, based on drawings and then cut into linoleum blocks. My sketchbook from that time shows page after page of my youngest child nursing, a time when I could capture her mostly still form, holding her with one hand and drawing with the other. In some drawings, she regards me alertly as she nurses; in others, her eyelids get heavy, or she drops off to sleep. The drawings that inspired the Untitled (Sharing) (2007) prints were a catalyst, prompting me to see our breastfeeding relationship as a nurturing collaboration that has since inspired a range of art work on critical issues of mothering.

My extended print series, The Food Landscape (2008-09), visually narrates the end of my breastfeeding journey. My youngest was slow to start solid foods. She had no interest in the bland rice cereal, oatmeal, or anything else, although admittedly, I didn’t try very hard. I was pretty happy with the ease of the nursing relationship. At an appointment when she was 8-1/2 months old, though, the nurse very nearly panicked upon learning that my child was not yet eating solids. “She needs to learn how to eat,” she said. “You need to teach her to eat.” The child was happy and healthy, but clearly, I was failing. It being my third child, though, I smiled and said nothing. A week later, she started eating solids, on her own, in her own time. So much for the anxiety. At that point, I began keeping a daily food log, documenting everything she ate, the seed of a future project. What became The Food Landscape is a series of nearly 300 screen prints, one for each day, from the time my youngest began eating solids at 9 months, until she weaned at 17 months. For each day’s print, the foods she ate are the actual inks, pressed through the screen to reveal their natural pigments. The prints chart her gradually changing nutritional intake: in the early months, the food-image takes up very little space on the page, but by the late months, as she nursed less and less, the food occupies most of the page. The image is an abstracted one, the curvilinear shape of her mouth recorded in a series of drawings I did while she nursed, but the striations of food have often evoked for me a physical landscape, as well as the details of her own culinary landscape. When exhibiting one representative work for each month, the prints show the progression as the food gradually takes priority over the breast milk. In its finished form, each month of prints constitutes its own accordion-fold book. Shelves full of books, cataloging a period of growth.

From its inception, The Food Landscape struck me as a collaboration. The decision to introduce solid foods to my child’s diet ultimately was not mine alone, but one that required her input. She was the one guiding the process, helping to decide how quickly her diet would change and how slowly she would reduce her intake of breastmilk. While this may initially sound like an odd reversal of power, in that first year of her life, it evolved as a completely natural process of sharing. In large part, I believe this occurred as a result of our mostly, though perhaps unintentionally, attachment-parenting approach. My partner and I took a collaborative approach to child-rearing not only between the two of us as parents, but also as a family unit, focusing in our decision-making on the best interests of the entire family. As the primary caregiver, though, for me attachment parenting, or perhaps simply parenting, also resulted in a transitional state of identity. While I did not begrudge it, most of the time, for many months my own identity seemed lost amid responding to the high needs of a nursing infant.

My production of The Food Landscape series echoed the collaborative nature of its inception in a very literal way as little hands tried to guide the process. Prior to this series, printmaking was for me a solitary endeavor, a time when I could leave the house and immerse myself in the inking, wiping, printing, cleaning. The food prints were different. I had a screen at home and my workspace was, aptly, our dining room table. Because my workspace was so public a part of our family space, my children were natural and willing participants. They loved the food prints. They inquired curiously about the green and yellow and orange and purples mixtures, trying to guess their food origins. They came to watch as I pulled the print, to see how the colors would come through the screen. And they seemed to understand this conceptual project, excited that it actually had something to do with them. I brought them into this other part of my life, merging our worlds together. As much as my own self ceased to exist, in Shari Thurer’s words, in those months of nursing, the print realization of it cried out for collaboration.

I have come to view the prints of The Food Landscape as inhabiting part of an ‘in between’ space of the mother-child collaboration. During their creation, I read the food prints at times as a critical commentary on my mothering (how did I let her go for four days with no greens in her diet?), while at other times, their repetitive production seemed an ironic parallel to the domestic maternal life: just as each of the prints re-enacted a daily intake of food, so, too, did its production symbolize the daily rituals of domestic life at home with children. Each of the prints required extensive food preparation, and each required significant clean-up. Pulling the print itself, however, took almost no time at all. More than once I noticed the parallel to mealtime, where the time spent in preparation and clean-up far outweighs the few minutes spent eating the food. In that same vein, though, the food prints felt comfortable, familiar, a symbolic extension of what I do every day.

The ‘in-between’ space of the nursing collaboration is a temporary state, and the food prints reflect that. I have known from the start that working with natural food pigments is problematic, for I am fairly certain that the colors will be fugitive. I will limit their exposure to light, but even so, I doubt that the prints will survive for posterity. Then again, that’s not really the point. Regardless of the end product, the greater part of the project was the ritual of the production itself, commemorating a time in my child’s life that will never come again, celebrating her growth, marking the end of our nursing collaboration and the end of my years as a nursing mother. In many ways, the production of this series spoke to parts of the mother-child collaboration that I would not have anticipated. While I initially envisioned the project as being about my daughter and a certain period of her growth, I suppose I should not have been surprised to discover, along the way, that the project became about both of us.

Rachel Epp Buller is a feminist-art historian-printmaker-mama of three whose art and scholarship focus on critical issues of mothering. She coordinates a chapter of The Feminist Art Project (tfapkansas.wordpress.com), teaches at Bethel College, and is the author/editor of, among other texts, Reconciling Art and Mothering (Ashgate, 2012) and Mennonite Mothering (Demeter Press, 2013). Her work can be seen at http://balance.ddtr.net

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4 thoughts on “Collaborations in Art and Breastfeeding

  1. Pingback: Guest blogging « Rachel Epp Buller

  2. Rachel, I love this story. This process reminds me of Mary Kelly’s Postpardum Document, only focusing on the other end. 🙂 I hope we meet in “real” life some day.

  3. Beautiful!!

    my LO had a very sensitive gag reflex; she would throw up any solids I tried to give her until she was ten months old. She did not swallow any solid food before then. I never worried because my LLL leader had a daughter that didn’t start solids until she was a year old and did just fine. That nurse was just silly.

  4. Pingback: Have Milk, Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding | Adventures of Lactating Girl

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