MOTHERLINE: A SELF-PORTRAIT
Motherline: A Self-Portrait is the title of my MFA thesis exhibition and this support paper. In this paper I will discuss the shared imagination rooted in lived experience, individual expression, and memory in order to understand the ‘life-line’ or ‘motherline,’ an umbilical cord that connects daughters to mothers. I will use social theorist, Michel Foucault to examine the borderlines between autobiography and history; Jungian analyst Naomi Lowinsky’s description of the motherline; and York University Women’s Studies professor, Dr. Andrea O’Reilly, as well as, feminist essayist, Adrienne Rich to define “motherhood” and “mothering.” The theories and the ideas of the motherline will be used as a framework for the development of the artworks in the exhibition. The exhibition of Motherline: A Self-Portrait is a journey towards the articulation of my own desires. Through my MFA research and artwork, I have learned that it is important to ask how I identify myself as a woman, feminist and post-colonial subject in Western culture. The drawings (Julia Begin; Florence Desjardins; Anne Baldasaro; Holly Hicks; Ashley McAskill and Carly McAskill), large self-portrait (A Self-Portrait), fragments on mirrors (Reflecting Burdens) and series of paintings on drywall (If Walls Could Talk...) focus on how the maternal body has become an interrogation of identity, marginality, as well as, power and difference throughout my familial history. Although I have done a lot of work, I know that there is still more that can be done with the research I have conducted and artworks I created in order to understand identity in relation to personal and historical memory in my motherline. It has been through the process of interviews with family members and the representation of self in my artwork that my earliest memories of fulfilling what is considered ‘feminine’ have been realized. Motherline: A Self-Portrait represents an experience for the viewer where the sense of dislocation between present and past experience, between the here-now and the then-now meld together. Ultimately, my exhibition, Motherline: A Self-Portrait, asks the viewer how we can imagine what took place in a space and what our relationship can be to it today. My hopes are that both my research and body of artwork evoke memory as the active witness to the lost or repressed past.
Introduction: Motherline: A Self-Portrait
"It is a very good experience to be a woman. I think any woman has really done something when you think of a woman who brought you into the world where it is just a little seed in that woman’s body that grew. And here you are a big girl, very capable now. I do not think there would be a world without women. Not every woman is beautiful, but she is there doing her job. We all had wonderful mothers. My mother, she was a wonderful mother. Everybody [in my family] was good and got their example from their mother [because] they saw what their mother did. You learn how to do every day things from your mother. I think you all turned out very good because you learned how to work."-Anne Baldasaro
As a woman artist, it is important for me to do an autobiography by using drawing and collage to address my artwork and research paper in Motherline: A Self-Portrait. The term “motherline” is used to refer to the shared experience when women get together to tell one another stories about female experience: physical, psychological, and historical. The exhibition explores the social and psychic production of ‘feminine’ identity in relation to the history of women in my family: my great, great grandmother, Julia Begin (1860-1919); great grandmother, Florence Desjardins (1891-1962); grandmother, Anne Baldasaro (1917-present); mother, Holly Hicks (1951-present) and sister, Ashley McAskill (1987-present) in relation to myself, Carly McAskill (1985-present). The fact that I love to wear makeup and dress up reflects a very contemporary image of ‘femininity’ that is current to my generation. The following paper will use social theorist and historian, Michel Foucault’s definition of the “historical ontology of ourselves” to investigate the borderline between autobiography and history. Jungian analyst, Naomi Lowinsky’s description of the motherline in relation to the female body will be referred to in order to understand the experience of the maternal. York University Women’s Studies professor, Dr. Andrea O’Reilly and feminist essayist, Adrienne Rich, will be used to decipher the relationship between “motherhood” and “mothering.” German Dadaist artist, Hannah Höch’s (1889-1978) will be discussed to make connections between my interest in collage and the female body. Through Motherline: A Self-Portrait, I seek to look at how identities are constructed through memory, language and culture. I am asking myself, “as a daughter, with a heritage as an Italian-British-Scottish-German-French-Canadian woman living in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, how can I be expected to know what places to remember?” I want to celebrate my familial matriarchy and my foremothers’ lives in relation to myself through visual storytelling about their lives from the Victorian era to the present. Excerpts from interviews I conducted with my grandmother, Anne Baldasaro; mother, Holly Hicks and sister, Ashley McAskill will be used to make connections with my motherline. The excerpted interviews are pertinent to my research because they mark the importance of the deeper dimensions of the ‘feminine’ experience that I share with the different women in my matriarchal line. Using drawing and collage as a contemporary art practice and feminist strategy, Motherline: A Self-Portrait represents my inquiry into memory as a territory of the mindscape, and how memories contribute to my own sense of self.
The Meaning of Power: Motherhood, Mothering and The Motherline
"My mother was a very kind woman. She had to get as much as she could on as she little as she had. She used to sew. If I needed a dress, she would go and get a little piece of material, cut it in three and by the end of the afternoon I had a very nice dress. She was a very good sewer and she liked to see us looking good. I can remember one day very clearly where there was a girl from richer parents that came to our house. Afterwards, when the girl had gone, the first thing mother did was get her scissors out and cut a dress out with no patterns. She formed a dress and I got a dress. I just thought that it was wonderful to have a fresh dress like that. She made me lots of my clothes and liked to do it. I can remember all of us being around and one girl would have a nicer dress than all the others. And first thing you knew, mother was on the machine and I would have a dress just like the other girl."-Anne Baldasaro
I believe that all of the works in Motherline: A Self-Portrait reflect the motherline: the wisdom of the ancient lore of women that we have forgotten in patriarchal society. All of the artworks touch on the lack of narratives about women’s lives as a result of the patriarchal cultural perception of the “lamenting woman;” a term that has trivialized “women’s talk” and devalued the passing down of female lore and wisdom. Julia Begin, Florence Desjardins, Anne Baldasaro, Holly Hicks, Ashley McAskill and Carly McAskill reflect the history of the motherline; the women in my motherline are presented together like in olden times to support one another. In the interview process, my sister spoke about the stories she will never know about our great, great grandmother and great grandmother in relation to memory.
"I always wonder what great, great grandmother and great grandmother think of us now, if they are in heaven and if they are aware of our existence. I find it so weird that we didn’t know Nana’s mom. We hear about great grandmother all the time through Nana’s memories of her. It always leaves me wondering, “Do I have her laugh? Did she like theatre and the arts as much as we do?”-Ashley McAskill
When I began researching my motherline I thought I would know all the individual women extremely well. In the case of my great, great grandmother, Julia Begin, my initial goal of knowing a lot about who she was would never come to fruition because “…travel was very expensive.”
"My grandmother, Julia Begin, I do not remember much about her. We did not see relatives very often. It was a big thing to go for a visit because they lived in the country on a farm. We were very short on money and we had to be very careful on how much we would spend."-Anne Baldasaro
The imaginative gets reinserted into my work when my grandmother, Anne Baldasaro said: “I do not remember much about her.” Julia Begin was my great, great grandmother; it was hard to find out information and memories about her because my grandmother was never close with her. My grandmother does not have any concrete memories of Julia Begin based on geographical and economical reasons; this demonstrates why I insert my imagination into the memory process in order to create an identity, history and memory of my great, great grandmother. I am using social theorist and historian, Michel Foucault’s definition of the “historical ontology of ourselves,” the borderline between autobiography and history; the desire to seek what constitutes women as concrete historical subjects – the subjects of their own lives. It is important to understand that with identity goes agency, the ability to act within and upon my own narrative in history and culture; specifically in Motherline: A Self-Portrait. I employ collage as an intrinsic part of my working process that is both personal and meditative because it allows me to piece together my imagined memories of my great, great grandmother and great grandmother (women I never met) to reconstruct their identities. Similar to memory, the semiotic disrupts continuous narrative by being a “. . . fragmented, scrappy, mixed-up state, overlaid by subsequent emotions – and by the emotion of recalling emotion.” I use a variety of materials that I imagine my great, great grandmother and great grandmother would have used such as textiles, photographs of objects they may have owned and wallpaper. I am emotionally and artistically invested in the ways of collage; I am able to use the cut-and-paste of collage to create something magical. In each collage, the fragments emote a certain type of vulnerability and suggestiveness that reflect the themes of time and change that are central to Motherline: A Self-Portrait. For my great, great grandmother’s body, I incorporated fragments from a series of trees I did as a child entitled, Wise One. My great, great grandmother turned into a totemic figure that I view as the root of my motherline, which is exemplified in the tree imagery. I know that my great, great grandmother was a great seamstress and Catholic woman so I included Catholic elements in the work like praying hands, a rosary and the Virgin Mary. I also incorporated a lot of sewing elements like scissors, material, a sewing machine and quilt work, which connect to the ‘domestic’ and traditionally ‘feminine.’ I think the terms ‘domestic’ and ‘femininity’ are important terms to place Julia Begin and Florence Desjardins in the Victorian historical era.
My strong interest in the Victorian era is expressed through the big dresses each woman is wearing in Julia Begin; Florence Desjardins; Anne Baldasaro; Holly Hicks; Ashley McAskill and Carly McAskill. When the viewer looks at the images of Victorian-like dresses, I want them to reflect on how difficult it was for Victorian women to wear such big, heavy and tight dresses where their movements were limited as a consequence. I use the full Victorian skirt as a visual bag-like shape that symbolizes all of the burdens women carry around to be a ‘good’ mother, ‘good’ wife and fulfill ‘feminine’ ideologies. The bag-like shapes become a visual strategy I use to examine the women in my motherline’s self-perception and self-awareness of their bodies. In each collage, I construct the bodies to play with how the Victorian concept of ‘limited movement’ relates to each woman’s clothing and bodily gesture. The idea of ‘limited movement’ applies to me personally because I am always trying to fit into dresses that physically do not fit my body. I have a thick, voluptuous body that does not suit the types of trendy styles I am constantly drawn to; continually saying, “I will lose weight” and trying different body sliming garments to achieve the look I desire. I want the dresses to provoke the viewer to think about what “dress” means in terms of identity, façade and fantasy. The ‘domestic’ ideal is based on the only acceptable work for Victorian women as ‘domestic,’ it was to take place in the home and it was the woman’s job to oversee the regulation of the household, morally, reproductively and economically. Moreover, the bottom of my great, great grandmother’s body represents a pelvic bone to reference childbirth and the stomach tumor that ended her life after many years of working hard to take care of her home.
In Florence Desjardins I included a sewing machine; clothing patterns, ruffles, material and scissors to illustrate my great grandmother’s passion for making all of her 8 children look their best, which all links to the ‘domestic’ and ‘feminine’ in Julia Begin. An opulent halo surrounds part of a portrait of my great grandmother along with a section of the Virgin Mary’s face. My great grandmother was the type of woman who always gave back to her community through her generosity and kindness. My mother expressed the kindness and warmth she remembers about her grandmother.
"What I can remember of her is that I can remember the house and I can remember going down to the house to have dinner. I remember her with the garden. I remember her with the grey hair and the glasses. I remember her being a very nice lady and I know that my mother loved her dearly."-Holly Hicks
During the Depression, my great grandmother’s home backed onto the railway tracks and every day men would knock on her door asking for food so she would get them to chop wood in exchange for a loaf of homemade bread. There is a train, pocketknife, burlap material, mason jars and an apron to illustrate my great grandmother’s unconditional compassion for others.
Since childhood, I have always been concerned about taking care of and nurturing the people I love. My close family and friends have always described me as “the mother hen of the group and an old soul.” I have so many fond childhood memories of playing “house” where I always insisted on playing the role of the mother. In our games of “house” I would make my sister be the father and draw a mustache on her face (that she hated) and my younger cousins were always the children.
"We used to play with our stuffed animals for hours. You would make up some story about how your animals got lost and were magical. Mine were the innkeepers of a hotel and your animals always had the better story. Also, when we played “house" you always made me the dad and drew a mustache on my face. Thanks Car!"-Ashley McAskill
I would be the nurturing and loving mother figure who took special care of her family; I can remember thoroughly enjoying playing this role. Some of my earliest girlhood memories were also spent dressing up all of my dolls that I individually called “my girl” for hours on end. I loved dressing up in my mother’s clothing, jewelry, and makeup in order to put on dramatized performances of flamboyant characters of my own imagination. I took great pride in how my room appeared and was arranged. As an adult, I realize that my childhood role-playing a mother was an important developmental phase wherein I was modeling myself after my own mother and learning to be emphatic.
Jungian analyst, Naomi Lowinsky describes the motherline as the “. . . stories about the dramatic changes of a woman’s body: developing breasts and pubic hair, bleeding, being sexual, giving birth, suckling, menopause, and growing old.” It is the stories women tell one another about the female body like the ones I heard growing up about my mother’s experiences with her period.
"I remember when I was about 12 going out with my friends. My one friend was very athletic, something happened where she climbed a tree and I was on the branch below and all of a sudden, I bent over and I had these terrible abdominal pains. I got on my bike and biked all the way home when my aunt was visiting with my mother. I came to the door and I said, “I don’t feel well, I’ve got the worst pains.” My mom said, “Go into the washroom and see what is going on.” I went to the washroom and came out saying, “Mom, my butt is bleeding.” My mom replied, “What is going on?” My aunt looked at my mother and they both started to chuckle and they handed me a little belt with the kotex that women used to use with a little paperback book. She told me I was beginning to be a woman and it was the beginning of my period. They told me to read the little booklet and they showed me how to put the belt on with the pads. In those days it was a belt, an elasticized belt where the kotex hooked in at the front and at the back. It was very different. I can remember feeling so alone and to read that little booklet seemed to be all in Greek to me. I am sure that now people have films in school and that they teach about it in the classroom. I think that a lot more parents now would sit down with their daughter to explain their period. But in my days, they just did not sit down with their children about that and so that was my first encounter at growing up and getting my period." -Holly Hicks
Throughout the years my mother has told me how lucky I am not to have problems with my period like she has. I remember getting my period and experiencing a sense of loss as I left my girlhood behind to be a woman who can sexually reproduce. For example, when I was 13 I shaved all of my pubic hair in disgust of my changing body; I believe I did this in rebellion against my period, whereas my sister went to a salon to have her pubic hair removed for academic research.
"I always like doing something a little different with everything I write. I got my first Brazilian wax for a paper about identity and cross-cultural exchange. I brought my friend Rachel and purposely wore a skirt thinking it would cover a little more. The lady who owned the shop told me to “drop em” and that I did. I didn’t feel ashamed. I am not going to lie, I feel pretty comfortable being naked. I remember the lady putting on the wax; it felt good at first until she took off the first strip. It’s not that bad, some parts are a little more uncomfortable than others. I made some noises, but was mainly laughing the entire time. Once it was over, I was bare. I wouldn’t recommend it. It is a waste of money. Just shave."-Ashley McAskill
I remember that I did not want to bleed once a month, have sore breasts, be constantly moody and have hair growing everywhere I did not want it. Additionally, I recall having a lot of anxiety about when my period would come because it came at different times for all of my friends. As a teenager, I would have nightmares of bleeding all over my chair at school and getting laughed out of the classroom to adulthood where I now have irregular periods without the aid of birth control pills.
I support Lowinsky’s definition of the motherline, the shared experience when women get together to tell one another stories about female experience: physical, psychological, and historical. Lowinsky’s definition expresses the stories of the life cycles that link the generations of women, “. . . mothers who are also daughters; daughters who have become mothers; grandmothers who always remain granddaughters.” For example, the open line of communication that my mother, sister and I share where we can openly talk about our period experiences with one another.
"I just don’t feel you have had to go through near what I had to go through. I am really happy for you because I would not want anybody to go through the hell that I had to go through. I think the knowledge being shared through generations of women is good. I think you learn from your own. Sometimes the old stories are good, the old recipes, the way your mother would do some things, the way your grandmother would do some things. It is always good to know about your family and how they lived, how they conducted some things and how things are different today. Maybe some of the things you want to savor are old recipes or old traditions within the family that maybe your grandmother did. There may be certain things you want to do for Christmas day. It is good to have that sort of thing."-Holly Hicks
The artwork, A Self-Portrait is about the stories that illustrate the strong bond that my grandmother, mother, sister and I share. The voices of my grandmother and mother telling me stories of our motherline are among my earliest memories. It is from these women that I have learned about what it means to be human and about our collective understanding of history. A Self-Portrait is a 7-foot mixed media version of Carly McAskill; I used Carly McAskill as the reference point and altered it as I went on in the creation process. A Self-Portrait is very tactile working with an ochre, red, blue and neon pink color palette that connects to my painterly mark as a woman artist. Additionally, the large self-portrait has photos of personal materials (jewelry, paintings, diary entries) and collage adhered to the paper support. It is an amalgamation of all of the artworks in Motherline: A Self-Portrait in relation to myself. I believe, as a non-mother (but hope to be one someday), I have successfully transferred my original maternal care onto my art by merging symbolic elements of mother and child. In recreating the mother-daughter and daughter-mother relationships in my work, in both form and content, I am identifying with both passive and active roles of daughter and mother.
It is Lowinsky’s personal description of “the bridge between generations” that describes my grandmother’s own experiences and relationship to me. Lowinsky recounts, “I was profoundly moved to see my younger self in my children’s development, and to see my older self in my mother’s maturation.” Anne Baldasaro is the first woman in my motherline I can relate to through my own personal memories. Stained glass, Jesus on the cross and multiple images of the Virgin Mary express the strong thread of Catholicism that has been handed down to my grandmother from my great grandmother and great, great grandmother. Little bits of opulent fragment and clothing patterns convey the importance of looking well put together, although my grandmother did not sew herself. Part of a kitchen cupboard, Super Sandwich bread bag and “1490” on a teacher’s ruler illustrate my grandmother’s strong attachment to her home and profession as a teacher. The black military blazer faces away from the wedding dress with a large paintbrush to express the burden my grandmother felt caring for a sick husband and wanting to be an artist. Indeed, it is my grandmother’s openness about her life experiences and realizations that have opened me up as her granddaughter to be able to face the future as an adult woman. It is heartbreaking to listen to my grandmother discuss her inner struggles and the sadness she feels towards her unfulfilled desires of being an artist after her husband died.
"I loved being a woman artist. I loved it. I shouldn’t have quit it because I was considered a very good artist. It was just that some times at home were not the best and I had to skip a lot of the stuff I should have learned. I had to keep a foot ahead all the time because I was a teacher when I was very young. I loved what I was doing. One time after I had finished the teacher who was teaching us saw that I was tired, very tired. I told the teacher that I felt I should quit because I was thin, very thin because I was a teacher and doing art. When you are doing art you have to do good art and be there regularly working every day at it. At that time I was working and we were having some family troubles. I remember that I had done several pictures. I remember somebody told me that if I were not working I would have more time to work on my painting. The teacher who was teaching me was a woman and she told me she did not think I should quit painting. She told me that I can do it and I can paint! She told me to stick it out! Well there were some troubles in the house at the time and I just dropped away from it. Today, I am very sorry that I did that because I had the ability and I painted well. The teacher told me, “you’re a painter and you are capable. Don’t give up.” There were just too many things that I had to look after so I could not do all those things you know. Now look at me, here I am, your old girl, telling a story. It is pretty nice to have a story."-Anne Baldasaro
My grandmother recounts a life she never got to live, which really provokes me to think about the close connections between my grandmother and I as woman artists. I am sympathetic towards my grandmother’s inner conflict of being a mother and artist; I believe she felt at odds with what a “good mother” represented and the roles a “good mother” was supposed to fulfill in her generation. In the book, Mother Outlaws: Theories and Practices of Empowered Mothering, York University Women’s Studies professor, Dr. Andrea O’Reilly, addresses the feelings feminist poet and essayist, Adrienne Rich, expressed around the institution of motherhood coming down on her in her book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. My grandmother’s experiences are reflected in Rich’s own feelings about a vacation she took with her children one summer without her husband. Rich intimately describes the institutional pressure she felt to be a “good mother” who follows the rules of regimented bedtime for her children with no free time to pursue her own desires as a woman. Motherhood operates as a patriarchal institution to constrain, regulate and dominate women and mothering. My grandmother had to surrender her dream of being an artist in order to maintain her “sense of cohesive selfhood” even if it was all an illusion. In the 1950s, my grandmother was fulfilling the socially assigned roles of ‘mother’ and ‘wife.’ Rich describes motherhood as an institution that has ghettoized and degraded female potentialities. Motherhood is a cultural ideology that has no natural or biological function; rather, it is specifically a cultural practice that is continuously redesigned in response to changing economic and social factors. It supports the image of woman as the “good mother:” the full-time, stay-at-home mother, isolated in the private sphere who is financially dependant on her husband.
Reflecting on my grandmother’s strong storytelling abilities, I support Lowinsky’s definition of a grandmother as a woman from another time who tells stories from long ago that locates her grandchild in the life stream of the generations. I believe it is also important to highlight how a grandmother recounts stories from when she was a child, when mommy or daddy was a child, and when we, the present generation, had not been born yet. In Motherline: A Self-Portrait, I am re-imagining my great, great grandmother’s life and experiences (there are few tangible memories my grandmother has of her) in order to keep the grandmother-granddaughter tradition of storytelling alive. It is through my grandmother’s stories where she remembers her early experiences that formed her identity, which I believe form a reclaiming of lost aspects of herself, whereas for me, it becomes a return to my origins. In the interview process, my sister summarized our feelings about our grandmother extremely well.
"I always get a kick out of hearing what mom was like as a child and hearing about how she was sometimes the black sheep in her family. Nana is pretty conservative and I always just replay her stories like a sitcom from the 1950s in my head. Nana has become my archive of a time that was not mine nor yours Carly, but somehow it still is." -Ashley McAskill
I believe my grandmother felt most like herself creating art, but simultaneously felt that there was no room for “simply being” in the roles of mother and wife. For me, it is incredibly important to deconstruct the identities of “mother” and “wife” as culturally fixed; through Motherline: A Self-Portrait I am showing how these roles are always in a process of definition. This is a significant point in time when the wholeness of the ‘feminine’ self is evoked and the granddaughter’s budding development is stimulated. For me, it is my grandmother’s consciousness that opens me up as her granddaughter to images of the past. She represents the link that my ‘feminine’ psyche hungers for to connect the mother of her mothers, her origin and future. It is my grandmother’s consciousness that provides an integrating third viewpoint when my mother and I fly into differing perspectives. Lowinsky explains that the grandmother’s viewpoint honors differences and values both sides of the mother and daughter because she sees struggle as part of an impersonal pattern of female development.
Holly Hicks is a portrait of my mother, the most liberal woman in my motherline. There is anatomical imagery of intestines, teeth, heart and a pregnant belly to reference her profession as a nurse and role as a mother. The heart also references the burdens she carried as a child living with a father with a heart condition. There are pencils that point in my grandmother’s direction and my direction to illustrate my mother’s unconditional support for both of us to pursue our artist dreams. There are fragments of photographs from my mother’s wedding day I included as homage to how beautiful and happy I think she looks in them. The clothing items in the photographs such as her hat with the red silk ribbon are things I loved to dress up in as a child. I included a snowman, childhood drawings of my mother and branches to symbolize my mother’s zest for life and fun side, which are the characteristics I love most about her.
I agree with O’Reilly that the term “motherhood” is deeply oppressive to some women because it refers to the patriarchal institution that is male-defined and controlled. In contrast, the word “mothering” refers to women’s experiences of mothering: female-defined and centered, and potentially empowering for women. It is here that I believe it is important to emphasize Rich’s belief that to critique the institution of motherhood “. . . is not an attack on the family or on motherhood except as defined and restricted under patriarchy.” O’Reilly responds to Rich’s critique of the institution of motherhood by pointing out that women’s own experiences of mothering can be a source of power in a patriarchal institution. I support Rich’s argument that in order to resist patriarchal motherhood and achieve empowered mothering, mothers must ascribe to mothering as “bad” mothers. O’Reilly explains that the terms “bad mothers” and “mother outlaws” are used to refer to women who mother outside or against the institution of motherhood. Rich opposed the dominant view on motherhood. O’Reilly explains that Rich defines empowered mothers as “good mothers” and patriarchal mothers as “bad mothers” in order to enable feminists to recognize motherhood as unnatural and oppressive. O’Reilly further responds to Rich by supporting Rich’s definition of mothering as something that can be experienced as a site of empowerment and a location of social change freed from the institution of motherhood.
Collage: Deconstructing and Reconstructing Women In My Motherline
"I enjoyed being a mother, but sometimes I got tired. As soon as I was able to work, I went to work. You had to work to live and I had to make money. There were many nights of cooking. I found it hard. There were many nights I think that there were crying eyes and trying not to show it because there were cakes to be made and macaronis to be done. It was busy and it was hard. I had a husband [your grandfather] that was not well. He had a heart attack and yet, we got through it. Some days were pretty darn hard, but we were always able to make enough to keep everything going and we made it that way."-Anne Baldasaro
The purpose of collage is to give the idea that different textures can enter into a composition to become the reality in the painting that competes with the reality in nature. In my collage work, I want the viewer to think about the burdens of motherwork women have to carry in a patriarchal society and become aware of the implications on female identity. My grandmother did not have the perfect experience of motherhood or mothering because she struggled a great deal trying to be a good mother and wife. Collage is my vehicle to look inward at my grandmother’s burdens and vulnerabilities she expressed in the interview process as I map out her maternal experiences and identity as a woman.
As an artist, the way I use collage entices the viewer to participate in a game of tease and impermanence; the technique of pasted paper has a special and profound part to play in the expression of my modern sensibilities. I use an assemblage of different experiences, memories and identities that women in my motherline fulfilled: from my great, great grandmother’s strong Catholic beliefs; great grandmother’s compassion for her community; grandmother’s feelings about balancing womanhood and motherhood; my mother’s advice to never give up my career when I become a mother and my sister who is a disciplined academic. Collage is a part of my methodological reexamination of the relationship between women in my motherline and myself by using materials such as photographs that are used to capture a moment, show a memory and save things of the past for the future generations to see.
Ashley McAskill is a portrait of my sister, the one human being I place all of my maternal care onto. In her torso, I incorporated fragments of my favorite girlhood photograph of she and I. In the photograph, Ashley is standing beside me in her two piece pajama set mimicking my ‘feminine’ pose where I am standing with one leg pointed outward, hips angled with my right cheek resting on my hands in a “I am such a pretty, good, sweet girl” sleeping gesture. As a girl, I took dance lessons for many years; I am wearing my favorite dance outfit: a soft pink, shinny body suit with silver sequins and ruffle accents with a classic soft pink tutu, matching pink tights and ballet shoes. There is also another photograph of Ashley and I where she is mimicking my pose and I am wearing a neon yellow “rubber ducky” inspired dance outfit with the actual rubber ducky, loud yellow feathers and tap shoes.
The use of family photographic fragments transports the work into the personal sphere of my motherline. I believe that the fragments create a collective narrative about the women in my family that are activated through my personal connections to them and when viewers apply their sense of what motherhood and mothering to these pieces. I am using the historical collage technique of the family album or the ‘carte-de-visite’ from the nineteenth-century to address my matrilineal connections to the Victorian era. As an artist, I am captivated by German Dadaist artist Hannah Höch’s photomontages that dealt with differences between images of women in the media and reality. Hoch’s critique of the beauty industry, using the rise of fashion and photography to advertise unrealistic female images, was what influenced my love for collage. In addition, I am employing Dada’s reinvention of photo-fragments to function as witness of my contemporary relationship to my motherline. Moreover, the fragments in my collage work can be defined as ‘contemporary collage’ because my work is aspiring to be a product of and participate in the real-time discourse of my consciousness. I am cutting the edges in Motherline: A Self-Portrait to unite unrelated elements such as textiles and childhood drawings to create something new. The way that I add, omit, delete, and deconstruct the visual elements are important to the work. Ultimately, collage is my conduit to represent real women and real experiences in my motherline.
In many photos that I found of my sister and I she is emulating something I am doing. Ashley has a gaze of admiration and such respect for me in so many of these images; I never realized how much of an influence I had on her identity as a woman until I went through the photographic evidence. I always took care of my sister because she was very shy and soft spoken as a child. In the interview process, my sister summed up my maternal care towards her best when she said:
"You were kind of bossy as a kid, but I know you meant well. You were protective of me, especially when I was younger because I was so shy and bullied. You would always be my voice. I think, as I got older I found my voice and now I won’t shut up. I guess I might be copying you more than I know." Ashley McAskill
In the collage of my sister, there are “hugging arms,” hearts, E.T. body parts, drama faces, pieces of a director’s chair, suspenders, stuffed animals and university graduation caps in her headdress that embody who she is and our relationship as sisters. For me collage is a very meditative process to negotiate how the collage fragments, as flat, colored, pictorial shapes will be incorporated into each female body I create. Collage truly is a “. . .mark of modernity. . .[based on] taking a more anthropological interest in the category of the discarded, the unwanted, the overlooked” to create something that is relevant in contemporary society.
The use of drawing and collage allow me to bring together an assemblage of different representations of women. My working process is extremely important in my practice because I create an image bank of historical and contemporary images of women in my family. Carly McAskill is my self-portrait that combines drawing and writing from a childhood diary. In the body and skirt of my self-portrait I have included bits of beading and a heart necklace to show my affinity for jewelry. The organic leaf and floral imagery connect to my mother’s portrait (Holly Hicks) because we both loved to garden together when I was a girl. The pencils protruding from my mother’s stomach connect to the painterly marks in my left hand, as well as, the paintbrushes in my headdress. The paintbrushes are significant because they point outward toward my sister and into the beyond to the child I do not have yet; the curious childhood drawing of a tiger’s eye that is peeking through my dress also points to this child. Each graphite portrait in Motherline: A Self-Portrait has a portrait of each woman incorporated into the work. There are also scrap-like white fragments and vertical linear design elements in each body to unite all of the women in my motherline together.
In my collage work, I use photographs, childhood drawings, paintings, images of familiar objects, feminist essays, textiles and decorative paper as source material.
"You had a room that was very nice. You had a room that was a really girlie room where you had quality toys. You weren’t one to play a lot in your room whereas your sister did play a lot in her room. Your room was more of a show place you know where everything had a place and to this day you are still like that; you are much more organized than she is. You like things a certain way and that is just your temperament you know." -Holly Hicks
My social-environment had a huge impact on my gender development because my mother furnished my bedroom with traditional ‘feminine’ toys and objects. My room was very ‘feminine’ because it had light pink walls; a ballerina nightlight; unicorn stuffed animals; perfectly coifed French poodle stuffed animals; opulent porcelain dolls, and many other fragile bone china, ceramic, porcelain and glass collectables. I believe that playing with dolls as a child provided me with the opportunity to practice behaviors that reflect typical female gender roles in a stereotypical patriarchal society. I treated my dolls like my own children through the ways I took care of them, pushed them in the baby carriage, dressed them up, and spoke to them. My mother described my maternal care to my Barbies perfectly:
"You loved Barbies. You had all kinds of Barbies. You played Barbies for hours. You had Barbie house, Barbie car, Barbie clothes, you probably had 20 Barbies, maybe even 30, I don’t know. You had Barbies coming out of your ears. You loved Barbies. It was Barbie! Barbie! Barbie!"-Holly Hicks
As an adult, looking back, I realize now that all of my Barbies represent the stereotypical blonde, blue-eyed, white woman with a figure that was unattainable. As a child, I took great pleasure going through my various suitcases full of Barbie clothes and accessories I had for each doll. The sheer amount of ‘stuff’ (cars, restaurant, swimming pool, RV, horses, all home furnishings) I had for my Barbies is disturbing because I had enough Barbie accessories to share with every girl on my street. I spent hundreds of hours playing with my Barbies mimicking a “rich Hollywood celebrity lifestyle” I would never have in real life. Additionally, I wonder if all of the time spent with my Barbies had any lasting psychological effects on me regarding my understanding of what is ‘feminine’ and ‘maternal.’ When I think about it, I do not think Barbie’s unrealistic body has affected my current body image, but I do know that Barbie influenced my affinity for jewelry, clothes and accessories from girlhood into womanhood. Barbie’s perfect looks (always having her hair done, full face of makeup and nice outfit) have definitely had an impact on how I want to be perceived by others. I have had dreams where I am the quintessential nurturing and loving mom who is always in stylish attire; I know this is unrealistic and it is funny how a doll like Barbie can impact my perception of maternal appearance.
The visual strategy of collage allows me to sample, edit and re-appropriate representations of the female form by deconstructing and reconstructing them to create disturbing images of women. My working methodology is a process of deconstruction and reconstruction to create these images because one picture is not enough to express the experiences of the women in my motherline. The way I cut up the source material into small fragments to create the fragmented and distorted bodies make the images disturbing. The multi-layered images in my drawings and collage work explore identity through meditation on place, time, presence, and inheritance. I believe that my mother describes the layers of the mother-daughter bond in relation to inheritance and how it is a metaphor for the mother-daughter and daughter-mother relationships in Mother Line: A Self-Portrait extremely well.
"I think you have a very outgoing personality and that you have a zip for life; you enjoy life. I think you love your family. I think you love animals. I think you like to be fairly organized. I think you are very protective of your sister. I have a great love for the arts and always have, certainly that has been an important part of your life so I suppose you get a lot of that from me. You are very nurturing with children and I was the same way when I was young as I really enjoyed the little ones. I think you are spiritual too, you are not going to church all the time, but I think you have your own spirituality within through the ways you sometimes write or the way you express yourself. I think family is very important to you and I think that is the same way I am as well." -Holly Hicks
For me, the collage process begins with interviews with family members (mother, father, sister, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins) about women in my motherline where I write down my impressions to create a word and image list to establish an identity for each woman. During the next stage of fragmentation, I begin with cutting the required shapes, and then move them around on the page until I am visually satisfied with the composition. The crucial point in my process is when all the fragments are pasted to the page and the process is repeated until 10 collage studies are created. Finally, I lay down the collage studies side-by-side on the floor to locate the image I will use as my reference for the final large graphite drawing. I choose a specific collage from all of my studies and scan it into my computer. I also scan all of my collages for two reasons: for digital records of my work and to have the option for tonal manipulation if necessary. The importance of scanning is also about combining traditional cut-and-paste collage and digital technology to archive the women in my motherline.
My experience of my daughter-mother relationship is that I have developed a sense of security from my mother where she has been completely devoted to my sister and I since childhood. I aim for the portraits of the women in my motherline to express this mother-daughter relationship to the viewer. My drawings illustrate the deep and loving connection I maintain with my mother around the mirroring experience that has provided me with my primal sense of identity from girlhood to the present. I created the artwork; Reflecting Burdens as a series of blackened fragments sourced from my series of graphite drawings on the individual women in my motherline. I deconstructed the collages into different isolated sections and cut out little slivers of detail inside the sections with an x-acto knife. Next, I paste the fragments on ready-made Victorian mirror replicas that I found at the dollar store. I also chose to paint the frames of the mirrors in a Victorian color palette: shades of gold, ochre, crimson, deep bronze green, golden brown, dark admiral grey, sky blue, eau de nil green, white, magenta and bottle green. Each work is an intricately cut series of paper silhouettes using distortion and fragmentation as a means to analyze each woman’s experience in my motherline. For example, I deconstructed Carly McAskill into fragments where the viewer is confronted with a section of the paintbrushes that are a part of the headdress in the initial collage. I deconstruct the body I have constructed through collage to examine how different fragments function when they are isolated from the collaged body. I want to look at how each individual painterly mark, childhood drawing, line and diary entry build up my memories, experience and identity as a woman in my collage. Specifically, Reflecting Burdens reflects the burdens of alienation women carry playing with and fulfilling conventional codes of ‘femininity.’
If Walls Could Talk: Experience, Time, and Location
I am very interested in the relationship between the every day experience of women in my motherline and the spaces they occupied. An artist who has thematically influenced my work is Pam Skelton, who has a powerful theme of a dialogue with the past running through her paintings and installation pieces. The way that she calls up the past through the significance of places in her work has influenced how I think about memory and place. Skelton’s current work interrogates the self as a subject in history and the interactions between Jewish genealogy and memory. This connects back to memory and loss, a main theme in Skelton’s paintings and more recent installation pieces that present a strong dialogue with that past, as well as, the special power of places that call up the past for her personally. Skelton’s work depicts an imagined past, present and future that move away from myth and symbol towards a language of direct and coded signs. For example, in a three-part work entitled Fear of the Father (1989) Skelton explores the tensions of family life and its unspoken emotional legacy. The painting is on three panels that depict the ground plan of her teenage family home. The paintings employ a combination of control and sensuousness through the paint color and texture, which become a symbolic index for the anger and fear Skelton felt when her father found her secret diary as a teenager. Skelton inspired me to critically think about how a journey is mapped out in time through significant spaces and events; specifically this mapping is revealed through my interviewee’s memories. Moreover, I had to imagine the spaces and experiences of my great, great grandmother because no interviewee could remember anything about her. Betterton describes Skelton’s work best in that “the shape of a room, the opening of a door and the lost passages in between, as well as the more dangerous locations of collective memory” is what signifies space and event. I am drawn to the interior walls of a home as a symbol for place in reference to the saying “if walls could talk.” Over the past 6 years, a 1904 Victorian semi-detached house has been my family home. It is in this building that I have had a lot of personal experiences and shared experiences with women in my motherline. My mother explained the strange coincidence that our home reflects my sister and I.
Well, you know, I think everybody likes this house. The two stained-glass windows are my favorite because there is the one representing the artist and the other one representing the academic. One actually looks like you a bit and the other looks like Ashley, who is doing her PhD. It is actually kind of funny how that turned out because it is almost like it was meant to be."-Holly Hicks
Moreover, based on the age of my Victorian family home and both my personal and shared experiences, it makes perfect sense that “if ‘my’ walls could talk,” they would have a lot to say. For me, the walls in my home are a place where I first met someone; fell out of love, a building I sleep inside, feel safe and can be vulnerable, as well as, grown up as both a woman and woman artist.
I believe in the power of representation through collage; that is, if I visualize my fears in life, I may be able to cope with them. Women in my motherline, like my mother’s experiences of anxiety and my personal fears of losing my home, sister, mother and grandmother are represented in the burning, scraping, hitting, and ripping gestures throughout If Walls Could Talk… In all of my collage work, anxiety is located in the dense layering that creates a sense of jostling identities, constantly being rearranged in different patterns, unable to be organized into a single stable system. I use the term “anxiety” to refer to the sadness I feel about not physically knowing my great, great grandmother and great grandmother, as well as, being separated from my sister, who lives in Montreal. To address my relationship to anxiety, I created If Walls Could Talk… to respond to the anxiety that I feel as a woman in patriarchal society. I have anxiety about leaving my mother alone in our huge house to maintain it on her own and the thought of my parents selling it once I move out adds to it. The thought that this beautiful dream home my parents searched for throughout my childhood, adolescents and well into my early adulthood being gone is extremely scary. It is nerve-wracking for me to think about leaving this chapter of my life behind because I have done the most growing as a woman and artist in this home. I have a lot of sentimental attachment to my bedroom, the place I painted my first serious large painting, made my applications to get into art school and my MFA program. I recognize that my current family home is very temporary because my parents will not be happy in such a large building away from their children, but it does not make it any easier for me. My sister has a very healthy perspective on my parents selling our current home.
"I am okay with mom and dad selling our house. I moved away almost 2 years ago. I will be sad I am sure, but I am ready for mom and dad to start a new chapter in heir life and one day become grandparents." -Ashley McAskill
In If Walls Could Talk… the fragments are significant because they become a tool to tell a story and reflect a pattern. I use fragmentation as a visual strategy and methodology to recognize the instability of identities that are rooted in gender in order to define self within networks of memory, place, family and culture.
If Walls Could Talk…, investigates the location of collective memory in the form of layers of wallpaper, burning and painting on drywall. The method of multiple layers of wallpaper, drawing, spray paint, fire, and wax create a spatial ambiguity that has an unresolved quality; further expressing anxiety. I am playing with how a refusal to ascribe to any fixed and finite meaning to the female body can be interpreted. The layers fuse together under the repeated process of gluing, wallpapering, ripping, burning, adhering wax, burning, painting, adhering wax and burning once again. I want for If Walls Could Talk… to transform the section of the gallery where it will be placed in a space for meditation. It is the representation of the inner turmoil I am feeling about the impermanence of my current family home. The layers are exposing the fragility and vulnerability that each woman in my motherline would have felt trying to fulfill the expectations of being ‘feminine.’ The physical process becomes a recorded series of literal and metaphorical displacements of time and location. The distances between generations of women in my family are expressed between present experience and memory by returning to the place that only exists in memory. For example, the displacements that heart problems and cancer have created between generations of women in my motherline are expressed through my great, great grandmother dying from heart failure at age 59 and my great grandmother from breast cancer at age 71. My great grandmother suffered the loss of her mother as an adult, as well as, my grandmother losing her mother in the same fashion. Beyond the displacement of the mother-daughter relationship, there is the devastation and anxiety that cancerous tumors introduce into the maternal body. The layers of wallpaper, fire, and painting depict the archeology of an imagined past, present and future. The work is about uncovering layers of my personal memory, which, like archeological remains lie embedded in individual psychic history. It becomes an archive of suffering, love, anxiety, burdens, joy and sorrow.
Motherline: A Self-Portrait represents my investigation into the lives, memories and experiences of women in my motherline; specifically, my great, great grandmother; great grandmother; grandmother; mother and sister in relation to myself. I have intentionally created each drawing and collage to show how each woman in my motherline has pushed through the ‘limited movements’ of patriarchal society in her own way. My great, great grandmother worked hard as a farmer’s wife in the country; my great grandmother was very savvy, running a house with 8 children and putting the men to work who showed up on her doorstep asking for food during the Depression. Moreover, my grandmother became part of the professional working force, raised 4 children while balancing a household and ill husband. My mother dedicated herself to my sister and I making sure we excelled in our studies and followed our passions. My sister overcame her extreme shyness to be become a Ph.D. Communication Studies student. I valorize the lives of the women in my motherline through the pleasure I take in dressing up, the idea of being a mother and through the close relationship I maintain with my grandmother, mother and sister. I seek to honor the gifts the women in motherline gave me such as: my great, great grandmother’s familial roots; my great grandmother’s compassion; my grandmother’s loyalty; my mother’s encouragement and my sister’s laughter. However, I feel in constant conflict with keeping my artistic career that I have spent years building up and my yearning to eventually become a mother and wife. I want to give my future children a similar childhood experience that I had with my mother growing up. Specifically, I realize that such will be difficult if I also want to fulfill my own ambitions and dreams as an artist. My conflict lives in the truth that I know I will never be happy being a fulltime mother without my own career and passion as a visual artist; I have a fear of my unknown future in how to balance this relationship. My research and body of artwork (Julia Begin; Florence Desjardins; Anne Baldasaro; Holly Hicks; Ashley McAskill; Carly McAskill; A Self-Portrait; Reflecting Burdens and If Walls Could Talk...) all work together in Motherline: A Self-Portrait to demonstrate that identity is both given and shaped by history. Through the art making process, I have learned a lot about myself as a woman artist; the construction of subjectivity and the history of identity have empowered me as a woman. Specifically, I have learned that collage is an amazing medium to explore shared imagination rooted in lived experience, individual expression, and memory. Throughout the last 2 years, my art practice has grown, changed and transformed into a strong body of work that reflects my understanding of the motherline, the umbilical cord that connects daughters to mothers.
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My Great, Great Grandmother
Full maiden name: Julia Begin
Full married name: Julia Desjardins
Birth date: 8 May 1860, Bearbrook Ontario
Death date: 27 November 1919, Widdfield Township (now part of North Bay, Ontario)
My Great Grandmother
Full maiden name: Florence Mary Desjardins
Full married name: Florence Mary Baldasaro
Birth date: 28 May 1891, Widdfield Township
Death date: 23 February 1962, Hamilton, Ontario
Full maiden name: Anne Mary Baldasaro
Full married name: Anne Mary Hicks
Birth date: 11 October 1917, Hamilton, Ontario
Current location: Guelph, Ontario
Full maiden name: Holly Anne Hicks
Full married name: Holly Anne McAskill
Birth date: 15 December 1951, North Bay, Ontario
Current location: Hamilton, Ontario
Full maiden name: Carly Anne McAskill
Date of Birth: 6 March 1985, North Bay, Ontario
Current location: Hamilton, Ontario
Full maiden name: Ashley Tamara McAskill
Date of birth: 3 November 1987, Ottawa, Ontario
Current location: Montreal, Quebec