Amber Berson. Photo by Saelan Twerdy

Motherhood as an artist

Montreal curator and writer Amber Berson on challenging the art world’s thinking about being a mother.

Amber Berson is a Montreal-based curator and writer who has worked extensively on the topic of motherhood in the arts world.

Mother’s Day seems like just the right moment to think beyond obligatory phone calls and bouquets to examine the inherently unstable ground that artists and mothers both share (and which, for moms who are also artists, can be especially difficult territory to navigate). Berson and I discussed accessibility in the parental context, argued over the nature of ambition and talked about the artists who are working to challenge the art world’s thinking about being a mother.

Nora Rosenthal: Aside from actually being a mother, what got you interested in the way motherhood is talked about in galleries?

Amber Berson: This is a long story, but effectively the way I got into working in the art world was actually through being involved in an anarchist bookstore and being involved in the activist community. When we did events there and elsewhere we always had childcare and it just seemed like a very normal thing. The whole project was to make it accessible and accommodating.

I was thinking about accessibility in this wider sense already and then I had an incident after I became a parent that just really upset me. I was invited to a feminist art space to give a talk. It was part of a series where 12 people are invited and each gets an hour. It’s a 12-hour event, it goes all night, and it was in New York and you don’t get paid to do it.

So I was invited there and I had just given birth. My baby was four months old. The curators of the event knew that I had a baby and that I would be coming to New York on my own money. A few days before the event, once I had already arrived in New York, the woman said “You can’t bring your baby.” And I was like “Well then I can’t come.” They made me feel very uncomfortable when I did bring her, and they had a small yappy dog and they didn’t check if anybody was allergic to the dog or anything. It just wasn’t a feminist environment.

A friend put me in touch with a friend of hers who for six years of her child’s life hadn’t talked about having a kid because when she was pregnant she was fired from her job for being pregnant. Her [current] boss didn’t know she had a kid. Her kid was 6. So we started thinking about it together and we dreamed up a project and then we found out that project already existed. It’s called Cultural Reproducers.

We put together an exhibition about it, [The Let Down Reflex]. I think there was just a real hunger for that. That had a long life but then people we worked with developed other projects out of that that have taken on their own life.

NR: I was wondering, all the projects I could find around this topic seemed very contemporary; what do you feel are some of the historical precursors to this work?

AB: Something that comes up all the time is the Wages for Housework Movement. One of the main people in that is Silvia Federici, who wrote Caliban and the Witch. It came out of Italy but it had chapters across North America. Well, across the world.

Jess Dobkin has a project from the early 2000s where she makes a breastmilk bar. And Leisure — who are two artists that I work with often — their research deals with historical precedents to this work. Cornelia Oberlander, who designed the park at Expo, was a landscape designer and she was invited to do the landscaping for Expo and ended up making a kids’ park as part of it.

I don’t know if you know the Theory of Loose Parts? It’s a child pedagogy strategy but it comes from this woman Barbara Hepworth, who was a sculptor. She lived in the St Ives Colony and most people who lived there were couples where the man was the artist and had the studio and the woman was the child caregiver and the meal maker, and that is neither here nor there, but in this relationship Barbara and her husband were both artists so there was this expectation that she would then also continue to do the childcare. She had triplets and another son and she let them come to the studio and play with the stuff in her studio. The Theory of Loose Parts was actually developed by her son but it comes out of his own childhood experience. He doesn’t name that though. But effectively it’s his mother who developed that theory.

NR: Related to this, I think, is the big question of ambition. I have so many female artist friends who will only consider having kids if their career is established but they’re dubious about that even being a possible balance in a system that is stacked against them. What would you say to them?

AB: I have so many feelings about that. I feel like the number one thing is that when you’re thinking like that you’re just upholding the patriarchy. You’re upholding a standard that requires you to do things in a certain order and work within a certain framework and when we allow ourselves to think like that we’re just upholding that way of thinking.

NR: Do you really think that to be an ambitious person–

AB: –no I don’t think being ambitious is the problem but to think, “Oh, if I have a baby now it will derail my career” is a particularly problematic way of thinking, especially because it’s almost exclusively women who think that way.

NR: Doesn’t that put the onus on the artist to single-handedly ignore the circumstances that dictate their lives?

AB: I think the circumstances of being an artist are almost impossible to begin with.

NR: So, with this dawning awareness of the space of parenthood crashing up against the space of the gallery, are there ways in which you’ve noticed things changing for the better?

AB: Totally. More and more spaces offer childcare, either as an activity for children during events or as an actual childcare service. For instance the CCA now offers a day care at openings. OBORO for many years has offered a colouring table at events. Other spaces are following suit. Many spaces will have events that are at hours that are more accommodating for parents, so afternoon openings instead of evenings.

NR: Are there any particular projects that are coming up in Montreal or elsewhere and that are engaging with all this that you’re particularly interested in?

AB: Basically anything Shani Parsons is doing. She runs a space called Critical Distance. Leah Sandals at Canadian Art also has made real strides to change the way things are talked about, what kind of projects are covered.

A lot of people I know who are in the arts are pregnant but not necessarily vocal about it right now and I’m curious to see how their projects change after they have kids…or don’t.

At the end of the day, the most important thing you should do is ask people what they need. There’s a really great book that I refer to often called Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, which is specifically about being a parent in activist circles, but I think it’s good for people outside of activist circles and I think it’s good for people who are thinking about accessibility outside of parenthood. I think it’s a really helpful book that everyone should read. ■