Emily van Lidth de Jeude could have chosen any number of ways to create portraits of mothers.
That she landed on the idea of painting on old bedsheets was no accident.
“You live, you die, you’re born on sheets. Everything happens on sheets. All our dreams are in them; our babies are often conceived in them. So much mothering takes place in sheets,” she muses. “It’s way more interesting to make art on something that has a history.”
Emily, who lives and works on Bowen Island, is bringing her installation The MAMA Project to Deer Lake Gallery this week. It’s running at the Burnaby Arts Council’s gallery from May 11 to June 3, with opening reception and performance on May 13.
It’s a project that began in 2009, when Emily began interviewing mothers she knew, recording their thoughts about their experiences with mothering and being mothered. It was a natural subject of interest at the time, she says, since she was raising two small children of her own (they’re now 12 and 15) and running a Mother’s Place parenting program in her community.
“I just really thought, as mothers we’re kind of invisible in our uniqueness and our personalities,” she recalls. “Yet everyone is going through their own personal journey that matters so much.”
She took the recorded interviews and used them as her inspiration for portraits of each of the mothers. Her work soon expanded to mothers she didn’t know, as she reached out to find a diversity of mothering experiences for her work. She even set out on a tour down the Pacific Northwest coast in 2011, interviewing women as she travelled.
In each interview, Emily asks certain set questions – starting with “Describe your mothering experience” – and then follows where the interview takes her over the course of an hour or two.
“People have the stories that just come out,” she says. “You just never know what really interesting things are going to come out of it.”
The stories run the gamut of emotions and experiences, both positive and negative, from the small and seemingly insignificant to the large and consequential. Emily has interviewed women who have had headline-making journeys – such as the first gay woman in San Francisco to adopt a baby - and she has interviewed families across the generations. In one case, she created a portrait of five generations; four women, from great-great-grandmother on down, shared their stories for the project, with the fifth generation a baby in arms. That one was memorable, she says, for showing her how people can share the same family history and yet come out of it with completely different stories.
The whole process has left her with the realization that women rarely have a real chance to discuss their mothering journeys.
“We talk about the little hassles, and sometimes the big challenges, with our friends, with other mothers … but we don’t ever talk about our big journey,” Emily says. “When you really give someone the stage for a full hour, almost everybody comes to some kind of conclusion.”
Most women, she says, realize that they are trying to be as good a mother as their own mother was – or, in many cases, that they’re trying to be a better mother than the one they grew up with.
“There’s this feeling of trying to improve through the generations,” she says.
She admits that the process of being interviewed is “almost traumatic” for many women, likening it to an in-depth counselling session.
“Our memories of our own being mothered are often buried, but they inform everything about our lives,” she says. “Nobody has a perfect life. Nobody has the most perfect experience of being a mother.”
In the end, Emily chooses anywhere from five to 20 minutes of the interviews to include as audio with her exhibition, playing alongside the portrait of the woman in question. She paints the portraits from photos of the women, always looking for something expressive that reflects that individual woman’s journey. Her painting style changes from portrait to portrait, she says, with some being more descriptive and others created in a much looser style.
The MAMA Project installation has been seen in a variety of locations along the coast, including Victoria, Bowen Island, Gibsons and Port Townsend, Wash. As in previous incarnations, Emily plans for her Deer Lake installation to include both indoor and outdoor portions; for the outdoor portraits – hung on lines with clothespins – Emily uses words painted on sheets, since it can be hard to hear the audio outdoors.
She loves the immersiveness of the experience in having viewers walk through the sheets, holding on to them to read the words and to study the life-size portraits.
“It’s interactively fabulous to have them on the sheets,” she says, noting the sheets are full of stains, tears and rips that speak to their own histories. “It’s really tactile.”
Reaction to her installation caught her by surprise. While Emily thought mothers would be the ones most affected by the exhibition, in fact the opposite has been true.
“I think we’ve shelved, because we need to, the how and why we’re mothering. We don’t really think about our own histories that way,” she says.
Men, on the other hand, have no such need to compartmentalize the mothering experience – and, as a consequence, they’re open to the full impact of the installation.
“Older men are by far the most affected,” she says. “They have seen their wives go through it and their children go through it, but they don’t have any cultural way of processing it.”
Those affected by the exhibition and moved to share their own stories are invited to write in a book that travels with the installation where viewers have recorded their thoughts, in words and pictures - running the gamut from sweet and funny contributions from children, to tear-filled farewells and bitter reminiscences of loss and dysfunction.
Emily has wrapped up the whole package by creating a performance she calls SuperMAMA, incorporating songs and poetry about motherhood and being mothered. It’s taking place on Saturday night, May 13, at 6:30 p.m. Emily will be joined by her own mother, Lyn van Lidth de Jeude, and her 12-year-old daughter, Rhiannon Raven, for the performance, along with musician and artist Keona Hammond.
The performance covers the gamut of mothering experiences, from sad experiences such as miscarriage, to the humour of one piece Emily titled “Pregnant Zombies From Hormone.”
“The whole thing is manic and bizarre, which is kind of what it is to be a mother,” she says with a laugh. “It’s through that complex diversity of experiences that we really get a wholeness in our lives.”
CHECK IT OUT:
What: The MAMA Project, an installation by artist Emily van Lidth de Jeude
Where and When: Deer Lake Gallery, 6584 Deer Lake Ave., May 11 to June 3. Open Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 4 p.m.
Opening reception: Saturday, May 13, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., with opening performance of SuperMAMA, a 50-minute multimedia performance of songs and poetry about motherhood and being mothered.
Special events: Exhibition open for Mother’s Day, May 14, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with MAMA conversation from 3 to 4 p.m.