OTTAWA — “The personal is political,” as a second-wave feminist slogan, underscores how systems of oppression shape everyday struggles. The missive is now informing the launch of a public art project about the labor of mothering during the pandemic.
The Mother Artists Campaign: Ballot Initiative wants to generate new conversations about art-making and maternity. Led by the 44.4 Mothers/Artists Collective, the grassroots feminist art initiative provides a critical discourse often lacking in the heavily-corporatized mama culture that often dominates Instagram and Tiktok spaces. By strategically placing political yard signs around public sites, the hybrid on- and offline project is making space in Ottawa and the Outaouais region for mothers/artists who have been overlooked and misrepresented in the art world.
The collective takes its name from the $44.4 million auction sale of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/Flower No. 1, the highest ever hammer price for a female artist. (In comparison, da Vinci posthumously bagged $450.3 million for the supposed sleeper masterpiece Salvator Mundi.)
Formed 18 months ago, 44.4 was established by photographer Elizabeth Raymer Griffin and visual artist Sarah Jane Estabrooks as a pre-pandemic monthly meetup for artists with varied practices to critique each other’s works in a studio environment. The emphasis is on providing “space, accountability, deadlines, momentum and just a real feeling of being understood as an artist who is also a mother,” says Raymer Griffin.
“One of the interesting things, when we were working on the translation of ‘Motherhood, is Political’ is if you translate it directly [from French], you’re talking about female policies,” says 44.4 co-founder Sarah Jane Estabrooks.
Although Canadian parents can receive up to 50 weeks of paid pregnancy or parental benefits from the country’s Employment Insurance (EI) plan, the United States is one of three countries in the world that doesn’t have a national paid leave mandate. During this time, 44.4 is primarily focused on building a mother artist network in Canada’s national capital region, but they’re also interested in developing an open-source organizing model that can be taken up by other communities.
“While our sign interventions are local, the project has taken a real look outwards and has us considering how we can connect to other mother artists networks that already exist as well as connect to mother artists that aren’t already connected to a larger network,” says 44.4 artist-member Jennifer Cherniack.
The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the inequities of family life, and how mothers still shoulder a disproportionate share of parenting. According to the New York Times, a majority of jobs lost during the early part of the pandemic were held by women. Since then, there’s been a pronounced slowing of working mothers’ employment and labor force participation rates, dipping to levels not seen since the mid-1980s. In recent research led by sociologist Jennifer Calarco about how pandemic-related disruptions are impacting mothers, those unemployed or making less money than their partners are especially vulnerable, since many policymakers are predicating access to financial resources for childcare pending employment.
While the pandemic forced the 44.4 Mothers/Artists Collective to reschedule an upcoming group exhibition, it did open up the opportunity to collaborate on a public project in response to the evolving constraints of local art exhibiting guidelines during COVID-19.
Deliberately coinciding with and commenting on the recent US election, the collective chose a non-political party-affiliated color scheme — turquoise and yellow — installing signs within outdoor parks or near Louise Bourgeois’s monumental Maman spider sculpture in front of the National Gallery of Canada. The group embeds its campaign in public sites frequently accessed by mothers and children, but also the art world structures at play for 44.4 members who make their living as professional working artists, writers, and arts workers in the nation’s capital.
“We have these big funders, institutions, and organizations, and then these small artist-run centers,” says Cherniack, who is also an arts worker. “It makes for a really complicated space for making art.”
“Also, there is not any space to make art,” interjects Raymer Griffith, who was an adjunct instructor at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon for a decade before moving to Ottawa with her husband and son. “I’m used to living in post-industrial places where you can set up shop in an old cookie factory. That doesn’t exist here, because the industry is [the] government.”
Like Lenka Clayton’s ongoing Artist Residency in Motherhood — an open-source residency for mothers to self-direct in their own homes — 44.4 is part of an ever-evolving peer-to-peer network re-distributing low-residency opportunities and resources for arts professionals who are also parents. As 44.4 gears up to install another round of election signs this January, the group looks forward to monthly Zoom meetings and making connections with local galleries to closely track the changes its members are now seeing. The Canada Council for the Arts, for instance, now allows artists to list childcare as an eligible expense in submitted project budgets, and the Ottawa Art Gallery offers free childcare.
“We love the idea of others taking the model we’re developing to their own communities,” writes Cherniack via email, regarding the broader implications of the collective’s local organizing. She continued:
One aspect we find specific to our collective is that we are a group of mother artists in very different stages of parenting and art-making, and we see this as part of the dynamic. There is, in a sense, a type of mentorship between the members in both ways. Our group also is focused on art-making while mothering, which looks really different for everyone, and there’s lots of room to explore what that means.
With widespread public school closures happening again in response to the rise in COVID-19 cases, 4.44’s mission speaks to the urgency for small-scale, intimate networks, filling the ever-deepening lack of social safety nets in countries like Canada and the US, and the intense parental pressures still being faced by artist-mothers during the pandemic.