A Tribute to Art and Motherhood

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María Magdalena Campos-Pons, “Replenishing” (2001), composition of seven Polaroid Polacolor Pro photographs, 88 1/2 x 66 inches (image courtesy the artist)

Mother’s Day, traditionally celebrated on the second Sunday in May in the United States, can evoke a vast range of feelings, from pride to comfort to grief to apathy. On this day, some of us will celebrate, others will remember, and still others will process complex emotions surrounding moms and maternal figures, chosen or biological, in all their nuances and imperfections.

This year, Hyperallergic asked artists and art workers in our community to reflect on motherhood. Some of them are mothers themselves or credit their mothers with the inspiration and empowerment to pursue a career in the arts. Their moving words and memories speak to the many roles and layers of a universally revered, misunderstood, and iconic figure. —Valentina Di Liscia, News Editor

My mother, Estervina Pons-Leon, was the first feminist I met, determined, beautiful and with a radical sense of justice. She was the one who told me never to give up my dreams. I speak with her daily, and her guidance is paramount. —Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Artist

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Cecilia Vicuña and her mother Norma Ramírez at the Venice Biennale in 2022 (photo courtesy the artist)

My mother, Norma Ramírez, is made of strange material. She is 99 years old and still strong, and able to transmute, transform, hatred into love. She says: I will not let them destroy mi alegría de vivir, my joy of being alive. — Cecilia Vicuña, Artist

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Artist Michael Rakowitz and his mother in the mid-1970s (photo courtesy the artist)

My mother, Yvonne David Rakowitz, has been the biggest influence on my life as an artist and as a human being. From when I was very young, she and my father, Frederic, were the best friends and guides a kid could have navigating the museums and sites of New York City, instilling in me and my brothers an understanding of how art, music, and culture in general had the capability of transforming lives. Our home on Long Island was and still is a portal to a departed Baghdad, from where her parents and older siblings were forced to flee after the Farhud, the violent dispossession of Iraq’s Jews, in 1941. That place came to life through my grandparents’ stories, told and retold, and of course, through the food. Long before Rachel Whiteread cast a house in concrete, my mother and my grandmother cast our house in the smell of Iraqi baharat, cumin, and allspice. Despite the separation of our family from a place that they loved, our memory work is located in our celebrations, our cooking together, and transmitting our recipes and traditions lovingly to subsequent generations, as I am doing with my children. And, my father, whose family came from Europe originally, makes the best Iraqi amba salad! Ashdeeduk, immi! Bless your hands, and Happy Mother’s Day.  —Michael Rakowitz, Artist

Caption Me and my mum with a black forest cake we made together one afternoon when she was visiting me in New York. photo courtesy Hrag Vartanian
Hrag Vartanian and his mother with a black forest cake they made together one afternoon when she was visiting him in New York (photo courtesy Hrag Vartanian)

If it wasn’t for my mother I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be an art writer or a writer at all. Growing up she not only took me to book readings and bookstores, she’d also read poetry to me at night by my bedside, but she also bought me some of the most beautiful art books I’d ever seen. When she was balancing the house budget and the curiosity of her youngest child, she occasionally decided that it was worthwhile to spend what felt like exorbitant prices for colorful tomes that I’d read and look at incessantly for hours at a time. My mother also taught me to be a good reader, teaching me that every writer needed a dedicated audience, and her love of reading was something I grew up appreciating every day. I don’t know how she did it, but my mother allowed me to explore and be myself and that’s the type of parental love that can help me get through the day. Not to mention my mum is also wonderful with crafts, so I grew up surrounded by the most creative objects that she’d create for holiday seasons or my dolls — and yes, she was always supportive of my doll collection. —Hrag Vartanian, Editor in Chief, Hyperallergic

Sheila’s mother Tommie (photo courtesy the artist)

I never fully grasped the immense power of a mother’s love until my mother passed away in 2019. As I recall her words, I truly understand the depth of wisdom she imparted.  —Sheila Pree Bright, Artist

Sharon Madanes Unwanted Thoughts 2024 oil on linen 20 x 24 inches
Sharon Madanes, “Unwanted Thoughts” (2024), oil on linen, 20 x 24 inches (photo courtesy the artist)

This painting, titled “Unwanted Thoughts,” is about the common yet taboo experience of having distressing, uninvited thoughts of harming one’s baby. As a reproductive psychiatrist, I see many mothers and birthing parents who feel alone because their experience of motherhood doesn’t match traditional notions of uncomplicated joyful devotion. Yet I think this is the dominant experience of motherhood — rife with ambivalence, anxiety and tortured thoughts, in addition to love and joy. I identify with this as a parent and an artist who feels the constant pull to be in my studio and the feeling of loss that accompanies both the decision to stay and the decision to go. These days I am trying to reimagine motherhood not as a precarious balancing act in which one side detracts from the other, instead pushing myself to recognize the potential for synergy among my various identities. In the words of famous maximalist Robert Venturi, “less is a bore.”  At least this is what I tell myself at the end of a night spent catching up on medical documentation, sketching and cleaning up the remnants of forts. —Sharon Madanes, Artist and Reproductive Psychiatrist

Gray Swartzel Still from Self Portrait with Mother Twins 2018 Single Channel 4K Video 3 00 Dimensions Variable
Still from Gray Swartzel, Self-Portrait with Mother (Twins) (2018), single-channel 4K video (photo courtesy the artist)

Mother’s Day resonates deeply with me, interwoven with the essence of my artistic expression. My work delves into the complex layers of motherhood, infused with performativity, a touch of impudent camp, and the nuances of my queer identity, constructing images that meticulously blur the lines between reality and artifice. Candlelight flickers over lush settings, casting shadows that dance across faces and floral arrangements, transforming each picture into a stage where family interactions unfold as carefully directed performances. From theatrical portrayals of a dinner set with lobster and cake to a self-portrait with my mother on the grave of her parents, my work celebrates the exaggerated beauty and poignant absurdity of our social constructs. The celebration has added significance this year as my mother and I live nearby for the first time in nearly a decade.

This proximity lends a special charm to our dual festivities — Mother’s Day and my wedding! My soon-to-be husband and I share an obsession with orchids, something I lovingly attribute to my mom. A hand-nurtured orchid is the most intimate gift I can imagine, and this year, Mom will receive a Miltoniopsis ‘Golden Snows White Light.’ This orchid, a cultivated beauty boasting ten flowering spikes and an anticipated profusion of blooms, carries a divine fragrance and visually striking white flowers centered with vivid yellow, symbolizing the love of beauty we cherish in our relationship. As celebrations mesh, Mother’s Day morphs into a multifaceted symbol of life cycles, renewal, and the enduring potency of blood and chosen familial bonds, cheekily nodding to how these themes perennially bloom in my work, much like the anticipated orchid. — Gray Swartzel, Artist

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Curator Carmen Hermo’s mother Aurora and sister Lucia at the Visual Art Center of New Jersey (photo courtesy Carmen Hermo)

After childhood’s homemade cards and breakfasts in bed, Mother’s Day became “no big deal” for our family of busy women and Dad. In November 2022, however, my Mom — who was in Spain taking care of her mother in late stages of dementia, and stressed — suffered two ruptured aneurysms, and suddenly her survival, her advice, her boundless energy were held in the balance of a devastating coma. Five months of persistent infections followed, and every day my Dad, sister, and aunt and I watched for fevers to clear as my Mom lay immobile with an external drain leaking brain fluid, in an inhospitable hospital. While we supported her with touch and talking, we had no idea what her brain damage would mean long term, and we celebrated and debated the meaning of her slightest nod or half-smile. Finally in late April 2023 her infections cleared and she was stabilized at last; the day after Mother Day’s, my sister boarded with Mom on a “medical evacuation flight” to New Jersey. Mom’s finally at home and working hard at therapy every day, after 13 months in medical and rehab facilities — she’s talking up a storm, we’ve visited a couple museums, and though brain damage is a mysterious thing, she was excited to edit and critique this little text. Mom always held me to high standards, and her love for art (particularly Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, and sometimes Picasso) and people entirely shaped my life.

This Mother’s Day we will be grateful, but somewhat bored since wheelchair-accessible vans were all booked for the weekend and the suburbs lack sidewalks — but more importantly we will be together and safe. While the medical transport flight felt like an absolutely insane tightrope of tension and fear then, I see it now as extreme privilege through the lens of the mothers and children and families in Gaza, and those newly disabled, whose hospitals have been bombed, healthcare workers targeted, and for whom food and medical supplies — let alone a flight to safety — are cruelly barred by the walls of occupation. —Carmen Hermo, Curator

My experience of motherhood is an eternal push and pull of forces and feelings.

Days are shorter, nights are longer, but it feels like unwrapping a present every morning when she wakes up to this world which sometimes I doubt it deserves her and a world of which I’m partly guilty of. Motherhood makes me feel at times that I know absolutely nothing yet that I’m capable of everything, and there are days in which I think I know it all and yet I’m capable of very little. My failures give her a taste of loving naiveness and she, freshly arrived on Earth teaches me compassion, both of us wrapped in the scent of genuine innocence. We’ve created a cocoon filled with romance languages, books, songs, walks, and rituals. She reminds me of a bird. She reminds me of the being I dreamt of. As a photographer, infatuated with light, my daughter has taught me that light now comes from within and my photographs are just testimony of the play between light and shadow as we go through every day together as one. 

When it comes to my motherhood, I live by the words of Natalia Ginzburg: “What we must remember above all in the education of our children is that their love of life should never weaken.” My ultimate job as a mother is to raise a person who will go on to be all she can be without me by her side, knowing that I’ll no longer be complete when she decides to fly away. —María Sprowls-Cervantes, Photographer

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