The Art of Motherhood with artist Lisa Creagh
Artist Lisa Creagh’s exhibition Holding Time at the Royal Brompton Hospital and also her interviews of breastfeeding mothers address themes that some of our PSG groups are exploring in their research: in February, nearly 120 mothers from Parenting Science Gang took part in a study to find out what’s in breast milk for older children, in an experiment that they had designed in collaboration with Imperial College and another Parenting Science Gang group is looking at experiences of breastfeeding mothers when accessing healthcare.
We invited Lisa to join us so we could to find out more about her work and also what we can learn from her practice that might inspire us when we’re planning the dissemination of our own data.
Lisa Creagh: I’m a mother and my daughter is 5 and a half. I had a tricky time breastfeeding. You can read more about this experience here when you have time as the story is Loooong and sad, kind of.
Although now I’m doing this work for a few years I realize that my story is quite typical of many women’s experiences
But that’s skipping forward.
So I decided to do something, given my skills set, it was probably going to be photography…I was amazed by how little support there was for breastfeeding. And I was also amazed by breastfeeding. It blew me away. I had never experienced such a transcendental sense of connectedness to anyone. I felt it was absolutely the most incredible, magical, wonderful thing in the world (I was full of oxcitocyn) And actually I still do. It bothered me that it seemed to be kind of unpopular and when I started to struggle with it, I was amazed at how quickly everyone seemed to encourage me to stop.
I was unable to breastfeed from day 10 due to double mastitis and I experienced that separation like a teenage breakup. I was devastated.
And then I watched as my baby took a bottle and I realized something else: that it felt somehow familiar and right. And that’s when I saw how far our culture has gone from the roots of breastfeeding in motherhood.
Because the bottle was like my toy bottle for my dolly. Like every bottle I had ever seen on TV, in ads and of course in real babies mouths. I had literally only seen ONE woman breastfeed in my life before I gave birth and I know now that this is actually a lot more than many women
Ellie Stoneley Gradwell: The exact reason I wrote Milky Moments … you articulate it so well
So I felt there was a huge problem, not just of visibility but of beauty. Because when I started to look for images of breastfeeding, search them out they were one of three things: 1. Medical diagrams 2. selfies or 3. PreRenaissance madonnas
PSG A: Have you seen this book?
Lisa: I need a copy!!
PSG C: Lisa, Your words fill me with such sadness, save for the oxytocin bit. I relate, it resonates, it infuriates, it angers, it frustrates…
Lisa: Needless to say, I liked number 3 the best. I didn’t mind the selfies but they didn’t help me with what I was looking for. I was looking for inspiration. Because at this point I was expressing to (what I realise now) relactate
And I seriously needed inspiration to set that damn alarm at 3am and get up and pump on a cold december night, fifteen days after giving birth. it was a lonely job.
PSG D: Hell I remember this…it was awful
Lisa: God awful
PSG C: Oh the loneliness; the cold chills. Waking up in the middle of the night to pump, creeping out quitely so as not to wake anyone up. Basically disobeying GP & HV’s orders not to do this any more because you’ve done enough.
What a place of pain to remember….but also a strong place of advocacy for one self and one’s child.
Lisa: yes there’s a lot of strength in what women do for their children
PSG D: Oh yes. This sentence sums up motherhood for me the past two years throughout pregnancy and now he is 1
I needed beauty and wonder and the amazement that I remembered from those early days.
In those early days I felt like every mother was a goddess creating this miracle of life.
And the other thing I loved about breastfeeding was how it made time sort of go away. Time just passed, so easily, like a river flowing. It felt like a new kind of time. And I felt I could think these wonderful imaginative thoughts without any constraint. It was as if breastfeeding was this wonderful imaginative, intellectual experience where I could come up with ideas and research new thoughts and ideas and at the same time be so incredibly close to someone, someone new and exciting and brilliant..
PSG C: Sophia Collins, this reminds me of your story about the conception and development of the Parenting Science Gang during breastfeeding….the power of boobin hey 🎊🎊🎊
Lisa: Oh really? Very interesting. Apparently a good friend of Fay Weldon said she had 4 children because each time she thought of a new book 🙂
Lisa: So I thought about how to capture all of that and I felt it needed so many different elements to cover everything: I wanted to make beautiful portraits of mothers feeding and raise them up to where I felt they deserved to be.
Yes normalizing is one aspect of it. But also my project is about REALIZING it
What is it? We know the scientific data is always discovering new things about the content of the milk, but also there’s the psychology of it – the way breastfed babies behave…
PSG E: You articulate your experience so beautifully 💖
PSG B: Total agree, I feel the magic in your words
Lisa: So all of this develops as my own story develops. At 4 months my baby started to feed again and then it was, like WOW. Now I’m seeing it through totally new eyes because,
- I never thought I’d breastfeed again (after the loss of weight/mastitis situation my baby refused to feed on the breast, even after her tongue was cut for 3 and a half months)
and 2. Now I was seeing the difference in her after being bottle fed.
I loved the bottles because I got such a sense of control from knowing what she ate. And I liked to keep track of everything in little books. But when I went to exclusively breastfeeding (which happened rather dramatically one day) I couldn’t believe the change in her. It was like she was so much more satisfied, so much more content and happy. She wasn’t just full, she was FULFILLED.
It was a different kind of satisfaction for her.
So now the project got more complex really, because there was more to it than just images – there was the struggle. And the struggle continued…yes as others said above – the Doctors and others saying -oh give up. At first it’s because they’re worried about you having PNT (not realizing that breastfeeding helps with PNT) and then it’s because they want to help..or later it’s simply social convention.
Because I never intended to breastfeed for 2 and three quarter years but eventually I did because I realized that there was this thing called ‘Full term’ breastfeeding where the baby can wean itself and by then I had overcome so much, walked off on my own road. And so I breastfed until she was ready to stop. Until she forgot.
And around that time I met Lucilla and told her of my plan to create these images and she and I talked of the need for better conversations around breastfeeding, so the two projects started hand in hand: photographs and interviews.
It took two years to get the funding and in the meantime I just worked for free: I got a residency in a college and started getting in my breast-feeding friends to be photographed. And I recorded our conversations because breastfeeding for me is so much about the company of women and this is what I felt, in retrospect, I had lacked so much. I grieved the fact that I had no-one to breastfeed with, I longed to see women breastfeed and hear what they had to say.
PSG F: Yes, breastfeeding is a solo experience in our culture – well, a dyad, isn’t it? That’s almost certainly a modern approach isn’t it.
PSG G: Sometimes when I was feeding my babies I would think about all the women across the world, up in the night, feeding their babies in all their similar and different circumstances to me.
PSG H: Lovely.flow to this .. beautiful Lisa
The early pictures were sometimes a bit rough. I used the same lighting that I’d used for my flowers project, which was based on Dutch Flower painting. It’s quite low (light). Returning to the studio after 2 years of being a full time mum was nerve wracking. I was shaken at first. And every session was a rubix cube of childcare swaps and running to collect my daughter but I managed to get 12 images in about 18 months.
Lisa: I got funded on the third attempt. Here’s my pitch in 100 words: “This participatory project is designed overturn or challenge the cultural barriers to breastfeeding through positive representation, conversation, solidarity and empowerment.
Aimed at new mothers, particularly those who may lack the social or emotional support to breastfeed, this work attempts to overturn or challenge the cultural barriers to breastfeeding by reframing breastfeeding an active, creative activity. This work comprises of stop-motion and 3D animation portraits of breastfeeding mothers, encapsulating their entire duration of mothering up to the moment of capture. Outcomes: two exhibitions, a residency, talks, workshops, and interviews distributed over various channels.”
Once I got funded I finally was able to pay for childcare and speed things up. By then my daughter was actually 4 anyway so it was easier. You can see the first twelve and the following 11 here
Lisa Creagh So in the final application I realized that The Parlour was a great vehicle for bringing non-art audiences and new audiences to art, via medical facilities. My previous work had been bought, in the meantime by lots of hospitals and clinics as it was about my struggle to conceive and my feelings about medicalized fertility practices.
PSG C: Wow; gorgeous. What stories you have to tell!
PSG J: How did the women feel being photographed? Embarrassed, happy or something else?
Lisa: So by photographing the women I realized that many had issues they needed to offload before they would really ‘disarm’ and allow me to get the photo I wanted. I needed their trust. Some, especially in the second set, didn’t know me personally, or what I wanted from them. So again, conversation was key. Once I explained that this was a space where breastfeeding was ‘allowed’ in fact it was all that was wanted. That they didn’t have to perform, only to feed as they would ordinarily, they were usually so happy. Many wanted to talk about the project and why they felt it was necessary, urgent even
PSG E: Lisa Have you had a chance to share your perspective with other female artists who portray breastfeeding eg Leanne Pearce? I am so heartened by your dedication and commitment to pursue your dreams and goals-breastfeeding and artistically 💐
PSG A: If you have time, I’m wondering if the experience of the photograph and interview session was transformative for the mothers as well?
I read a fascinating piece recently that critiqued the total lack of breastfeeding in popular culture (on TV especially) and how that is a major driver of the problems.
Your story is amazing, I’m near Chelsea and will be taking some breastfeeding friends to see your work!
Lisa: Oh that’s great, thank you. Yes I think the incidentals are absolutely key because they create a sense of what is normal. So if every woman who gives birth in a TV show breastfed in subsequent episodes, it would be enormous.
Because it’s incidental…this is something TV and advertising have understood in terms of race and women but when it comes to motherhood they revert to this 60s stereotype. I just don’t get it..!
Lisa: One woman said to me ” I feel that breastfeeding is my version of radical activism” and I loved that because what women do everyday is so radical and goes against the norm, when the ‘norm’ is earning money, being selfish, taking care of yourself
PSG D: I’ve just been part of a photo shoot for normalising breastfeeding in my front room! She was doing photo shoots at peoples houses for a uni project which she is showing and may be turning into a book!
Lisa: That’s great
PSG E: I felt that BF was/is totally and utterly selfless but also completely selfish, if you can understand? Maybe symbiotic then?!!
Lisa: I think I would call it ‘self absorbed’ rather than selfish. And for good reason you are absorbed in what you are doing. The point is, you ARE doing something. You’re NOT ‘Just sitting there!!”
PSG F: Lisa you’re connected with health care professionals and researchers through your work.
Do you think there’s a place for art and science / health care research to work together to inform the public and move the conversation on breastfeeding forward?
Lisa: As I mentioned there was a lot of research at the outset. I found most if not all of my inspiration from research. That was where I got answers and started to really understand the bigger picture.
It was often this perspective that I shared with the women I photographed: the statistics on breastfeeding, the research into its benefits
It’s really been as a result of interviewing women and also working with Lucila Newell (the sociologist who cofounded/writes for the Parlour) that I’ve got an even bigger perspective. I’ve moved from thinking the problem is social (i.e, women don’t see positive imagery/don’t meet other breastfeeders/recieve negative comments etc) to thinking it is structural (cuts to services/poorly trained GPS/lack of strategy from the top down) the longer I work on it
PSG C: 👆🏾👆🏾👆🏾
I find it all so depressing if I think about it too much. The barriers are so high!
Lisa: Well things often go forwards and backwards, even when they are progressing. If you think about how we learn, for example, we often get things wrong on the way to getting them right. We go down a blind alley, turn back, retrace our steps and find our way again. This project is really about helping us retrace our steps…
PSG G: I am going to try to remember that Lisa Creagh as things often feel like we are going badly backwards at the moment.
Lisa: I’m still working towards the magical representation of time slowing down, and the inspiration space of breastfeeding. And for this I have been making a film of the mothers which you can see work in progress here.
This uses an ancient code, reinvented to “count’ the time the mothers spend feeding using scale. So time ‘grows’ rather than passes.
PSG F: I loved learning about time maps through your work, fascinating stuff!
PSG M: Such a beautiful story!
Q: Interesting to read how some of the science came into your work. What difference, if any do you think it made for the mums you spoke with, about it?
Lisa: Several said they found it liberating. The fact can set you free…in particular Paediatric research was useful. But also social science – knowing that politically and socially it can be different. That how it is here can change.
Q: Lisa it would be fab to see the research info that really struck a chord with you.
It seems that breastfeeding research doesn’t rub everyone the liberating way; so lovely that you and the mums you spoke with found it freeing.
Lisa: I found one Australian webpage that was simply “101 reasons to breastfeed” with the items listed and hyperlinked to the research. I loved the simplicity of that..
And I read a lot of blogs – women who were expressing write a lot I think because it’s hard to keep going…
PSG C: Lisa indeed. I read lots of blogs in my expressing days too. It provided that information commaradie / affirmation that I desperately needed at the time.
Q: It’s really interesting to me that we’re collecting very similar data – the experiences of mothers for one of our projects – and with very similar motivations for a lot of the group members, but our outputs are so different – ours a scientific study and yours is art.
In our other studies we have many different types of data, but all about parenting and children, essentially.
I wonder if we might learn anything from you that could help us with dissemination of our results / ideas? Our interviews will be text, not video and our output a study.
But we want it to travel further than scientific journals – we’d love to reach and inspire mothers, health professionals and the public.
Previously some of our group members have wondered aloud about about data visualisation, is this something you might have any tips for us on?
Lisa: I like the phrase, “The soul apprehends the symbol in a flash” I don’t know who said it but there is some truth in the idea that humans can “read’ visual material in a more sophisticated manner than words. After all, we were drawing long before we were writing.
So pictures are powerful. I am interested in pattern because it can hold so much information if you have the key and a lot of conceptual art relies upon this same principle. In fact it’s also how we visualize data. So any representation of an idea that uses a code, even if it is as simple as a bar chart, is a useful tool in disseminating data. I suppose the challenge is to embed ideas that are richly complex in visual imagery that combines beauty with the truth of things.
PSG F: “the challenge is to embed ideas that are richly complex in visual imagery that combines beauty with the truth of things.”
That’s brilliant. I’m going to write it in big letters somewhere when we get to dissemination!
Lisa: The five candles on a birthday cake do this perfectly within the context of a child’s party. None of us need that code explaining and it is easy. But it is there for public dissemination.
It’s that simple really: find imagery that fits the theme and create a simple symbol to carry the information.
PSG F: Lisa Creagh what themes are emerging from your interviews with mothers on breastfeeding?
(We haven’t started ours yet).
Lisa: Work is always there
PSG C: It looms large, doesn’t it! We need money, and motherhood and breastfeeding don’t in themselves pay the bills; the powers that be made sure of that.
Lisa: Money and time are always barking at the door
But also their concerns for society. They worry about the sexualization of women’s bodies, especially (I notice) if they have daughters. They are often angry with their treatment by health professionals and there’s a sense of some losing patience and faith in professionals. They talk about their relationships and how they have changed since birth. But I think the most singular issue is the change they have experienced in themselves and how they don’t see that reflected back to them anywhere culturally. They are resentful about having to pretend to be unchanged by such a major event. And I think that is because birth and the rituals of motherhood are so hidden…
What interviews are you planning?
PSG F: We are planning two things: interviews with mothers, focusing on their experiences of health care and breastfeeding, particularly advice they receive from breastfeeding professionals.
We also have a lot of health care professionals in that group, who are breastfeeding mothers themselves. We’re planning a secondary project with on the experiences of mothers like them.
PSG G: I found the book What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen had a huge impact on me. I wished I had read it earlier as soon as I had my first baby. But when I did read it, a few years later, it gave me the words to describe my experiences and how my life had changed.
Lisa: Yes I love that book. And also Love Matters
PSG K: I love What Mothers Do and also just started Love Matters and loving it too!
PSG G: Think I’ll have to put Love Matters on my reading list too then 🙂
PSG K: I think both should be gifted to every new mum
Maybe also every policy maker
Lisa: Perhaps better than ‘The Baby book’ and “The Baby Whisperer’ which is what I got!
Q: Are your images ‘ on display’ somewhere
Lisa: [The video is posted above]. They are also on display currently at Royal Brompton Hospital in Chelsea, London 🙂
Q: Returning to work was harder than I expected too. Somehow I’d lost my confidence
Lisa: Yes there’s a strange parting of ways that had taken place between me and my old life. Now I’m interviewing women I hear it a lot. It’s in Reena’s interview and Bethania’s and another one I haven’t uploaded yet.
PSG C: I’m literally at this point now. Society didn’t seem to care about hide challenging it is to get plugged back into the world of ‘work’ after becoming a mother….there’s a zero prep for it, it seems.
Lisa: Women respond differently to this: some return to work, others choose to stay at home but almost everyone embraces some kind of change. If the transformation of motherhood is celebrated, women can negotiate this transition more easily I feel. Before I became a mother I felt that it was somehow weak to leave work, to not be ‘able’ to do both. Now I realize (in myself) the resistance was much more about love and willingness. My priorities had just changed and I needed and wanted time with my child and she needed it with me.
Having said that, I kept making art, but just not really in a professional way. I fulfilled the obligations I had planned beforehand but I stopped pushing as I wanted to make this new work. And I left my job completely, but that’s another story…
PSG C: Lisa another story – have you written about this, or do you have it on record? It would be fab to hear or read it.
Lisa: I think this is a KEY issue around breastfeeding and a major issue for our times: the version of Feminism we have adopted (did we adopt it or was it the version we were given???) is quite male. ie we can be equal as long as we are the same as men. If we want to work like men we have to behave like men. Hence there is no provision (or precious little) for all the things that make us women. Nothing brings this to the fore more than becoming a mother…
I would like to see a new Feminism based around difference. We are equal and we are different.
PSG C: Lisa equity, equity, equity!
PSG C: Reading your story / words here has been like watching a gorgeous dance unfold right before one’s eyes; so moving, full of passion and such delicate emotions that raises the hairs on your body and involves one’s soul from within. Thanks for your words.
PSG G: I think you are a poet yourself
PSG C: I am; and I yearn for time to write; I’m desperate for it. Reading Lisa’s words here has been an inner call of a sort to me. There’s a meeting of minds, hope and encouragement to write….😂
Thanks for your comment; it means a lot that you saw that. 😍
PSG G: You will get that time some day
Lisa: Come on, just start and allow yourself to do it badly for a bit. I don’t mean badly, but maybe not as well as you might have done before children. Just start and don’t judge. Be kind to yourself.
PSG C: Lisa I know what you mean; and I do bits and bobs once in a while. I need to stand up against the perfectionist in me and just create without conditions. Thanks for the encouragement. 😍
Lisa: Yes and just do it regularly.That’s key 🙂