The Mother Artist: Portraits of Ambition, Limitation, and Creativity

"The Mother Artist" by Catherine Ricketts is a compelling exploration of motherhood’s ability to both limit and stimulate art. — Amy Pagliarella

By Catherine Ricketts
Broadleaf Books, 210 pages | Published April 16, 2024

The broad wall of my bedroom is dominated by a piece of original art, in which tree branches grasp upward, each bud painstakingly crafted of marigold-shaded paint and remnants of sheet music from ancient hymnals, encased in wax. The artist, Natalie Salminen Rude, confessed that it was her second attempt — her initial effort was abandoned when she became pregnant and the doctor cautioned that painting in oils could harm the baby. The striving branches are, she shared, a visual representation of a fertile period in her life and work.

This is the embodiment of The Mother Artist, a compelling exploration of motherhood’s ability to both limit and stimulate art. Catherine Ricketts interlaces her own experiences of labor, nursing and working-while-pregnant (often during a pandemic) with portraits of artists doing the same. Some portraits inspire, such as that of visual artist Ruth Asawa who joyfully parented six children who often joined her in the studio as she crafted delicate wire sculptures, while others are more ambivalent.

But Ricketts does not revel in “cautionary tales.” Convinced that the work of caregiving changes our vision of the world, she approaches artists with grace and curiosity. Ricketts mines the life and work of Greta Gerwig, Toni Morrison, LaToya Hobbs and numerous others, with a particular emphasis on lifting up the unseen — Black artists with “embodied experiences different from (her) own” as well as images of childbirth which are “almost entirely absent from both historic and contemporary art.” The result is a lively affirmation that “our communities need art made by those who can’t take their eyes off of the vulnerable ones of this world,” including Ricketts’s own creation.

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