Rachel Epp Buller recognizes and celebrates the intersection of art and motherhood. Her newest book, Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity, addresses the conflicting expectations, assumptions, and perceptions of maternity in institutional, cultural, and artistic contexts. She’s also the editor of Reconciling Art and Mothering, Have Milk, Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding, and Mothering Mennonite. As Associate Professor of Visual Art and Design at Bethel College, Epp Buller values active learning experiences for her students and incorporates visiting artists, hands-on workshops, and collaboration with museum colleagues into her teaching arsenal. She is also a board member of the National Women’s Cause for Art, a Fulbright Scholar, and a regional coordinator for the international Feminist Art Project. A former Literary Mama editor, Epp Buller lives in Newton, Kansas, with her husband and three children. Senior editor Christina Consolino spoke with Epp Buller about her preferred creative themes, lessons we can learn from artists and art historians, and cultural expectations of maternity.
Christina Consolino: According to your bio, your work “maintains dual critical and creative practices that privilege themes of care, listening, feminism, the maternal body, and collaboration.” Can you share with our readers what brought you to concentrate on these themes?
Rachel Epp Buller: I guess I would say that it’s been a lifelong process of arriving at these themes. I was an avid reader of Ms. Magazine in high school and wanted to be part of feminist discussions. Later, studying feminist art history and constructions of gender proved an important part of my graduate education. It wasn’t until having children, though, that I came to realize the ways in which maternal bodies and experiences of maternity had so rarely been part of the feminist conversations and scholarship I’d been exposed to. My interest in themes of care and listening come directly out of my experience as a primary caregiver. I found my identity completely transformed each time I had and cared for a child, and I think that part of my life has prompted me to think bigger-picture, about how our human relationships could be transformed if we put more effort into caring for one another. Listening is a big part of that, in my view. Slowing down enough to listen carefully to what someone else is saying—and, to what they might be trying to tell you without saying it—makes a huge difference in building deep relationships. I’ve also begun to study composer Pauline Oliveros’s concept of Deep Listening, listening in new ways to myself, to other humans, and to the world around me.
And collaboration? Well, collaboration runs throughout everything for me. As much as I disliked “group work” as a student, I’ve come to value and celebrate the possibilities of collaboration as an artist and a writer. In both art and academia, there tends to be such a focus on the individual: the solo genius of the artist or the star scholar mentality of many disciplines. But I believe that there is such richness to be explored through collaboration. Whether you’re working with someone in another field or in another country, each person brings unique perspectives and experiences to the table. We can learn from each other in really profound ways and create far deeper and more interesting projects together than we might ever on our own.
CC: You express yourself creatively in both art and writing. Which medium do you prefer, and do you think one holds an advantage over the other?
REB: That’s like asking me to choose my favorite child! I see both art and writing as forms of communication. Sometimes a message needs to take a visual form, and other times it’s best said in words. Both forms help me think through ideas as I write or create. In recent years, I’ve also begun exploring how visual art and written text can stand side by side, each communicating one part of a message. I use narrative titles, titles that offer fragments of a story, in many of my artist books, which I like to think allow viewers to enter in by prompting greater imagining.
CC: One of your first works, Reconciling Art and Mothering, gives the reader two general points of view: that from the art historian and that from the artist. What lessons on art and mothering do artists learn from art historians and vice versa?
REB: When I first came up with the idea of putting together an edited collection of essays, which became Reconciling Art and Mothering, it felt imperative to me to include voices of both artists and art historians. In my undergraduate years, I felt like my studies in history complemented my work in studio art. But when I went on to pursue a PhD in Art History, it was quickly made clear to me that (at least in that era) most art historians were not interested in hearing from the artists, and that many of the art students in my classes didn’t see any value in learning about art history. I’ve always believed that we (artists and historians) have so much to learn from each other, and that philosophy has infused my writing projects as well as my teaching as I try to bring these two sides of the field closer together.
To answer your specific question related to mothering, I think both artists and art historians can learn a good deal about how the institution of motherhood has been conveyed, solidified, and idealized in so much of Western art history. We find endless representations of that mother-beyond-all-others, the Virgin Mary. Produced primarily by male artists, these images, as Andrea Liss notes, propagate “the myth of the all-loving, all-forgiving and all-sacrificing mother.” This construction set the stage for what, even today, popular culture tends to promote as a narrowly defined set of maternal qualities, though fortunately in the last 20 plus years, quite a number of contemporary artists and writers have begun to address a diversity of maternal experiences. Andrea Liss’ Feminist Art and the Maternal as well as Myrel Chernick and Jennie Klein’s The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art immediately come to mind. The robust body of scholarship around maternal bodies and experiences in art history makes clear that there is not one singular Mother, but rather there are many mothers, many bodies, many experiences to be pictured, and they are becoming increasingly visible in contemporary art.
CC: What one experience seems to span all mothers?
REB: While there is such incredible diversity in maternal experiences, depending on one’s particular geographic, economic, religious, or personal contexts, I think that all mothers come to understand the complexities of caregiving. This can include feelings of intense love and comfort as well as emotional depletion, anger, or ambivalence. In my experience, the maternal-child relationship distills the truth of human relationships in general: they are messy and complicated at the same time as being incredibly rewarding.
CC: One of the many statements that stands out to me in Inappropriate Bodies comes from your introduction: “Whether a woman does or does not have children, maternity defines her. Our contributors examine maternity’s centrality as a defining term of female identity, one that sets up bodies as inappropriate.” How does maternity set up our bodies as inappropriate?
REB: As my co-editor, Charles Reeve, and I discussed at length when we set out to create this book, cultural expectations of maternity are defining features for many women around the world. Expectations are not the same in every culture, by any means, but religions, nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures send conflicting messages to girls and women about mothers and maternal bodies: maternal bodies are both lauded (beautiful baby bump) and censored (no breastfeeding here!), sometimes celebrated yet only within strict parameters (not too young, not too old, not too many children, should return to an ideal thinness postpartum, etc.). The essayists we included in our book address in nuanced ways how the question of what is an “appropriate” body, in any cultural context, offers a no-win situation for women and often reveals deep cultural discomfort with maternity.
CC: As the book recalls, motherhood’s “discontents and joys” shape our creative processes. How has motherhood shaped your creative process?
REB: Becoming a mother helped crystallize what I saw as fundamentally important in the world, which is active participation in caring relationships. In the early years, my creative work focused primarily on my immediate situation as the mother of three young children, but over time, that expanded to consider generational ties—how traditions and histories are passed on between generations—and now, more broadly, imagining creative ways to care for, and to represent being in community with, those near and far.
During this time of pandemic isolation (I am writing this in early May), I have embarked on a new series that, for me, embodies my commitment to care. Since the time we went into shut-down mode, I have been writing one letter per day, Pandemic Epistles, each written on paper that I marbled with an artist friend in early March. I send them to friends around the country and around the world, some of whom have been with me for decades and others who are mere acquaintances. I should make clear that I did not start this work with the goal of being artistically “productive”; rather, I turned to writing these letters first because they gave me comfort amid the disorientation, a familiar way of reaching out during a time when we are all physically distanced from those we love. And, in this reaching out, I hope that the letters might offer beauty, surprise, or a much-needed connection to the recipients.
CC: Titles can reveal so much about a topic, and your titles—Reconciling Art and Mothering and Inappropriate Bodies, especially—call to mind a true dichotomy that exists in the United States. What needs to happen in society so that instead of using terms like “reconciling” and “inappropriate,” we rely on terms such as “celebrating” and “becoming”?
REB: Overthrowing the patriarchy? It would be no small task! For us as a society to really embrace and celebrate experiences of maternity would mean, fundamentally, that we have decided to recognize and celebrate women’s bodily autonomy, without judgment, and to value the deep, lasting impacts (both emotional and economic) of caring and domestic labors. We’re at a pivotal moment for women and mothers during COVID-19. Feminist actions of recent decades opened doors for US women in all sectors, yet some of those advances risk being wiped out with the advent of the pandemic. Early studies are already showing clear indications that, under stay-at-home orders, women and mothers have borne the brunt of domestic labor: in many cases they are working from home, caring in and for the home, and working to enable their children’s remote learning as well. Submissions of journal articles during this time are skewing heavily male, and some academic unions are arguing for stopping the tenure clock during this time, recognizing the gendered disparities of pandemic living. In this time when so much has been condensed and/or stripped away, it feels to me very much like we’re still operating in a mode of having to reconcile competing roles. Idealistically, I would hope that we might come out on the other side of this recognizing that in a more sustainable society, we would continue to celebrate and economically value the front-line workers, whether in healthcare or the classroom or on the front lines of the family.