image title

Deliverance from stigma

ASU art professor aims to change the way we talk about birth.
Talking about what really happens during birth is still largely taboo.
Researchers Saisto & Halmesmäki: 6-10% of women have major fear of childbirth.
February 3, 2016

Art, oral-history project aims to share women’s birth stories without judgment

“Birth is this thing that ties everyone together.”

Forrest SolisForrest Solis is an associate professor in the School of Art, an academic unit of ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. is seated in her studio adjacent to her Phoenix home when she makes this statement. The air in the studio is rich with the scent of oil paint emanating from the many canvases resting haphazardly against every free inch of wall in the small space.

Each one is part of the Arizona State University associate professor’s latest artistic endeavor, “Creative Push,”“Creative Push” has received initial funding from ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research, the School of Art and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. an ongoing art and oral-history project that aims to record and disseminate women’s birth stories without judgment.

The larger-than-life scenes depicted on the canvases in Solis’ studio tell her personal story of the labor and delivery of her son, an experience she describes as traumatic.

“It was a really amazing experience,” she said. “But was it magical and beautiful? No.”

And that’s something she wasn’t expecting — mostly because she didn’t really know what to expect.

“I think books like ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting,’ while they’re very useful, don’t give you the whole picture,” said Deborah Sussman Susser, an ASU colleague of Solis’ who co-teaches the creative writing workshop “Mothers Who Write” and who contributed her own birth story to “Creative Push.”

The “whole picture,” according to Solis and many other women who participated in the birth story project, includes things that people just aren’t willing to talk about; things like women’s bodies and their various parts and functions.

The project serves as a platform to present an ever-growing collection of recorded birth stories and visual artworks: The birth stories are from members of the public who wished to share her story; artists then used those stories as inspiration to create artwork.

The recorded stories also serve as a research tool for organizations such as the Kinsey Institute in Indiana and ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research. More than 50 stories and 25 artworks have been created so far.

All of it can be heard and viewed in a virtual exhibition on the “Creative Push” website. An exhibition of 20 stories and their respective artwork will take place Feb. 4-13 at the ASU Step Gallery in downtown Phoenix, with the opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Feb. 5, coinciding with the First Fridays art walk. Preceding the reception will be a screening of Irene Lusztig’s film “The Motherhood Archives,” from 4 to 6 p.m. Lusztig will be present to introduce her film and answer questions afterward.

Even in the year 2016, in a society that prides itself on advancements and breakthroughs in fields ranging from technology to social justice, the idea of openly discussing what’s really going on with a woman’s body during pregnancy, labor and delivery makes people squeamish. As a result, the topic is largely avoided, and women end up ill-prepared for — and often unreasonably uncomfortable with — one of mankind’s most necessary, most natural, most life-changing tasks.

But don’t worry; it gets worse.

A stack of books on a shelf.

A stack of birth books in ASU associate
professor Forrest Solis' Phoenix studio.
Solis hopes to paint a fuller picture of
the birth experience with the "Creative
Push" project.

Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Even though nobody wants to talk to a pregnant woman about, say, how she’s concerned because she’s leaking fluid, they’re happy to talk to her about what she should or shouldn’t be doing.

“Every decision you make, from the moment you conceive, you’re being judged on,” Solis said. “You cannot be at a restaurant eating a sandwich with sprouts in it and not have someone say, ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to have sprouts.’ I mean, every single thing. Coffee, wine, that’s the obvious stuff. But it’s everything. … And you feel like when you’re pregnant, it’s this series of denials: you can’t have this, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. And then you feel all this judgment about it.”

The icing on the cake of many women’s pregnancies? Once the baby arrives, it’s “mommy-who?”

“Mothers almost always get left out of the birth once the baby arrives,” said ASU creative writing grad student Natasha Murdock.

“Nothing else matters, but the baby, or at least, that's how it seems,” Murdock continued. “Somehow the mother's experience of birth is erased once the baby is born. Of course the baby is important, that's the whole point, right? But that doesn't invalidate or make disappear the fact that the mother just went through something hugely profound and complex and painful, and a lot of the time, something very traumatic.”

All these issues that negatively affect a woman’s experience of pregnancy and giving birth — lack of preparation; discomfort with one’s own natural body functions; judgment-induced shame or guilt; and isolation — led Solis to pursue “Creative Push.”

“Being an artist and a new mom, I had this twofold thing happening where I wanted to express my experience through my art, and I also wanted to talk about my experience, and I wanted to hear other women’s experiences,” said Solis. “But I didn’t think there was a place for that.”

So she created one.

“In seeking other women telling their stories, I’m seeking companionship … and I want to create a network of support ... and to validate those stories. Because quite frankly, just because millions of women do it, and just because it’s been happening for hundreds of thousands of years doesn’t mean that your personal experience isn’t important and doesn’t have meaning.”

And just because you haven’t given birth doesn’t mean you can’t participate. Former ASU grad student Haylee Bollinger created a sculpture based on Murdock’s story. Though she is not a mother herself, listening to Murdock’s story deeply affected her.

“When I listened to [Natasha’s birth story] I was feeling really upset for her because I didn’t understand how the doctors could ignore all these things she was telling them. … I was so indignant on her behalf,” Bollinger said.

After all, as Sussman Susser pointed out: “Everybody has a mother. And everybody, I think, has a vested interest in how mothers are treated in society.”

For Murdock, “Creative Push” reinforces that sentiment by doing one thing very well: listening.

“[Forrest] listened to [my birth story] without judgment or advice or dismissiveness. She didn't try to make me feel better or tell me I should be happy my son was here. She just listened. It was amazing,” she said.

It’s not hard to do, said Solis, because “it’s really interesting when you hear these women talk about their experiences. And they speak so beautifully because it’s from the heart. When they’re telling their story, they begin to find meaning in it just by telling it.”

None of this would have happened, though, if Solis had listened to the nagging voice inside her head feeding off yet another harmful female-directed stereotype.

“In the art realm, there’s this joke that if you are a mother, you’re going to start making art about motherhood. It’s a degrading joke,” she said.

“So when I thought about making artwork on this topic, I had to go through feelings of inadequacy, like does it make me feel like less of an artist than I am? And I didn’t want other artists to feel like that, so part of [‘Creative Push’] has been finding other mom artists. And most have made artwork on [the topic of birth and motherhood] but it’s just in their personal archive; they would never share it. Now there’s a place where those things can exist and we can enjoy them and celebrate them.”

Fellow female artist and ASU art professor Mary Hood, who also contributed artwork to “Creative Push,” is glad Solis didn’t shy away from tackling birth and motherhood through art.

“I think there’s a larger conversation to be had, and I’m hoping for Forrest that this exhibition kind of jump-starts some of those conversations, on a community level and hopefully on a larger level,” Hood said. “I think Forrest is being brave and adventurous in taking this on as a topic.”

As for scaling the topic, Solis has every intention of taking “Creative Push” national — and perhaps, one day, international.

She has been working closely with Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Dean Steven Tepper to secure the funding that would allow her to do so.

“Dean Tepper has been a huge proponent of the project,” Solis said, “and I really think he’s going to make some positive changes here.”

By the end of 2016, Solis hopes to have 100 stories, more than 50 participating artists and another exhibition.

In addition to the “Creative Push” website, the audio recordings are housed as an oral-history archive in the ASU Digital Library, where the full-unedited interviews are available for download.

To learn more about the project, become a participating artist and/or storyteller and to see the “Creative Push” artwork and listen to birth stories, visit

image title

Rewarding a lifetime of research

ASU's world-renowned honeybee expert is honored for a lifetime of research.
ASU Regents' Prof: From a student without a plan to a world-renowned bee expert.
February 3, 2016

Regents' Professor Robert Page honored for work on honeybee genetics

Robert Page has ascended to the top of his field and earned the highest faculty honor in the state.

Not bad for a man who started his academic career without a plan.

Page, an expert in honeybee genetics and the founding director of the School of Life Sciences and the former provost at Arizona State University, will be inducted as a Regents' Professor on Thursday — an honor for those professors who have made pioneering contributions in research and who have earned national and international recognition for their accomplishments. He is Foundation Chair in Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“It was purely accidental. I had no plan,” Page (pictured above) said of his start.

Page, who started a neighborhood “biology club” as a child, intended to be a biologist while he was an undergraduate at San Jose State University. Then he took an entomology course as an elective and found it fascinating. So he took another and another and ended up changing his major. He wrote a paper on the mating habits of a rare beetle that was published in a journal while he was still an undergraduate.

After earning a degree in entomology, and with some GI BillPage lost his draft deferment as a freshman and spent four years in the Army, attending Officer Candidate School, before resuming his education. He credits his military training for his leadership skills. benefits remaining, he got into the University of California at Davis, outside of Sacramento. It was the only school he applied to.

“I showed up as a graduate student without a real clue,” he said.

At UC-Davis, he found mentorship, inspiration and friendship with four professorsRobert Metcalf, Harry Laidlow, Timothy Prout and Norman Gary (who also worked as a “bee wrangler” in movies)., who were experts in the genetics, behavior and evolution of honeybees.

Page worked in the bee lab at UC-Davis as a teaching assistant and became fascinated with the social behavior of the insects.

“I merged it all together, and that became what I did and still defines what I do today,” said Page, who has authored more than 230 research papers and articles about the genetics and evolution of social organization, sex determination and division of labor in honeybee societies.

After starting his academic career as an assistant professor at Ohio State University, Page returned to UC-Davis, where he became a full professor within five years, eventually becoming chair of the department of entomology.

He loved the bee lab and teaching, but the complexities of academic administration were challenging.

“I felt like I was a custodian as an administrator, and that I didn’t really have the ability to do things that would fundamentally change the university,” he said. “I had ideas, but I couldn’t get them advanced because of the stationary inertia I had to overcome.”

So when he was recruited to become the founding director of the School of Life Sciences at ASU, he was hesitant. He visited the campus, talked to students and met President Michael Crow.

“He was enthusiastic and had all these great ideas,” Page said. “I told my wife, ‘It’s different there. I could really do something to make a difference.’

“But then I said, ‘Why would I want to go to ASU?’ And she said ‘Why not?’ So I competed for the job.”

And he got it. In 2004, he was named founding director of the School of Life Sciences, where he launched the university’s first fully integrated, interdisciplinary academic unit. He calls it his “pride and joy.” In 2011, Page became dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a position he held for two years. And although he’s a scientist, he’s especially happy that he was able to boost the humanities faculty.

“I implemented programs for humanities faculty to recognize that they’re the heart and soul of the university,” he said. “They can get lost in the shuffle of the drive for certain kinds of metrics by which universities are measured.

“The truth is that they are the intellectual soul of the university.”

Page was named provost, the university’s top academic official, in 2014. Health issues forced him to give up the post about 18 months later.

“I feel that I left a lot undone — things I felt passionate about. But on the other hand, I had responsibilities to my health.”

Over the years, he found that ASU is not mired in the same inertia that stalls innovation at other institutions. “I was a real builder here at ASU, not just a custodian.”

Page calls the Regents' Professor honor “icing on the cake” and is proud of the recognition of his research.

Through the decades of administration, Page has maintained his work with the honeybees. In 2013, he released the book “The Spirit of the Hive: The Mechanisms of Social Evolution,” summarizing his lifetime of research.

“When I came to ASU, I said, ‘I can’t come without a bee lab’ so they built me one on the Polytechnic Campus,” he said.

Much of Page’s research is on the biology of bees in the field, but he enjoys the buzzing in the lab as well, calling it “a place to escape.”

He still teaches a course in the bee lab at Poly, which he has done continuously over the years.

“I teach the students fundamental biology and behavior of bees and how we take that knowledge and change their behavior to benefit us, so we can profit from their honey and the pollination services they provide.

“I’ve turned a lot of kids on to bees.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News