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Deliverance from stigma

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


woman sitting in art studio

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February 03, 2016

“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 www.creativepush.org.

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