Editor’s note: Please note that the opening date for this exhibit has changed. It now opens Oct. 12.
If you asked a person who breastfed their baby how many minutes the spent doing that work, their answer would most likely be a guess. Visual artist Emma Jane Royer knows the exact number of minutes.
Those minutes are part of the artist’s broader definition of labor. Along with the time spent in fertility treatment (which nearly a third of parents experience), time spend experiencing pregnancy loss, Royer makes the point that the minutes, hours, and months a person spends breastfeeding their baby after birth are all part of what it means to labor.
According to her artist statement, Royer “uses the time and labor-intensive processes of knitting, weaving, and sewing as metaphors to explore the delicate, intimate, and imperfect texture of ordinary experience.” In a site-specific art installation at The Vestibule gallery in Ballard, the artist does just that: She quantifies the ordinary but sometimes excruciating work of childmaking, bearing, and feeding. The exhibit, entitled “tend(er)ing,” is on display from October 12 to November 4. A reception for the exhibit will be held Oct. 14 from 3 to 5 p.m.
For the month of October, The Vestibule be accepting diaper donations for WestSide Baby. Drop-offs can be made any time during open hours Thursday through Saturday.
Marking the minutes
Royer is a visual artist known for her work in textiles and paper. As her artist statement explains, she uses the time and labor-intensive processes of knitting, weaving, and sewing as metaphors to explore the delicate, intimate, and imperfect texture of ordinary experience. And, in a site-specific art installation at The Vestibule gallery in Ballard, the artist does just that: She quantifies the ordinary but sometimes excruciating work of childmaking, bearing, and feeding.
As part of the work, the artist marks her time breastfeeding her daughter — one bead for every minute. The result is a stunning 450-plus-foot strand. In separate pieces she stitches together dozens of ultrasound images of her ovaries and uterus — all taken during attempts to conceive her daughter. Royer says in this combined work she has taken data accumulated from and about her body and her journey into parenthood and re-appropriated it into a visual expression of both loss and hope.
Royer’s artist statement is reflected in the work: “I come from a long line of knitters and needle pointers. The women of my family, who are otherwise rocketed by energy, find a way to be still, to cultivate calmness, and to pass time with this constant binding. They take long lines of fiber and concentrate time and attention and love into hats and mittens, sweaters and blankets that warm and protect those they hold close.”
In that tradition, the strings and stitches of “tend(er)ing” weave together a blanket of truth by acknowledging the wide — sometimes happy, sometimes grief-filled — range of childbearing experiences.
Capturing the spectrum of new parent emotion
It’s an exhibit many parents — whether they conceived naturally, had a smooth ride, needed fertility assistance, or otherwise struggled — will relate to. As Kascha Semonovitch, Vestibule co-created and curator puts it, all the emotions of wanting a baby are threaded ‘tend(er)ing:’ hope, fear, loss, exhaustion, joy.
Royer says “tend(er)ing” focuses on the persistence and hope that accompanies becoming a parent.
“That loss of your own autonomy and not just in terms of what you think about, but physically how you inhabit the world, was striking to me,” she says. “Nursing my daughter was (and continues to be) a very special experience and bond, but I found that the activity requires me to sit still so often and for so long it is a fundamentally different way to orient myself. I found that breastfeeding really consumed and structured my days (and nights!) in early motherhood and I became curious about exactly how much time I was spending nursing. I also wondered about how much time I could be apart from her. It felt like I was on a tether.”
Ultrasound art from “tend(er)ing: Emma Jane Royer exhibit at The Vestibule. Photo courtesy of The Vestibule.
She adds: “As a visual artist, I wanted to actually see what this experience looked like. I got a bit obsessed with capturing this data. Both feeding an infant and dealing with infertility are experiences that more people than we might imagine have wrestled with. I hope that this work opens up an opportunity to connect with others and to honor the complexities of each.”
“So much of the labor of childrearing is invisible,” says Kascha Semonovitch, Vestibule co-created and curator. “As a mother, I was so moved to see (breastfeeeding) time take material form. Looking at her beads, I think back to the minutes I spent with my own children.”
The beading stats
Royer says 49,966 beads are included in the beaded part of the exhibit. Of that, 41,325 represent time when her daughter Annabelle was latched to her breast during the first six months of her life.
Each bead is a single minute. Night time feeds are represented by dusky purple, blue and teal beads, daytime feeds by clear and white beads. There are also 6,225 pale pink beads representing bottle feeds of pumped breast milk and another 265 marking formula supplementations. Red beads — 2,140 of them — mark the start of each
feeding session; 10 extra-large clear and gray beads mark the end of each nursing month.
Hard work that should be quantified
Ginna Wall, who retired last year as head of the lactation services at the University of Washington Medical Center, says she too is moved by Royer’s ability to articulate the fuller “labor” of childbearing.
“To see breastfeeding tabulated in this way makes me very happy,” Wall says. “I’ve always been fascinated by the timeline from pregnancy to birth to breastfeeding to weaning. When apps became available and popular, the scientist in me wondered if anyone was collecting all this data. I still would like to see that published in a research study someday, but to my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has taken the data from a breastfeeding app and done anything with it.”
A nod to what is missing
Semonovitch stresses that “tend(er)ing” not only speaks to parents’ lived experiences but also to what is missing for many on the ride from pregnancy through postpartum: acknowledgment and support.
“Our culture nods to supporting childbearing women, but in practice, resources and support are scarce for postpartum care,” Semonovitch says. “Resources for fertility are nearly nonexistent. Many women undergo fertility treatment, but unless it ends in the ‘success’ of a birth, they don’t have a forum or ritual to share those experiences. The process takes so much time and emotional energy that is not acknowledged.”
Wall agrees, adding that extending the term labor to nursing makes sense.
“This artwork is important because no one ever measures or quantifies the act, the art, of breastfeeding. How many minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years it takes to feed a baby at your breast; what energy goes into it,” Wall says.
Venue- artist fit
Semonovitch points out that The Vestibule’s mission is to change the power dynamic between visitor and gallery. Gallery owners want “people to feel enabled to engage with the work — and not intimidated by a white cube where they feel compelled to buy something or leave.” The gallery shows primarily (though not exclusively) female and nonbinary identifying artists.
Royer has been honored with an Artist Trust GAP Award, the 4Culture Individual Artist Project Award, and the Dana and Tori Ann Rust Memorial Fellowship from the Museum of Northwest Art. Her work has been exhibited at numerous institutions, including the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, Bellevue Art Museum, and Gallery4Culture in Seattle. Royer’s artwork is also part of private and public collections at the University of New Mexico Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis Special Collections Library, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and John Hancock.
“Emma’s work embodies why it is still important to devote attention to issues related to the experiences of female artists, to feminism, to gender and power dynamics,” says Semonovitch.
The future of “tend(er)ing
Royer hopes that The Vestibule showing is followed by other installations.
“I would love to continue to exhibit this work. As an installation, each time it has a new home, it will be displayed in a way that is sympathetic to the setting and the architecture, which means that visually it has many evolutions ahead of it,” she says. ” I think it would be so exciting to see it hanging in a healthcare or parenthood-focused public space.”
“Tend(er)ing: Emma Jane Royer” will be exhibited at The Vestibule from October 12 to November 4. A reception will be held on October 14 from 3 to 5 p.m. Gallery hours are Thursday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Fri 12 to 5 p.m., Sat 12 to 5 p.m., and by appointment. The gallery will release artist talk dates soon.