'Shade' brings mother artists out of the shadows

Joel Oliphint
"Circle Dance" by Alissa Head, one of the cofounders of Mother Artists at Work (MAW).

When Alissa Head and Missy Conley cofounded Mother Artists at Work (MAW) with three other women in 2005, the group of moms would gather at their homes to support each other as caregivers and artists.

“It would be five or six of us in our living rooms, while our kids tore things apart, laughing and crying and talking about the guilt of wanting to take just a small step away from our children,” Conley said in a recent video call with Head and fellow MAW artist Gloomy Erina, all of whom will show work in “Shade,” a 934 Gallery exhibition opening virtually and in-person on Friday, Nov. 6. “When my children were younger, I did one ceramics class a week at the Cultural Arts Center that changed my life. But I felt guilty. I literally would cry in my car about that time away, and also how thankful I was for it.”

Fifteen years later, Conley’s kids are older, but much of that tension between being a mother and an artist remains. “Doing the piece for the show coming up this week, I still felt like I had to justify it: ‘Hey, I'm not able to help with this home project. I'm doing this piece of art, and it has value and it's important.’ And I shouldn't have to feel guilty about it, but I do,” said Conley, who emphasized the importance of modeling that art-making for her kids. “My son, he’s 24, and as I worked on my piece, he stopped by the table I was working on, which was taking up half of our living room, and said, ‘I am so glad to see you doing art again. It’s really wonderful to see.’ … It made me a better person to do art for myself and have my children see me do that.”

“Shade” features the work of 10 MAW artists and gets its title from the way that female artists are often overlooked, working quietly in the shadows. “Women artists and mother artists are underrepresented,” Head said. “Women get paid less than men on average, so if they have to make an economic decision, it's often the woman who has to sacrifice her career in order to take care of the family. That is always an issue for mother artists, and it has always been an issue. … I think the pandemic has made it more prevalent and more visible.”

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Head, a fiber artist, took inspiration from her natural surroundings in one of her “Shade” pieces titled “Circle Dance,” which is made from sheep’s wool. “I moved out to the country, and right now I'm inspired by rural landscape and my own interpretation of landscape and of nature being alive and having a spirit,” Head said. “That particular piece is inspired by a trip to Blendon Woods in the winter. It was just this little cluster of trees that, to me, looked like they were having a meeting or maybe having a little circle dance. … I try to imbue it with that animism of being alive.”

Gloomy Erina’s art dolls convey animism from a different angle. “Growing up, dolls weren't so much, ‘Here's a baby for you to take care of and practice for when you have a baby.’ My dolls were more like, ‘Here's something where you can make a fantasy of what you want to be when you grow up,’” Erina said. “My dolls can be dark and creepy. Not everyone dresses like that all the time or feels like putting that vibe out there all the time, so I put it on the doll. … It’s speaking to [the fact that] you don't always have to hide what you want to be or look a certain way to be a mom.”

For a few years, MAW had a lull in meetings and art shows, but 2020 marks the third consecutive year of a group exhibition — a rebirth that Conley said should serve as an encouragement to other groups around town. “Be brave enough to let your group be reborn,” she said.

“For me, this group has been a reason to make art,” Head said. “Without this group, I don’t think I would be making and showing art.”

"Spook You" by Gloomy Erina