First, let’s begin by acknowledging that there is no more important work being done by human beings than that undertaken every day by our mothers. In high school, I studied Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, which has saved countless millions of lives. Alexander Fleming had a mother. Like my mother, Fleming’s wanted her child to find a positive role in society, which I like to think we both have done. Recently, I read the third graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, the irrepressible lesbian cartoonist who also had a mother, and whose second memoir, Are You My Mother? tracked the role of motherhood through modern psychological thought. Even if it appears that a given person didn’t have a mother, they did: as Alice Miller, one of Bechdel’s subjects, convincingly demonstrated, every child, in order to grow up successfully, must have someone in their life who performs the indispensable role of the mother. It doesn’t matter if it’s a woman or a man, a relative or a volunteer. Going out on a limb, the Nobel Prize-winning zoologist Konrad Lorenz demonstrated that motherhood doesn’t even depend on the same species; his goslings famously imprinted on him in place of their biological mother and followed him in life as they would have followed her.
Second, there is no denying that the work of raising children distracts a would-be artist from the tasks of making art. That said, it must also be acknowledged that most artists find a day job necessary to support themselves and their art work. In fact, there is a common link between any avocation and the distractions of earning a living. The number of things people want to do in their lives is large, possibly infinite, and it’s good that so many of them want to make art, and there’s reason to celebrate when they find effective ways to enable their desires. The closer that comes to actually making a living in art, the better.
Which brings us to Not a Ghost: Reclaiming Creativity in Motherhood, a joint exhibition by Denise Gasser and Camille Wheatley, currently showing at Bountiful Davis Art Center. Judging from their combined total of 126 separate works, they are two virtuosic and versatile artists with no shortage of ideas or energy. Each has developed a system for art making in response to the pressures of full-time parenting. While it’s unlikely that either one of them is getting rich through sales of their art, they can be both proud of the works they produce and of the contribution their sales make to their family economies.
Denise Gasser works in acrylic paint on wood panels. She puts details about the works on the back of each and encourages the audience to take them down, carefully, and explore further. This is a charming and refreshing touch in a world where Do Not Touch has become the norm. She writes as well that in an “attempt to reconcile my roles as artist and mother,” her approach “embraces” the interruptions that inevitably occur. When she can, she works on a piece until it is finished, but if she is interrupted she stops, and the point where the interruption occurs marks the finale of that work. Although they are available separately, she sees the entirety of her work as a “tapestry” in which individual and group histories are an essential part. Her technical and imaginative range speak for themselves.
Camille Wheatley is a photographer whose technique has similarly undergone compromises to accommodate her childcare responsibilities. Like no doubt much of her audience, she relies on a cellphone camera exclusively, making what were called “straight photos” in the days when any amount of manipulation, pre- or post-exposure, was practiced and accepted. Now that cellphone cameras have spawned a vast array of lenses, digital filters, and software manipulations, in addition to the frequent opportunity to adjust the lighting or composition at the scene, her choice to swiftly shoot just what she sees demonstrates an admirable sort of iron discipline.
It will come as no surprise that the two artists’ aesthetics are distinct. Gasser invents her compositions and sometimes her subjects, while Wheatley finds hers. The difference can be very subtle, but often comes down to perimeters. Gasser may have them, while a Wheatley almost necessarily bleeds right past the edges. Either way, these relatively small gems, with their sharp focus on compelling sights, belie the fact that their makers had so little time to devote to creating them.
Not a Ghost: Reclaiming Creativity in Motherhood, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Oct. 29