By McKenna Corson

In the wee hours of the morning, after tucking her boys in bed, Jessica Gardner was in the art studio.

Those hours painted in swathes of swirling dark, deep blues and blacks sprinkled with flecks of twinkling stars, were the hours Gardner had to herself. At night in the studio, she wasn’t a full-time art professor at Northern Virginia Community College. She wasn’t a mother to a 3-year-old and 5-year-old. She wasn’t a wife with dishes to do or dinner to make. She was an artist; turning her experiences of wearing so many hats into ceramic art, creating depictions of what motherhood really is and the toll it can have on one’s body.

Jessica Gardner and her children, Daniel, now 5, and Mathew, now 3.

And after many nights Gardner forced herself into her car instead of bed, she realized she’d like people to see the pieces she’d crafted under moonlight: she should create an exhibit of art made by women showing their experiences with motherhood and womanhood.

“I think that it is rare that female artists who are making work about their issues are really acknowledged or supported the way they should be,” Gardner says. “I debated how can we use really beautifully crafted art work by professional artists to start really important conversations, like anxiety mothers experience. I’m hoping for this exhibit to not only be work in its own right, but also start conversations that I think are long overdue at this point. And I feel like I’ve seen this exhibit do that.” 

After proposing her idea to the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, sending emails to well-known ceramic artists she never thought would respond and reaching out to art museums with her curator’s statement, Gardner’s first non-academic, traveling exhibit, “Crowns: Crossing into Motherhood,” was born. 

The “Crowns” tour featuring two to six pieces from 11 woman artists will reach its finale at the Canton Museum of Art from Nov. 27, 2019, to March 8, 2020, after traveling through museums in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania since January 2018.

Conception to full grown

Showcasing the creative nature of the artists, the name “Crowns” stems from the play on words from the physical crowning of a baby being born. Thus, all humans are “crowned” by the hips of the person giving birth to them. The term also reflects the metaphorical change experienced when having a baby – as if being “crowned” mothers – and the changes that come with being a mother and artist.  

“The ceramics community is actually quite small, and I feel like we all know each other,” Gardner says. “I was interested in these artists and mothers and how their work had changed since they’d become mothers – both the work itself, but also how they work. It’s been a really great experience to talk to the other mothers and hear how they are navigating this time crunch between raising children and maintaining a studio practice.”

The exhibit comes to Canton at a prime time for the celebration of women and developing better understanding of the challenges they face.

“‘Crowns’ is incredibly timely because this year marks the centennial for Ohio women’s suffrage, and this coming August of 2020 marks the national women’s suffrage centennial,” says Christy Davis, curator of exhibitions at the Canton Museum of Art. “Something celebrating women and their accomplishments is really timely right now. Motherhood is something that you can’t really grasp until you’ve been there, and it really does change everything.”

Christy Davis and her children, Corbin, 8, Hadley, 7, and Sawyer, 3. Photo courtesy of Christy Davis.

Each piece is unique to the artists’ experiences trying to balance motherhood, career and art. Canton will host about 63 of the unique and personal pieces. 

Gardner found inspiration for many of her pieces in one of the most famous mothers of all, the Virgin Mary, but not because of her well-depicted parenting style. 

“I view the Virgin Mary more in the historical context of the Madonna and as being held up as this perfect mother,” she says. “There’s never a depiction of the Virgin Mary where Jesus is crying and spitting up all over her – that’s not a thing. But that is the reality of motherhood: the exhaustion and worry and questioning if you’re doing it right.”

One of her pieces, “Sleep When the Baby Sleeps” features a Virgin Mary porcelain figure with decals inscribed on the back about what sleep deprivation does to a person, balancing on a pile of ceramic objects like china dishes, a pump flange and cloths.

“Sleep When the Baby Sleeps” by Jessica Gardner. 16 x 16 x 13 inches. Materials: Porcelain slip-cast multiples, slip-dipped porcelain once fired to cone 6, re-fired found objects and ceramic decals. Photo courtesy of George Staley.

Her other five pieces include “Home,” “Gush,” “Internalized Norms,” “The Choice is Yours” and “Mommy Blog Wares,” a set of porcelain plates depicting the Virgin Mary’s face with text bubbles quoting acronyms from “mommy blogs,” like “WOH” for “work out of the home,” and “CIO” for “cry it out,” installed with a red thread quilt outline backdrop.  

Summer Zickefoose, a mother of two boys ages 4 and 6 and an assistant professor of art at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa. , had just finished showing pieces in a traveling exhibition “Both Artist and Mother” when Gardner reached out to ask if she’d be interested in joining “Crowns.” Zickefoose, who is from Canfield, gladly accepted and started brainstorming.

“I think anyone who’s trying to juggle multiple things and maintain your creative practice while managing all of the new challenges of motherhood has similar experiences. And so I was excited to be a part of that,” Zickefoose says. “I liked the concept of the show. It wasn’t something that, even when I began showing work as an undergrad or graduate student, I don’t remember a lot of shows taking on that subject.”

Summer Zickefoose with her sons, Felix, 6, and Ellis, 4.

The art of juggling it all

Since the birth of her sons, finding time to get into the studio hasn’t been an easy feat for Zickefoose. With the support of family and friends and setting deadlines, she dipped her toes back into the waters of art, and she has two pieces in “Crowns.” 

“Cockleburs and Pleasantries” is composed of wooden shelves attached to a wall with white tea cups placed on them, with excerpts from Midwestern women’s diaries from the late 19th- to mid-20th century written on them. The cups are also filled with a different material Zickefoose collected from outdoors. She had women she knew – or just met – write the diary entries checked out from libraries in their own handwriting, picking entries that resonated most with them. 

“All together, it’s like the sort of narrative that’s being told between the material, the texts and the overall story of all these voices,” she says. 

“Cockleburs and Pleasantries” by Summer Zickefoose on display at Gaddis Geeslin Gallery at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Materials: Collected porcelain cups re-fired with decals, wood and organic materials. Decals consist of text from Midwestern and rural women’s diaries from 19th century to present, transcribed in various women’s handwriting. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zickefoose’s second piece “Shouting Through the Distance” was made specifically for Canton’s stop and consists of two clay megaphones suspended from the ceiling people can actually use. Through her research into the women’s suffrage movement and how women used instruments similar to megaphones to amplify their voices to be heard in public spaces, Zickefoose also discovered a megaphone’s connection to motherhood: “Sometimes you just want to scream about things, so it’s an expression of voice in itself.”     

Unlike a majority of the artists featured in “Crowns” who have embarked upon motherhood recently, Kristen Cliffel, a mother of two from the Edgewater neighborhood of Cleveland and a part-time teacher, isn’t dealing with diapers and toys. She’s dealing with the opposite end of the motherhood spectrum: an empty nest. Both children are in college.            

“I’m not a confident and professional mother,” Cliffel says. “I’m a professional and confident sculptor, but not parent. And I know that seems odd because my kids are already 19 and 21, but that’s always been what I feel less than at. However, I’m super seminal to the way that I have parented and raised my children. I haven’t come to a point where (my kids) are not sort of still the focus of my life.”

Kristen Cliffel, her husband, Bob Simons, and their children Jack Simons, 21, and Nell Simons, 19.

When Gardner contacted Cliffel to join “Crowns,” Cliffel didn’t hesitate. The exhibition was a chance to create meaningful work.

 “For many years when I was young and working with these themes of femininity, domesticity and motherhood, I was literally told by curators, museum directors and gallerists that the work was way too feminist, way too domestic and just was too personal,” Cliffel says. “ … Over the years, I have never strayed from that because I’m super authentic about where I want to spend my time and where the work comes from. I’m not going to fuck about with spending a year on a piece that is peripherally important to me, so I am fiercely attached to the content that just springs from my life.”

Cliffel has six pieces in “Crowns.” “Corona Factotum” is a large golden crown topped with objects symbolic to the corners of ethics Cliffel has worked hard to imbue in her children, laying on a purple pillow emphasizing royalty of motherhood and its iconic place in history. One jewel is a house with smoke pouring out representing a sense of home; another is a sailboat for one’s journey powered by themselves and nature; a layered cake for the importance of celebrating every day; a stack of books for education and lifelong learning; and a campfire for self sustainability. 

Cliffel’s other pieces include “The Navigator,” “Foundation,” “Enough,” “Sugar on Top,” and “What Kind of Mother Are You Anyway.”

“Corona Factotum” by Kristen Cliffel. 16 x 20 x 20 inches. Materials: Clay, glaze, gold lustre, velvet, wood, resin, cotton and polyester lip cord. Photo courtesy of Daniel Fox, Lumina Studio.

Support among mothers, artists

While museum goers can see the tangible fruits of labor crafted by these artists, one creation Gardner cherishes greatly is one invisible to the naked eye: the support group of mothers she unexpectedly forged amongst the women.

“It wasn’t my initial goal, but it turned out really well,” Gardner says. “We have all different age groups, so a couple of the moms, they’re empty nesters now. Some of them have teenagers, and a good majority of us have younger children. It has been really funny to have some of those who have kids that are a little bit older say, ‘Don’t worry, they will stop putting things in their mouth.’ “

Zickefoose also found inspiration from her fellow artists. 

“I’m a mother who has a full-time teaching job and tries to maintain a career as an artist,” Zickefoose says. “You’d probably never feel like they’re in balance. Sometimes you feel like you need more time with your kids, and other times you feel like your responsibilities at work aren’t all being addressed as well as you’d like them to be. And it’s just sort of a constant, and every woman in this show would be experiencing something similar.”

The Canton Museum of Art isn’t taking the fact that it serves as the finale of “Crowns” lightly. It’s planning events to bring attention to the hard work mothers and women do by working with other community organizations, like scheduling a moms’ night out, mommy and me yoga and others to be determined.    

Davis, Canton’s full-time exhibition curator and a mother of three, ages 3, 7 and 8, knows very well the difficulty of being a mother and professional. Viewing each piece was like seeing her experiences in a tangible form, and she urges people of all backgrounds – even those without children – to tour “Crowns” for its many pieces.

“Everybody has a mom or a parent, so you’ve experienced it in some way, shape or form regardless,” she says. “There are certain experiences that are uniquely geared towards mothers specifically, but I think in parenting in general, there are overlapping aspects to it. When you have a sick kid, it’s kind of all hands on deck; things like that, there are just certain parts of it that are shared. It’s something that’s not just for mothers.”

No mother is the same, and each defines what motherhood means to them differently, but Davis and the artists involved in “Crowns” hope the mothers who visit the exhibition realize the planet has seen thousands and thousands of years of mothers. From wondering when the baby’s crying will ever stop despite your attempts to sate all of their needs, to wondering when you’ll stop crying after dropping that suddenly-grown-up baby at college, at least one mother has been in a similar position – no matter how unique it may seem.  

“It’s a sisterhood in a way,” Davis says. “It’s empowering to know that no matter what you do, you’re not alone. You have your own unique experiences, but these experiences with motherhood are not unique to you. And nobody’s perfect. Whether you’re an artist, whether you’re a stay-at-home mom, whether you’re a teacher, a doctor, whatever you may do alongside being a mother, we can all relate to each other.” 

On view

“Crowns: Crossing into Motherhood” will be on view from Nov. 27 to March 8, 2020 at the Canton Museum of Art at 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

The exhibition includes pieces from Stephanie DeArmond, Carole Epp, Kathryne Fisher, Jessica Gardner, Eva Kwong, Rhonda Willers, Janis Mars Wunderlich, Summer Zickefoose, Erin Furimsky, Rose B. Simpson and Kristen Cliffel. 

Lead image: “Sugar on Top” by Kristen Cliffel. 29 x 35 x 5 inches. Materials: Polychromed birch plywood, laser etched and cut plexiglass, clay, glaze and aluminum. Courtesy of Daniel Fox, Lumina Studio.