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.

Darius Steward stands in front off an abandoned apartment building on Page Avenue in East Cleveland, where he grew up. His childhood home, a building that once stood across the street, has since been torn down.

Darius Steward’s deeply personal art confronts society’s most pressing issues – and seeks to open an important dialogue

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

Darius Steward, "Baggage Claim (Portrait 1)," 2017, watercolor on yupo, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and MOCA Cleveland.

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Portrait 1),” 2017, watercolor on yupo, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and MOCA Cleveland.

Mixed with memories of playing dodgeball and kickball in courtyards tucked inside the apartment complexes that defined the neighborhood are memories of two of his best friends being shot when he was 8 years old and of authorities discovering a dead body in nearby weeds when he was 10. Between those extremes were the sorts of challenges some may only read about or see on TV but for Steward were a daily reality.

“Growing up, I didn’t think I was going to make it out of this area, but I ended up outliving this area,” he says. “It’s kind of a depressing feeling. … It seems like you have your history wiped away. I guess that’s why they say your memory is best kept with you. You could take a photo or something, but what you remember is what matters.”

Those memories remain with him now as he creates art at his home studio in Cleveland’s Union-Miles Park neighborhood. His art – primarily in watercolor, minimalist, evocative, approachable and personal – tackles issues of race, objectification, social placement and social mobility through the lens of Steward’s experiences and family. His paintings draw viewers into his world, and in the process, challenge them to confront their prejudices and burdens.

His work is represented in the collections of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and Cleveland Clinic, and his latest piece is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. They all trace back to Page Avenue.

“Being here,” he says as he walks around his old neighborhood, “made me realize the value of being able to try, the value of having something else to hold onto, and for me, art was everything.”

Making it to art

“This place is a total ghost town now,” he says. “This is like a street that doesn’t exist. It’s crazy. There were generations of people who used to live here, and now it’s gone.”

During Steward’s generation, the area was active. When he and his friends weren’t playing games, they’d walk along nearby railroad tracks and sometimes get into the sort of harmless trouble elementary-school-aged kids get into. However, his brother – eight years his senior and at a different stage in life – would get into more serious trouble.

“He was in here selling drugs and doing all types of things,” he says. “I think him doing his thing and me being such a visual person, I got to take it in and realize it wasn’t for me.”

Steward turned to art at an early age.

“When I was 5, 6, 7 years old, I was drawing my own version of ‘(Teenage Mutant) Ninja Turtle’ comic books,” he says. “I actually had a friend named Leron who lived over here, too, and I used to go over to his house and we’d draw ‘Mortal Kombat’ stuff together.

“I knew right away that art had to be what I was doing,” he says, “but it took me a little longer to realize what I could say in art, and how I could talk and deal with some of the things I feel like I went through – or go through.”

Steadfastly fostering Steward’s creativity was his mother, Rhonda, who shouldered the responsibility of raising three kids (including Steward’s older sister) on her own. Over the years, when she wasn’t working one of her many jobs – cafeteria worker, bus driver, bartender, nurse’s aide – to make ends meet, she was driving her youngest back and forth to the Cleveland School of the Arts in University Circle to ensure he arrived safely.

The contrast between attending classes in the region’s well-manicured artistic hub and living in homes where the utilities were at times shut off wasn’t lost on Steward, but the juxtaposition prepared him for what was to come.

“Seeing how this side lives, seeing there are places like this, it was like we were by ourselves down here,” he says of Page Avenue. “There was a lot that went on that no one cared about, and then being able to go to another environment where people lived totally differently … I was kind of realizing I can do more, I can adapt and I can be in both (environments).”

Navigating new worlds

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Straddling parallel existences would be a recurring theme for Steward.

It came up when he attended a summer program at Interlochen College of Creative Arts in Interlochen, Mich., where he was surrounded by third- and fourth-generation students he felt were more talented than he was before realizing his life experiences gave him a perspective and edge they lacked.

It came up as he earned his undergraduate degree at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where people would tell him Little Italy was a “safe zone” and suggest he not pass the bridge – except that he was from past the bridge, and in his experience, Little Italy was “a scary place for all types of reasons.”

And it would come up again in 2010 as Steward graduated with his Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of Delaware in Newark. At a time when he was exploring opportunities to be an artist or teacher on the East Coast, his close friend’s mom was discovered to be one of serial murderer Anthony Sowell’s victims, and not long after, that same friend’s sister died. He felt pulled back home.

“At that moment, I thought it probably wasn’t a great idea to go back to Cleveland, but there was so much going on,” he says. “I have such a closer tie to this place than I thought, so I came back home a week after I graduated. … When I came back here, it was the same stuff, but I had different eyes.”

Lasting inspiration

Rhonda Steward won the battle against cancer but lost the war. She died this past December, four days before Steward’s birthday, but remained selfless and nurturing to the end.

“The drugs they give you in chemo actually ruined her heart,” Steward says. “So she got through breast cancer – she beat that – but then she had heart failure.

“One of the last things she did was take care of my son while I was having my daughter, Emily. She was dealing with a 5-year-old when she was sick and wasn’t really able to take care of herself properly.”

It’s difficult for Steward to talk about his mom without his voice wavering from emotion. He explains she had a mother who drank, tells of how she was living on her own by age 14 and describes how she never had anyone to look out for her best interests. Mostly, Steward recalls the sacrifices Rhonda made for her children.

“She wasn’t dealt a good hand from the start,” he says. “She was one of those people who were doomed to fail, so it was like, ‘Let me get my kids to not be in that situation.’

“She tried her best, and that’s a story you don’t hear about a lot. You hear about that rise to success. Right? They get this huge success. They go from living on the streets to being a multimillionaire. But what about those people who just try to pave a way for a future, or for someone else?

“Her whole life was looking out for our future,” he says. “Her life was never about her, and there’s something to be said about that.”

Opening up baggage

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Steward is in fact saying something about that – through his art. He shelved work he’d completed shortly before his mother’s death and started a new series called “Baggage Claim.” The eponymous first public piece from that series – a larger-than-life two-part mural – is part of MOCA Cleveland’s regional group exhibition, “Constant as the Sun.”

Depicted are Steward’s wife and children – on one wall, Angela is carrying Emily along with three bags, and on another, Darius Jr. has a school backpack over his shoulder while extending a flashlight in front of him – but they’re meant to symbolize him and his mother.

“It’s this idea of him helping her get through this, him being me, watching his mom go through this and helping her,” he says. “We may have to see through and find our ways to that next spot. She’s carrying three bags on one arm, a bag behind her and she’s holding my daughter. It’s like this idea of this weight, but you still have to keep going. And the reason it’s purses is I feel like my mom did it with so much grace. It’s weight, but they’re different bags. These aren’t just trash bags.”

A. Will Brown, MOCA Cleveland assistant curator, was impressed with Steward’s work from the moment they met about a year ago.

“I was really taken by the use of repetition to talk about pressing social issues that are distinctly related to his life and his community’s life,” he says. “I thought it was really interesting that Darius was able to do that over and over and over again but with slightly different bodies of work, and that the issues never hit you over the head but are just below the surface in a way that’s effective.

“You don’t have to say much, you don’t have to read much, you don’t have to look much to know there’s something at play here that’s about searching and looking to the past and thinking about the future of Darius’ family, his community and some of the generational challenges they’ve faced,” Brown says. “It’s simple, in an elegant way, and a clear metaphor of baggage.”

Status symbols

Darius Steward, “Pressure pt 4,” 2016, ink on yupo, 40 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Pressure pt 4,” 2016, ink on yupo, 40 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Steward infuses other metaphors into his work. Notably, playground swings figure in a number of his pieces. Those in swings are in constant motion but stationary, a dynamic that surrounded Steward’s brother – who’s currently in prison – and friends who fell victim to the snares of Page Avenue.

“It was like being in here, using all of this force and this energy to end up in the same damn location,” he says. “All this stuff I used to see go on, and no one ever got away.”

Children, meant to represent a maturing process and explore intertwining themes of childhood and adulthood, also frequently appear in Steward’s work.

“I used to use kids to talk about a childhood that I never had, or to talk about how my adulthood feels similar in certain ways,” he says. “Now, I use primarily my son and daughter. Now, it’s literally me seeing moments and progressions in my (son) that mirror what I feel like or what I do.”

One of the most powerful artistic tools Steward employs is white space. The overwhelming whiteness that surrounds the African-American figures he depicts represents a form of dominance as well as the white space he lives in as a black artist. Regarding the latter, he often cites something novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “I do not always feel colored. … I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

“It’s about placement,” he says. “That’s a firm place. You can talk about whiteness as this very understood place. We know it exists, but at the same time, we don’t know. We don’t know how it really is. We don’t know how it affects who’s there. It’s this idea that I’m displaced but placed. That’s part of another series I’m working on where I’m building that up more. It’s like our segregated selves.”

Conversation starter

Darius Steward, “Back N 4th (The Motion),” 2015, ink and watercolor on yupo, 42 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Back N 4th (The Motion),” 2015, ink and watercolor on yupo, 42 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

“Because I have this platform as an artist, I’m able to express things that I’d never be able to express if it was just me, which sucks,” he says, lamenting suppressive societal hierarchies. “But in that case, I feel like I have an obligation to help get people to at least think about this on their way home (from a gallery or museum) – to look at that black kid in that whiteness and think about what things they came up with while looking at that.

“And it’s the same thing with ‘Baggage Claim,’” he says. “Yeah, I have these people carrying bags, (but) I want them to see that, ‘Hey, I have baggage too. Maybe we’re not as different as we think. Maybe there are some common threads there.’”

In addition to starting a conversation about these matters, Steward is making a statement – about himself, his past, his struggles and Page Avenue.

“For me, it’s kind of a way to showcase my position as a black man who lives in America. I think it’s important to show my spots because we’re different. There are a lot of us, and quite honestly, I deal with things and I have different opinions and different outlooks.

“There are a ton of African-Americans doing artwork coming from all different types of backgrounds. Me, coming from my background, I feel like I need to represent that. I need to talk about that. I need to talk about what I dealt with. I need to talk about what I deal with,” he says. “I need to show my experiences, because at the end of the day, this is all going to be part of this greater narrative. I want to be associated with that narrative. I want people to look back at this and see that this is what a lot of people were dealing with. I don’t want this spot to not be represented.” CV

On View


Darius Steward’s “Baggage Claim” is part of “Constant as the Sun,” on view through Sept. 17 at MOCA Cleveland, 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

A body of Steward’s new work will be on view in an as-yet-unnamed show from Dec. 8 to Jan. 20, 2018, at Tregoning & Company in 78th Street Studios,
1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland.

Steward also will have an as-yet-unnamed solo show from Sept. 4, 2018, to Oct. 28, 2018 at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton.

Lead image: Darius Steward stands in front off an abandoned apartment building on Page Avenue in East Cleveland, where he grew up. His childhood home, a building that once stood across the street, has since been torn down.