NORTH NEWTON — Bethel associate professor of visual art and design Rachel Epp Buller has collaborated as a co-editor with Charles Reeve to publish their manuscript "Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity" (Demeter Press, 2019).
Inspired by personal experience as a mother, feminist and art historian, Epp Buller has published similar projects in the past, including one titled "Reconciling Art and Mothering."
“I remember when my kids were small and how I didn’t feel my own experience was reflected in art,” Epp Buller said. “I wanted to see how motherhood connected to my field of art history."
“I wasn’t seeing those conversations. Then I went to a few conferences where I began to see the beginning of (them).”
Throughout history, the maternal body has appeared in several different ways that reflect societal or religious values.
"The maternal body is often depicted as the Virgin Mary, which is valid. Otherwise, it’s not seen a lot (although) I would say that’s changed some in the last 10 to 20 years," Epp Buller said.
“There’s more interest among contemporary artists and contemporary curators on this topic, but I’ve definitely been in these conversations for a while.”
Reeve, an associate professor on the faculty of liberal arts and sciences and the faculty of art at OCAD University, Toronto, whom Epp Buller first met several years ago at conferences, wanted to investigate maternity from an institutional perspective.
“We’ve been so focused on contemporary art, but he was really interested in dealing with issues of, not necessarily graphic design, but systems design," Epp Buller said. "Institutionally, how are different systems dictating maternity? What are the expectations of maternity or around maternity?”
The purpose of the book, a collection of about 20 contributions, is to illustrate the maternal body outside social and institutional standards.
Several essays address the idea that institutions give maternity a specific meaning, or place certain expectations on women in general.
The intentional use of “inappropriate” in the title relates to how women experience trials as a result of living outside designated maternal expectations.
“Women in this country still have a hard time finding childcare and balancing work and mothering,” Epp Buller said. “There’s this expectation that if you’re a certain age, you will naturally be having children, and that if you’re a certain age and you have not had children, then that’s a problem. And yet we set up these barriers for women who have children.”
While putting together this project, both Epp Buller and Reeve experienced some challenges in production.
“It’s an edited collection. Charles and I were co-editors, and we had 20ish contributors, people who wrote essays or had published conversations," Epp Buller said. “It felt like herding cats, with all our designated deadlines — and we all had (other) stuff going on. We started working on this project in 2016 and it just feels like it’s taken a long time to get to this end point.”
The book itself includes some illustrations by contemporary artists — images submitted as representations of the maternal body that don’t adhere to specific expectations or designs.
“The cover art is by Ruchika Wason Singh, an artist and organizer in India,” Epp Buller said. “We were drawn to the abstract nature of her artwork for this context, because putting any one type of representational image on the cover would have necessarily privileged that kind of body over many others.
“The artwork featured inside was largely selected by each contributor and represents a wide range of contemporary artists’ work.”
Epp Buller will be giving talks at conferences throughout the year, starting with the Southeast College Art Association in Chattanooga, Tenn., and including two different panels at the National College Art Association conference in Chicago.
“Charles and I are planning a Toronto event for summer, when we hope many of our contributors can join us," Epp Buller said. "Some of our contributors who live outside of the U.S. and Canada are also talking about book events in their locations, so we’re eager to see how these conversations might continue.”
After nearly four years of brainstorming and production, Epp Buller and Reeve have a product that brings their readers’ attention to situations maternal bodies face in today’s society.
“There are all these competing expectations images for the maternal body," Epp Buller said. "We are ... thinking about how different systems in our society reinforce these expectations while simultaneously excluding others.”
— This article first appeared in The Bethel Collegian, Vol. 108 Issue 3 (Oct. 11, 2019).