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Processes and Forms for Artist-Motherhood

Ellie Barrett

The Brierfield annual residency is one without a brief. An open call invites artists and practitioners to propose a way of working in our immediate neighbourhood and spend time here doing it in their own way, without the need to produce an outcome. This presents a unique opportunity for both artists and the organisation for curiosity; to test new approaches, find new audiences and uncover new perspectives on this area and our practice(s).

Here artist Ellie Barrett reflects on the experience of working as artist in residence with her 2 year old daughter, Nora and writes about about porousness and materiality, production and letting go and making as reciprocity.

My partner read my residency proposal to In-Situ before I sent it. “This sounds like you’re saying you’re not an artist,” he said, “did you mean it to sound like that?” I wanted to suggest that I had a thriving career which instantly stagnated at my daughter Nora’s birth. In reality, I barely took a break feeling the panic of being left behind in childrearing and returned to my teaching job 2 months post-partum. I didn’t actually make anything until a year later. Balancing higher education work and learning how to mother was enough for me to hit overwhelm. And so it didn’t feel like I was still an artist. My daughter filled my arms so much that I couldn’t use them for making.


Ghislaine Leung writes about “porosity” as an antidote, “trying not to segregate or compartmentalise parts of my life: I have to let the material that’s around me in.” (2024, 74). Letting material in is something I’ve always been trying to do. Before I had the language to articulate why, my work was flooded with things like cling-film, bubble-wrap, kitchen paper, dishcloths, bin bags and soap. My PhD revealed material as vitally social and political. People, places, processes and events it passes through charge it with energies and information. Material is rebellious, affecting with an intention all its own. Our whole world is porous; human and non-human agencies are connected in a neverending exchange.


I watched my new baby wrestle with the world. She could not help but let material in: she scrunched, chewed, tore, squeezed, sucked, threw, and ripped everything that fell into her tiny, pink grasp. She began to manifest her fresh body. As arts researcher Victoria Mitchell writes, “the tactile is present at the origin of the psyche and is also characterised as having a reflexive structure whereby we touch and feel ourselves being touched simultaneously, providing both internal and external perception.” (2021). Nora acts and is acted upon. Responses and resistances of the different materials she encountered helped her to triangulate herself - softness of flesh, hardness of bones - within the environment she inhabited. I saw a person make themselves with and from material. Boundaries between sculpture-making and childcare became immediately flimsy.


I came to In-Situ seeking porosity. Porosity of materials, of making, wanting the mother in me to flow into the artist. I wanted to let my daughter in fully. Nora came with me on every residency day, bringing crumbs, teething pains, nappy changes and unrelenting curiosity with her. She invaded staff meetings. She unshelved books.

Nora looking through the In-Situ library

She forced me to revisit the meaning of “production”. It wasn’t about efficient working, or the performativity of producing. Sometimes I held her through her tantrums. Sometimes she just reached her limit.

Taking a moment to have a cuddle

We played in the project space. I tried not to have any pre-conceptions about what this might lead to. I brought different materials every week. Things I snatched from drawers, cupboards and under the stairs. I’d forgotten I had most of them. Metallic parcel ribbons, dusty brown paper, malting fabric scraps, fraying string. She flitted from one to the next, lingering on some more than others.


Pulling, dragging, throwing, ripping, kicking, waving, rustling, scattering, winding, stamping, wrapping, unfurling, unfolding, enfolding. We made a mess, and “mess-making might be a methodological practice, a way of becoming more in-tune with objects.” (Hood & Kraehe, 2017).

Dressing up in the mess

Sitting in the mess

Diving in the mess


Tissue paper, tin foil, pipe cleaners, toilet roll, wool and masking tape eventually crystallised into the “sculpture kit”.

The sculpture kit

Each material held Nora’s attention as she put them to work in different ways. Each can be transformed or combined by a 2 year-old’s imprecise grip. Repetition, reconfiguration and material innovation are the fundamentals of play, already part of the artist’s repertoire (Thomas, 2019). Toddlers’ materially-centric play is far more visceral, experimental, and unselfconscious. They don’t have to unlearn yet. This is a valuable state for an artist to occupy.


I made new toys for her. Wiggling pipe-cleaner fingers held together by tin foil.

Pipe-cleaner fingers

She unravelled a ball of wool, then another. Tangles kicked around the floor between us grew more and more interwoven. I made a den, winding strands of tape roofed with tissue paper and foil. We ate our lunch inside it.

Ducking under whilst making a den

She gathered pipe cleaners, bending them into a compound mass with a clumsy pincer-grasp.

Nora making a pipe-cleaner form

The aftermath is a scatter sculpture. Anti-monumental.


When I interviewed artist Elly Thomas for my PhD, she remarked “we’re still just getting over Verb List, aren’t we?” A double-page spread in Richard Serra’s 1967 sketchbook listing actions - to roll, to crease, to fold - freed art production from the limitations of processes, materials, equipment, facilities and training. This will only be fully realised when all experiences are activated as sites for making. When we understand that the mode of production and the people within it are brimming with conceptual meaning.


We brought the sculpture kit to other children and parents (predominantly mothers) in Brierfield at the end of the residency. A young baby stomped on tin foil, laughing at the sound it made. His mother showed him the ridged prints made by his shoes.

Stomping on tin foil


“I think I’m having more fun than they are!” So many mothers said this to me during the sessions. Some began making something with or for their children, and became gradually more absorbed in their own work.

Wrapped form

A grandmother wove pipe cleaners together whilst her grandson watched. Skilled fingers under a young gaze.

Pipe-cleaner weaving


At one of the play sessions, a young mother shared the stress of her son’s recent illness with me. I knew how to talk to her about this because I am a mother too.


One little girl, the same age as Nora, stuck strips of navy masking tape torn by her mother on top of one another, over and over again.

Sticking tape

Unencumbered by the pressure of producing, just being there for the feeling of the gesture. I want to copy her.


Children’s art has long been the subject of artist’s attention, fetishised for its “purity,” “innocence” and “rawness”. This is not that. Instead, "children position themselves as part of the world, rather than simply ‘in’ it." (Hickey-Moody et al, 2021, 107). They are sources of knowledge , not blank slates. Testing the sculpture kit with communities of children and parents, watching the results unfold, fully revealed the immense value of co-production in sculpture. Reciprocity is in making. As a sculptor, I took away a toolkit of gestures, methods, materials, forms, approaches and possibilities. I hope the children and parents who played with the kit took away a feeling of liberation or empowerment at the notion that sculpture may emerge by letting materials in to see what they can do. Armfuls of tissue paper, tin foil, pipe-cleaners, wool, toilet roll and masking tape being carried away at the end “to carry on at home” hinted at this.

The Deen Centre group at Nelson Library

As a mother, I know I can do it too, now.


Nora keeps asking me when we’ll go to Development Matters playgroup again.

Wood shapes in the playroom at Brierfield Family Hub

This one of the community playgroups in Brierfield we visited. We went to several groups, but this one became our regular. We got to know the mums, children and staff. Some came to the sessions. My artist half piggy-backed on my mother half this time, not than the other way around. I took best practices from going to these playgroups - ways of making sure the people who came to play with the sculpture kit would feel comfortable.

Nora making a collage at a playgroup at St. Luke’s, Brierfield

“Tidy-up time” became collaborative bundle-making. I wanted to make sure everyone would know what to expect. Sculpture making doesn’t have to feel inaccessible.


After a strand of gold ribbon looped round her foot, Nora told me “I want to walk with it.” I held one end of a long strip, she the other. We circled each other, connected by the shiny strand. Scraps of tin foil and toilet roll were gathered and bound together. A sculptural form bubbled up, a “bundle” which enfolded our acts of play, entirely by accident. After the first time, we did it again and again and again. A series. A body of work. Affordances of the materials pulled form out of the aftermath: tin-foil compounded and wrapped; pipe-cleaners bent and fastened; tissue-paper and toilet-roll scrunched and bulked; tape and wool bound and secured. Tangles, glimmers, creases, voids, protuberances, threads.


The bundle followed me out of this residency. It’s a familiar form in contemporary sculpture - Mary Mattingly, Judith Scott and Nnena Kalu, to name a few. A friend - another artist-mother - commented that bundling is how nature makes sculptures. Things blown into each other, unfolding and enfolding. Entanglements. Children made bundles at the play sessions before this was suggested to them. Small hands can twist, wrap and fasten. A girl told me she liked what she’d made because “you can’t tell what’s inside, and that means it’s interesting.”

Bundle made by a girl

Bound hand

Anthropologist Alfred Gell writes that every objects is an “index” of its own making (1998). Our bundles are an encapsulation of all the hours of play.

Mother and daughter making a bundle

Bundle emerging

Collaborative bundle-making


Just after the end of the residency, I saw Professor Griselda Pollock speak about female sculptors working in abstraction. Sculpture, she suggested, is essentially a remaking of the mother’s body, rebuilding the early experience of touch. Sensuousness, tactility, viscerality. Sculpture is about the feeling of being held. Collision of bodies in space.


Leung laments ever thinking of her daughter as “a limitation,” and I remember feeling this so much at the beginning that I couldn’t see the structures which held it in place. In the “professional visual arts”, children are limiting. Stop you in your tracks. When will you ever get back into the studio again? Will you ever matter again, if all you can do with your time is mother?


I’m not an artist and a mother anymore. I am fully an artist-mother. These identities feed and replenish one another to the extent that they can no longer be disentangled. Children do not limit arts production, they catalyse it. Everything I did as an artist before my daughter just put me in the right place to understand the importance and the value of what she was doing when she arrived.



Gell, A. 1998. Art and Agency: an Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Hickey-Moody, A., Horn, C., Willcox, M & Florence, E. 2021. Arts Based Methods for Research with Children. Springer International Publishing AG.


Hood, E. J. &  Kraehe, A. M. 2017. “Creative Matter: New Materialism in Art Education Research, Teaching, and Learning” in Art Education, 70 (2), pp32-38, March 2017. DOI:10.1080/00043125.2017.1274196


Leung, G. 2023. Bosses. London: Divided Publishing.


Mitchell, V. 2021. "Judith Scott: Capturing the Texture of Sensation" in TEXTILE, 19(3). DOI: 10.1080/14759756.2021.1913864


Thomas, E. 2019. Play and the Artist's Creative Process: The Work of Philip Guston and Eduardo Paolozzi. London: Routledge.

All images: Ellie Barrett 

Ellie Barrett is a sculptor, practice-based researcher, writer, academic and artist-mother. She produces object-based artworks for exhibition and delivers socially-engaged projects. She is an advocate for artist-m*thers, using material engagement as a means of activating different circumstances and experiences as sites for making.

Ellie is an Associate Lecturer in Fine Art, Lancaster University and is invested in exploring sculpture as a collaborative discipline. Recent exhibitions include Personal Histories at National Festival of Making, Blackburn, Handmade Soft Play at Lancaster City Library and Explain Things to Me, a solo show at Subsidiary Projects, London. She lives and works in Lancaster and Morecambe.


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