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Overlapping Selves: Mothers in the Project Space


Anna Taylor



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).


When Ellie Barrett and Nora (2 yrs) were commissioned as a mother-daughter collaboration, this felt like an opportunity for In-Situ to extend to understand more about what might be needed. Anna Taylor shares reflections on the experience of the organisation in facilitating this residency.






In-Situ is a tangled mass. Threads between people’s everyday and professional lives, the subjects and the spaces we inhabit, the relationships contained within the organisation and which contain it. All the messy aspects of art and everyday life, all bundled together; nothing is not included, does not form a part.


Bring into this space artist-mother Ellie, and her daughter-collaborator Nora (2) for a three month residency in which they will visit weekly to work experimentally together and to hold creative play sessions at toddler groups in Brierfield. They will introduce new forms of material play to parents and their little ones, using materials that can be readily bought in the supermarket. This work forms part of Ellie Barrett’s sculpture practice and academic research around materiality, which has lately morphed with motherhood. 



Preparing the Space


My colleague has ordered a nappy bin and a changing mat. He has ordered the special one that bags up the nappies. Nappy bins like this contain things neatly and hygienically and ensure the smell doesn’t permeate the space.


We scan the building for threats that our material environment may pose to a toddler and come up with a list of suggested adaptations. 


The most notable addition to the workspace is the stairgate upstairs, which, when closed is tricky to get through when clutching a laptop, charger and mug of coffee. Some adults get stuck and need letting out. There’s an extra diligence to leaving these things in place for the six days a week when Nora isn’t here. The organisation saying, we really mean to look after this mother and child during their residency. 



Settling In


We become aware of the structures of their day, Nora’s rhythms, and how these fit into our own. On this project, the ‘success’ of the day will be down to how well they’ve slept, what the morning has been like, whether she’s eaten much breakfast. And the ‘success’ of the playgroups they attend will be down to the same things for the parents and children attending. The small ones are in charge here, fluctuations in the routines and rhythms of this mother-child unit, multiplied.



Nora in the Office


Nora is investigating our workspace while we’re having a team meeting. Coiling the cables that connect us in this material space to colleagues in the digital one, bunching the flexing cable and letting it spring back, pushing the chair on wheels, feeling along the edge of the table; a raised architectural model of the site our building is in under a perspex box that we place our laptops and drinks on top of. An interplay of inner-outer, we are in there somewhere in miniature. 


Her presence amuses, diffuses, distracts. Some are looking at the setting, on edge about her safety, on edge about what she can have and what she can’t have, evaluating how precious we feel about that particular piece of paper? Can we let it go? Do I need to move it? Everything within reach is available for inspection by seeing hands.


Nora is presenting us with threads from the floor while someone talks in a meeting. These threads have come from …? They are endlessly fascinating to her little fingers and make us wonder what they were part of? 

Everything presents an opportunity to express will - I want to do this. I don’t want to do this. Agency through materiality. 






Another day and meeting, Nora is wandering up to people in turn and offering them a bracelet to handle. Turning it in our hands and feeling the small wooden beads on elastic as we split our attention. 


Nora is learning the language of the space, of the residency, of the organisation. Having her in the space is like a big flashing arrow pointing at what our world is made of. 


And as she’s learning our language we’re trying to remember hers - these are Ladies, right? Is this the Yellow Lady? I point to a yellow piece of cotton she’s found. I hope I’m right. I don’t know why this feels important. Maybe I just want her to know that I remembered from last week. That I valued her way of seeing. Maybe I don’t want her to get cross and have to (re-) explain. 


A Unit


Ellie and Nora are a unit.


They come informally but selectedly in matching colours, stripes, a matching necklace and headdress. 


Nora is sharing her mum with this new world. With the group. With the team. She is learning her impact on spaces and people as well as on materials. Cause and effect. Learning how the world operates around her. 


There are things Nora wants and things she doesn’t not want but these tend to flow into the same sentence. 


I don’t want to go in the project space I don’t want to go in the project space I want to go in the project space.







Bundles


Part way through the residency, the bundles start appearing. Arriving from playgroups in reusable supermarket carriers and pushed along the ground. Stored up high, into the corner of the project space, they appear like a giant growth, composed of jumbled materials combined hastily into strange, wonderful things that now take up space and demand attention. Threaded with tape, pipe cleaners, foil, straws, wool, they are the essence of becoming, parts combined to create something which stands on its own, has a presence of its own. 


Sometimes I think they resemble nests, or egg sacks, intricately woven of found or spun things. Sometimes a hastily gathered mass of laundry to be moved from one place to another. Sometimes like Japanese Tamari balls, made by mothers for their children, traditionally of scraps of old kimono silk wrapped over time in accumulating layers and planted with a secret good wish for the child at its centre. They are bundles of things held loosely, bundles that contain everything. They are environments; spaces where things co-exist.





Overlapping Selves


As an artist who came to practice through motherhood, many of the intimate scenes here are familiar to me; the stop-start, the chatter, the everyday materials, the guiding whilst holding loosely, a lack of preciousness. Motherhood to me was my art school, we lay together on the kitchen floor with charcoal and rolls of paper, made slime balloons, mounded flour and sunk hands into state-changing oublek (cornflour and water). We opened up our back garden and alley as a sharing space for me and my family to be present with others in their own material explorations. As an artist-mother, I am (was then) responsible for the relationship to my children and the context for our making and sharing work. I am steering them towards what interests me which is also what they intuit themselves and I am elevating these scenes. 


At work, my artist-self overlaps with my In-Situ-self. My work is informed by my interests and experiences and, on some projects, my experience as an artist-mother-woman bleed into my role as employee-facilitator-producer. Here, woking with other artists or participants, I am, or we as a team, are responsible for the decisions about what’s happening, in dialogue with others involved. 


But in the overlap of artist-mum-In-Situ worker, working with artist-mum-and-toddler, there is a cut off where the space is no longer one whose perimeters I, or the organisation are in charge of. This is between the two of them. 



In the Project Space  


“A space where you could be welcome in all the roles that you hold” (Judah, 2022, p.22)


The project space adjoins, but is separate to, the office. It is big and cavernous and usually has the blinds down so it is dark when you go in. It is all hard surfaces, white walls and lofty ceilings. The furniture is pushed back against the walls to make it multi-purpose and ready for constant reconfiguring and constant use. Everything is stacked up and waiting, tidied away from the time before. A space which can contain everything. Large enough to run and roll around in, spin, dance, rage, cry, sit, build, spread. Its a space that no-one’s really organised yet or quite thought through but is available to be used in different ways, for things to be moved, stored and adjusted. 


For these two, the project space becomes an in-between space; a transitional space (Winnicot, D. 1951), a temporary sanctuary between them arriving and leaving. They eat grapes in the den. They unroll tin foil all over the floor. They get straws out. There’s masking tape, pegs, wool. 


Sometimes we wander in there but mostly they’re in there on their own with the door closed and no-one goes in. Nora is overwhelmed and needs some space. Nora is having a tantrum behind the door. Ellie and Nora are eating their picnic. 


We’re making ourselves less visible. Receeding, stepping back, diminishing in the space. This is a space with permission just to be.





Inviting Further Thinking


People in the office are looking round for the soft toy monkey before Nora gets in the car. This is an environment of intense care. And at times we feel uncomfortable. Is this right for Nora? Is this ok for Ellie?


Ellie’s doing two jobs at the same time and there’s a limit to what we can help with. And when it goes off loudly, she’s in a shared workspace. We hope she feels comfortable with this and able to do what she needs to do to get through the day. Mostly it seems enjoyable and mutually fun, some days like more of an endurance test with a stoic and calm face, arms laden with bags and a collaborator chirruping their preferences as they hop about feeling out all the surfaces on the way to the door. 


What does it mean when the creative play between mum and daughter is professionalised? What does it mean when it is done and also theorised? The needs of this unit becoming the subject of team meetings? What does it mean to introduce Nora to a team of producers paying a fee for their shared experience?


What, in practical terms, can the organisation offer the artist-mum that is different and more steady and encouraging than fits and starts at home, after bedtime or clearing away before tea or abandoning on a ‘bad day’? How can we enable her to develop her practice and thinking in a supported, community embedded context and respond to a (our) brief in a way that feels right to her?


When working with an artist-mother, we’re trusting not only in her competence as an artist, but also, dare we say it, as a parent. Trust in the artist to know what is ok for her child in this project. What are we, the organisation asking of Nora? Asking of her Mum? And of the team? This is something we don’t have policy for.


Sometimes Nora seems tired in this setting. So much adult attention, being greeted enthusiastically by every big face on every arrival, vast, un-soft spaces, journeys and commitments, return journeys and returning again next time.



On the one day a week that they’re in, you try and wander in, in a quiet moment to catch up on the project. 

But the atmosphere turns and the happy game with pegs becomes fraught. 

You’re sitting on a tall stool in the middle of the room where their things are spread across the floor and realise,

You are the thing that is coming between her and her mum. 

“I don’t want you to be here!” she screams. 

In that moment you leave the room and realise you are trembling. 

You’ll have to follow up later. 

Maybe after bedtime? 



There is an inevitable impact on the team, of interuption, noise, having to judge or sidestep intimate emotional situations. And possibly an additional ask on the team-mothers who have been through untold challenges with their own children to come into work and will continue into the evening when they get home. 


But it is important that organisations as wholes, as collective thinkers, work with and embrace the complexities of the jumbled up-ness of enabling access to practice and professional life. And doing so with the comfort and safety of everyone in mind, in order that opportunities like these become normalised and more possible. So that parents in communities, as well as in organisations can be creatively met by artist-parents where there is mutual acknowledgement and understanding of the wonder and challenge of the work and a connection in knowing that together we’re nurturing more things than just one. 



Bibliography Judah, H. (2022) How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents), Lund Humphries Ravn, O, (2023), My Work, Lolli Editions

Winnicot, D.W. (1951), Transitional Objects and Transitional Pheomena

in Winnicot, D.W. (1971), Playing and Reality, Routledge (2005).



All images: supplied by Ellie Barrett, 2024


Anna Taylor's role is Critical Engagement at In-Situ and runs Thinking Out Loud. She is interested in overlap and peripheries, motherhood, faith and creating inclusive spaces, including increasing access to thinking and writing about art. Anna is also an interdisciplinary artist working across writing, performance and film. She is currently exploring Autism and creative practice.

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