Next in the series of Artist Mothers at ZMP by Doris Madsen
It is April 2020 and individuals and families are self isolating in their homes, trying to find comfort in each other, their surroundings and activities. Days become longer.
Esther White is at home with her husband Alex and her son Solomon, age five, awaiting the time for her second child to be born. She is not thinking about art but is focused on her family and getting rest.
When Solomon was a baby, textile work and quilting fit into the rhythm of childcare and family life. Esther is an experienced seamstress. Her textile work is both craft and art where materials, technique and content are intertwined with improvisation. The work can be picked up and put down at the drop of a hat. No brayers or tools to clean, no inks to wipe.
Fast forward to March and April 2020. She is cutting up all the “dumb grocery bags” she can find to sew masks. She uses those non-woven ones that stores give away as promotions and posts instructions on Instagram, very resourceful, no huge investment, supplies on hand and little waste.
The quilt Esther makes with Solomon during this time of isolation is outstanding. Instead of doing all of the assignments sent home from preschool (yes, preschool) the pair works on a quilt, improv style, because of course she was working with a young artist to whom making choices is very important and part of the process. “I never would have combined all that green with the red/white but it’s COOL.”
“Solomon chose all the fabrics, designed most of the blocks and has been my sewing/ironing assistant.” He also inserts patches of Wolverine, a fictional mutant character favorite of Solomon.
Self-isolation is not exactly contrary to Esther’s method of working. A very avid and constantly curious reader of many subjects, she constantly seeks to acquire new information and knowledge. Her art is very research-based both for content and for methods and techniques. Working through particular processes, Esther can take months before arriving at the point that will suit her practice.
Esther uses printmaking and craft methods “to explore themes of memory, time, and identity.” Her “inspiration comes from the rhythms of childcare, labor and repetition to interrogate the familiar.” Because her work is derived from her daily life, boundaries between art and motherhood are blurred. Parenting is her art and art is her parenting. Her practice integrates personal meaning.
Esther’s invisible illness of migraine headaches is a thread that finds its way into many works. During these episodes Esther cannot read or create art but she can take selfies from which she derives headache diaries and self portraits.
The titles of her prints, artists books and textiles are her personal space in time, her memories: I Thought I Knew, Things I Wouldn’t Let My Son Play With, Clothes That are Too Small and Not Needed, Unreliable Narrator, Disappearing Woman.
For two years when Solomon was a baby, Esther participated as an Artist in Residence in Motherhood, a self-directed, open-source artist residency created by a British interdisciplinary artist to empower and inspire artists who are also mothers. This residency, without traveling anywhere, at no cost other than donations to the founder, reframes motherhood as a valuable source for creative practice rather than a roadblock to circumvent. Esther’s Instagram feed, 2016-18 is rich with #artistresidencyinmotherhood.
Examining Esther’s printmaking processes and techniques and how they have each developed could be the subject of another examination and essay. Her dark forms, blurred edges and random-looking compositions might be considered spontaneous if they were paintings, but the processes are clear and deliberate. Accidental is not to be confused with spontaneity. Also not to be overlooked are Esther’s many contributions to the local arts community including volunteering with the Northampton Arts Council, her many curatorial projects and her work as a community arts organizer.
Week 4 of self isolation becomes week 5; week 5 becomes week 6. Esther White’s self-isolation residency is her time at home with her family. There is nothing underway in her home studio or at Zea Mays where she prints and teaches. She is sewing masks and admiring the quilt she and Solomon created together. Years from now the quilt will be a memory of this time. Art and motherhood are one and the same.
All text in quotations are from sources:
Artist Talk by Esther White, Stoneleigh Burnham School, January 10, 2019
Artist Panel at #LOCAL Gallery, Easthampton MA February 28, 2020