The small selection at the Harwood is from her monumental work The Birth Project, which I saw some years ago when I was still wracked by the inherent—or so it seemed to me—contradictions between my experience of motherhood and my feminism.
Specifically: how to reconcile my passion for my little boys, and my almost total absorption in their care, with feminism’s wider view of a woman’s possibilities?
And—of course—I was not interested in guilt, but rather in understanding.
The pain and panic I felt because of these contradictions between my long-held beliefs and my new experiences blinded me to what Chicago was accomplishing.
Now, many years later, I was astonished and moved by the powerful and beautiful and often pastel images she created. They did not deal with my anxieties but with a power I had not yet then recognized—although I had certainly experienced it: the power of birth, the power of mothers.
Social and economic constraints held me, bound to worrying about whether I would still be perceived as a writer (I wasn’t, but this coincided with decades when I published nothing, because of my absorption in mothering), or how the difficulties of earning a living as a writer—especially a feminist writer—must frustrate and confine the large majority of women not blessed, as I am, with inherited money.
These two questions remain unresolved, as far as I can see, cutting most women out of the writing field—except for journals—and preventing our being taken seriously by reviewers, publishers, readers… and especially by men, who do not often read books written by women although we are all the time reading books written by men.
Judy’s work transcends all this, as all great art does. Elemental, terrifying, and beautifully rendered—often in tender pastels—these images of women in the throes of labor and birth speak to the power we, as a gender, are often afraid to claim: the raw power of our creativity.
Of course our creativity is not confined to, or exemplified by, childbirth. And Judy shows, dramatically, the agony of birth—sometimes smoothed over by our intention to make all of life’s raw experiences more civilized (the same goes for death). Drugs, hospitals, abashed attending fathers (whether throwing up or passed out on the floor), all tend to mitigate the terror and the grandeur of birthing—as versions of these factors mitigate the terror and the grandeur of our other creative acts.
Judy’s great quilt Mother India, hung on a sun-drenched wall at the end of this exhibit, pushes the boundaries of our understanding with images both beautiful and horrifying of women’s enslavement and suffering in the continent so often referred to as “Mother.” Perhaps all these contradictions are in the end a source of our creative mastery: the conventionalities of quilting containing utterly unconventional images, the agony of birth presented in gentle pastels. And the “Mother”—whether India or the mother so many of us harbor in souls—perhaps can never be changed into an image of support and inspiration until great artists who are women are regarded as masters.