Q & A with Sarah Irvin, founder of the Artist Parent Index

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Can you give us an introduction to The Artist Parent Index, the project’s mission and how it all began?

For my MFA thesis, I was making work about my own experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for my child. I found that the resources I needed were not organized through typical research channels, and this ultimately led to the creation of the site. The university library had very few books about artists pursuing these topics (two), and it’s difficult to find a large number of artists making work about any specific topic using a google search. At times I would find resources that lead me to quite a few artists or publications, but there was not any digital resource that was a multifaceted, comprehensive guide to the discourse.

I realized that the lack of a digital compendium was not due to a lack of artists making work about these topics or that people weren’t writing books about them. They just weren’t comprehensively represented, and academic communities seemed largely unaware of their existence. I had been working with the digital publishing platform, Omeka, and it has a unique structure that allows for the creation of a searchable database. I saw the need and a tool that could be used effectively to meet the need, and a so few months later I launched the project.

Visitors to the site can find artists using search terms such as specific mediums, locations, or topics. The home page features the entries randomly, therefore allowing visitors to come across entries by chance. There is also a searchable map where entries can be explored through geolocation pins.

Mission: The mission of the Artist Parent Index is to promote the understanding of an individual’s experience with reproduction and parenting through the visual arts, aid in the exhibition of this work, and increase public understanding of art practices exploring these subjects. The Artist Parent Index pursues these goals by providing a free, online, searchable database of artists and exhibits exploring reproduction and parenting from first-person perspectives and resources supporting these practices. The site is a research tool for students, artists, educators, curators, and the general public. 

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How does the Index feed into your wider practice as an artist? How does it impact others?

I’ve found that meticulously archiving this information is a great way to be informed about what is going on in the discourse. So, it definitely shapes my practice to have such an in depth experience with the work featured on the site. It reminds me how much I don’t know, and it challenges me to value artistic practices outside of my own. Also, with over 240 entries, I don’t have all the details memorized, and I have used the website’s search feature as a research tool myself on multiple occasions.

Looking at the bigger picture, I see the project as integral to the pursuit of equality. We need to understand the lives of people who are different from us to effectively work toward equality as a society, and the Index can aid in producing this understanding. If you dismiss the expression of the experiences of those who reproduce and care for their children, how can you possibly understand how your choices will affect their lives? These experiences have been deemed private and individual, yet the these “private” experiences are greatly impacted by the architecture of public spaces, public policy, health systems, public transportation, foodways, educational systems, and housing. We have created a caretaker class whose views, needs, and opinions are routinely dismissed in public discourse. It has to stop. The Index facilitates access to those viewpoints.

Reproduction, parenting or care-taking are such a major part of so many artists’ lives yet as a subject in the visual arts, have been vastly underrepresented. What do you feel are the barriers preventing more artists, curators and theorists from exploring these subjects in their work?

People have negative or dismissive reactions to these topics, and I think this leads to systemic marginalization of the subject matter. I will talk about mothers specifically. I’ve heard from doctors, lawyers, and even anthropologists who have had trouble finding institutional support while conducting research on the experience of mothers. Work about motherhood is routinely dismissed in the art world, but why would we limit visual art to say that it is not able to compellingly present a specific subject? I think the topic of mothers, mothering, and motherhood get dismissed routinely as sentimental, and therefore not valid as a subject matter for “serious” art. But, very interesting artwork has been made that rigorously investigates sentimentality, and there is much more than that to explore within the experience of a mother.

It seems to be a threat to one’s identity to consider their parents or any caretaker as real people with something to say about their own experiences. I asked my daughter what she thought her preschool teacher does when she goes home from school and she said “I dunno” and then ran the opposite direction. Apparently it doesn’t come easily to us to consider and value our own caretaker’s subjectivity. Because of this, an overarching problem seems to be that people think mothers, motherhood, and mothering just “are” and that the experience is static and therefore can’t be considered critically. 

I think the work is out there, but the problem is lack of visibility due to a pervasive societal and institutional dismissal of the subjectivity of caretakers. 

Sarah Irvin, Infinite House

Sarah Irvin, Infinite House

Since the conception of the index two and a half years ago, how have you seen the index evolve and develop and what response have you had?

Since creating the site, I’ve added the Resource Library, which is a list of books that I feel can inform the practice of artists exploring reproduction and caretaking in their work. People routinely ask me for reading suggestions, so it made sense to make this addition.

Overall, I have seen more traffic to the website than I ever expected. Also, over 40% of the artist entries have come through visitors contributing their own information, which has greatly benefited the site.

The index is a database of parent-artists and care-takers, yet the majority of entries are female. What issues has the index brought forth in relation to gender and care-taking and is this something you had anticipated, or aimed to explore?

I did anticipate that the project would predominantly map female artists initially, and I was hoping it could be used to encourage greater diversity in the discourse. Overall, female artists are pursuing topics related to caretaking and reproduction in their work at a much higher rate than male artists. It is important to note that artists are making work about experiences of reproduction that are apart from that of a fertile, heterosexual, cisgendered couple making a decision to intentionally reproduce. But at the moment, it seems to be the trend that white, fertile, heterosexual, cisgendered female artists are the most likely to make work about their experience of reproducing. This is problematic.

Reproduction takes a much greater toll on the person with the uterus, so it makes sense that creating artwork about conception, pregnancy, labor, delivery, and breastfeeding would stand out for possible inclusion in their work to a person with a uterus that grew a child and breasts that potentially did some breastfeeding. Inseminating and/or partnering with a pregnant person throughout their pregnancy is an experience in and of itself, and there is something to those experiences absolutely worth representing in visual art. 

Caretaking for someone you claim as your child is a very different experience from producing semen, conception, pregnancy, labor, and delivery.  You have to do the care work to be able to make work about your experience doing it. As we see slow generational shifts away from the tendency for women to do a disproportionate amount of caretaking, I think we will see a slow shift in what types of experiences are represented in the art practices of men. 

For now, I try to bring up the disparity as much as possible. I can point to the Index as proof of what we all probably could have guessed. But, I think it is important to continually call out the lack of gender diversity in caretaking and in the visual art discourse surrounding it. I remind every artist I can that their experience with reproduction and/or parenting is valid no matter who they are, and that there is something compelling to be explored in their art practice because of it. 

Sarah Irvin, Annotated Breastmilk

Sarah Irvin, Annotated Breastmilk

What goals do you have for the future of the Artist Parent Index and how do you see it developing? Who is your audience now and who do you hope your audience to be in the future?

One of my major goals is to increase the diversity of who is represented on the site as well as the diversity of topics explored. It is easier for me to come across english speaking artists, or artists who cross paths with my existing network, so I am intentionally seeking out artists of diverse backgrounds and from parts of the world that are not yet represented on the site. My mission is to include everything I can. I work directly with each artist to have them approve how they are represented on the site, so that sets a slower pace. I hope to continue this slow, intentional, and thoughtful growth. 

Artists, educators, curators are my primary  audience, but I hope anyone in the  general public can use it to find some interesting work they did not know about.  I want to increase visibility within educational settings by being listed as a digital research tool through university libraries. If someone has found the Index to be useful in the past for a project or a show, I hope they will let me know so I can track how people are using it.

How can artists get involved?

In general, anyone can help increase the visibility of the project by sharing on social media. Educators can include the link on their syllabi and request that the resource be added to their institution’s library’s digital resource pages. Or, if you work for an arts organization or institution, consider linking to the project on your organization’s page as an educational resource for artists. 

If an artist meets the parameters for the site, they can submit their info at http://www.artistparentindex.com/contribution. Because I am running this project on volunteer hours, that really helps speed up the process of adding people to the site. 

I’m always taking interns or volunteers, and there are no restrictions based on location as long as you have a computer, access to the internet, and are able to communicate with me about the project through email or skype. 

If you would like to learn more about the Artist Parent Index, Sarah had an article out in Issue 3 of the Journal of Mother Studies which you can read here https://jourms.wordpress.com/the-artist-parent-index/

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