Reconceive Invisibilities by Sally Butcher

As an artist, lockdown was strangely fruitful for me. It signalled the end of my reproductive period (trying to be a mother for the best part of a decade, now with two IVF miracles), and the beginning of my productive one. I feel I emerged as an artist. I felt more “seen” than ever before, albeit from behind my computer screen. I felt empowered to apply for grants, which I had never done before, and sent off my work to numerous exhibitions, which weren’t hindered by me having two small children and breastfeeding around the clock. No work to pack up and no private views to attend. Instead, I attended conferences around the world, took part in workshops and engaged in powerful support groups. It felt strangely liberating and energising. I don’t mean to romanticise. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lockdown baby right at the beginning of the pandemic, when support bubbles weren’t allowed, and was that was incredibly hard. My husband lost his job, and that was hard. My personal world was crushingly isolating, which was unbelievably hard as a (second time) new mum, but I had a bigger art world than ever before, and I felt supported. That was fantastic.

Sally Butcher, Hair Piece II, Collagraph of Human Hair, 2014, 30x40cm

Whilst on my lockdown maternity leave, (with huge gratitude to my support network) I received Arts Council funding for my project; “re.conceive: Investigating the Invisibility of Infertility in the Maternal Visual Arts”. This is ‘regarding’ conception, of course, but also ‘reconceiving’ notions of the maternal, infertility and (m)otherhood. In trying to find COVID safe ways through this project, an unanticipated significant element has been the conversations I have had through email exchange with numerous other women who have suffered some issue with infertility. It has made me realise, in the context of finding ways out of lockdown, this project seems more pertinent than ever.

Sally Butcher, Infertile Platitudes of Embodied Emptiness: Sonogram 3 of 9, Digitised Monoprint, 2020, 30x40cm

Lockdown restricted our visibility; we couldn’t see each other in reality and our vision was mediated. For infertile women, lockdown made them more invisible than ever; not having to be seen missing work for appointments, or clearly removing themselves from social situations because they are too painful, seems helpful, but is it? In lockdown the world was quiet, but for infertile women it was more silent than ever, with no fielding inappropriate questions about your maternal intentions, and no distraction from the incessant internal conversations, to give much-needed sense of perspective.  In lockdown, we inhabited space differently; like infertility, we were forced to withdraw from others and were held captive in our own houses and in our own heads, we stood two metres away from others, like infertile women stand away from mothers. In lockdown, our perception of time changed; like infertile time, you’re stuck, waiting for the next instruction and you desperately want to be productive, but you don’t have the means or inclination, and when the days go so slowly but then another year has vanished. This time an infertile year for all of us.

Sally Butcher, Lockdown 1: Be Careful from Lockdown Hair Who Cares? Part 1 of Triptych, Archival Photograph, 2021, 40x50cm

So, what happens now?

I hope we don’t go back to “normal” time. I hope we have created different fertile spaces – both virtual and outside with nature. I hope we can be seen past our screens and heard outside of our echo chambers. As much as I am apprehensive to get into the real world as an artist (… how does it work and how am I going to do it with two children and what if I’m not accepted as a real-life artist???…), I know we need to get out there.

Sally Butcher, Silent Maternal, Archival Photograph, 2020, 100x75cm

Artist mothers are tired after the past year, but they are also holding each other. Artist mothers are angry at what lockdown has put them through, but there is also a sense of energy bubbling; they have had a conventionally fallow year, but now they are churning up the soil and are beginning to plant seeds. There are the same issues, there are more issues. The pandemic has brought about a refocus of the family unit, through home schooling and a regrettable reestablishment of traditional gender roles. This maternal labour and care must be visualised. Unfortunately, infertile women have no place in this narrative. And yet, it seems clear, the levels of maternal labour involved in their journey and the amount of care demanded of these women, for their potential child, needs to be seen on this very trajectory, as form of (sub) maternal identity, and equally needs to be represented in (m)other art.

Sub-maternal Exhaustion during a Pandemic (detail), Photograph with Ink, Egg, Hand Gel, 2020, 10x10cm

I know the mother artist community will see this. They are amazingly welcome and supportive of all (m)others. It is the rest of society that needs to open its eyes. Let’s hope with everyone’s recent experience of invisibility, these new visions will be perceived, our exposure will be recorded in important spaces, and our voices will break through the unnecessary silences. The time for (m)others is now!

Sally Butcher, Torn IV, Archival Photograph, 2021, 50x50cm