Exhibitions

JOURNEY TO EDEN @ DIGITAL WINDOW GALLERY

6 May - 12 May 2024

Events

MARRIAGE (IN)EQUALITY IN UKRAINE. Screening and a panel discussion

9 May 2024

Events

Casey Orr artist talk and SEPN North West meet-up

18 May 2024

Events

Poetry reading: Coast to Coast to Coast

11 May 2024

Exhibitions

National Pavilion of Ukraine @ Venice Biennale

20 April - 24 November 2024

Exhibitions

Open Source 28: Sam Patton – Room to Breathe @ Digital Window Gallery

10 April - 18 May 2024

Exhibitions

Forward, Together @ Wigan & Leigh Archives, Leigh Town Hall

23 March - 28 September 2024

Exhibitions

As She Likes It: Christine Beckett @ The Rainbow Tea Rooms, Chester

1 March - 30 June 2024

Exhibitions

Shifting Horizons @ Digital Window Gallery

27 March - 31 March 2024

PLATFORM: ISSUE 6

26 March 2024

Past Events

Saturday Town: Launch Event

10 April 2024

Exhibitions

Saturday Town

11 April - 18 May 2024

Past Events

PLATFORM: ZINE LAUNCH EVENT

21 March 2024

Home. Ukrainian Photography, UK Words: Tour

4 March - 28 February 2025

Exhibitions

Home: Ukrainian Photography, UK Words @ New Adelphi

4 March - 8 March 2024

Past Events

CREATIVE SOCIAL: IN THE ABSENCE OF FORMAL GROUND

2 March 2024

Exhibitions

We Feed The UK @ Exterior Walls

8 February - 31 March 2024

Past Events

Contrail Cirrus: the impact of aviation on climate change

7 March 2024

Exhibitions

Tree Story @ Liverpool ONE

16 February - 1 May 2024

Open Source #27: Saffron Lily – In The Absence of Formal Ground @ Digital Window Gallery

6 February - 31 March 2024

Past Events

Contemporary Photography from Ukraine: Symposium @University of Salford

4 March - 5 March 2024

Past Events

Is Anybody Listening? Symposium: Commissioning and Collecting Socially Engaged Photography

29 February 2024

Past Events

Different approaches: Artists working with scientists

15 February 2024

Past Events

LOOK Climate Lab 2024: All Events

18 January 2024

Exhibitions

Diesel & Dust @ Digital Window Gallery

18 January - 31 March 2024

Events

Tree Walks Of Sefton Park with Andrea Ku

21 January 2024

Past Events

Artists Remake the World by Vid Simoniti: Book Launch

31 January 2024

Past Events

Shift Liverpool Open Meeting

6 February 2024

Past Events

We Feed The UK Launch and LOOK Climate Lab 2024 Celebration

8 February 2024

Past Events

Cyanotype workshop with Melanie King

17 February 2024

Past Events

End of Empire: artist talk and discussion

22 February 2024

Past Events

Book Launch: What The Mine Gives, The Mine Takes

24 February 2024

Past Events

Local ecology in the post-industrial era: open discussion

14 March 2024

Past Events

Waterlands: creative writing workshop

23 March 2024

Past Events

Plant a seed. Seed sow and in conversation with Plot2Plate

16 March 2024

Past Events

Erosion: panel discussion

9 March 2024

Past Events

Waterlands: an evening of poetry and photographs

23 March 2024

Past Events

Force For Nature Exhibition

27 March - 28 March 2024

Voices of Nature: Interactive Performances

28 March 2024

Past Events

Sum of All Parts: Symposium

27 February 2024

Exhibitions Main Exhibition

LOOK Climate Lab 2024

18 January - 31 March 2024

Past Events

MA Socially engaged photography Open Day event

1 February 2023

Past Events

Tish: Special screening and Q&A

13 December 2023

Past Events

Book Launch: A Look At A New Perspective

23 November 2023

Past Events

Community workshops @ Ellesmere Port Library

6 November - 5 February 2024

Past Events

Book Launch: ‘544m’ By Kevin Crooks

30 November 2023

Past Exhibitions

Bernice Mulenga @ Open Eye Gallery Atrium Space

17 November - 17 December 2023

Past Events

Bernice Mulenga: Artist Talk

18 November 2023

Past Exhibitions

Local Roots @ The Atkinson

14 October 2023

Exhibitions

Community @ Ellesmere Port Library

26 October - 11 April 2024

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An Ecology of Care - Open Eye Gallery (Sep 2022) ©Rob Battersby
An Ecology of Care - Open Eye Gallery (Sep 2022) ©Rob Battersby
An Ecology of Care - Open Eye Gallery (Sep 2022) ©Rob Battersby

Interview with Lisa Creagh on Holding Time

PR: How did your own experiences influence your artistic decision to start the project Holding Time? Is it going well?

LC:  I think so. Normally I’d do a show and then have a bit of a break and then start something else but we’re doing a big project for November – an audio tour – and that would have been good to do with the Open Eye Gallery show, but the dates didn’t line up. It’s for Baby Week in November. I’m really busy with it.

PR:  Can I ask you about the impact of your experience of motherhood on your work as an artist?

LC: They’re very connected.  I was doing work on infertility, and I had loads of commercial galleries, lots of commercial sales. I had five dealers selling that work. The minute I had my daughter that reduced. It had a huge impact on my finances. I also lost my job at the same time. I took ‘voluntary redundancy’ but there was no conversation around that. 

It’s extraordinarily difficult to practice as an artist if you haven’t got a certainty of income. For this work, I had to really innovate even to be able to begin it. I spent a lot of time looking after my daughter. She was at nursery for 12 hours a week from when she was one and a half.

I did childcare swaps.  

I remember I got a residency at Brighton MET and would ask friends from nursery to take my child for an afternoon so that I could do a shoot. I’d scramble together the lights, the camera, everything. It was complicated and exhausting to do. I’d do the shoot and then I’d have their children for an afternoon as payback. That’s how I managed to do the work. It took me a year to do ten portraits. 

I got Arts Council funding and luckily the residency continued for a further year. That support really mattered. It made a difference. With the Arts Council grant I did another 10 portraits, in two weeks. Just having the support with childcare. 

I think there’s a perception that once you become a mother, you’re going to be a less effective professional of any kind but especially as an artist. It’s just to do with the childcare costs and you’ve got no certainty of ever making any money. How do you pay for childcare if you don’t know you’re earning an income? 

PR: What about the attitudes of galleries?

LC:  My gallery in London dropped me. I had a show when Lily was about 5 months. I remember being at the opening and my milk leaking into my dress. My husband, Steve, was walking around with the baby in the pram round the block while I went to the opening. It was all very exhausting and difficult to do but I was doing it. 

I had a great commission in those 2 years which enabled me to do the Holding Time work. A commission from Lionel de Rothschild – and it was fabulous. I was able to go, stay in his house and bring my daughter. It was a respite from it all really and that work gave me some assured income, enough to get through those 2 years. Once that Holding Time work had been shown in Brighton, I then had no funding again! 

In 2019 when my daughter was about 7, I was back to square one, thinking ‘how am I going to do this?’ 2019 was really difficult. It was like a year up/ a year down. It was difficult financially. In 2020 we had the lockdown and covid… a daughter at home I was educating… I got long covid… I’m kind of well now. That was a difficult year and I earned almost nothing.

But I had the Liverpool project in the pipeline. That started properly with the launch at Open Eye Gallery in November 2021. This work takes a lot of time to develop.  It’s highly labour intensive. Jo Ward has been really important bringing in the NHS and making the work a bit better funded but it’s still an ongoing problem. As soon as I get any funding I think where am I going to get the next funding

PR: Have you had support from other women artists?

LC: Yeah.  

PR: Is that support available to women in this position of being an artist and mother and feeling things are changing? Is there a community of artists that women can go to when they become mothers?

LC: There is the Maternal Art Journal promoting women’s art and there’s Mothers Who Make which is fabulous. I did a talk for them in Coventry. I think mothers recognise and offer each other support. Especially women who have been through the wringer, trying to support others. It’s the years 0 to 4 when there’s a lack of decent childcare…. I don’t know if it’s improving.  

I was looking at part-time work when I had Lily, it was work in super-markets stacking shelves. I’ve been the director of a 3 million quid a year company in London. I didn’t want to be stacking shelves. 

A lot of people thought I should just go back to the well-paid marketing job that I’d left. But I wanted to be a mother and I would have had to get a nanny and I couldn’t rationalise it.

PR: Choices that aren’t really choices?

LC: You have this idea before you have a child that you’re going to be this career woman and it’s going to be fabulous; you’re going to have a child as well and it’s all going to be wonderful. You’re going to go on great holiday – I do see women doing that – there are women who do that. It is a lot to do with the child and you, and how able you are to spin all those plates.

PR: And having the means to do that as well?

LC: You must have a well-paid job. What I found was that once I was out on my ear from my job it was hard to get another well-paid job. There wasn’t the good quality, flexible working that possibly there might be now. Even so the quality of childcare in this country is poor. 

Women are constantly faced with this difficult choice.  And it is often a woman’s choice whether they want to carry on with their career and keep climbing the ladder and earning more and getting what they deserve, or whether they want to prioritise their children. There’s just this constant juggle of yourself over your child. I feel like I do prioritise myself a lot.  I’ve been very selfish in many ways to continue with this work. The unselfish thing perhaps, would have been to go and get a job.

PR: Who would have done Holding Time then?

LC: Nobody. It never would have been done. 

PR: What was your own experience of breast-feeding?

LC: I did have a lot of problems breast-feeding. I had a baby that latched and then at ten days it was excruciatingly painful, and I knew by day two I was in trouble. I called the Infant Feeding team. They sent over a breast-feeding counsellor. We tried lots of different positions. Nothing helped and by day five, I was getting really desperate. 

They were weighing the baby as well. I kept getting told the latch was fine. I knew she was hungry, and it was getting more and more difficult. By day ten I had double mastitis. By then I had a really high temperature and didn’t realise. No one had noticed. I kept saying to Steve ‘I’m so hot, so hot.’ I was sleeping on top of the bed because I was burning up. 

I was doing all these things – using hot cloths, trying to hand express, having showers, all this stuff because my boobs were just getting bigger and bigger like they were going to explode. So double mastitis, the most agonising pain. It was like someone had cut my breasts off with a knife … I then had to take antibiotics and they said to me, ‘she’s going to go on a feeding programme now she’s lost 10% of her weight’. 

So, I was in this feverish state, really unhappy and I was put on this plan where I had to keep giving her formula. The weight-gain plan had such a high amount of formula that she kept throwing it all up. So, then I thought maybe she can’t digest formula? So, I started looking around to see can someone else give her breast milk. I was trying to express but by then I was hardly producing any because of the mastitis. 

It was an intense moment because I had breast-fed her for ten days and then suddenly, I couldn’t feed her. If I put her on the breast she screamed. The minute the bottle went in her mouth I relaxed. Something within me that had been really torn, let go and I realised at that moment, this looks normal. This is what I was expecting. And because I hadn’t been able to do this I felt completely out at sea. 

It’s like you’ve looked your whole life at images of babies with bottles and I looked after babies, and I fed them bottles and then I had a baby and suddenly I had to use my breast and I didn’t even know how to hold her.  

They showed me only one position in the hospital which was to lie down. I couldn’t find anything else that was comfortable. I just couldn’t find a way of holding her. It was exhausting and I’d had quite a dramatic birth. You wouldn’t call it a traumatic birth, but it was dramatic.  It was a shock birth. I went into shock immediately afterwards. No-one looked after me. I felt really abandoned. Then I came out and she was feeding, feeding, feeding. I didn’t get any sleep. I slept for eight hours in the first week. 

PR: Where were you?  How quickly did you get home?

LC: I never even went to the post-natal ward. I was so angry that they gave me such an inexperienced midwife. She stitched me up so badly. I was in so much pain for months afterwards. It was just all awful and I felt really traumatised by it and then the breast-feeding was awful – squared.

PR: Did anybody talk to you about the impact the birth might have on breast-feeding or your health?

LC:  I had almost ten years of infertility so at 40 I’d given birth to a healthy child. On the one hand I was delirious with happiness, on the other hand the process was so brutal that I was snatching this joy. I found myself three weeks after the birth on the floor sobbing. I couldn’t believe it because I’d been told a quick birth is a good birth – I’d managed to breast-feed for ten days.  But the failure to breastfeed then left me with this profound heartbreak that I only really experienced the first time that my heart was broken. It hurt so much when I couldn’t feed her.  

I wasn’t someone who cared about feeding. I couldn’t care less whether I breast-fed her or not, beforehand. Everyone had said to me – oh, it doesn’t matter. Nobody told me that hormonally I would have a desperate urge to feed her, that feeding would feel so intensely close and intimate and that not being able to feed would leave me feeling so bereft. Sometimes I interview mothers and they talk about this moment, a lot of women who come to the project get to this point. I do get some mothers who have had an easy time but a lot of them have gone through something like this or a version of this and I say to them: so, how would you describe it? And they use words like ‘desperation’ or it’s ‘traumatic in the extreme’; the vulnerability you feel; the impact of lack of staff on maternity wards and the impact on women’s health; it’s not being talked about. It’s absolutely staggering. 

PR: Do you think it’s for want of a better phrase, the result of ‘institutionalised misogyny?

LC: One hundred per cent. Women are leaving hospital with injuries. The wards are understaffed. Good midwives are leaving the practice because they feel compromised by the long hours, the lack of staff and what they’re being asked to do, before you even get to breast-feeding. The midwives that I’ve met they’ve been 100% amazing and supportive of this project and it’s difficult: you get into these conversations about under-staffing and so on and I don’t want to further demotivate midwives. They know what’s going on and they’re not happy about it. 

It’s being done to women because it’s an exclusively female experience and when they come out of birth, they’re voiceless. Not only are they disempowered by the experience, but they are shocked by the experience. They can’t find the words. And that’s why we started bringing in Rachel New and doing story-telling workshops to try to help women. 

I went through this terrible trauma, had this awful experience. I then found this amazing lactation consultant, Sue Ayres, and she just saved me. She just literally picked me up from the floor and sat me back on my feet and she just got me going again. She came out on Christmas Eve, she sat with me for 2 hours, she invested in me emotionally and in terms of time. 

PR: What was the result of that?

LC: She diagnosed a posterior tongue-tie which nobody else had done. She cut the tongue-tie. By then it was too my daughter was traumatised from the breast so she wouldn’t go back on immediately. She was bottle-fed expressed milk for four months. I nearly broke myself physically doing it really, but at 3 months, one day she bobbed down the way a new-born would, and she found the breast and she breast-fed with no pain for me. It was fine and I thought, oh, she knows how to do it. 

But by then I had a regime of bottles, pumps. I called Sue back again and I said, “She can breast-feed now.” But I was too scared, and she tried to assure me I’d be OK. She said: look at her in the cot, look at the size she is, you’ve done that, your milk has done that – you have grown her.

That is the idea behind the Cosmati timepiece in Holding Time. It grows as time passes. It’s not time being lost, or time being spent – it’s something accumulating as time passes, getting bigger and more elaborate, and greater like cells splitting and reproducing. 

Sue really inspired me but in the end my body decided.  

I ended up with this agonising abscess so I had to get it diagnosed and drained and the first thing the nurse said to me: if you’re breast-feeding you should continue but you can’t use the pump anymore. So, from that appointment, I had to stop pumping. As it turned out it was Mother’s Day the next day and I thought I’d give it 24 hours and I won’t use bottles and I’ll see. I didn’t know what would happen. I put her on the breast and that was it. I just fed her.

 I recovered, she recovered. It was like we came back together, and our breast-feeding relationship then continued until she weaned herself at two and three quarters. 

I never thought I’d feed her that long.  I’d been through so much and I saw people stop breast-feeding at six months and I was in amazement because I’d only just got it going at 4 months and I wondered: why are you stopping, why are you stopping? 

People were under pressure around me. They were under pressure to stop. They were being subtly told to stop by media, husbands, family, work – you know it’s like all these different influences.

Finally, having got this going I felt that for me it was like a hugely healing experience – it was healing me from all that trauma from the birth, it was obviously healing my body and it was connecting me with her and healing me from the infertility. Something so negative became something so positive.

I wasn’t the type of person who could give birth and then down tools. I was the sort of person who wanted to make the bed, to make the house look nice and make dinner and I wasn’t good at looking after myself which is possibly why I got the mastitis. It was the tongue-tie, but it was also that I couldn’t stop.

When I finally got to that moment of sitting still, of feeding her, of bonding with her although it had been delayed, the difference in her and the difference in me was staggering. I started to see this image of a mother in a kind of sacred space, this act of feeding was outside of time. I said to Sue at the time:  “I really feel I need to do something about this, I need to use the skills I’ve got, I need to do it for women, and I need to do it for babies and for society.” 

PR: Do you think that that Sue was doing something that in years gone by family members would have done, do you think there’s something of a lost knowledge in breast-feeding? 

LC: It might have been family members, but it also might have been someone in the village, like Sue, or it might have been a midwife, If you get a good midwife, a well experienced midwife you get that person. Those women are those people it’s just that we’re not getting enough of them. This is something Debra Bicks said in her interview with me. It’s worth having a look at it. It’s only ten minutes long, it’s on the YouTube Channel. She said that if we were to invest an hour or two hours in a midwife sitting with a mother after birth, that would be an investment that would be paying dividends 60 years later. This comes up again and again: that we need more resources allocated to midwives and we also need much more resources allocated to infant feeding teams.

PR: Infant Feeding Teams are not available everywhere, are they?

LC: That’s because the government changed who funds breastfeeding support. I think that it’s changed especially for peer-to-peer services which are instrumental in getting support out to women. They’re brilliant where they work well. There’s a great one in Liverpool called Koala North-West.

I think it’s because it’s a female-only experience. I remember having a meeting at a hospital and the doctor saying well, if we’re going to be having pictures of women breast-feeding, we’re going to have to have women bottle-feeding, as well. I don’t see why we should only show breast-feeding. Debra Bicks was at that meeting, and she was able to speak for me. I’ve only got my personal experience and what women have told me, but she’s got the research. She’s got the data. She educated him. At the end of the conversation, he said “You know we’re seeing this problem with women post-menopause having all these inflammatory illnesses and I’m beginning to think these could be connected.” 

In fact, rheumatoid arthritis and endometriosis are both now cited as being illnesses that are protected against by breast-feeding. There are benefits to mothers that are impressive. I’m cured. I don’t have endometriosis anymore. I breast-fed for 3 years. That’s it. No endometriosis.

PR: Has there been research on that?

LC: It is officially recognised as something that breast-feeding protects you against. In the endometriosis world there was always this knowledge that birth was very protective of endometriosis. The thing is breast-feeding extends the benefit of birth. If you have 3 children and you breast-feed all of them then over ten years, the excess oestrogen isn’t causing this problem. You’re resetting your body.

PR: We’ve got low levels of breast-feeding in this country, haven’t we?

LC: It’s one of the lowest in the world. When you look at the UK you’ve got to bear in mind that we industrialised before other nations. We lost our peasant tradition of food when we all moved to cities. Places like Spain and Italy didn’t really have industrialisation in the same way. For example, child-care is very expensive here compared to other wealthy countries and people work longer hours. The cost of living is quite high. When it comes to what women have to do, a lot of them are very busy with caring responsibilities and children and looking after partners and work and running to and fro. We don’t have the kind of infrastructure that other European or wealthy countries might have, with better family support.

In Liverpool women have babies ten years younger than the national average. You have a big population of young white women whose mothers didn’t breast-feed. They’ve got no cultural inheritance of breast-feeding so some of it is family pressure and lack of knowledge. 

I wasn’t breast-fed. I didn’t know what it looked like. I didn’t know how to hold a baby to the breast. I knew how to hold a baby to bottle feed them.

PR: Holding Time is a long project?

LC: I suppose I properly started photographing the mothers in 2017. But the stuff you refer to as the esoteric timepiece, that began much earlier. I thought of the whole thing as one piece from the beginning. I suppose it was of myself when I got breast-feeding going. Sitting there, doing it. I had this image of being in this alternate form of time and being surrounded by these geometrical pieces. 

Strangely enough, I conceived my daughter the same weekend, the first time I went to Rome. Finally got to see the Sistine Chapel. It was such a big moment for me. But I found myself just looking at the floor. I was just amazed by the floor. When I’d been working on The Instant Garden, I’d been looking at a lot at Persian carpets, and I’d learned a lot about mathematics and the geometry behind Persian carpets. I got into the habit of counting the numerical format and the pattern in the carpets and then when I saw those Cosmati floors – I’d never seen anything like it. I started to think, this is about Time. I started drawing it when I was there, and the security guards were looking at me. That was before Lily was born.

PR: Did you say that that coincided with you conceiving her? 

LC: Yes. That same weekend. I discovered the floor, and it was all just strange. I was never supposed to have a child. The Instant Garden was all about my experience of infertility treatment and IVF. I got really interested in this idea of how we’ve lost this connection between natural cycles and how flowers are very much a part of birth, death, and all the special things in between. They’re kind of there, aren’t they? The bouquet, wreath. 

I got really interested in the parallels between that and gardening and shop-bred flowers and IVF and digital imaging. This ability to recreate, reproduce imagery repeatedly. It’s quite like the cells in the floriculture process. Or reproducing the perfect flower over and over again. And then of course the symbolism of the flower geometrically is the shape the egg takes when it’s fertilised. All this beautiful mathematics that goes into the language around fertility and that is all found in Celtic and Persian art. I’d studied that for 15 years and made work about it in The Instant Garden: I was maybe 9 years into it and then I got pregnant. I discovered the Cosmati floors, got pregnant and ended up breast-feeding and it all just came together in one idea in this new work about time.

PR: There are two elements – this external idea that there’s a universal patterning in nature and art and yet this whole process of embodiment, of your own experience coming together?

LC: It’s a big mixture, isn’t it? This huge funnel that comes in, goes through you, and comes out as something else. There’s no logic to it but maybe afterwards you look back and you think Ah! I see what this work’s about. I didn’t know The Instant Garden was about my own fertility journey until I was way into it. I didn’t see it at all. I just thought I was making work about gardening. I went into this work – Holding Time so much more conscious of what I was doing but still the connections are quite subtle. 

PR: It’s also a conversation with the whole of art history of Madonna and child as well?

LC: It is. My long-lasting ideas and influences are Marina Warner and her work on Athena (Monuments and Maidens, 1985). I was brought up as an Irish Catholic. I spent a lot of time studying maternal imagery when I was at college. 

PR: A foundational image, that’s not just an image…?

LC:  It’s a symbol… some people are interested in words; some people are interested in numbers, and I’m always interested in symbols. For me that structural underpinning of geometry, symbolism and history is really important to the work…it’s what makes it interesting to me. One of the funny things about The Instant Garden is that people would say ‘it looks like a kaleidoscope.’ Well, a kaleidoscope is something that was around in the 70s but was based on 60s imagery which was grabbing from much older type of imagery which was to do with mandalas. Similarly with the Holding Time project – people would say they look like the madonna. Well, the Madonna is basically a recreation of Demeter, you know the Roman goddess of nurturing – and Demeter is just a new version of maternity goddesses that go back to the beginning of human culture, to the first culture.

PR: What is it about that age-old story of maternity in the context of divinity?

LC: I suppose love is divine, isn’t it? And maternal love…

PR: Is that important to your work?

LC: Very important. It’s essential. This work is about value and about how industrialisation has destroyed the sense of value around maternity and how maternity exists. It predates industrialisation but it’s trying to fit into it. All the interviews and discussion about the separate and different issues that mothers have – there’s a sort of over-arching theme, isn’t there? That motherhood is difficult. Breast-feeding is just the pointy end of the stick. It’s a very good indication of what’s happening for women generally, which is that they have a lack of time, they’re under a lot of pressure, they don’t have enough support, they’re not listened to, their suffering is accepted…

PR: Marginalised and silenced?

LC:  Yes. Working one-to-one with women… has been an interesting feature of this work. It’s not something I’ve really done much before. I worked with a Street once but that was a very different work (Tidy Street, 2006). More like one project. Done very quickly. 

This work goes deep for the people involved and for me and the people who see it. There’s a resonance that’s deep. It’s emotional – the tenderness but also the pain. 

PR: I think there’s something profound about how vulnerable you feel when you’re feeding a child?

LC: But it’s more than that. This is something I hadn’t realised until I made the work and showed it. I had thought yes, it’s all about mother’s vulnerability… how the mother feels. But all of us have a mother and all of us were an infant and all of us were once utterly dependent on that person, and that vulnerability…I think that’s why I’ve got 70-year-old men crying, you know? There is something universal about it. All of us are born from a mother and experience that vulnerability as children. 

PR: What always surprises me is the lack of ideas about feeding. The very survival. This idea that we do the clean, nice thing and make up bottles?

LC: It’s industrialised food production. In that sense it’s got a relationship to The Instant Garden. That was about industrialised flower production and industrialised fertility, and this is industrialised maternity. I would be a little cautious about putting that onto the PR. I’m working with the health service. They’re funding me and I’m working within their structures. But artists occupy a funny place. It’s a bit like being a war artist. You’re looking at stuff that you don’t like a lot of the time.

PR: You’re negotiating a role with a bureaucratic institution, no matter how wonderful the people are… you’ve got to be very diplomatic?

LC: Yes. It’s a system. A lot of what you see are people being dehumanised by the system and then I suppose the role as an artist is to try to restore their humanity and offer a new kind of value and a sense of power to the people you’re working with and those who see it. This work is not designed to just be of benefit to the participants. It’s designed to be of benefit to society. 

PR: There’s a need for impact and discussion and debate, isn’t there?

LC: Yes.

PR: What has your experience been of midwives and their responses? And your view of the role of midwifery and breast-feeding?

LC: Mothers encounter a tier of people in Health services – the midwives, the community team, and then they’re handed over to the GPs –and the midwives are 100% enthusiastic about the work. I’ve never encountered a midwife that wasn’t totally onboard. They’re the ones that really promote it. They really get it. 

I think the motivation behind someone becoming a midwife is very akin to my motivation making work. I’ve got a favourite image from the Brighton series and that is a midwife. At one point in Brighton, we were going to do a whole series of portraits of midwives who were breast-feeding. The midwives in every place I’ve worked have been completely on-side and in favour and embedded in it. I’m not saying there aren’t some burnt-out midwives out there who are sick of hearing about breast-feeding…The midwives are the ones who really understand it. Typically, the feeding leads are enthusiastic. But they’re leading teams. 

Then you start encountering the State and the lack of funding and the lack of promotion and people being on the front line and embattled and it tends to be harder to win their approval. Although in Liverpool there’s a lot of positivity about the Infant Feeding teams. Some of the women describe the Infant Feeding teams as saving them. Those teams get a good press here. There’s sadness in those interviews about the lack of numbers on the floor in maternity wards. But midwives would agree with that. Hospital managers might not like to hear it, but I think everybody knows about that.  It’s a reality. 

PR: It’s cyclical, the kind of news and information about the distressing stuff that’s going on in maternity services. 

LC: It continues, and into the education system. A lot of what we’re doing in the UK I find to be quite behind and quite brutalising especially for working class people and I feel it is a political issue that’s not really being addressed. Possibly because women who are in the middle of it, and children, they just don’t have a voice.  They are so embattled. Also, I think there’s a lot about women being quite dispossessed, cut off from their own rights, their own feelings because we’re all so separated and siloed. One of the purposes of this project is not just to normalise breast-feeding but to make people more familiar with the struggles of breast-feeding and alongside that the struggles of motherhood. Just be honest about it. I’m surprised at how few women I meet (who) have an easy time. I’d say at this point out of 60 women it’s 5. Most women do have a major battle on their hands. Well, the ones I encounter…I think there’s a lot of pretending that goes on in motherhood in terms of just saying everything’s fine when it’s not. To say that it’s not – maybe women feel that’s not allowed, that they’re failing? And we live in such a culture that judges… it’s highly commercialised as well. This is moving quite far away from where the work originated but it’s where I’ve ended up.  

Motherhood is a very commercialised space. You’ve got things like Baby TV in hospitals and if you google Baby TV, you’ll find marketing companies who talk quite openly about the vulnerability of pregnancy and how people feel they must buy stuff. They don’t say they don’t need it, but we all know that in the end you don’t need any of that stuff. You’re just being encouraged to consume as a way of coping with your anxiety. Because what may assuage that anxiety is a community of women around you who are going to support you mentally and emotionally through this process and the question is, how do I even begin to put that together? I don’t know how to make that, so I’ll buy this other stuff to fill in this space. 

PR: There’s an economic agenda of how much it costs to have a child. It’s a fiscal discussion. It’s always put into that context but perhaps it links to us being consumers rather than citizens and that really hits women in a terrible way when we have our children. 

LC: The fact is, so many choices have been removed from you before you even give birth. So many decisions have been made that have affected you that you had no idea were going to be so important. Funding for childcare, funding for schools.  Funding for maternity wards. The nurses grant, cutting that has probably impacted – I don’t know – a million people?  We’re short of nurses in every single hospital. So, you think you have choice – but do you? Do you have a choice about who is going to see you through your birth, probably one of the most terrifying experiences of your life? You may end up with PTSD and all sorts of trauma, not to mention physical injury.  You don’t have choice about that, do you?

PR: I’m wondering about the way in which maternity services are framed. In terms of Gynaecology & Obstetrics which I think is still predominantly male as opposed to Midwifery and is there something about that kind of professional structure that has an impact on the ways in which maternity services have developed?

LC: It’s not my area of expertise. I do know that the feeding plans that some mothers have been put on when they’re re-hospitalised because their baby’s lost weight – those are overseen by Paediatricians rather than Midwives and the women in those instances haven’t had the best attention. That feeding plan I was put on wasn’t ideal. It’s very non-individualised type of care when it’s medicalised. I think ultimately birth can be dangerous and there’s no understating that. But still, it’s a normal process of the body. It’s risky to mother and child. It is very medicalised and that is wrapped up in some of the problems women have, although the midwives themselves are often coming from a doula kind of background. They’re often very sensitive, powerful women that have trained to be midwives. I think their hands are very much tied. That’s a huge problem. 

If we were just to ask midwives, what do they need, and give it to them, midwifery would be miles better because they know what works. They’re dealing with women all the time. They know where the problems are and where the fault-lines are and if you have accountants running midwifery services, they’re probably not going to be any good. You need to have midwives.

PR: What is your ambition for this exhibition and your own work – how do you see things developing?

LC: Well Open Eye Gallery is high calibre. I’m really excited to be in there. Such a professional team to work with. The production values are high: a lovely opportunity to make a statement in Liverpool. But also, to some extent to make a statement to other galleries in the UK. Once you’ve shown at one of these publicly funded good quality contemporary art spaces you should set a precedent for showing at others. Although I did show this work at Fabrica, but it was only for a short residency. I would hope that the work is at the quality I think it needs to be, like a 4K projector, the 3D is 4K – that 3D animation has taken years to make. So, I feel I’ve got this really beautiful set of pieces along with the interviews. I’ve got maybe 50 portraits in the series. 

What I would love is to create another 50. In the same way it took me a whole year to make 10 at the beginning, then I made another 10 in 2 weeks, I would really like to accelerate the process and get the next 50 under my belt quicker and more seamlessly. In a more comfortable, less stressful way. These have really been wrought out of blood, sweat and tears. My ambition would be that I end up with 100 and I show them at the TATE. In a massive installation – a huge chorus of mothers being seen and being heard, having a huge presence. 

I often think of the project like a horse that’s running and I’m running alongside it. It’s got legs, going at quite a canter and I’m breathlessly panting alongside. Every so often trying to jump on it and catch a ride. The rest of the time just keeping up with it. There’s real need and there’s real love for the project and I do see that, although I crafted it, it has its own life. 

PR: It feels like a life’s work to me.

LC: It’s just getting going, really. I’m not that well known…When you go from being unknown and not really having access to the ‘art world’ as it thinks of itself and you’re working with a subject that is totally invisible, that people in the art world don’t even see as relevant; I’ve had curators say to me “I don’t see this as an interesting subject.”  I’ve had people say to my face “I don’t see the point in this.” If that’s the starting point, it’s going to take a long time.  It’s to do with photography being oriented around ‘grand narratives.’ There’s an article on my blogsite, ‘This Dark Matter’ that talks about this – the way the art world functions. It’s very connected to fashion and very connected to current affairs. In that post, I point out that I was in Arles where the work was all about Trans-Humanism – I saw really great work there – 80% of it by men and the shows that were by women, a lot of them were also about men! 

So, when you talk about the subject being women and the creator being a woman – that is still hardly happening at all. What we consider to be important is determined by the grand narratives and those narratives are things like technology, war, progress.

There are many children globally that die from formula, but nobody cares. And that’s not even looking at maternal death. The number of women who die giving birth completely needlessly: then the children who die because they don’t have water. Nobody is interested because it’s all women and children and, who cares?  

And all that’s in developing countries and “That’s not here. We’re in the civilised society!” You can translate it across easily because it’s the same cultural attitudes here. We just have other infrastructure that disguises and veils it. But really, we’re not interested as a culture, as a society in women’s pain, in women’s experiences.  

PR: Would it be too simple to say that you’re developing a feminist aesthetics of portraiture?  Is there such a thing?

LC: I think the idea of a feminist aesthetics is interesting. One book I found, such a powerful book still, is Through the Flower by Judy Chicago. She’s such a radical. 

She talks a lot about the art education system being very paternalistic – more than that, patriarchal. She talks a lot about the aesthetics of modernism. I am very much a post-modernist in that I’m interested in non-Western cultures and decorative art traditions; the traditions of lace, rug-making, tiling – this is my visual language and it’s where I come from and what I’m interested in – stained glass, religious painting, kitsch. In that sense it’s outside of the mainstream. 

The whole aspect of interviewing the subject and allowing them to not only to have their say but helping them to find a voice through creative workshops: that is quite an activist feminist activity. Some women have described to me that they think their breast-feeding is ‘a form of activism.’ I talk about ‘radical agency,’ in sitting and feeding. The idea that what appears to be doing nothing is hugely valuable and important. 

In that sense it’s a very feminist piece. Whether the aesthetic is feminist, I don’t know. I’m clashing together different languages – abstract, pattern, digital, figurative, photographic, painterly, video, documentary…

PR: The religious aesthetic is there as well? The foundational idea of the mother, God?

LC: Everything comes out of the Western painting tradition in terms of contemporary art at some point even if it’s negating it. You’re still referring to it in some way. It’s inescapable. That is OK. I don’t have a problem with it. I love that painting tradition. And the history of it is interesting and the fact that so many of those portraits of women – it’s something people often say to me – “they look like the Christian Madonna”. I turn that on its head and say the Christian Madonna looks like real women. That’s how women look. When you sit them in a chair and say ‘do your thing’ – that’s how they look. They just look like that. They’re not trying to look like the Madonna.  The Madonna looks like them. That’s the point, isn’t it?

PR: A starting point for talking about all sorts of things?

LC: What is a normal process of caring for a child? Maybe in some sense it’s divine, beautiful, and worth looking at and worth seeing, isn’t it? Why don’t we see it? 

PR: It goes back to what you’ve talked about – the invisibility of women’s experience as mothers.  Does everything start with the need to challenge that invisibility? 

LC: We don’t see ourselves reflected in culture. It’s a form of silencing. They say motherhood is feminism’s unfinished business. I think that’s an interesting idea…We’re seeing this playing out now with the question of what a woman is. I suppose we never really did properly establish the value of difference… the debate was about wages…all in the realms of work and all the stuff to do with the home was left behind. We still live in an era where it’s presumed women will look after elderly parents. It’s presumed women will look after children. All of it is unpaid. The government will pay a nursery to look after your child, but they won’t pay you. There’s no value to what you’re doing. It’s literally seen as worthless. The foundation of all society, every generation depends on women’s good will. It’s beyond good will. Women are massively disadvantaged as a result. 

PR: Can art have an impact; can it cause social change? Is this your ambition, really?

LC: If I look at all the multitude of reasons why I didn’t breast-feed or why it went wrong, some of it was just poor resources, so I can advocate for better resources.  One of the things is to give women a voice and amplify it and get people to listen. 

I was amazed when I came out of that process how disinterested people were in my story; and, what occurred to me: Wow – the media is just full of people talking about men’s things and women talking about men. When are women going to talk about women? And then we had ‘Me Too’ when women’s stories were being validated in the most extreme versions. Women have all sorts of stories that are being ignored and motherhood has been written out of the narrative of feminism, it’s been written out of all sorts of narratives as a kind of side issue, irrelevant and not very feminist. ‘It’s not a very feminist thing to do to have a child,’ ‘It’s not a very feminist thing to stay at home and look after children,’ – ‘It’s not very feminist to breast-feed’ and that’s the attitude that I get from curators and cultural influencers. So, these types of attitudes must be challenged by people like me who insist this is a feminist piece and these women are feminists and they do deserve their place in culture. But that has been slow to do. 

Two things have helped the project. One has been ‘Me Too’ and the other has been covid. Because covid widened the vocabulary in terms of ‘health inequality’. 

People didn’t know what that meant pre-covid and there was no interest in it. When you talked to people about breast feeding being a political issue, no one could see how it was a political issue. Yet more babies die each year because of formula than they do because of war. 

I think the job of the artist is to challenge the grand narrative and decide what stories are shaping people’s lives and what is relevant for us to be having a conversation about. 

So, talking to the mothers and then trying to encourage people to listen to them, whether it is through the radio or the audio tour. Giving them that platform is the beginning of a process of change. 

PR: What you’re doing with creating these resources and interviews and having stuff on YouTube, it’s a resource that women could be referred to maybe when someone starts ante-natal classes. Do you think ante-natal courses and classes could share these resources with women?

LC: The whole thing is a public resource and a library and a wall of images and interviews and transcripts. I’m using a lot more written work. And we also have the actual written work by the mothers – the most potent part of it in some ways because they are advocating for themselves. 

PR: Have you thought about developing or devising a theatre piece? 

LC: It’s occurred to me that I’ve got all this raw data that has all these different stories, and it could make a good TV drama or something. 

PR: This raising of women’s voices and women’s experiences – it could make a beautiful theatre piece really.

LC: Yes, and the whole idea of the chorus. I love Greek drama and the sort of epic journey that one mother might take has a lot of Greek elements to it. 

The problem we have as women ourselves is that we do tend to paper over the cracks. There’s a pressure to make out that everything is fine when it’s not. It’s very deep within us. I think you mentioned it in our last conversation that some women that you’ve shown the project to aren’t comfortable with it because it is… you know women are made to feel they’re complaining and it’s easier to move on and forget about it.

PR: Or be silent? You talked about your experience of having mastitis and a fever, yet people weren’t noticing? Is there something dehumanising about the general approach to women when they’re mothers. Women internalise that themselves.

LC: It’s internalised misogyny and it’s deep. When we look at the victims of Harvey Weinstein. Why did they not speak up? Most of that was that they didn’t feel people would listen, and that they had to put up with it, and it was normal. That’s how the business was. I can’t speak for them. But that generalised perception that the suffering and pain, the agony, mental turmoil; deep vulnerability and mental turmoil that women go through which is very, very real – formula is provided as a method to turn it off and shut them up. 

PR: A commodity that will solve problems?

LC: It’s a lot cheaper for the State to allow formula to be the solution than to provide a meaningful solution that’s good for the mother and good for the baby. Women themselves want the pain to stop. It is a form of pain relief. If you’re having a lot of problems and you can give your baby a bottle it does stop this awful thing going wrong (and if you’re recovering from birth). 

Rather than shout about what happened to you, and shout about the lack of care and lack of support and lack of learning and lack of education and, ‘why the hell didn’t someone give me information about this before I gave birth? Literally left to fall, and hope somebody catches me?’ They’re literally crashing to the floor with breast-feeding. I know it sounds dramatic. But that’s why 1% are exclusively breast-feeding at 6 months. It’s like 99% have just broken something on the way down. 

It’s difficult to breast-feed with no previous experience of breast-feeding, with no prior information, never having even seen someone breast-feed. That’s like ‘pick up that violin, and let’s start playing some Mozart’! It is a learned skill and if you’re not exposed to it, if you’re not educated in it, if you don’t even know what the problems could be and you’re then, after birth just expected to ‘wing it, in all likelihood you are not going to succeed. It’s a very blunt way of putting it. I’m amazed that women manage it, to be honest.

PR: Do you think women are set up to fail?

LC: You are set up to fail. And told that you must breastfeed, that it’s of benefit to your child. So, you’re set up also to feel tremendous guilt. And then that impacts on your mental health. I think that there’s a real ethical issue that midwives talk to me about, and I agree with: if the NHS can’t provide the resources to support women, in a way, they shouldn’t tell them to breast-feed. It’s a dramatic thing to say…

… Going back to the question of the artist… Who else is going to say these things? If I didn’t have art centres (…and even Open Eye were a little cagey about some of those interviews, they wanted to have a warning on them, and stuff…) when I showed at ArtSpace in Coventry which is totally independent I was able to show everything – the portraits and interviews, and some of them are really hard. People were coming in and listening to them and they were talking – and it creates this conversation space. It’s a conversation that must happen. We really need to talk about this stuff.

PR: It would be interesting to get the responses of older women. Invite them to look at and respond to the portraits? What kind of conversations would older women have with each other?

LC: I’ve got a picture of my mum and she brought her friend who’s also in her eighties and it’s just really meaningful. 

PR: How will the work continue? 

LC: If I think where the project was one year ago to where it is now, it’s really taken off and from here I think we could really go some places with this.

PR: It clearly has an impact on people who see it but from what you’re saying it is having other kinds of impacts as well with people working together, growing knowledge, maybe getting the word out?

LC: I’m working with Rachel New, this amazing radio producer and I started to get this idea in my head about an audio tour, about people walking round the city and hearing these stories, listening to them on headphones. Partly because I’ve got so into podcasts since covid, I love this idea of listening to stuff as you walk around. As I was interviewing the mothers they talk about where they like to breast-feed and so I started to think, wouldn’t it be good to start to put these portraits in these places? As a result of this I’ve got every cultural venue in Liverpool signed up to this audio tour. 

In fact, this could be the beginning of a whole new type of work that is not even in a gallery. It’s working with the portraits and the audio. Showing how we can have environments that are breast-feeding friendly. Showing how to use cultural venues in a way that is family-friendly and inviting and intimate. That is really coming from a theatre background. 

I love immersive space and sound and I love that multi-sensory thing you can do in a gallery. Obviously, you can’t do that on the street. On the street you can do this other thing, where people are listening while walking through the street. You can be learning and accumulating knowledge and understanding while in your everyday environment. 

That’s an exciting development in Liverpool. What’s come of that is every venue that I’m working with does something for families whether it’s the cathedral or the libraries or Bluecoat or whatever. They’ve all got amazing family programmes. 

When you go to Liverpool you see thousands of people walking around Liverpool One. On a practical level when you become a parent you have to rediscover your city as a parent. Where do we go if you need to change a nappy? Where do we go if I need to feed? Who has good facilities and where is it possible to do that? If I’m a brand-new mother and this is the first time I’m leaving the house, where would I park my car? Where would I go? 

I’ve got all the health partners I’ve been working with, the maternity service, and having quite regular meetings with the infant feeding leads. And then I’m also meeting all these venues. The potential for me as an artist is to move through all these different groups of people and to tell them about each other and connect them up. What’s so weird is that there is quite a lot available for families but there are all these people doing different things and they’re not communicating. 

PR: Is that true of a lot of arts projects?

LC: Everyone is applying for their own funding; everyone is doing their own thing. Not necessarily doing it together with each other and capitalising on the other things they’re doing. Making one walking tour that takes people to all the spaces is an obvious way to sew them together. With that, what I’m quite interested in doing, maybe either in Liverpool or in Bradford or in the next city is really taking more steps (this goes back to the initial conversations that I had at the beginning of the project) to take more steps to redesign the city for mothers and young babies. 

When you walk round the city, it’s yours. You’ve got a job, you go out to eat, you can do whatever you want. When you have children, there are barriers in place. All these places you can’t go, you’ve got restrictions on your time and energy, you’re not welcome in quite a lot of the spaces you used to use. There are other spaces you might not know about, and your needs have changed. I think it’s interesting in Coventry in the city of Culture, they’ve put a little children’s playground right in the middle of the city-centre. That’s something I would like to see a lot more of, just stuff like benches in playgrounds so women can sit and feed a baby while their child is playing. Some of this urban planning …To call it a blind spot doesn’t cover it. Women, their needs, are just left out of the brief.

PR: So, you’ll talk to architects and urban planners next?

LC: What I’d like to do is work with someone to design breast-feeding spaces in cities. When you ask that question about barriers, eg. why do women not keep breast-feeding? One of the reasons women stop breast-feeding before they want to, before they’re ready, (that might be a day in, it might be six months in, it might be a year in), is for all these cultural and social reasons. 

Take workplaces: the law in this country means they’re obliged to give you a space to express or breast-feed but they’re not obliged to give you the time. If you’re a nurse and you’re working for the NHS and every 5 minutes of your time is scheduled and taken up, are you going to then take the time to express in what isn’t much of a facility? I’m taking the work to Aintree Hospital, and because of that they’ve got a breast-feeding room. They didn’t have a breast-feeding policy!  Now they have one because of the project.

PR: When is the work going to Aintree?

LC: Some of the work is going on the audio tour, some to the hospitals and some dotted around the city. I think it will probably be in Liverpool permanently. The pieces that go out on the audio tour I’m trying to arrange for them to be permanently on display. I’d like the audio tour to be a permanent piece. 

The work all belongs to the NHS, to the maternity service that commissioned it. They’ll keep it and they’ll put it wherever they want – Liverpool Women’s, Arrowe Park, Alder Hey.

I hope that it will end up in these different places around the city. Of course, the audio and the videos are available so you can access it online.

 

Pauline Rowe

For more information on Holding Time: https://holdingtime.org/.

Interviews with Lisa Creagh took place on-line on 23rd September & 14th October 2022

 

 

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