Karen Arp-Sandel and Suzi Banks Baum
this post first appeared during a blog series at the Museum of Motherhood. Karen Arp-Sandel and I have a six year long mail art collaboration we call FeMail.
Metamorphosis of Motherhood
Solitude, Sorrow & the Sacred Well
Motherhood is so often about the bittersweet sensation of separation and even loss. We give birth to children and they grow up, spread their wings and fly. We are children ourselves and just when life seems like it is running smoothly, a parent gets seriously ill, or passes away before we are ready. These are the milestones experienced by humans. I wonder if they differently experienced by women, by mothers? There is an inevitable transformation of our mothering as we move through time, deep tracks of joy and grief are traced in to our souls. We have hoped and prayed, celebrated and wept over our parents and our children. And we stand strong with and for them as they create the future.
In October 2010, I became a full-fledged “empty nester” with both of my twenty-something kids finding their independence. Both of our kids “boomeranged” after college and grad school. They rejoined our household while looking for jobs in their professional fields. Then, our daughter Mollyrose, landed her dream position using her newly acquired MSW and relocated to the Boston area during the summer. Our son accepted a position in Lake Tahoe, CA. and we drove cross-country in the fall together. After saying good-bye to him, I suddenly experienced separation anxiety around when I would see him again, the miles between seeming so vast. At the same time Suzi’s mother died and she began the process of grieving.
This post card speaks to our universal feelings around the nature of love and grief entwined whether through separation or death. It encourages an Open Heart and the power in Remembrance of Mothers. The front of the post card features a mystical place with a window opening to the blue sky and a Native American petro glyph from the caves of Moab, Utah. I gathered the image from my Canyon lands visit with my son, Julian as we paused for a memorable mother-son adventure along the road west.
There is also a circle of women dancing under the full moon, holding hands, dressed in blue. That is a reference to the cyclical ways that women gather and share with each other.
On the reverse is a poem from the Rubiyat, a small mandala and the figure of green Tara, the Buddhist goddess of true compassion. She is the being who helps us across the ocean of suffering,
I invite Suzi to chant the Tara mantra with me: Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha.
I encourage her to rest in the gentle support of contemplative practice. Having lost my Father 3 years ago, I understand the sensations of shifting a family constellation.
In this way, with hearts open, we invoke the goddess to bring us peacefully through our times of solitude & sorrow beside the sacred well of life.
The Imaged Word
I know that in our collage conversation, even when we are not literally depicting current events in our lives, the very fabric and breath of our daily lives form the springboard off of which we dive in to the creative act of making FeMail art.
I had prepared the back of this post card the day before I learned my Mother was entering the death process. I had other plans for it, believe me, but on that Friday afternoon in October, as I quickly packed my bags for Michigan I stuck this card in my art kit. I had no idea exactly what would transpire in my days away, how long I would be gone from home, or whether these would be my Mom’s last days alive.
I had painted the black background with a different plan in mind, but as the days revealed my Mom’s passage I found myself drawn to completing the card for Karen. I long to connect with her in FeMail, sometimes more so than on the telephone or email, and this was one of those wordless moments. I happened to have packed that “Jesus” tape. Karen and I had bought it at a local shop together and here, it went from being cheeky to poignant. My Mom raised my sisters and I in the Lutheran church and this depiction of Jesus was deeply resonant for me. I wrote a simple message to Karen and mailed it off. The colored leaves where from the lids of our ‘to-go’ cups of hot chai that my husband fetched for us on those days of sitting with Mom as she lay dying. I can feel the sticky thickness of those things on my fingers right now. The whole card evokes a very particular time. If you notice the dates on the card, I made side one on October 8. My Mom passed on October 10.
Health issues can arise so suddenly. One minute life is orderly and predictable. The very next minute, everything can change, with an abnormal mammogram or pap. This post card dives straight into the vortex of that whirlwind with my dear collaborator Suzi. Using the womb engraving from an antique medical textbook with a mini- mosaic of images, textures and symbols, I pull myself into Suzi’s experience of not knowing for certain, of tests and decisions, of scheduling and surrendering, surgery and ultimately health. The uterus is such a deep metaphor for the creative life force. Whether we make babies, or art there is a creative joie de vivre, in the fecundity of the feminine body that enriches the world.
I made this collage using a digital copy of Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus spring painting. I added giant tulip petals and a tape transfer of the words forever spring , I am filled with HOPE. There is Zephyrus, god of the West Wind, blowing spring winds of possibility and new growth toward the address of my Suzi B.
Collaged below the address is the title from a vintage library card that declares that this is “no ordinary time”. The postage stamp adds the message Celebrate, a new stage of life marked by radiant good health.
Uterus as Lotus
Karen and I are in a constant conversation with each other in our mail art. There may be gaps for a variety of reasons, but even in extreme situations, like our parent’s dying, we are tethered by our postal art. In April of 2009, I made the decision to have a complete hysterectomy because of a medical condition in my pelvic region. As Karen stated, that period of time, of not knowing how the results of many tests would impact my life journey and the delicacy of all that releasing the core organ of my creative power meant to me, I was filled with insight at times and drifting in a sea of grief and despair at others. There is a much longer tale here, but for now, in our cards, you can trace the time of My Sacred Release.
I made this card in May as the prognosis for my uterus became clear. I was to have one of my ovaries and uterus removed on June 1st. I got busy. I employed all the tools I have learned at the School of the Womanly Arts and beyond that to lean in to my community. We created a Sacred Release Party –a.k.a. ‘a going away party’ for my uterus to which my friends bought gifts, poems, songs and blessings. There were many moments during that month where I consciously chose to transform a potentially devastating situation in to a transformational one. I believe my choices had a major impact on my surgery outcome and all the people I encountered during those days. Making FeMail for Karen kept me in creative about my situation. I traveled to visit my Mom in the nursing home on Mother’s Day that month, with my 12-year-old daughter. It was a very beautiful time to be with my Mom. The words on the back of the card describe my trip- from “voices of the sacred” to “a heartfelt connection”.
Heart Prayer Card
This heart on this card was made from the blood of my very last menstrual cycle.
I pressed the watercolor paper against my body to receive that blood and make a print. After I completed the card with my own marbled papers and a gel transfer of 2 women, I reduced and copied the card to give it to everyone who came to my Sacred Release Party. I even gave one to my surgeon. They felt like prayer cards to me.
So, you can see how FeMail has become such a strong practice for us. Making art during these emotionally charged times allowed us to share and offer eloquent and tender support to each other. Karen and I share our life and times, our metamorphic living through FeMail.
I am a woman who wears many hats: artist, educator, yoga teacher, workshop presenter, Mother, wife, aunt, daughter and sister. In my role as a collage artist, I make art in my home studio and teach classes at IS183 Art School of the Berkshires, where I am on the faculty of the Painting, Drawing and Collage department. When I am not in my studio or instructing adults, I implement an exciting Learning through Arts programs in the public elementary schools using the skills in my “visual artist toolbox”. You can learn more about me in my professional capacity by visiting here.
Being committed to a Mail Art collaboration with fellow Artist Mom, Suzi Banks Baum, sustains my Collage-a-Day approach to creativity. Please visit our gallery at FeMail to browse our post cards to learn about our process.
Honoring myself as a creative individual, while honoring all my other jobs, including my mothering, is the most important work I do. Since my children have recently fledged the nest of home, I acknowledge this truth: one never stops being a mother.
I am dedicated to bringing creative people together, especially groups of women, in order to elevate the joy and sustenance derived from. Creative self-expression. This serves to keep alive my mantra: “Art is not Separate.”
see my bio here