Lucy Tomlinson finds out why Manchester is such a good place to be an artist and a mother

A few weeks ago I found myself in a mysterious tent, reminiscent of a Bedouin shelter. Suspended from the arched canvas were hollow bubbles of glass, filled with various objects, from keys to clocks with the numbers dripping down the face, coffee cups spilling Lego bricks and gingerbread men stuffed with candy-coloured pills. 

Was I tripping out at some groovy festival? Not this time – in fact I was at The Other in Mother exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, an installation that explores “matrescence” or the period when women get to grips with the magical-but-traumatic reshaping of identity that is new motherhood. Though the dummies lined with fake eyelashes are indeed mind-boggling, it’s just a hint at the headfuck of becoming a mum.

When do you make and when do you mother? How do they coexist happily and practically together?

Artist Sarah Greaves produced the piece as a response to a special commission by ARC in Stockport to work with women who are recovering from postnatal depression. As well as the installation, which has travelled from Manchester to Leeds and is currently at Gallery Oldham, she created a Library of Objects from women all over the world and interviewed perinatal health professionals to research the psychological impact of becoming a mother. 

I’d felt this movement brewing for a while now. In the summer there was After Birth, a multi-media and installation piece at the Royal Exchange. The Whitworth decided to show Birth Rites, a collection of art pieces centred around birth that have been considered so controversial that many of the pieces had to be removed, despite it’s original home being the School of Midwifery in the University of Salford, all created and curated by mothers who are artists. With the launch of the Mother Art Prize, it’s official, mothers in art is a Thing. 

Other In Mother
The Other in Mother, Manchester Art Gallery

So why is Manchester such a good place to be an artist and a mother? One part of the answer is the recognition from our cultural institutions that motherhood is an essential part of the human experience that needs to be expressed in and discussed in the mainstream. Katy McCall, the Learning Manager at Manchester Art Galleries, said about The Other in Mother

“Manchester Art Gallery aims to be inclusive and open for all, representing and reflecting the communities of Manchester, we believe working with women artists as key to achieving this aim. Having the launch of The Other in Mother at Manchester Art Gallery was a real privilege. We were amazed at how many people connected with the themes in the artwork, there was a real buzz and warmth in the gallery. People coming together to share experiences and feel less alone. The artwork resonated with so many people including members of staff from the gallery who re-visited the display several times to read and reflect on women’s stories of maternal transition.”  

Another part of the answer is in the support that artists get from one another – a close network of peers who get the particular problems being a mum and an artist poses. Manchester is home to the largest chapter of a national initiative that brings together mothers who are artists. 'Mothers Who Make' offers a support network online and in person via monthly meetings, currently hosted and supported by HOME. 

Liz Richardson Artist
Liz Richardson: "When do you make and when do you mother?" Chris Payne

I asked Liz Richardson, who co-facilitates the chapter and is currently touring her one-woman show Gutted, about why there is a need for special support for artists who are also mothers. Liz told me: “It's challenging to be a mother who makes because it's not a full-time job spec. You have no set hours or a line manager or a project plan in terms of your mothering, and to fit this around a job or career where there may be deadlines and expectations can be really difficult. The two aren't separate yet the two define you. When do you make and when do you mother? How do they coexist happily and practically together?” 

Perhaps the reason that motherhood is a focus right now is because up until recently there was a general consensus (with notable exceptions of course) that women had to choose between their artistic careers and motherhood. The difficulties that faced (and still face) women who want to have both a career and a family are magnified by the idea that both art and motherhood are all-consuming passions, each leaving no room for the other. A new, perhaps even more radical idea is to ask if there might be a way of integrating mothering and a career that doesn’t involve drawing such a stark line between the two.

Since becoming a mum in Manchester I have set up a theatre course, started teaching yoga, ran a clown festival, taught at Salford University, become a producer...

These thoughts were echoed by Alice Robinson, the director of upcoming play In The Gut which uses humour to address the challenges of the first few months of parenthood: “I am writing this in the middle of a very busy period, and that’s when mothering and art feel rich and rewarding but exhausting and challenging, from time-keeping to babysitters, to finding time to think and keep my emotions on an even keel.” 

Alice also points out that rather than being consumed by her muse, it’s the sheer logistics of having a freelance career, with little job security, that make it less compatible with family life. “As a mother I have become firmer on my values on how I think I should be treated when working for others and making theatre," says Robinson, "and I know that whatever happens in the rehearsal room I am nearly always a hero at home.” 

Birth Rites Art
The Birth Rites collection appeared at The Whitworth in 2017

All of the artists I talked to had praise for Manchester as a creative city. Liz said: “Having moved from London to Manchester to start a family and find new work opportunities, I can't praise the response and community more from what I have been given opportunity to build here in the north - the making, the mothering, the venues, the people: I have found them all to be so much more responsive to my needs and to my needs as an artist. An open-door policy for everything I have worked at in theatre and a welcome community I have poured my heart out to as a mother. I am very proud to be associated with Manchester as a city of diversity and a people who are frank!”

While Alice told me, “Since becoming a mum in Manchester I have set up a theatre course, started teaching yoga, ran a clown festival, taught at Salford University, become a producer and taken my boy along for the ride. Now I am making a show about the comedy, both light and dark within parenthood. The contradictions, traps, delirium and delights that tease those that can and those that can't have children. But what about those that don't want them? That’s possibly the biggest taboo of all. This debate is an endless source of material.” 

Lynda Sterling Artist
Lynda Sterling: "I often call, not just the house, but the whole neighbourhood my studio"
Fridges Have Feelings Too Lynda Sterling
Fridges Have Feelings Too, Lynda Sterling

This intermingling of art and life is most clearly seen in artist and mum of four Lynda Sterling. Lynda has sold her family home and bought an old butcher's shop with the vision to create OTcreativeSpace, an artist studio and community space that will serve the Old Trafford community she is so firmly embedded in (Lynda designed a Bee for Limelight Old Trafford, for example).  

Lynda’s work is interlaced with her home life, drawing inspiration from a range of domestic subjects such as a series of fabric prints inspired by things she found down the side of the sofa, or an artwork created from found to-do lists. She says “My everyday life is my inspiration, my subject and often my audience. I often call, not just the house, but the whole neighbourhood my studio as walking the local streets to and from places is where I collect a lot of images and inspiration from, and place work that I have made back into. “ 

“Life is busy so I create in snippets of time in between school drop offs, playgroup pick ups, clubs, swimming lessons, library visits, park trips, several brews and cups of coffee, shopping, cleaning (it's never top of my list!), dishes, washing and yet more washing, my to do list goes on and on. But instead of all this messiness and everyday life hindering my own art practice I have found it a fuel for my work and my desire to discover, find and portray the beauty and joy that is present in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane, the monotony of life as a mother, and there is so much beauty out there, I've even found it in the mess of the kitchen table.”

More info:

The Other in Mother is on tour, find dates here.

In The Gut is touring to The Met, Bury, The University of Chester and Z-arts. For a full list of dates click here

Find out more about OTcreativeSpace

If you are a creative mother, whether personally or professionally, you can get involved with Mothers Who Make online or at HOME.

Main image: Les Femmes Ridicule