Mothers and motherhood are a centerpiece in fine art, and one of the most charged and potent emotional relationships to depict. Artists tackling the subject, from da Vinci in Virgin of the Rocks to Catherine Opie in Self-Portrait/Nursing, the bond between a mother and child is moving, yet arcane to those who haven't experienced it firsthand. Artist Ryan McGinness admits this, but that hasn't stopped him from trying to distill motherly love into one of his trademark icons for the series Mother and Child.
He began sketching his wife and kid for Mother and Child in 2011 shortly after becoming a father, and continued through the birth of his second. Through the iterative process used to create all the symbols throughout his work, he sketched them, sketched those sketches, and sketched those sketches until he had boiled portraits of his family down into their most geometrically simple forms. "Mothers, from what I’ve seen in my wife, are strong," he tells The Creators Project. "I always knew my wife was a strong woman, but seeing her as a strong mother has been delightfully frightening."
Mother and Child was finally completed in 2015, but McGinness' meditations on motherhood continue. The Creators Project talked to the artist about his relationship with his own mother, and what he's learned about mothers from studying the mother of his children.
The Creators Projet: What is your earliest memory of your mother?
Ryan McGinness: Painting with a brush and bucket of water on hot asphalt.
What was your relationship with her like?
Positive. Our relationship was based on doing. We made all our own toys, and growing up, we had a robust and full activity schedule. She had a flair for the absurd and was what normal people would call, “kooky.” I only appreciated her kookiness as I got older.
How did she feel about you pursuing an art career?
She was a maker, so she certainly understood the urge to create. But making art and pursuing an art career are two very different things. Having an “art career” was simply bewildering to her. I remember early in my career being out to dinner with my wife and parents and telling them I had just sold a drawing. My mother leaned over to my wife to ask how much, and she signaled “five” with spread fingers. My mother made that frowny-I’m-impressed-but-I-don’t-get-it look and tried to confirm, “Five-hundred?” To which my wife had to correct, “Thousand.” And her face just went blank. It was beyond comprehension for her.
How is your relationship today?
Sadly, she passed away from breast cancer in 2004. So my relationship has been with her spirit which we try to keep alive by having a home full of plants (she was a certified Master Gardener in many states) and by making toys with our girls.
How did the concept for Mother and Child first occur to you?
I wanted to contribute to the rich history of the "mother and child" theme in art. I wanted to make my own version based on my own children and my wife. Of course, this only occurred to me after we produced offspring and was not the reason to procreate.
How did becoming a father change your ideas about motherhood?
It’s all about the mother. The father doesn’t matter. That’s not entirely true, but it certainly feels that way with young children. The feeling is so strong, that I can see why so many fathers leave. I certainly don’t condone leaving, but I get it. I absolutely get it. And, it doesn’t help that I am a weak father. The crying drives me insane. The illogical contrarian dispositions frustrate me. And I find the time investment unaffordable. Mothers, from what I’ve seen in my wife, are strong. I always knew my wife was a strong woman, but seeing her as a strong mother has been delightfully frightening. I have been nothing but impressed my by girls’ mother.
Do you have a message for all the moms out there on Mother's Day?
See more of Ryan McGinness' work on his website. But first, call your mother and thank her, too.