I have long suspected, but only recently begun to experience, the benefits of a barter system with other artist friends. I met my friend Michelle when she and both our future husbands were in their final year at Cedarville University, attending the same church, finding in each other similar liturgical longings. But when they all graduated and we entered our respective marriages, we more or less went our separate ways (or at least that’s how it seemed from my perspective, as I am terrible at keeping up with people). But then Michelle started to blog, and so did I. I don’t know what she found in my blog, but I drank up her posts on and links to natural birth, crunchy mothering, and her intimate pictures of herself and her family. I feel like I’ve watched her little Ella Rae grow up, even though I’ve never met her. Michelle and my sister-in-law, Emily (for whom I am also very grateful) were my main introduction into the world of alternative choices for simple, loving, effective birthing and mothering.
Michelle is also an artist – a painter, to be specific. She’s blogged about some of her birth visualization art, and I loved every one. She has a penchant for rich colors and visceral symbols that are fearlessly genuine on the intimate, powerful subject of birth. It took me a while to shed my inhibitions about reflecting on and living into the experience of birth, but by the time this pregnancy began, I was ready to take a chance. Especially since it turned out Michelle was also pregnant – and due within a week of when we were! So we agreed to a barter – a layette set in exchange for a painting, with creative input going both ways.
I always get frustrated when my commission customers fail to give me anything to go on as far as what they’re thinking. But now I can empathize. I don’t think I gave Michelle much more to work with other than “I kinda liked that one… and maybe you could incorporate knitting into it?” So I was in complete suspense when I opened the package we received a week ago.
There are so many things I love about this piece. But first, I will let Michelle speak for herself interpreting the painting, as her explanation was super-helpful.
“When you talked about incorporating knitting into the painting the first burst of creativity hit. The black parts of the painting are actually prints from two cable-knit sweaters. But I had to fill them in because it looked weird as just a stamped cable!!
“The cables around the edges represent the process of letting go – of fear, self, consciousness, reserve, everything. It is black because there is death in the letting go. The whole process is a death – of self – a surrendering – to life. These cables come to an unwound place of rest. The reservations (the knots) are loosed. Green is the color for harmony, safety, life, and renewal. Your sense of safety is crucial to letting go of fears and reservations.
“The body of the visualization is orange – the color of energy & activity, combining the joy of yellow and heat of red. Obviouslyt he labor process is extremely active and full of energy. There is both joy and pain – but not all pain is bad!
“In the center is a red flower – the lotus flower of fertility. The flower which opens to bring forth your baby. In one word? Your cervix. Red is the color of passion, primal urges, courage, power, strength and blood. It represents protection from fears, confidence, pleasure and love.
“The bulging, purple center of the flower visualizes your baby’s head emerging through the soft, open flower. Purple represents communion – you and baby working together at the pinnacle of this birthing process. The color also symbolizes peace and calming – the state you will enter into as your baby slides into your hands. The umbilical cord (another cable) is in a spiral shape. Spirals are a rather universal sign for centering, a coming into being. Spiraling movements of your own body encourages baby’s descent and assists her own spiraling process as she rotates to release herself. The spiraling ends with the representation of a baby – also in black. Black, in addition to death, represents a restful emptiness. Your womb will enter a state of restful emptiness as your arms are full of a baby and your breasts fill with milk. The idea of death is furthered as the placenta detaches, and eventually the cord is separated. But as death does, it ushers life. Baby breathes and cries as its own, independent body.”
I found Michelle’s explanation super-helpful, and it put into context my own interpretations and emotions when contemplating it. So, my turn.
When I look at this painting, I see a lot of juxtapositions going on. The outer green and orange are extremely bright, almost neon, and the competition of the black “knots,” seem in conflict, almost anxious. The closer I get to birth, the more my exhaustion and moodiness gives room for anxiety, frustration, tension, imperfection. With C being breech at this point, I’ve had to start questioning whether I’ll even get to experience non-surgical birth, and examine my reactions to this possibility. This is all part of the unraveling that I have to do to come to a place of safety.
If I’m honest, the most challenging part of the piece for me aesthetically is the orange. So it made a lot of sense when Michelle described that as the color for energy. (It’s also funny that the incorporation of knitting also represents tension that has to be unwound – this fits for me in that I am not one of those people who find knitting relaxing!) When I visualize birth, I usually find that I have too many expectations of calmness, of control. While I’m sure those will still be there, what I underestimate is the amount of fierceness and intensity I’ll also need to bring to the table. The amount of self-awareness, of intelligent, present decision-making.
Both of these things contrast with the center of the painting, with the deep scarlet and very cool purple. The flower is the prettiest part, the part that’s most “me” – and the part of me where my awareness will have to center for relaxation and opening. And the purple at center, for the baby, is this cool tone that again, almost conflicts with the rest of the painting. It reminds me that this is a separate person coming to being. I love the fact that depending on how you look at it, that center can look like the top of a baby’s head (with an impressive cowlick), or it can look like an umbellical spiraling towards a tiny first-trimester kidney-bean baby.
When we rearrange our house on Saturday, I will (with hubby’s permission) hang this over our bed until C arrives. (It will likely live in her room afterwards, with those bright and cheerful colors.) If I find it existentially helpful, we’ll bring it to the birthing center.
Thanks again, Michelle. I know how much making an original work of art can be like birth itself. (Or at least that’s what I hear, since I haven’t actually done the birth part yet.)