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Sarah Unruh ’12

Book brings together professor’s worlds of art and mothering

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN – Life for Rachel Epp Buller, Bethel College assistant professor of art, is a complex mix of mothering three children, teaching art and creating her own.

Now Epp Buller has edited a book in which she, 22 other women and one man examine the myriad issues raised by the tension – both positive and negative – between mothering and art.

Reconciling Art and Mothering was published this month by Ashgate, a United Kingdom-based publisher. In addition to its 25 essays, the book includes 23 color and 63 black-and-white illustrations by both contributors and the artists they discuss.

“I have been working on this book for maybe four years,” Epp Buller says. “It comes largely from my own experiences of finding mothering a really rich source for artistic work but not seeing that reflected a lot in museums and galleries.

“We see images of the Virgin Mary – the archetypal mother – again and again,” she continues, “but other experiences not so much. This is true historically, but in the last 20 years, there has been a preponderance of mothering showing up in contemporary art. I wanted to know more about that and find out what others have been doing.”

According to the publisher’s description, Reconciling Art and Mothering brings “a chorus of new voices to the burgeoning body of scholarship on art and the maternal and, for the first time, focuses exclusively on maternal representations and experiences within visual art throughout the world. [It] joins the voices of practicing artists with those of art historians, acknowledging the fluidity of those categories.”

The book shows the results of connections Epp Buller made with artists around the world – “to get a broader perspective,” she says, “even though [the book is] heavily North American.” Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South America also have representation.

She found the other writers mostly by word-of-mouth or, perhaps more accurately, “word-of-e-mail.”

“I put out a call for papers about four years ago,” she says. “It was on a number of websites, and friends circulated it to other friends and acquaintances. I got lots of submissions, many more than I could use.

“One of the most rewarding parts was making connections with artists and scholars around the world,” she continues. “As it turned out, one of the artists I worked with lives in Berlin with her family, so when we lived there in 2011, our virtual relationship turned into a real-world one.

“Part of my interest in this book is in representing a diversity of experiences. Geographic, economic, personal, ethnic, religious and cultural contexts all significantly affect mothering experiences, so for me that speaks to the importance of having global contributors, making and writing about work that addresses the maternal body, the postpartum state, queer mothering, surrogate mothering and a variety of other maternal experiences that might seem outside ‘the norm.’”

Getting a book published takes a long process of sending out many proposals and getting lots of rejection letters, Epp Buller says.

After she culled and edited the first round of submissions, she created a detailed book proposal and then began looking for a publisher. The latter is never easy – this project was especially hard because the illustrations made the book more expensive to produce.

“I was fortunate to find an editor at Ashgate, Meredith Norwich, who was very excited about it,” Epp Buller says. “I met her at a conference a couple of months after I had sent the proposal to a number of publishers, including Ashgate.”

Then followed “at least two more rounds of editing,” based on peer review and other criteria, until finally the book was ready to send to the publisher.

“So much of my work has been going back and forth between writing about other people’s work and making my own,” says Epp Buller. Her Ph.D. is in art history and her main medium is printmaking. In spring 2011, she spent five months in Berlin at Akademie der Künste (Academy of the Arts) researching the work of political artist Alice Lex, while on a Fulbright Scholar grant.

Thanks to the book, she gets to go back to Europe next year. “Based on my research for this book, I’ve been invited to participate in a lecture series on ‘Gender in the Art World,’ organized by the University of Applied Arts in Vienna,” she says. “The lecture series runs all year, with one per month starting in October. I’ll present my talk on ‘Art and the Maternal: Strategies and Interventions’ next June.”

Compiling the book, she says “was a way to bring together my worlds – writing, mothering, making art.”

In addition to writing two introductory essays for Reconciling Art and Mothering, Epp Buller also has an essay about her own work in it.

The book is divided into two sections. In the first, “Representing the Maternal Body: Critical and Theoretical Reflections,” art historians examine the work of others.

Section 2, “Contemporary Artist-Mothers: Statements and Negotiations,” includes Epp Buller’s essay, titled “Expressing the end: A visual breastfeeding chronicle.” Essays in this section are personal reflections by practicing artists on mothering and making art.

Reconciling Art and Mothering is available at the publisher’s website, www.ashgate.com, and on Amazon.com.

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.