UIRC is pleased to to host The ART of Infertility here in Salt Lake in two months. Together, we are presenting a month-long art exhibit and a fundraiser gala. We have invited their founders, Elizabeth and Maria, to share a post here about their mission.
What is The ART of Infertility (ART of IF)? The ART of Infertility is an international arts organization started by the two of us, Elizabeth Walker and Maria Novotny, in 2014. The organization conducts art and writing workshops, collects and distributes oral history interviews, curates art exhibitions, and presents educational talks and writings. All of these activities are designed to support the infertile community, provide educational resources, and support further understanding of the topic of infertility in conjunction with arts-based methods of healing.
What are the goals of ART of IF? We have both been bothered by the fact infertility stories are often silenced. We’re even more bothered by the fact that there’s not much variety in the stories that are brought to light. It is too-often that infertility is represented within a heteronormative, white, middle-class narrative. The reality is that this is simply not a true nor realistic representation of infertility.
As an organization, The ART of Infertility recognizes the diverse voices and perspectives that represent infertility — ranging from those in a heterosexual relationship who receive an infertility diagnosis upon trying to conceive, those who identify as single-mothers-by-choice and undergoing fertility treatment to become pregnant, even those who identify as LGBTQ and encounter many of the same infertility decisions.
It’s our mission to expand the narratives of infertility – both in regards to demographics and notions of success. When diagnosed with infertility, how we create and define a family typically falls outside of the norm. This project seeks to make these alternative family-building practices, whether that is having success creating a child or success redefining oneself as a family of two, visible and better understood by all.
How did ART of IF start? Elizabeth: A couple years into dealing with infertility, I felt like I needed something tangible to represent how it was impacting me. So, I started creating artwork around my experience. At first it was just an outlet for me, but I soon found that it helped me talk to my friends and family about what I was dealing with. I thought it might help those in my community learn about infertility and approached an art and history museum in my hometown, the Ella Sharp Museum, about allowing me to curate an infertility art exhibit. They said yes, and the first exhibit, The ART of IF: Navigating the Journey of Infertility, opened in March of 2014. I met Maria shortly after.
How did the two of you meet? We met while representing the State of Michigan during Infertility Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. in May of 2014. The two of us were both running infertility support groups, just on opposite ends of the state. In D.C., we ended up spending the day together talking to our local Michigan representatives.
Walking from meeting to meeting, we shared how infertility was shaping not just our personal lives but professional ones as well. Maria explained that she was studying the language, rhetoric, and oral histories of infertility as part of her dissertation at Michigan State University. Elizabeth described her desire to continue the exhibit, seeking to expand its collection of artwork and stories by displaying the exhibit around the country. We also talked about how neither of us were in the process of actively trying to build a family. Elizabeth was on a break from treatment. Maria was on a break from deciding how she would build her family.
The two of us both felt in need of a “support group for support group leaders” so we started meeting over dinner. Dinners about our support groups soon started into conversations about how we both wanted to continue collecting infertility stories. Eventually, we decided to use Maria’s oral history experience and Elizabeth’s visual art experience to create ART of IF.
What was that experience like for you? Elizabeth: Meeting Maria, I felt like I was meeting a long-lost sister or a younger version of myself. I also felt validated in the decisions I had made about my infertility treatment and family building plans when I met someone who, like me, wasn’t necessarily following the path most traveled on the way to building her family through infertility.
Maria: When I met Elizabeth, I didn’t realize how badly I needed an infertility girlfriend in my life. I was one of the few who brought her husband to D.C. that year, and he came because he was my closest friend during my infertility journey. Spending the day with Elizabeth, though, I began to see the value of having another friend who was also running a support group and interested in telling infertility stories. At the time, I think that I really underestimated how Elizabeth was going to change my life. But, I am so thankful for it. Today, we call each other “Barren Besties”.
Where has the project been exhibited? We’ve now held exhibits, workshops, and presentations in Arizona, California, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Washington State and Washington, D.C. We’ve curated artwork and conducted interviews from across the U.S. and the world. We also did our first international exhibit in Switzerland in fall of 2016. In addition to Utah, we plan to be in Madison, WI, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago in 2018.
What can people expect if they come to an exhibit? Those attending our exhibits will find a safe space where they will view local, national, and international artwork in a variety of mediums. All of the artwork is accompanied by narratives from the artists in the form of written exhibit labels and, in some cases, audio and video files. Our goal is always to share a diverse range of infertility patients and experiences. We hope that when people come to the exhibit that they view it as a chance to begin a conversation about what it means to experience reproductive loss.
What’s a favorite piece of yours? Maria: Selections of “Infertility is the Worst”. These illustrations by Kelly Zechmeister-Smith always touch me. They are funny yet honest. What I appreciate the most about them is that they show the viewer the everyday struggles of living in an infertile body. From going to the grocery story in the middle of the day to answering what is perceived as an innocent question from a neighbor if you are pregnant. These are the stories of infertility that are so often missed and not seen. I think her pieces really help provoke viewers to think twice about the assumptions that we can all have children easily.
Elizabeth: One of my favorite pieces is one we just received this spring. It’s entitled “no. 16” and is by Nancy Fleischman. The piece incorporates porcelain casts of medication packages with medical illustrations etched in glass. I love how the fine detail of the piece naturally invites people to get close to it to get a better view, allowing for an intimate moment with the art and with Nancy’s story.
What has the impact been on others? We hope that The ART of Infertility has allowed those with infertility a sense of community and a safe space for creative outlet. That it’s given those with infertility a louder voice, and helped them feel less alone.
What has the impact been on us? Elizabeth: ART of IF has helped me make meaning out of my infertility experience. It’s helped me process my own grief and allowed me to create something when I couldn’t create a baby. It’s also connected me to a network of new friends and colleagues across the world. I’m so grateful for all of them, but would likely have never known them if I had been able to conceive. I truly feel lucky every day that I’m in a position to collect and share these stories through art and so thankful for those who entrust their stories with us.
Maria: ART of IF has allowed me a safe space to take time and reflect on my infertility journey. In many ways, I have had this unique chance to listen and learn about a range of infertility experiences. Hearing other stories, and having people share how special they have found the project, has reminded me that even if I never have a child of my own -- I am still touching lives and, hopefully, taking steps to create a more infertility-friendly world.
What are you looking forward to in Salt Lake City? Elizabeth: This has been in the works for quite awhile and it’s been great working with Camille Hawkins, Executive Director of Utah Infertility Resource Center, and seeing her organization grow along the way and seeing all the ways that UIRC has been able to help those with infertility in Utah. I’m really excited to see everything come together. I’m also interested in learning more about how the Mormon religion and culture in Utah impacts the family building decisions that those with infertility in the community make. It will be great to explore Salt Lake City and make new friends.
Maria: This exhibit is a bit different compared to others in the past. This is because we are pairing some infertility patients with professional artists to create representations of their infertility journey. I think that I’m really looking forward to seeing how these two perspectives, hence the name Arches in Perspective, will come together. What an exciting opportunity!
Have you had success? As we stated above, we have come to see many types of success resulting from infertility. For example, even though the two of us do not have any children, we still consider ourselves to be successful. Maria defines success as being a family of four, of which two have paws, while Elizabeth has found a sense of success in the ways that she has worked with Maria to help build community, a form of family, through ART of IF.