Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity

15 10 2019

Inappropriate Bodies FC

It’s finally here! This project was years in the making, moving in fits and starts with periodic lags in between, but after a big push this past year, Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity was published in late September by Demeter Press. My co-editor, Charles Reeve, and I are thrilled with how it turned out and we are proud of the hard work, long hours, and many revisions put in by all of our 20+ contributors.

As I discuss in the introduction, the book builds on and extends a series of international conversations that have been circulating around this theme for the past decade. No book is written in a vacuum but particularly with a feminist topic like this, I feel it’s important to make clear the debts we owe to previous publications, conferences, and exhibitions that paved the way. So I’m all the more grateful to include some of the “heavy hitters” in the field among the contributors, alongside emerging voices. It’s a hefty volume, nearly 400 pages, with a wide variety of scholarly and narrative essays and conversations.

We’re planning a series of conference talks and book launch events for the coming year and are hoping to get the book reviewed widely, to reach as many people as possible. In the meantime, I’m so pleased by the initial endorsements, particularly by people who know of which they speak:

Epp Buller’s and Reeve’s anthology showcases an array of rich and diverse work. The three sections, “Body Politics,” “Family Practices” and “By Design,” comprise overlapping yet distinct discussions of individual artists, critical theory, personal testaments, interviews and conversations, while employing a multiplicity of approaches to the still controversial discussion of the maternal body in visual art, performance and design. The design section was a revelation to me in its consideration of the constraints placed upon the maternal body in the constructed environment. Inappropriate Bodies is a welcome addition to the as yet under-represented field of maternal studies. — Myrel Chernick, co-editor, with Jennie Klein, of The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art

With clarity and precision, Inappropriate Bodies allows us to understand the delicate, complex links between maternity and art. While circling around the ideology of appropriateness of maternity, Epp Buller and Reeve unravel the cultural coding that surrounds it in artistic, academic and cultural contexts. The book addresses both art and design practices and explores how the work that they analyse reinforces particular expectations of maternity while implicitly negating non-conforming experiences. This is a necessary, timely collection for all scholars and artists invested in exploring the maternal in the creative context. — Elena Marchevska, Associate Professor Performance Studies, London South Bank University

While the book was published in September, it took a bit to ship the books from Toronto. But what a thrill to come home from work and open these boxes last week!



Taking Care and Other Words in London

19 06 2019

Early June brought the next iteration of Taking Care, installed and performed at Borough Road Gallery, thanks to the generous invitation of Elena Marchevska at London South Bank University. The university setting brought quite a different audience than the residential artist space of Upominki – students, professors, security staff, custodial staff, visitors from near and far (including, unexpectedly, a dear friend from grad school days). Some walked through quickly, while others lingered over the words; one woman read all of them aloud, slowly, to her friend, giving intentional voice to words in the space. Some accepted the invitation to write; others seemed to want to accept, sat at the desk deep in thought but didn’t write; a number told me of the difficulty of the task at hand, to recall a genuine act of care received. Since returning home and reading the letters, I am once again so moved by the generosity of the letter-writers whose stories touched me deeply and I look forward to deeper listening in embroidery.

Thanks to Elena’s organization, we had a lovely opening event on June 5 in the gallery, with London editor Mary Paterson and Edgehill University professor and artist Lena Simic invited to respond to the work. For two hours, we discussed and thought through together the many aspects of letters, care, listening, collaboration, and slow practice.

Once again I experienced the physically taxing nature of durational performance, my body responding to the hours of embroidering and listening. And yet I come home with renewed energy, eager to continue moving the project forward.







‘Our hopes lie in a time of alliances’

16 12 2018

Part of what made my recent graduate program so rewarding was the regular exchange of ideas with peers, across disciplines and countries. Near the end of my first year of the program, a colleague and I began an intentional sharing and debating of ideas that, in many ways, led me to the letter-writing and relational care that I would explore in my MFA thesis. Our exchange has recently been published, in a special issue, “On Correspondence,” of the Something Other online journal. It’s a long piece, wandering and exhaustive as we seek to talk / write together through the various meanings and iterations of handwritten correspondence. The introductory editorial calls it “a cornucopia of found quotation, private reminiscence, academic reflection, advice passed between artists and writers, confessions, invitations, and more. Illustrated with handmade collages, and postcards gleaned from flea markets, it has the feel of a carefully tended antique shop: it’s possible to dip in and out, but the longer you stay, the more dear delights might emerge.”

I’m sharing here just the very beginning of our collaborative essay and then a link to the full piece, for anyone who might wish to think through all of this with us.

“Our hopes lie in a time of alliances”: epistolary praxis and transdisciplinary composing

Rachel Epp Buller and Derek Owens

An earnest letter is or should be life-warrant or death-warrant, for what is each instant but a gun, harmless because “unloaded,” but that touched “goes off”?

— Emily Dickinson, letter to L. Norcross, 1880


In Muriel Barbery’s The Life of Elves, a mythical story of a world in danger, separate factions unite their interests in the belief that “our hopes lie in a time of alliances.” We, too, seek out alliances. We come from established backgrounds in writing and art history, yet at mid-career we both returned to graduate school, seeking out new peers in a transdisciplinary creative practice program. We found that working across disciplines offered fertile ground for our own practices while opening up new ways of being and thinking. Our intermedial experimentations and collaborations led us to the letter form. What follows is an edited version of our recent epistolary exchanges–an extended, sometimes meandering, hybrid meditation on how historical and contemporary forms of written interpersonal communication might act as a bridge between disciplines and, at the same time, embody a human desire for love and support.

Full text here.

Taking Care at Upominki

14 12 2018

In mid-November, I traveled to Rotterdam for an artist residency at a project space called Upominki. Developed by Weronika Zielinska-Klein, Upominki (which means “gift” in Polish) is dedicated to the idea of hospitality – and so there were many threads connecting her founding ideas to my current project of Taking Care. During the weeklong residency, I spent 6 hours a day in the space, embroidering words of care from the letters that people have written to me for the project, sharing about acts of care that they have received. I so appreciated the opportunity to really focus on their words: often I was alone in the space (or with Funky the cat) and it felt like an equal exchange of sorts, really taking time to focus on the words and doing justice to their gift, their risk-taking in sharing an intimate story with me, by spending hours stitching them. I found that I could finish about 1 piece per day – which feels slow but also like a good rhythm.

One thing I learned from the time there is that this is how I would like the project to unfold, through dedicated times and spaces of stitching and listening. If I work on it at home, I want to be intentional about setting hours aside where I do only that. This isn’t the kind of project that I want to be fit in around other things. And it may unfold best if I continue to do short residencies of this sort. I don’t yet have an ending point in mind; it feels like the project will be ongoing.

Also while in Rotterdam I had the opportunity to meet with some groups of artists. One group, coordinated through Deirdre Donoghue’s m/other voices foundation, came to visit me on one of their “field trips,” where we talked about the Taking Care project in the context of my longer history of writing and making. On another afternoon, a group of graduate students from the Willem de Kooning Academie visited to ask questions about the project and to share about their own work. For some reason I was a little surprised by their engagement with the work, but then in thinking about my own students as well, I find it a reminder that we’re all seeking authentic human connections. Other artists and community members stopped by during the week, to visit or just to be in the space with me. One woman, a student from Spain, shared some of her poetry with me.

The culminating event at the end of the week was a performative reading of excerpts from my thesis, Dear friend. Weronika, Deirdre, and another artist, Barbara Philipp, joined me in the reading. It, too, offered a space of intimacy. Weronika made soup, the lighting was low, the space was cozy and warm, and we read my words from the correspondences across time.

I was so glad to be able to bring the family along for this experience as well. Both Deirdre and Weronika’s organizations are committed to supporting artists with families, and they were so welcoming to us. We stayed on a houseboat (a magical experience!) and we shared several meals together, of varied generations and nationalities. They made it feel like a home away from home, and I am grateful to them both.



A letter delivered to the space



Upominki hospitality

Listening Across Time

8 12 2018

While the MFA journey in some ways already feels long ago, it was lovely this fall to get to revisit it at the Regier Art Gallery by exhibiting selections from the different projects that I worked on over the 2+ years. Here is my exhibition statement-

In Listening Across Time, excerpted from work developed during the past two years, I explore letter-writing as an act of relational care, in past, present, and future contexts. Parts of this trilogy are represented here through varied works on paper and other media: photographs, artist books, and letterpress prints connected to letters exchanged between a trio of sisters from the past, considering the objects and emotions that we leave behind; sculptural book pairings and embroidery sparked by a series of present-day handwritten correspondences; and Letters to the Future, epistolary texts that find form here in drawings and audio recordings. In each part of the trilogy, I give thought to how both words and traditions of making are passed between generations, transferred between hands and bodies, in intimate settings. Through these many correspondences across time, I have come to think of letters not only as a way of exchanging thoughts and ideas but also as a form of active listening. Letters are an invitation to listen, an agreement to care for another person. I believe that such listening is directly connected to a slowing down, a taking time to take care, and this quality is what I seek to reflect in all parts of the work, drawing attention to the ways we care for each other with our words.

I was so gratified by the reception of the show. For work that has been so personal and intimate, and is all connected inside of my own head, I wasn’t entirely sure that others would necessarily see the connections as well. But they did, and I was surprised to find that the ideas brought a lot of emotions to the surface for some viewers. I had not anticipated the tears. Clearly, this is a theme that resonates, and it’s one that I won’t be done with for some time to come.


Photographs from What We Leave Behind and letterpress prints from Dear Sister


Taking Care, a participatory installation of letters and thread


Dear friend: a thesis in / of letters


hand-word drawings and audio recordings from Letters to the Future


a selection of artist books related to correspondence and collaboration


(apparently the spotlights function strangely in a panoramic photo)

Thank you, dear colleagues!

23 10 2018

Being recognized by one’s peers in the field is an honor second only to receiving warm words from one’s students, because they’re the ones who really understand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into this labor. I’m so thankful to my fellow art educators in this state for giving me an honor that could equally go to so many of my colleagues. Many thanks to Kathy Schroeder for nominating me, to the artists who put on such fabulous professional development workshops (I made many sheets of plant-based paper at the conference!), and to the KAEA board for selecting me for this award.



20 10 2018

More catch-up…

In August, my cohort in the MFA program – ten artists representing seven countries –  realized a major project together, a group exhibition at Flutgraben, an artist space in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood.


During our January residency together in Mexico City, we decided on the theme of co-a-lism – merging our interests in coalescing across boundaries of geography and media, our belief in the importance of coalitions, and our playful reference to the many -isms of art history. (Modernism, Expressionism, why not co-a-lism?) We worked with that theme for the next seven months, thinking together across time and space, and coordinating so many logistics. Jo+Michelle Piper designed the exhibition catalogue, for which two stellar colleagues, Susie Quillinan and Elena Marchevska, wrote essays. We printed the catalogue but it is also available online.

The experience on-site was so much greater than I had anticipated. We spent time together and we helped each other with installation. I spent many hours embroidering in the space, surrounded by my peers and by the recorded voices speaking my Letters to the Future. And the public exhibition opening, as well as our public MFA defenses and dialogues, were so well-attended that we were very pleasantly surprised. It was a day of surprises and emotion – a surprise engagement, a performance that nearly resulted in an arrest, a graduation celebration after the exhibition, and the joy and adrenaline and exhaustion that accompany such monumental efforts.

Since I returned to work 2 days after returning home from Berlin, I’ve hardly had time to process the experiences. But I am eternally grateful for the ways in which this MFA program transformed my work and my thinking, for the relationships that were forged through the process, and for the doors that it opened and will continue to open. I miss these people dearly and eagerly anticipate our next steps of working together.

mfa cohort