10 local parent-artists unveil their pandemic projects

By Karla Kane

Robin Mullery’s “Mama?” explores the heaviness of being a parent during a pandemic. (Photo by Karla Kane)

“Holding it Together,” the playful-yet-poignant new exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center, is a collection of new works by artists that examine the experience of parenting during the pandemic in all its often chaotic, frustrating, humorous and sweet glory.

The show is a reunion for Bay Area artists (and parents) Alexandra Bailliere, Karen Leslie Ficke, Benicia Gantner, Amy Hibbs, Jenny Hynes, Jill Miller, Robin Mullery, Ashley Lauren Saks, Trevor Tubelle and Vanessa Woods, who first came together for a residency led by Miller at the Art Center in conjunction with the 2018 “Care and Feeding: The Art of Parenthood” exhibition.

Mullery, a Palo Alto resident, mother of third graders and member of the Cubberley Artist Studio Program who also works as a therapist, reached out to the rest to suggest organizing a group show exploring their experiences during the COVID age.

Robin Mullery discusses her concrete installation, titled “Mama.” (Photo by Karla Kane)

“I had the idea to see what we’re all doing right now in this really crazy time,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to find other parent artists because we’re so isolated.”

Mullery’s piece, “Mama?”, installed in the center of the gallery, consists of 19 concrete balls in various sizes and conditions, some suspended like moons and planets in an imagined galaxy, some cracked or misshapen, smashed upon the floor. Concrete as a material interests her, she said, because of its mix of strength and fragility. “Mama?” speaks to how the life “pause” caused by the global pandemic has revealed many hidden cracks and ruptures in U.S. society, from social injustice to the climate crisis, and how humans are seeking connection and resilience in hard times. The concrete balls also represent how she, as a parent, has felt more than ever the pressure to juggle aspects of her life, with the acknowledgement that many goals or plans may remain unfinished or broken; a mama bearing “the heaviness of it all.”

“Tiger King Bingewatch” is a quilt started by Alexandra Bailliere in the early days of the shelter-in-place order. (Photo by Karla Kane)

Bailliere, who called the original residency experience very meaningful for the opportunity it provided to connect with others who were juggling identities as parents and artists, has contributed three different projects to “Holding it Together.” “Tiger King Bingewatch,” with its titular nod to the popular Netflix documentary, is a hand-sewn “pandemic quilt,” started enthusiastically, Bailliere said, when she assumed the shelter-in-place order would only last for a few weeks. As it stretched on, the quilt expanded and “could continue to grow but may never be completed,” she said. Two large oil paintings were inspired by senior citizens she got to know while leading virtual art workshops, who impressed her with the way they were handling the loneliness and isolation with grace and dignity. And a series of small oil paintings represent her early attempt to complete one painting a day, a goal often “hijacked by something one or all of my three teenage sons did which took my attention away from the practice of completing these daily works,” including a skateboard crash resulting in a trip to the emergency room. These pieces, like several in the exhibition, exemplify what every parent knows: Trying to work while at home with children involves a whole lot of interruption.

During the 2018 residency, Mullery said the group members began referring to each other jokingly as “momrades” (mom comrades), with Trevor Tubelle as the sole “dadrade.” For “Holding it Together,” dadrade Tubelle has created a whole-wall installation representing a project titled “Quarantine Walk Drawings.”

“When the pandemic started, I was stuck at home with my family just like everyone else on the planet and I realized I would not be able to go to my studio to make art. So I needed to figure out how to not go insane from being around my kids day and night and to somehow keep my creative mind alive, not to mention keeping my body from falling apart from inactivity,” he said. In late March, he began going on walks around San Francisco, making quick drawings on small scraps of paper and leaving them on display in situ. By June, he had created 40.

“I’ve been visiting the drawings periodically to document how they fare over time in terms of weathering (sun, rain, wind) and other factors outside my control (e.g., graffiti and vandalism),” he explained. At the Art Center, Tubelle has drawn a map on the wall representing all the neighborhoods he visited on his walks (with wires radiating from a center nail, representing his home), along with photos of the drawings showing their changes over time, plus data on the dates and locations. As many of the drawings are still intact, he said, the project will continue.

Visitors to the Palo Alto Art Center are invited to turn their negative thoughts into a positive by feeding them to compost worms at the “Transformation Station,” created by artist Amy Hibbs. (Photo by Karla Kane)

For Hibbs, “2020 has been a year of extremes in my art-making practice. At times, I’ve been creatively immobilized for weeks while caring for my kids, homeschooling, or just plain worrying about the world,” she said. “But the lack of running around dropping kids off and picking them up has also unlocked some unexpected time during which I’ve deepened my practice.”

In “Holding It Together,” Hibbs’ works demonstrate how she’s found inspiration, naturally, from the world right outside her door. Her cyanotype prints are based on plant waste she’s photographed around her San Jose neighborhood. She’s also included one of her compost prints, in which she places a pile of compost from her home/yard on a piece of synthetic paper, “letting the process of decay mark the paper with inky organic patterns.”

Visitors to the exhibition have a chance to take part in another of Hibbs’ compost-centric works. Just inside the lobby sits the “Transformation Station,” where all are invited to write down or draw a negative thought or fear. These are shredded and added to an adjacent worm compost bin. They’ll be transformed by the worms into lifegiving fertilizer, to be spread around the Art Center’s grounds in the spring, literally turning negatives into positives. Fittingly, Hibbs worked in collaboration with her daughter on the project.

“My hope is that this piece is both cathartic and fun,” she said.

“Each One of Us Was Fastened to the Other” by Vanessa Woods is a photo collage reflecting a lack of boundaries between mother and children in close quarters. (Photo by Karla Kane)

The exhibition encompasses a variety of works in other media, including sculpture, photographic collage, video installation and more.

“Holding it Together” is the first show to be installed in the main gallery since winter (the Peninsula Photo Contest is currently installed in the smaller Glass Gallery). Art Center Director Karen Kienzle said the creation of this show, as well as the ability to physically reopen the gallery, has come as a pleasant surprise after the cancellation of the previously planned “Safe” exhibition, she said, adding that for the time being, the Art Center will err on the side of caution and open at 25% rather than the 50% capacity allowed by the county. She is also committed to each exhibition having a virtual presence, for those unable or uncomfortable coming to an in-person show, so a photo tour will be available on the center’s Flickr page.

In addition to feeding their worries and frustrations into the Transformation Station, community members are also invited to participate in the show by submitting photos of how their families are “holding it together” during these times (send via Instagram to @paloaltoartcenter, email to [email protected] or text 650–646–5344). These will be added to the gallery walls throughout the duration of the show, which runs until Dec. 12. The Art Center is open Tuesday-Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information is available at Palo Alto Art Center.

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