AVAM Exhibit Tackles the Layers of Parenting

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There aren’t a lot of museum exhibit openings where you’ll hear talk about shaving cream changing sperm DNA, the effects of reading to a fetus and the opioid epidemic’s impact on grandparents, but when American Visionary Art Museum founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger takes on the topic of parenting, no subject is off-limits.

“Parenting: An Art Without a Manual” opened Saturday and runs through Sept. 1, 2019. The exhibit, curated by Hoffberger and Anna Gulyavskaya, goes well beyond biology in “what could be the greatest subject to focus everyone on,” Hoffberger says.

“I wanted this exhibition of ‘parenting’ as a verb and not a biological noun,” she adds.

From a father’s photos of his daughter born with disabilities to a family tree of mental illness, from a giant painting that incorporates a mother’s suicide note to a comically large necktie, the exhibit captures all the colors and flavors of the parent-child experience.

Museumgoers are initially greeted by a series of visionary artist Alex Grey’s paintings coupled with information about the “Zero to Five” approach to early childhood. Then, walking up the grand stairs, visitors are greeted by “Big Daddy,” a 9-foot necktie made of men’s neckties and suits quilted together by artist Wendy Brackman and her Catskill Crafters women’s sewing group. The display is adorned by the women’s six-word musing about their fathers — “Dad had lipstick on his collar,” “He wanted sons. Got me instead” and “Dressed well to cover his flaws.” The exhibit also features the group’s “96 quilt vignettes using men’s ties as kaleidoscopic story sculptures,” as Brackman put it. “I think this is straddling two world of art and craft,” she says. “Fine art and folk art, and that gives me a lot of pleasure.”

Brackman’s foray into fine art started with sculpture and has two such creations in the exhibit, one of which is called “Angry Mother Puppet,” with her mother hanging from puppet strings.

“My mother was a great advocate of mine, but she always pulled the strings on me,” Brackman told a group touring the exhibit during a media preview last week. “So I put the strings on her.”

Down the hall from “Big Daddy,” and near a sign that reads, “Parenthood: the scariest ’hood you’ll ever go through,” is Baltimore artist Chris Wilson’s newest work, a giant painting called “Momma’s Boys.” The work details the incredible obstacles Wilson has overcome — his mother’s sexual assault by a Washington, D.C., cop, her addiction and subsequent suicide, his time in prison and his plan for turning his life around.

“I spent 16 and a half years in prison, and during this time my mom just spiraled downhill,” he says. “While I was away, I came up with a plan to turn my life around through education, through mentorship.”

He got his GED and bachelor’s degree, and taught himself how to read, write and speak five different languages. The words “The Master Plan,” which he wrote out in prison, adorn his painting and are also the title of an upcoming book. The painting features angels and demons fighting over his mother and depicts the droves of young black men he saw coming in and out prison.

“I wanted to tell a story … think about our parents. Who’s going to take care of our moms if we decide to pull a gun and take a person’s life?” he asks. “So I made this piece as a way to tell my story but also maybe influence other young men and women to think about their parents when they make decisions when we out in the streets.”

Another powerful personal story in the exhibit is represented by Betty Grodnitzky, known to many as Bracha-Shira, whose work is exhibited in a collage that tells the story of losing a child but gaining animal companions. A singer and artist who has dabbled in video work, the Pikesville resident lost her husband, Stan, to a heart attack in 1989, and her daughter, Kandye, seven years later to suicide. Her art became therapy following their deaths.

Most recently, she has self-published two books of photography of the animals that inhabit her modest-sized backyard. The foxes, birds and a deer she affectionately named Bambele (a Yiddish variation on Bambi) are all pictured in the collage. The deer has been visiting her since 2014. In the center of the collage are photos of Grodnitzky and Kandye, with a birthday card Kandye gave her mother years before she died.

“It’s very unusual, this phase in my life,” Grodnitzky says. “People say to me I saved all these animals. They saved me.”

AVAM’s latest exhibit also captures parenting a child with disabilities in Leon Borensztein’s photographs of his daughter Sharon, born in 1984. Chronicling Sharon’s whole journey, from the time of her mother’s pregnancy to the present day, the photos depict the ups and downs of fatherhood with a daughter with disabilities.

“I was photographing the dark moments but also when she was happy,” Borensztein says. “I documented her growth and her extremely slow progress.”

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