Birth Art at the Nativity Studio

BY Isabel Johnson

The Nativity Studio, is a recently founded initiative based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is born from an idea to create a space where women can prepare for birth and motherhood in a way which is not all about information; it has a two-fold aim of creating a community space where women can ‘be’ together, make and craft things, as a mother-focused alternative to a baby shower, making things such as a patchwork quilt, squares for a crochet blanket or birth bunting; and secondly a safe place to engage in a more structured birth art process which allows women and couples the opportunity for self-discovery, and an exploration of birth and parenting in a visual way.

Traditionally women have gathered together to support each other and make things to prepare for the arrival of a new baby, and the vision of The Nativity Studio is to recreate a time when we lived a more communal life and women would gather together in the afternoon and evening after the day’s work for handicrafts. Birth is a profoundly creative time where women grow and bring forth new life with their bodies, and during pregnancy many women learn a new respect and awe for their body and its amazing capacity. Women prepare and educate themselves for birth in many different ways, and birth art is a unique way to prepare for birth and gain a deeper understanding of one’s self; birth art can help to clarify many issues, hopes, fears, and feelings which women cannot always verbally articulate and can bring to light new questions and insights. Sessions can be one to one, couples, mother and birth companion, or groups, and activities are tailored to match the personal needs of those participating. The Nativity Studio plans to offer a variety of activities including knitting circles, communal crafts, birth art sessions, retreats, and provides a trusting birth-like atmosphere.

Philosophy and Aims

The philosophy of the studio is to foster self-discovery and self-understanding and the sessions are better described as gatherings than classes. The birth art sessions are closely modelled on the process taught by Pam England and Virginia Bobro of Birthing from Within. The craft sessions are designed to provide a labor-like environment with quiet, meditative, repetitive, and time consuming activities; the craft activities are a special opportunity for potential birth companions to spend time with the expectant mother which is not focussed on discussion, education, or talkative activities, although many interesting discussions spontaneously arise. The emphasis is on ‘being’ as much as ‘doing’ and the sessions give an opportunity for women to quietly be around each other absorbed in what they are doing; midwives and doulas are especially welcome to attend with women to nurture this unrushed and non-verbal companionship. Knitting in particular is a meditative activity which takes time and cultivates patience; this time honored craft involves waiting and perseverance.

The Birth Art Process

Birth art at The Nativity Studio is more about the process of making than the finished result; it uses visualization and reflection as well as drawing on a particular theme. The embodied act of drawing involves making mess, smudging, a broad spectrum of colors and shades, things not necessarily going as we planned, finding things we didn’t know we had in us, all these things help us prepare for birth and motherhood in a holistic manner. Making art can seem daunting for many people, and the assumption that art is just for people who are good at it is something that is often instilled in us at an early age; this is why making art is so important in pregnancy as it is a very practical way to challenge our inhibitions, to try something new, to stretch our comfort zone, to experience not being in control of what we are doing, and to reflect on these experiences. Birth art is not about making pretty pictures or about judging each other’s artistic capabilities.

The themes covered over a series of sessions at The Nativity Studio give participants the opportunity to visualize how they perceive birth in our society and for themselves; pregnant women are bombarded by multiple perspectives, influenced by friends, family, community members, care providers, the media, and the wider culture. Being surrounded by conflicting options can be a very confusing and lonely time, the drawing process can help each mother find her own inner voice and what feels right for her own distinct and personal circumstances.

Often the only image a mother has of her baby is that provided by the ultrasound scan or an anatomical diagram. The drawing themes at the Studio can enable mothers to communicate in a different way with their unborn baby, and to see birth and motherhood from the baby’s perspective. Mothers are given a context in which to visualize the baby in an organic way with the ‘eyes’ of a mother (as opposed to the sonic probe of a machine), to look at the baby in a holistic way (not looking for ‘problems’); to transform the vision of the baby from surveillance to wonder. At the Studio there is time and opportunity to allow a more personal and generous vision of the baby growing within; nurturing the conscious relationship between mother and baby.

Making birth art creates a strong, rich, and powerful visual memory bank to draw on both prenatally, in labor, and postnatally. Strong symbols may be identified which may become useful tools among a wide array of spiritual ‘equipment’ for birth and beyond. While some first-time mothers fantasize about what labor will be like, and see it in black and white terms of ‘coping’ or ‘not coping’, making birth art may unlock a visual and colorful inner world of changing terrains, weathers, and wider expectations. It may help to create an interior broad panorama for the woman to see in her mind’s eye during the journey of labor and birth. For mothers who have experienced labor before this can be an opportunity to see this journey, map, landscape in a new way, to use images to discover different feelings, hopes and an inner compass.

Mothers who have participated in the birth art process are often really surprised by the images that came to them in the visualization period prior to drawing and find that while drawing new insights and questions arose which they had not been able to put into words before. A period of ‘transition journaling’ immediately after drawing before group discussion also helps to bring the non-verbal realisations gained in the drawing process into the world of words.

The drawing process enables us to get to know the imagined mother within, our expectations and hopes for ourselves as mothers, and if we have children already to express the reality of motherhood as we experience it and how that may grow or change with a new arrival. It is an opportunity to be realistic, idealistic, and compassionate with ourselves, and to develop a strong sense of one’s own mothering self. Birth art is a great opportunity for dads too, both in preparation for birth and exploring their sense of fatherhood.

The birth art sessions and craft gatherings are a fusion of my love for art, symbol, iconography, creativity, and childbirth; and have grown out of my experiences as midwife, artist, and mother of four and my desire to create an opportunity for women to learn more about themselves, to gather and wonder as they journey through pregnancy towards birth and motherhood.