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Fertile Ground

Struggles with family-building lead to the creation of The Art of Infertility.

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ART OF INFERTILITY
  • Art of Infertility

As with any emotionally trying life experience, dealing with infertility is hard to do alone. A new local art exhibit on the subject of infertility similarly proves the importance of such support, as it required a collaboration between three organizations.

That story behind The Art of Infertility began not locally, but in Michigan in 2014. Elizabeth Walker, who began her own journey with infertility with her husband in 2009, had approached the Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson, Mich., about an exhibit of work—both visual art and oral histories—by people struggling with infertility that might offer therapeutic opportunities for the artists, and education for the public. While that exhibit was up in May of 2014, Walker traveled to Washington, D.C., for a legislative advocacy day by a national infertility support group. There she met Maria Novotny, also a Michigan resident, who was beginning graduate study focusing on the way women process and talk about infertility.

"At that time, Elizabeth didn't really have a plan," Novotny says. "So we started discussing what she wanted to do with the project."

Initially, the scope was small. Walker and Novotny brought their Art of Infertility work to "pop-up" events affiliated with fund-raising walks in California, but they began to realize that they wanted to include stories representing as many perspectives as possible. "The stories you don't hear are the stories of more diverse experiences," Walker says. "Infertility doesn't discriminate."

The Art of Infertility project began to receive media coverage in outlets including Psychology Today and Huffington Post, and subsequently came to the attention of Camille Hawkins, executive director of the Utah Infertility Resource Center. Hawkins was looking for a community partner to work with on bringing the project to Utah, and a friend mentioned the mission of Art Access Gallery to bring art opportunities to under-served communities. "We decided this would be a really cool opportunity both to help our clients engage in artwork in an art workshop setting with professional artists and art therapists," Hawkins says, "and then to display the artwork and use it as a method of storytelling to bring awareness to what people struggling with infertility and family-building go through."

Beginning last year, Utah Infertility Resource Center clients participated in workshops at Art Access Gallery, including mentorships in which they would be paired with a professional artist. Yet the goal was not on producing a "professional" work of art, according to Hawkins, which helped allay the anxieties of participants about the potential for these works to appear on a gallery wall. "We explained to the attendees that it's not about the artwork being a masterpiece; it's about the artwork reflecting what it's like to go through infertility," she says. "It's an awareness tool, so our community can learn more. That really helped everybody understand, it doesn't matter what this piece looks like. What matters is the story."

Those stories cover a broad range of experiences, and a wide emotional spectrum, according to Art Access Gallery programs director Elise Butterfield. "One of the things I found interesting when I first started talking to Camille," she says, "is they don't think of infertility as just a medical situation, but perhaps a same-sex couple that can't conceive on their own, or a single parent who doesn't have a partner. ... I think that while there is certainly pain expressed in a lot of these works, there's also a pretty deep sense of hope, and this vision of what could be. I don't think that all of it is necessarily about heartbreak, sadness or medical trauma."

The exhibit is expected to represent local participants in about 80 percent of the works, according to Butterfield, with the rest coming from Art of Infertility's permanent collection. Additional programming includes a screening of the infertility-themed documentary One More Shot on Feb. 15, followed by a panel discussion with Walker and Novoty, as well as the filmmakers.

While the educational component of the exhibition is certainly important in raising awareness about the many kinds of infertility journeys that exist, all of the organizers seem to agree that the most fulfilling part of this process has been seeing the artists turn their experiences into a creative work. "It was very powerful to watch clients who have no control over their reproduction, and their ability to have a family, take control over a piece of artwork, and use materials to put together something very meaningful to reflect their experience," Hawkins says.

"When you think about infertility," Novotny says, "there's a lack of materiality. Art became that materiality, a visible thing so people could see and understand that experience." To which Walker adds, "[Clients] can be reluctant or scared to come, but they're really surprised by how easy it is, how accessible it is, having that opportunity to create something when you've been trying so hard to create, with no success."

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