“Cordelia Williams Pictures Parenting on the Edges”
by Belle Gironda, Ph.D.
by Belle Gironda, Ph.D.
“Daydreaming subverts the world.”
– Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life
The book takes the form of a blue velvet jewelry box, invoking, as Cordelia Williams's work often does, the magic and the mystique of a fairy tale. The box plays a dual imaginative role: symbolic container, echoing the maternal body, and storage, or safekeeping for something precious, or, perhaps, something dangerous, mysterious, necessarily restricted. Within, we find all these promises fulfilled in a multi-media and multi-faceted exploration of the intertwining of maternal production and artistic production of both art and personal identity with the creative and rebellious energies of adolescence intimately observed, through acts of “art-making as parenting.” Williams has photographed her two children since their birth, creating a body of work that spans twenty years.
This exploration of family life, outside of societal norms, includes the current project, Memoirs of a Single Mother: The Teenage Party Years and a previous work, The Extraordinary Adventure of Camilla and the Fairy Cat. This earlier photo-art book is a poetic document about her daughter's growing up and about the mother/daughter relationship.
To enter the Memoirs of a Single Mother, we open the box and encounter three self-portrait dolls. Each represents an aspect of the mother/artist identity, a complicated trinity of power and authority, desire and desirability, passionate respect for freedom struggling with tenderness and concern. The three dolls, made from photo images taken by Williams of herself, are all costumed alike and share a very Victorian, pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. Despite these similarities, they suggest three distinctly different personas for this artist and mother. They are arrayed across the top of the box, and lifting the lid is like raising the curtain on a living theatre tableau. Below their flesh-toned and fluid femininity, in sharply contrasting ochre and yellow, the opening images on the raucous party book, serve as a backdrop and a temptation. The party book opens out in two directions, boys' parties on the left, girls' on the right. The images are mounted on black.
The pictures of Williams' s son, Roscoe's parties, taken in 1987 with their prevailing punk aesthetic, capture not just a relational space where mother/artist is witness/participant in the scene, but also a historical moment, a movement and a mood. The great intimacy of the photos and the subjects' seeming lack of awareness of or concern for the camera belie the fact that the photos were made by a parent chaperoning a party. Unlike many photos of teenage parties, and perhaps particularly those of teens of the punk rock era, there is no aura of saddened voyeurism or shock. The pictures are positively charged, the kids look interesting and fun: sometimes playful, sometimes self-possessed and elegant, sometimes humorous and awkward (but again, with a kind of admirable self-awareness.) While there is no doubt that we are being given a privileged view of an edgy and challenging world, it is not imaged as nihilistic or fearful. The pictures are shot with great energy from multiple angles and framed in ways that brilliantly capture the ebb and flow of party dynamics.
The girls' party photos were all shot outside at the artist's daughter's 14th birthday party in 1989. They provide a kind of "nature vs. culture" contrast to the photos from Roscoe's parties which were all taken in interiors, often heavily coded with punk culture slogans scrawled on the walls. The girls party photos are characterized by more open space and motion as well as a kind of dance-like energy. In opening out the two arms of the party book we are reminded of how infrequently the delight and the joy of adolescent energy is ever captured or celebrated in photography. The camera's presence is again, so utterly naturalized that we start to wonder if Williams was able to don a cloak of invisibility to take these pictures. But, what that quiet non-intrusive intimacy also suggests is a world where parenting and art-making have truly been reinvented outside of existing models and cultural norms.
Underneath the party book are two drawers containing the "secret life" or sub-conscious of the household. In high contrast to the glamorous and aloof mother/artist dolls on the top of the box, we find generously honest, "Self Portrait with Dirty Dishes," printed on ceramic tile, a breakable household object, along with the handwritten "Housework Manifesto" ("Thoughts on a Structure for Housework for Our House.") In the black and white self-portrait, (notably lacking the hand-coloring of the rest of the project's images) the mountain of dirty dishes, piled in the sink behind the artist are sharply in focus, while the head and shoulders of the mother/artist in the foreground, are shot in soft focus. Strangely, despite the image's complete lack of artifice, this instance of soft focus echoes the diaphanous glamour of the other portraits, and the angle of the subject's bare shoulders, the tilt of her chin, and the stillness of her features manage a kind of Victorian regality and stoicism. The photographs, visible on the windowsill above the dirty dishes remind us of the self-reflexivity of the life of the mother/artist.
In the second drawer, below the manifesto, we hear the murmuring voices of William's children and one of their friends who have also contributed short essays to the project, along with this essay, also by a single mother (me). Having raised two children alone for the last twenty years, I am writing from the slightly confused and nostalgic vantage of the first six months of "empty nest." At such moments of transition there is often a desire to attempt some kind of impossible narrative "summary." Williams' work is particularly alluring in the ways it manages to avoid this impulse. Instead she explores the complexities of a very specific point of view: that of the artist/photographer/mother positioned between the documentarian's dream of unlimited access and the emotional landscape of the most invested observer. For example, the photographs were made originally in black and white, a format often associated with journalistic immediacy. The artist painted the pictures then, much later, so that the images include a lush physical layer suggesting the meditative distance and the opportunity for reflection the that the passage of time can afford.
In this way, this work provides a commentary on how we as parents can envision if not exactly see the work we have done through the afterimage of memory's glow. Anyone who has raised a child encounters the hard truth that our children turn out to be the individuals they grow into, partially because of us (their parents,) and, more certainly, despite us. And concurrently, as Williams has said, “We don't just shape our children, they also shape us.”
The subtle complexities of this intersubjectivity come through in Williams's work, which is uniquely important for this and many other reasons. It is a special challenge to carve out a distinctive artistic articulation of one's own experience of motherhood. The maternal is much imaged in the history of art but has not often been the subject of work by women artists who are mothers. Generally speaking, what we have are not complex or complicated understandings but rather images of the very bad (a la Medea) and the very good: the Virgin Mary of Christian iconography. The prevailing visual texts of motherhood have tended to be images of Madonna-esque, angelic women nurturing their children. The sheer numbers, historical significance and “political” power of such images have a cumulative weight that has not been regularly challenged.
Photography is often understood to be the art that reaches out to, grabs, and frames the world, bringing it back to us, as it is. In the work of Cordelia Williams, many of our assumptions and expectations about the world and "how it is" are subverted as new possibilities arise when the creativity of art-making and of parenting merge in the photographic light of everyday and extraordinary magic.