HONORING OUR FOREMOTHERS

“When I talk about the Foremothers in my project, I am speaking of both our biological ancestors and other women whose lives have informed our journeys. …
I wondered, ‘Who were the women who paved a path for my life to unfold as it has, over these six decades of life?’” —Robin Brooks, artist

 

interview by NANCY GORDON
photography by CHRISTINE MacKENZIE

Artist Robin Brooks
at Reid State Park.
Photo: DARBY BABSON
Woods Rhythm 1, 2014
18 x 12 inches
collage with charcoal on paper
Coastal Movement, 2014
12 x 18 inches, collage with charcoal on paper
Schoodic 1, 2016
22 x 22 inches, acrylic on paper, mounted on panel
Autumn Fields, 2016
22 x 22 inches, acrylic and collage on paper, mounted
Wintering, 2020
24 x 24 inches, acrylic and collage on panel
Wind through Spruce, 2016
9 x 12 inches, relief print with watercolor
Winter Sun, 2014
15 x 11 inches, painted paper collage
Schoodic 2, 2016
22 x 22 inches, acrylic on paper, mounted on panel
Night Blues, 2019
20 x 18 inches
mixed media collage on paper
mounted to panel
Falling, 2020
24 x 24 inches, acrylic and collage on panel
Schoodic Cobbles, 2016
16 x 20 inches, painted paper collage

What is the Foremothers Project? How did it begin?

I began the Foremothers Project in October of 2020, right after we lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a great hero of mine. She died just before the presidential election, and it was an arresting moment for me. I felt the loss personally. As I thought about her life and work, I felt so much gratitude for all she did to empower women as equals under the law. Losing RBG motivated me to begin exploring my foremothers, and she was the first one I brought into the studio.

Remembering RBG, 2020, 14 x 11 inches, mixed media collage on panel

When I talk about the Foremothers in my project, I am speaking of both our biological ancestors and other women whose lives have informed our journeys. Starting with RBG, I began to branch out, and looked deeply into my personal story to uncover the foremothers who had influenced me.

I wondered, “Who were the women who paved a path for my life to unfold as it has, over these six decades of life?” As an artist I held that question and began making collages. At the time, we were all on pandemic lockdown and there was so much fear and uncertainty. Rather than focus on that, I looked around the studio at the materials I had accumulated and began repurposing old prints and working over unsuccessful paintings … repurposing what was there to create something new. It was a time of opening inward, rather than out to the world, and I allowed my unconscious to lead.

As I worked in my studio, I thought about how many of my rights I have taken for granted. As a young woman coming of age in the 1970s, I had the right to pursue my education, to find paid work, to vote and to make decisions concerning my body. I realized that all of these rights were hard-won by the sacrifice and determination of so many women, both leaders and ordinary women who had come before me. It reminded me of the Women’s March where we all wore pink “pussy hats” and gathered en masse to show our leaders that women are a force to be reckoned with!

Here is a poem I composed in the early months of the project:

On the wings of a butterfly,
on a feather’s breath of memory,
their stories,
their spirits resonate.
I see these women, my ancestors,
with their courage, humor, and tenacity.
In my mind I can taste their cooking,
Hear their old-world accents,
See their kitchens.
Feel the texture of their lives.

Then you applied to the Maine Arts Commission for a grant …

As my Foremothers Project progressed, I realized I wanted to branch out and expand my website to allow for audience interaction. So, I took a chance and wrote a grant proposal to the Maine Arts Commission. In July of 2021, I was delighted to learn that my proposal was funded. Receiving the Springboard grant allowed me to hire a web designer to upgrade my website and it also helped with the expense of joining a printmaking studio, where I made some of my Foremothers pieces. In October of 2021, I exhibited 30 Foremothers artworks at the Curtis Memorial Library in their virtual gallery space.

What prompted you to begin collecting stories from other people?

Writing the grant [proposal] to the Maine Arts Commission pushed me to find ways to draw people in—to make the Foremothers Project more participatory. Audience engagement was one of several criteria used in the grant-making process, and it made sense to me that artists receiving state funding should think about audience participation.

When I received notice that my grant had been funded, I redoubled my effort to start collecting stories. Most of the Foremothers stories that I have received to date came from people I know, revealing aspects about these people that I never knew before. It was a discovery process for them too, so it really has been a beautiful process, uncovering our Foremothers’ stories and sharing them. For me, it has been an amazing and tender experience to receive stories from people around the state and beyond. I have published some of these stories, with permission, on my blog.

Tell us about Rebecca, your maternal grandmother, and her place in your life as a foremother.

Rebecca in a Purple Coat, 2021, acrylic on panel, 18 x 24 inches

When my mother was just in her teens, she lost her mother, so I never got to meet Rebecca. It was a hole in our family life, as she left my mother at a tender and vulnerable time. Rebecca died on the day of my uncle Jerry’s high school graduation. As the valedictorian, he had to give his speech, holding this unspeakable loss in his heart. Rebecca’s death was tragic and impacted the family greatly. Rebecca died at 40 of a rare autoimmune disease called pemphigus.

When I was young, my mother would talk about my grandmother and what a vibrant spirit she had. She always told us how much Rebecca would have cherished her grandchildren. (There are five of us; I’m the oldest.) I realize now that Rebecca’s vibrant spirit lives through me, through my siblings and strongly through my mother, Shay. At 87, my mom is still very much an activist, with many strong relationships, living a full independent life. As a member of the Jewish synagogue, she participates in an interfaith group in her small town of Bloomsburg, PA. Since the start of the Iraq war, she has attended a peace vigil at the fountain in Bloomsburg on Wednesdays at noon. And she is a regular volunteer for the local Democratic organization and at the local food pantry.

The stories I’ve heard about Rebecca tell of a vibrant, passionate, and articulate woman who loved life in all its aspects. She was a devoted mother but also took part in the community, supporting the war effort by volunteering while my grandfather served overseas, and later, participating in small town life by contributing book reviews to the local newspaper. It has been a great joy and heart-opening experience for me to paint her portrait from an old black-and-white photo, and to create artwork that brings her into the here and how. The more time I spent looking at Rebecca’s photographic image, the more deeply I connected with her.

Georgia O’Keeffe is your most recent Foremother painting. What about O’Keeffe and her work has influenced you?

O’Keefe, Sun and Moon, 2022, 9 x 12 inches, mixed media collage on panel

When I was in high school and just beginning to take myself seriously as an artist, I discovered the paintings and drawings of Georgia O’Keeffe. Immediately, I was mesmerized by her large-scale paintings of natural forms like leaves and flowers as well as her early abstract drawings. And there was her romantic and daring life story—her romance with Alfred Stieglitz and subsequent move to the desert of New Mexico. Let’s not forget that the art history books, galleries and museums were (and still are) dominated by men. So, as a young woman, O’Keeffe’s story made my dream of being an artist seem possible. As I revisit her art and life story in my Foremothers Project, I still find her courage and personal creative vision incredibly inspiring.

How can people send you stories about their foremothers? Do accept photographs and images of paintings as well?

I love to receive stories in written or visual form. People may contact me via my website robinbrooksart.com and we will correspond by email or phone. Interestingly, I’ve received many photos and images of paintings and other unusual artworks such as Sue West’s 3-D necklace made of chicken eggs that honors her foremothers.

Are you planning a book?

You are not the first person to ask me that question, and it is certainly a possibility. What pulls me more is to craft some of these stories—perhaps just my own personal foremothers stories—for storytelling before a live audience. There’s nothing like the sound of the human voice to compel our attention and make a story come alive.

I found this beautiful quotation:

“Stories beget understanding, Understanding begets respect, Respect begets justice, Justice begets peace, That is the power of Story.”
—Antonio Rocha

As you reflect on the Foremothers Project, what questions come to mind?

What does it mean to honor a foremother?
What traces of our foremothers can we find in ourselves?
How can art help us go deeper with our explorations and understandings?
How can we learn from the stories of our foremothers that have come down to us?

As we reflect deeply, let us live fully into the present moment while holding them in our hearts.

. . .

robinbrooksart.com

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