MATRESCENCE Artist Feature Interviews // JOETTA MAUE

Joetta Maue speaks with Matresence curator Catherine LeComte Lecce




1.) Can you share your background and artistic journey with us, particularly regarding your evolution as an artist? Your practice spans various mediums, such as photography, drawing, installation, and embroidery.

I’m trained as a photographer. I have my BFA and MFA in photography, and to me, that’s my primary medium. That’s where my knowledge and the most important historical references I have are. After I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I was making large format color photographs, which are extremely expensive to produce. I was doing C printing, but I couldn’t afford to continue that. It was really traumatic, actually. So after that, I started exploring different, more affordable ways to create art. I did a lot of printmaking with photography.


When I went to graduate school, my program was very studio-focused, unlike photography, which typically isn’t as much. With the decline of darkroom use, especially in color photography, I felt the need to invent reasons to be in the studio to meet the expectations of my program.

A professor assigned us an everyday project, and that’s when I started to embroider. I was really interested in embroidery as a metaphor for healing since I had been making trauma-based work. I didn’t want to continue with that subject matter, but studio habits are strong, and it tended to seep back in. I liked that embroidery could act as a metaphor for a final piece of healing. I taught myself to embroider a single stitch and would embroider words.


I did a word every day and created a piece with about 75 pieces of satin embroidered with words of healing. It was meant to be the end of that body of work, and it worked, but I became obsessed with embroidery. I then dove deeply into embroidery for the next 10 years. I pushed the scale and concept of what embroidery could be. I made large, life-size figurative work addressing issues of intimacy. When I had my child, my subject matter shifted to motherhood and the different conflicts and contradictions within that identity, along with its beauty.


If you’re working with a traditional textile practice, there needs to be a strong conceptual reason because it carries so much history and specific meanings. There came a point when I didn’t understand why I was embroidering anymore. My work had shifted away from clear narratives to more abstract and metaphorical ideas. My embroidery had moved away from classic techniques to essentially drawing with thread. I used pen and ink techniques, hatching, and very illustrative drawings based more on drawing than embroidery techniques.


That’s when drawing really started to take over my studio practice, which became my dust drawing series. Interestingly, I don’t think I could have made that work without spending so many years stitching because making tiny marks in the dust drawings felt natural. 


Around that time, photography came back heavily into my practice. Now, all these mediums are working in parallel, informing each other.


2.) Can you walk us through your artistic process for your featured piece, Becoming Whole, in Matresence? What inspired the work?



At that time, I was making a lot of work about motherhood. My second child had been born, and I had been a mother for six or seven years. My children are seven years apart, so motherhood had been my primary subject throughout that entire time.


After making so much work about my son, I felt a responsibility to create work related to my daughter. I had a vision. There’s one image in particular where I’m holding my daughter and I’m naked, which really inspired the series. It reminded me of the Garden of Eden, with its mythological, iconic imagery of mother and child.


Motherhood is complex, and I wanted to explore that complexity. I decided to create three full-figure nude self-portraits: one before I was pregnant, one while highly pregnant, and one holding my daughter. This series is about the evolution and change in motherhood, highlighting how I had to rediscover my identity as a mother with each child.


The original image evoked thoughts of the Garden of Eden and also made me think of iconic religious imagery, like altars dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This led me to use a circular shape in the composition. I enjoy using found embroideries, and I had many on hand that I could cut out and appliqué, which helped shape the final form of the work.


It’s okay if it feels unfinished. The process of creating art is ongoing and ever-evolving.



3.) What specific challenges did you encounter when you first became a mother while also balancing your career as an artist?

Time is the biggest one. I think the biggest challenge a lot of times for artist parents is that we don’t make a lot of money. It was fine for me not making a lot of money when I only had to be responsible for myself. But when the cost of childcare came in, I didn’t end up working for a long time because the amount of money that I made didn’t justify it. Therefore, my son literally grew up in my studio. I had no childcare for the first two years; I did trades with other mothers. That’s the way I would get studio time.



I think definitely with the first child, that was the biggest thing, of being a person that could do whatever they want whenever they wanted, and then having that financial pressure of time because, of course, that’s not an issue if you can just afford a full-time nanny or something. So, I think time was really, really huge.


I think one of the big differences between mother artists and other working mothers is that you leave jobs behind. When my friends got maternity leave, they really just threw themselves into being a mother for six weeks to six months, depending on who it was, because then I had one friend who had a very luxurious maternity leave. So, we would go out, and I would see them, and they would just be so able to just throw themselves into it because they knew it was finite. They knew it was ending. They also didn’t have anything else they were thinking about because they were free of their job. I remember being really jealous of that, of being “I can’t do that. I don’t even know how to do that.” But I also can’t do that because, you know, in the art world, you can’t take six months off. I had a lot of stuff lined up before, I had shows that I had to do, and I was curating.


I have a friend who has a very major high-pressure job, but when she’s not at work, she’s not thinking about everything. Whereas, I feel like being an artist is so much a part of your identity outside of just what you do that it’s so much more of a consuming experience. I feel like that has also been hard, of balancing that with child rearing, especially when, because of the cost of childcare, you are often doing both at the same time.


It’s a luxury if you can do both. That means you have a partner that can be the primary financial support. That’s a privilege. I look at my friends that either don’t have jobs or don’t have kids. And I’m, like, of course they’re getting all these opportunities because they have so much more time. So, I think it comes down a lot to time and finances. Finances are also hard with art for sure. Everything’s so expensive.





4.) What advice would you give to other mother artists?



I think finding a community is really important. I think finding other creative mothers, whether they are writers, dancers, or performers, can be incredibly beneficial. The complexities of motherhood are similar across all creative fields, as it can feel so isolating. Just being able to say, “Yeah, I’m struggling with that too,” or sharing experiences can be a huge support.


When I was in New York and had my son with no money, I found people to do trades with so that I could still get a day in the studio without him. Then, I would take their kid for a day. The support system of other mothers trying to do it is immense.


In the studio, I never stopped making work. Many people have asked me how I managed that. I think remembering that a little bit eventually adds up to a lot is crucial. I changed my practice a lot when I had my son, and I was already working in embroidery, which is a nice pick-up-put-down medium. Photography is also kind of a pick-up-put-down medium, at least the way I work in it.


I would always work during nap time and for an hour after he went to bed. Those were just snippets of time, but if I did enough, I would all of a sudden realize that a piece was finished. Remembering that you don’t have to do it all at once is key. Just showing up for yourself and your practice, even if it’s just to sit there, can be incredibly powerful.


I’m not into the guilt thing, so I don’t think people should feel guilty about wanting to pursue their passion. You’re setting a model for your kids. I remember hearing an interview with Jason Schwartzman, that’s the actor’s name, where he talked about his mom, who was a super famous movie star at the time. When asked what it was like having a mom who was gone all the time, he replied that she wasn’t gone all the time; he went with her. She showed him that he could have a family, a life outside of work, and a thriving career. I try to remember that I’m showing my son and daughter that they don’t have to give up something to have a child. They just have to adjust because you do have to adjust, but you don’t have to give it up.




5.) How do you think society’s perception of motherhood and artistry has evolved, and what changes would you like to see in how mother artists are supported and recognized?


I think it has only evolved in ideology and not in practice. There’s a lot of talking about it, which I think is good. Artists are being more open, like successful artists are being more willing to be like, I am a mother, and that informs me, which I think is all really, really great.


But I think that the art world thinks you’re not serious if you make that choice. And I think that that is still absolutely there, if you mention you have children, if there’s any conflict because you have children, if you make work about children, there’s just this implication that you’re less serious about your career, which of course for men is not at all the case.


I think that the administrative world of art, like the gallerists, the curators, the institutions, the residencies, they have to just adapt, and they don’t want to do that. Because there’s this idea that if you’re installing a show, you’re available 24 hours a day. Whereas,  if you are a mother, it’s very rare that a mother could do that. I think there just needs to be more acknowledgment that it’s valid to make work about motherhood. And it’s also valid to just make that choice. And no one thinks like a doctor that has children is a less good doctor, even if they’re female.


I don’t think it’s changed as much as we would like it to, and I think the only way it can change is if the infrastructures change themselves in supporting, accepting, and also that women need to support women. When you have a female curator saying, “Oh, I don’t want to work with her, she has kids,” we just can’t do that, we have to be each other’s advocates no matter what our relationship to having children is. And if they can be like a badass curator with kids, why can’t she be a badass artist with kids? I think the change we are seeing is often due to the fact that there are so many more women in these roles of curators and museum administration and academic institutions that I think there is a bigger shift, but still.


The answer also isn’t to ignore the fact that someone is a mother. Sometimes I think that’s what people think of as a polite response. I work in academia and was nine months pregnant, worked all the way through my pregnancy, and not a single one of my colleagues referred to the fact that I was pregnant. I thought that was so wrong, for them to think, “Oh, this transformation is happening, and we’re just gonna act like it’s not happening because that’s the PC thing to do, because she’s still doing her job.” It’s not affecting her job. So in a way, their ignorance of it was also hurtful because I’m still a human and was having this transformative thing happen. I don’t think the answer is to ignore motherhood. It’s to just acknowledge that it is part of life and it’s a beautiful, vital part of life instead of all the things that people say otherwise.




6.) Have you ever experienced guilt or conflicted feelings about pursuing your artistic career while being a mother, and if so, how have you managed those emotions?

I think anyone who’s been a mother for 14 years has experienced guilt, but it hasn’t been a big struggle for me. Partially because I really want to model the behavior I want for my kids. For my son, I want him to pursue whatever he wants, but I also want him to support his partner in that. And for my daughter, I want her to be able to pursue her passions and dreams regardless of whether she becomes a mother or not.


I think that’s really huge for me and helps to dissipate guilt or prevent it from arising. However, I have been made to feel guilty by others. For instance, I pay for my kids to go to after-school care so that I can be in the studio. I have been asked countless times, “Why don’t you pick them up early?” or “Oh, you didn’t want to be in the studio?” People are often shocked that I’m not choosing to prioritize being with my children in those moments. When I taught an out-of-town workshop for the first time, my son was four at the time. People would ask, “Who’s watching your son?” And I would respond that his other parent is watching him.


I find it hard because I feel like I have to educate people that it’s inappropriate to assume that no one is watching my children. Interestingly, I feel like I’ve had more guilt with my daughter than with my son, which is surprising because she’s the younger child. That’s because she loves being around me and wants to be with me, whereas my son was much more independent. Sometimes she guilts me, saying things like, “Oh, you’re going out again?” or “You’re leaving?” when I have to attend openings or events.


If they have a day off school, sometimes I will still go to the studio, and she’ll say, “You’re not gonna stay home with me.” It’s hard when it’s your own child, but then I realize she’s just being manipulative. So I explain that mommy has to do what mommy does, and she’s happy playing at home. I think it’s important for women to model setting boundaries and standing up for their mental health.


My studio practice is a big part of my mental health, and it’s important for my daughter to see that. Mothers need to have time for themselves, not just be mothers all the time.


When I’m with my kids, I’m really engaged and present with them. That allows me to balance my career and motherhood without feeling guilty.