MATRESCENCE Artist Feature Interviews // S> BILLIE MANDLE


S. Billie Mandle speaks with Matresence curator Catherine LeComte Lecce:



1.) Can you share your background and artistic journey with us and how you came to pursue photography?

I had a very circuitous route to photography. I studied biology in college but always pursued photography as a hobby. I used to develop film and was the photo editor for the school newspaper, so I actually had my own darkroom for most of college.


I initially thought I would go into biology, but eventually, things changed. I went to work for a National Geographic photographer in New York as a studio manager, and then I went to grad school.


What drew me to photography was my love for art, even though I didn’t come from a family of artists or have much exposure to the arts growing up. I like that the arts aren’t about finding a definite answer. One of the things I struggled with in science was its focus on absolute truths—what is true, what is not, what is, and what isn’t.


In photography, I love the poetics. It allows for a balance between reality and questioning. It’s not just about concrete answers; there’s always the idea of something more nebulous that you can tap into.




2.) Can you walk us through your artistic process for Stellar Skytron, your featured piece in  Matresence? What inspired this body of work?


I always knew I wanted to do a photo project about the space where I gave birth because so much of my work is about the built environment and how spaces hold traces of people and experiences. I thought, what better place to have this profound experience than the room where I gave birth?


So, I brought my tripod and large-format camera to the birthing center with me. This was in western Massachusetts, where they are very permissive of these things, so I had my camera and tripod in the room. The nurses thought I was totally crazy, but then I ended up having a C-section, so I wasn’t in any condition to photograph after that.


A few days later, just under a week, I was able to go back to the hospital with my camera and take pictures in the operating room where I delivered my son. It wasn’t the room I had planned, but it was the operating room. It was a relatively small hospital, so I had to put on scrubs before going into the space. The operating room was small, and I didn’t have much time in there because they had people who might need to use it, so they gave me roughly 10 minutes.


I’m usually a very slow photographer, so 10 minutes was a short amount of time for me. I quickly made some photographs in the operating room, primarily of the lights, because what I remembered most about being on the operating room table was staring into these very bright lights while my son was delivered. I processed the film at home, but it took me about three years to figure out what to do with those pictures. I had them on my computer, and I would go back and look at them, but nothing quite felt right. Then I began to play with them in Photoshop, and that was how this project came about.



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


There just wasn’t any time. I remember once trying to bring my son into the studio with me, putting him in a bassinet, and thinking I could work on the computer while he slept. That didn’t happen. So it was really about balancing time. The specific challenge was just time.


But it was more than that. Mental space was another big issue. I was also teaching full-time, and my partner was working in California, so he was gone during the week. I was solo with my son most of the week while teaching, and it felt like my capacity for anything was completely shot. I had no ability to focus, my brain was mush, and it was hard to think. I felt selfish focusing on art when I thought I should be making delicious, nutritious meals and things like that.


There’s a great essay by Mary Oliver, where she talks about how artists should use their time, and I used to always assign it to my students. At some point, I realized I wasn’t following any of her advice—I was doing all the things I shouldn’t be doing. I had a wake-up call about returning to art, but it took about three years to get back to a more rigorous practice.


I don’t know how you’re doing it, Catherine. What advice would I give to other artist mothers? Relax, there’s time. Go easy on yourself and enjoy the experience as much as possible. It’s not easy, but it can be joyful. I think I already gave you my other piece of advice: use motherhood as a time to observe and be present. That sounds overused, but it’s true. These are skills you can bring into your practice.



4.) What advice would you give to other artist mothers?


And I feel like when I first started as a parent and an artist, I was really worried about doing things wrong. I didn’t want to make a mistake with my child. That’s a pretty natural sentiment. The same goes for art; I was always afraid of making the wrong kind of art or saying the wrong thing. I didn’t think about enjoying the process of making art—I was so focused on doing it the right way. Similarly, with my child, for the first few months, I was so focused on doing everything correctly that it didn’t occur to me that I could also just enjoy and have fun.


I’m a very type-A person, so it doesn’t come naturally to me, but that’s a piece of advice I would give: it’s okay to enjoy both art-making and child-rearing. They should both be pleasurable. There’s a lot of angst, stress, and hard work, but there are also ways to enjoy both processes.



5.) Have you found any support networks or communities that have been particularly helpful in your journey as a mother artist?


Have you ever read “The Argonauts”? I would say it was the book that helped me the most as a mother and artist. Maggie Nelson’s work was incredibly impactful for me. I first read it while I was pregnant, and then I read it again when my son was about a year old. Without the framing she offers in the book, my first year as a mother would have been much harder. She helped center the experience and articulate the reasons why paying attention and appreciating the moments as much as possible are necessary.



6.) In your photographic projects, you engage with themes of contingency, paradox, and faith. How do you navigate these complex concepts as both an artist and a mother, and do you find that motherhood has altered or deepened your understanding of these themes?


Regarding the themes in my work, I think contingency and paradox are significant parts of what I explore as an artist. Motherhood has definitely deepened my understanding of these concepts. Parenthood and mothering are inherently about contingency and paradox.


I recently read a book where someone described parenting or mothering as creating a god that then leaves you. It’s not that the child is god-like over you, but you give so much in this incessant devotional activity, knowing that eventually, the child will depart. It’s agonizing to experience this deepening love only to know it will be severed and altered. In a few years, when my son is a teenager, he probably won’t even want to be around me. What a torturous, horrible experience to endure, yet it alone is ample reason to make art.


Contingency is a driving factor for me. We can never predict what will happen or how we will handle it. All parents are terrified of losing their child. After giving birth, I spent more time thinking about death than ever before. I went through a period of intense paranoia about dying, becoming a hypochondriac, constantly fearing something horrible would happen. I still grapple with worst-case scenarios. This kind of existential anxiety about the future is bound up in what I photograph, reflecting the intense love and experience of being a parent.



7.) 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 feel guilt about everything, especially when it comes to leaving my family for any reason. Whether it’s going out to photograph or attending an opening, I always feel guilty about the time spent away. Studio time feels different because it doesn’t feel dissimilar to going to my job to teach. However, any other activity that takes me away from my family brings a sense of guilt.


Every time I go to an opening, I feel tremendous guilt and anxiety, fearing I might miss something important because time goes by so fast. Managing these emotions has been challenging. I like to think that in the future, my son will be excited to see the art I’ve produced, although he probably won’t be. I justify continuing to do the things I love by believing that being healthy and self-satisfied makes me a better parent. If I were in a constant state of self-denial, always giving things up, I would be a horrible parent.