Blog Post: Gal Leshem

Drawing from the series Becoming a Habitat, weeds ink on khadi paper.jpg

Drawing from the series Becoming a Habitat, weeds ink on khadi paper.

The following is a text by Gal Leshem (NC 2017) on her time as the recipient of New
Contemporaries year-long Studio Bursary with SPACE .


19 February 2024

Neve was six months old when I moved into my new studio space. Now, over a year later, I wanted to string together some thoughts about this time of great transformations of our three connected bodies: my body, her body, an emerging body of work. So I’m risking contaminating the pristine space of “art” with some leaky thoughts on motherhood and making…

Image: Studio shot, work in progress, cotton and linen dyed with foraged weeds.

Throughout my whole pregnancy with Neve I was worried that having a baby would be the end of my creative practice. This general fear I had that art and motherhood don't go hand in
hand was both grounded and obscure, surrounding my nauseated self as a fuzzy shapeless dread. There are objective reasons for this. Time being the first one, but also the vague knowledge (later confirmed when reading Hettie Judah’s ‘How Not to Exclude Artist
Mothers’) that the figure of the artist-as-mother was so historically absent from the canon, and still today ignored by the working mechanisms of the artworld. Exhibition openings happen to coincide with children's bedtime, residencies demand long periods away, the requirement to be both productive and present in a way that is impossible for (new) mothers to follow. Almost none of the tutors at my MA programme were parents, and those that were
seemed to hide that fact. I still carried with me something one of my BA tutors had told me years ago - that she chose her art career over having a family - making it clear that one comes at the expense of the other.

There are also internal reasons for that fear. Inner conflicts that have to do with Rachel Cusk’s sentencing that "in motherhood a woman exchanges her public significance for a range of private meanings” (A life’s work, Rachel Cusk). And though this can refer to the doom of the many hours spent caring for a helpless baby, it seemed to me that “things one was misleadingly told were a big part of having a baby: Diapers. Changing them. Bottles. Changing them. Wraps. Baths. Sleeplessness. Chirios. All these things exist but rise to consciousness about as often as the apartment’s electricity does” (Little Labours, Rivka Galchen). The rich world of discoveries and nuances, attention and joy that a life with a new-
born entails indeed creates a new set of meanings, entirely new perspectives, through which to operate from. My own experience was closer to Julie Philips’ view that “maternal bliss conspires with maternal guilt to erode creative work” (The Baby on the Fire Escape, Julie Philips). An artist-mother once told me that she had stopped painting for several years when her son was born because she felt that making a child was a creation in itself, one that no painting could compare to.

As opposed to my pregnancy, when I tried as much as possible to ignore the “geography closest in - the body” (Adrienne Rich, Notes Towards a Politics of Location), when Neve was born I surrendered myself to the transformative experience of it all, exchanging my
singularity for the symbiotic plurality of the motherbaby unit. The two of us floating in the hazy space beyond capitalist time, outside of productivity. I was surprised to discover that the century old feminist discourse of the burden of social reproduction on women, whilst very true, was also lacking: it lacked considering motherhood as a radical position of care: its leaky connectedness, liquids flowing from mother to baby, sustaining life.

The physical bodily state of what I referred to as becoming a habitat replaced any sense of familiarity with my “old” self. And so, when I got the New Contemporaries studio bursary I was terrified of the large white space I received, with its wide window overlooking Elder tree and Buddleia, foxes and their cubs passing by in the garden below.

Determined to embrace interruption into my process, rather than maintain the well-rehearsed role of the lone artist, the first few months of studio work were a family endeavour. Packing for the day, my partner and I took Neve on the train. Once we arrived our responsibilities split: he was the carer and I worked, watching them goofing around on the large blanket we laid in front of the window. This family time was sweet. It allowed my partner to be with Neve without the usual daily hassles, and allowed me to feel like an artist and a mother, to feel that these roles are not in contradiction as I was told.

Image: Studio, April, 2023.

Slowly, as Neve grew, I started coming to the studio alone, at first for an hour, then, over time, for a little longer. This time was a different kind of time, alone time. Concentrated. Compressed and airy at once. There was a new pleasure in having a room of one's own, forming new rituals; a smudge stick to clear the air and start the day, coffee bubbling in a small saucepan, next to pots of boiling ink.

Just like everything else at that time, stretching and changing and taking new forms, so did my practice - morphed in response to the new reality. Creative processes start to take on different rhythms. Extremely slow processes of soaking and simmering plants and fabrics and papers for hours, days and weeks; slowly sliding and
bubbling in a transparent liquid that eventually becomes colour. Along with fast, fluid drawings, with no control, no re-do’s. Drawings that cannot be planned, which do not require thought, but a semiotic connection of body-mind; require presence, a momentary
concentration within the diffused fog—a moment of returning to the blurred boundaries of myself.

Image: Sun dye daffodil deadheads in jars.

Making happens along the way. Literally. Mainly while walking, recording thoughts on my phone, reflections, daydreams, or foraging for plants on my way to the studio from the station and on my daily routes around. I set myself a task for this year to work only with what grows around me, to dedicate myself to working with weeds as raw material. It suits me now. I spend a lot of time in parks and green spaces. I'm much more ‘local’; I walk everywhere as
public transport was not built for mothers (more on that in Leslie Kern’s Feminist City).

Making happens in paying attention to what grows, blossoms now, or withers, ripens into fruit, turns to seed. It’s in learning the changing of the seasons by looking down to the ground. Making is a bag filled up with different plants each walk. Today Yarrow calls me, tomorrow a Dandelion. Making is filling a pot with water and letting it boil, then reduced to nearly nothing: a concentrated sum. Making ink from weeds is interchangeable with making medicine and I often didn't know if the plant I picked would be made into ink, dye or a tincture.

Then one day the sky fell and the world became just grief and the studio turned into a place of refuge. To come alone and cry until there are not more tears. Or bring Neve with me, she’s climbing in and out of the huge sewing machine box while I stitch together pieces of cloth in a strange mending action, as if to put together everything that has been broken. Then I put her for a nap on the little mattress on the floor, and she reaches her arms forwards for a hug, holding both my ears, my forehead against hers, my hands, like in a yoga dolphin pose, wrap around her resting head. And all I am is cover, thatch, protective nest.

Image: Drawing from the series Becoming a Habitat, weeds ink on khadi paper.

This was autumn, Nevie turned one, the elder tree already bloomed and bore fruit that dried up and will soon shed its leaves. Winter brought a different time, orienting inwards. Taking what was gathered in the summer and spring and piecing it together, making space for rest. I started making huge blobby cushions, holding spaces, for tired limbs, for more than one body to nestle in.

In spring I opened the window and the door, invited company in. I wanted to finish the work, to tie a nice bow around it, with the completion of a full calendar year. It would have been cleaner to wrap up that way. But the edges are all still undone, and nothing is quite finished yet, and so apparently the yield of one cycle will spill onto the next. Now is a time for other transitions; re-rooting; new unwalked paths lay ahead; another pause; another turn; another

Image: Neve in the studio with work in progress, March 2024.