Motherhood Dialogues: Visual Interrogations

Much like Ursula LeGuin’s She UnNames Them, this work seeks to redefine definitions and assumptions about disAbled mothering through a critical disability and feminist lens. In this series, I am contemplating visual concepts of disabled bodies, mothering responsibilities, disability as a structure, and the tensions that exist between the theories, as well as the exploration of my own identity and myths.

Building on theories from Paulo Freire, Michele Foucault, Adrienne Rich, and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, I explore how disabled mothers experience surveillance and societal constructions of Motherhood.

My work is inspired by the artists Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kolwitz, and Salvador Dali.

Each painting in this series explores an aspect of disabled mothering from a theoretical lens. Some of these themes include, post-partum depression, PTSD, physical disabilities, and socially constructed disabilities. Painting is an integral practice as I navigate my PhD path.

These images are part of my ongoing PhD work at UBC-Okanagan.

Please email Jewelles Smith directly to purchase any paintings.


How do I disentangle my “Self” from within my roles as researcher, artist, mother, activist (educator), and daughter? If activism is also educator, how do I internalize this work in a way that respects the participants of my project as well as a larger audience of reader; and my own mothering experiences. In this painting I thought about this reflection period and the protectiveness I feel about respecting both the participant mothers’ stories, and my story in this process.

For Freire, reflection and action must occur at the same time. Neither is priveleged. He also argued that sometimes, using methods of abstraction:

[H]umans perceive reality as dense, impenerable, and enveloping, it is indespensible to proceedwith the investigation by means of abstraction. This method does not involve reducing the concrete to the abstract...but rather maintaining both elements as opposites which interrelate dialectically in the act of reflection (Freire, 2006, p. 105).

Integrating Freire’s theories within the context of research with participants—that is ensuring that they are Subjects within the project and they have opportunity to reflection and action, I hope to negotiate within the requirements of ethics and my dissertation in an academic context whilst still maintaining my integrity as an activist and through activism—educator.


This painting erupted one evening as I hit a metaphoric wall in the struggle to avoid writing about my own family as I address the methods and theory that I intend to use for my research. I felt the fatalism that Freiere (2006) warns about: “If individuals are caught up in and are unable to separate themselves fromthese limit-situations, their theme of reference to these situations is fatalism, and the task implied by the theme is the lack of task” (p. 113).

I felt as if I needed to embody and own my own narrative in a way that I stopped apologizing in the story. For that moment when I was immobilized, I moved beyond reflection and within the act of painting. According to Freiere (2006):

A critical perception is embodied in action, a climate of hope and confidence develops which leads men (sic) to attempt to overcome the limit-situations. This objective can be achievedonly through action upon the concrete, historical reality in which limit-situationsare superseded, new ones appear, which in turn will evoke new limit-acts (p. 99-100).

Finding an opening wherein I can explore my part in this story, the interest and biases that I come to is critical to the research.


This painting represents the tears and disruptions that occur during the process of change; and my personal tranformation and acceptance as artist/reseacher/teacher. Knowles, J.G. and Cole, A. L. (2008) write:

To become a researcher who fuses the arts into research processes and representations is to possess a creativity and artfulness. It is to have a willingness to be creative and to not be bounded by traditions of academic discourse and researchprocess but, rather, to be grounded in them (p. 14).

The movement and flow in the painting characterize the rhizome as interpreted by Irwin, R. L. & Springgay, S. (2008): “A/r/tography is a reseach methodology that entangles and performs what Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) refer to as a rhizome. [...] It is an interstitial space, open and vulnerable where meanings and understandings are interrogated and ruptured” (p. xx.).

This entanglement and complication is the crux of my explorations these past few months. Discovering a/r/tography and the methodologies being used by researchers at UBC has given me a language to explain a process that is already second nature to me. Further, the paintings have given me the space to move through and explore my own acceptance of this process as method and the potential to use art as a potential method of communcation for participants in the project once my interviews begin. 


Grieving Goddess”
For many mothers living with disabilities and chronic illness; pregnancy is a heartbreaking experience of loss, and hope, and further loss. I often reflect on how the experience of loss impacted my own mothering identity. Before the births of my two sons, I experienced two miscarriages, and the death of my daughter, Petra. The years before my sons were born, I often felt like an unacknowledged entity walking through the world: We have words for people who have buried their parents, who have buried their spouses, but not for us who buried our children.

I have recently begun to think on ideas about who “should” be parents in our society. For mothers who live with chronic or inherited disabilities, often society responds with: “this is for the best” or “do you really want to pass on your condition to your child”. These responses come from a place of ingrained ableism and a history of Eugenics. We must acknowledge how this history threads through many of society assumptions about disabled women’s bodies when commenting on loss: What makes a life worth living? Who decides which lives are worth living? Why?

Raven Dancer
Sometimes the only thing is to imagine outside of the boundaries. For some time, Raven has inspired my work. A couple summers ago, on my daughter’s birthday, my friend gifted me a raven skull to honour this connection. From this gift, I imagined this piece to honour mothers who walk between worlds; grieving something liminal and unimaginable; sometimes dancing within atypical psyches.


The Catalyst for change is disruptive and irrevocable; understanding and breathing in that moment of change is what makes for fierce and strong mothers. Mia Mingus writes: “Ableism is connected to all of our struggles because it undergirds notions of whose bodies are considered valuable, desirable and disposable.” Before we will have an inclusive society, we need to break down systems that devalue some members. Recognizing that all bodies and experiences hold value is a first step to this shift. “In a just society, women with disabilities can mother because there is adequate emotional and material support for them to do so, and given a context of support and approval to reproduce, they can also choose not to bear children. In a just society, mothers of children with disability can mother, and they, their children, and other needed caregivers will be adequately supported." (Lewiecki & Cellio, p. 15). Will we be the catalyst for change?


Sometimes when deeply immersed in theoretical readings, I encounter a truly exciting moment of clarity. The past six months I have been working with a coach to help me focus and accomplish a high level of goals. My coach and I had a moment in our sessions where I literally felt many levels of my work click into place. In this moment, I realized that theoretical pieces of writing that do not align with my values and principles block my creative process. From this understanding, I realized that this too was where I was identifying incompatible theoretic comparisons. For example, often when reading Michel Foucault, I became frustrated and could not make connections from his ground breaking work on surveillance and discourse back to the lived experiences of mothers—despite how these systems impact their lives. More often than not, the principles and examples that Foucault was using were abrasive to my own values. Taking his thoughts through an example specific to the work I was looking at, and placing it outside of Foucault’s misogynistic framing, I was able to become inspired once again. Thank you to my gifted coach. Catherine North! 


She UnNames Them
In searching for a place of belonging and acceptance, a disabled mother often cannot locate her lived experience in the popular cultural images that she encounters. During this period of contemplation, I recalled Ursula Le Guin’s short story: “She Unnames Them” and realized that in many ways, the research I am conducting is searching for new language, new paths that may not yet exist, and most likely are not yet named. Part of this process of unnaming includes pulling back the layers of common language around mothers, mothering practice and society’s idea of what mothers look like (who mothers are). In understanding the theories on mothering, my actions including unnaming practice to open space for new dialogue.


Postpartum depression affects 11-20% of all new mothers. This is a staggering statistic. Many mothers struggle between the ideal of the euphoric magically connected new mother and the reality of sleeplessness, hormonal changes and isolation. Unfortunately, media often perpetuates that idea that post-partum depression inevitably leads to violence.

The only conversation happening in media reinforces the idea that there is something inherently wrong with a woman who is struggling with her mental health following childbirth. I connected the work of Van Gogh and sunflowers to this piece. Too often, this struggle is silent and behind doors. How do we engage in tough conversations about mental health, wellness and support for women without stigmatizing them during crisis?


She Came to me in a Dream
Sometimes, at most unexpected moments, my daughter visits in dreams. We converse on many subjects and sometimes we simple commune. I would not be the woman I am today without each experience of my journey as mother; and although I wish with all my soul that she could have stayed with me, I am forever grateful that I held her in my body for nine months, and in my arms for one day.


"There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors."-- Adrienne Rich


Metamorphosis on the Edge of Dreaming
This piece came about early in my PhD class studies. Initially, I had a much different project in mind for my research; however, often I found myself struggling with fundamental values I have around honouring women’s stories in their own words and perspectives. Ultimately, I made the decision to shift my focus and open up to ideas around how disabled women tell their stories. I am still fleshing out the actually methods that will create a platform for women to share their truth.


Tangled in Jasmine
“It has been said that life has treated me harshly; and sometimes I have complained in my heart because many pleasures of human experience have been withheld from me…if much has been denied me, much, very much, has been given me…” –Helen Keller