Maria Novotny and Elizabeth Walker, Co-Founders, and Co-Directors of The ART of Infertility
In March 2014, the first exhibit “The ART of IF: Navigating the Journey of Infertility” debuted at the Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson, MI. Elizabeth Walker curated this exhibit which emerged from her own experiences with infertility. In an effort to make sense of her infertility diagnosis and surround herself with people who understood the difficulties of navigating infertility, she joined an infertility support group and realized the importance of sharing her journey with infertility. She also began creating artwork representing infertility and with others in her infertility support group collected artwork and stories for the Ella Sharp exhibit. Shortly after its exhibition, Maria Novotny met Elizabeth at Advocacy Day, an annual event hosted by RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, which lobbies Congress on access to care and other issues important to the infertility community. Both being from the state of Michigan, Elizabeth and Maria spent the day lobbying MI congressional representatives.
Spending time together, we shared how infertility was shaping not just our personal lives but professional ones as well. Maria explained that she was studying “rhetorics of infertility” as part of her Ph.D. at Michigan State University. Elizabeth described how she was trying to bring the exhibit to other cities and collect more stories and artwork from around the country. We both shared a desire to become more involved in the infertility community and less concerned with becoming pregnant ourselves. We shared how we were finding our own healing in creative outlets and connecting with other infertile women and men. After the advocacy event, Maria sent Elizabeth some short non-fiction vignettes detailing the everyday struggles of being young, recently married and diagnosed with infertility. In turn, Elizabeth shared mixed media art pieces representing the pain, frustration and isolation of experiencing failed fertility treatments. Through this sharing, we both noted how central creativity was to our healing and, so, we decided to collaborate. Through this collaboration, we developed “The ART of Infertility” the international art, oral history and portraiture traveling exhibit.
We are infertile art activists who, because of our misconception, have been able to conceive this project into a national arts organization. Our personal experience with infertility led both of us to a new understanding of what infertility could mean. No longer did being infertile mean needing to “fix” that identity by becoming mothers, but being infertile was something to embrace and a community we both felt passionate to represent. We believe then that our collaboration and our identities as infertile, childfree women have allowed us to collect hundreds of oral history interviews and accumulate nearly 200 pieces of art made by women and men diagnosed with infertility.
Today, we travel across the world, exhibiting the project at a variety of spaces – including academic conferences, art galleries, community centers and fertility clinics. The exhibition of this project in a variety of spaces is intentional. Many do not understand the particular challenges and stigmas attached to an infertility diagnosis. We theorize these challenges via the visualization and storying of infertility by exhibiting this project in these various spaces.
Women and men diagnosed with infertility have expressed gratitude for the project as an organization that honors their infertility experiences and shares their story through art and writing to remove cultural stigmas of infertility. As one of our artists notes: “I just wanted some way for people to see how much medicine goes into this.” Another featured artist explains: “I feel words are not for me. Sometimes words cannot be deep or complicated ... you cannot explain stuff with words the way you can in art.”
We view our task, as art activists, to practice a feminist and cultural method of rhetorical curation. A feminist and culturally informed method of curation articulates in its intersectional practice that curation is more than rhetorical invention but supports in(ter)ventional moments by constellating across public and private spaces. The constellation of spaces includes the locations in which the exhibit is displayed but also a constellation of art and stories that interrogate the private and publicness of infertility.