The Other Mother


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Disturbing the Piece(s):
Re-viewing the Role of "The Other Mother"

Jane E. Hindman, Professor
Department of Rhetoric and Writing Studies
San Diego State University

Intervention and transformation: that's what "The Other Mother" is all about. These digital collages were created as artist Karen Piovaty's response to a problem as old as the story of Cinderella: the traumas associated with the role of stepmother. While the dilemma itself is long-standing, the solutions posed here certainly are not. Piovaty's images are as [post]modern as shopping malls fashioned after Native American villages and punk rock music marketing minivans. Unlike these other examples of pastiche, however, Piovaty's work does not promote consumerism. Rather, the work interrupts accepted and narrow views of [step]motherhood. Thus, the artist transforms those confining and simplistic identities and redefines that role.

The images of "The Other Mother" forcefully depict the jarring and troublesome mergers that often characterize the life of a "blended family." In contemporary American society, this family unit is more common than the romanticized "nuclear" family and certainly witnesses much more heartbreak and calamity than any depicted in The Brady Bunch. The harsh contrast between actual, lived realities and mass media's representations of family life is at the center of each of these digital pieces. Piovaty's sharply contrasting colors and inhospitable symbols and landscapes intensify the severity and hostility of the world she portrays. By juxtaposing images of guerrilla warfare with "happy" households, metaphors of feminine fragility with obvious aggression, the artist wrenches common icons and phrases from their classic contexts and collapses our stereotypical understandings of the blended family: the self-absorbed, Wicked Stepmother who dislikes and perhaps even abuses children; the victimized and abandoned Martyr Mother who is willing to sacrifice all for the sake of her children; the hopelessly irresponsible Deadbeat Dad who refuses to discipline his offspring and denies them financial support; and the irreparably Wronged Children, powerless to defend themselves against Dad's neglect and Stepmother's disdain.

By re-contextualizing these players and their roles, Piovaty re-defines not just military terms like "domestic terrorism" and "counterintelligence," but also the cultural icons that are emblematic of domesticity and femininity in America: the needle-worked sampler, the sainted virgin, the statu[t]e of liberty, the immaculately groomed and devoted housewife, even the nucleus of the "nuclear family." Like all collages, each piece included in "The Other Mother" creates a singular impression by building on the collection of meanings represented in the individual elements. Our understanding of that impression will, of course, change if elements are added to or removed from the collage; likewise, the meaning(s) of the individual elements change when they are torn from their familiar contexts and placed in different ones, that is, re-contextualized.

Piovaty appropriates these common terms and icons in order to re-define the culture's dominant language and/or iconography. This process is similar to the everyday practices of other culturally demoralized groups. African-Americans, for instance, have re-contextualized and thus re-defined several terms initially "owned" by whites: "the man," "bad," "fat" are just a few. As a result of such practices, we now commonly use the epithet "girl" to refer affectionately to close female friends of any age, yet in earlier times "girl" was a demeaning label whites used to refer to adult black females, and it is still considered an insult if it is used by a man to refer to an adult female.

"The Other Mother" seizes common words and images and redefines them through various techniques. On a personal level, these works clearly express a powerful anger and frustration; yet those feelings are strictly controlled, redirected to the artist's creative ends. At the artistic level, these collages present new possibilities for fine art mediums (large format digital inkjet prints), forums (unlimited expansion of the exhibit is possible on the accompanying web site), and collaboration (the audience is invited to submit their additions and/or reactions to the traveling and collaborative exhibits as well as to the web site). And on the larger, cultural level, "The Other Mother" disturbs the myth of the evil stepmother and re-defines familial roles. Thus, Piovaty's vision of the contemporary problems of step-motherhood exploits the paradox and irony that define modern living: responsible rebellion, cooperative independence, and cultural individualism.

It's crucial, then, not to be misled by the aggression and anger inherent in these images, for in sum they offer a vision for how we might heal the rifts and injuries provoked by the contemporary "blended" family. That powerful vision is this: if indeed it does take an entire village to raise one child, then let us populate that village with more worthy parents. Let us teach children to be responsible for their actions but not for their parents' behavior, encourage them to value all their mothers and fathers, and support rather than undermine their dependence on adults to find a meaningful purpose to their lives. Let us also realize that it is an individual woman, not her role, that determines the sanctity of motherhood; many birth mothers are far from saints. And most importantly, let us witness in "The Other Mother" a crucial truth about the transformative power of a woman's anger: expressing her alienation from culture's conventional representations of her and using that alienation to articulate her difference from them is how a woman can reclaim herself.