Maternal Body: the Paradox of Desire
December 2 to 23, 2005
The paintings that comprise The Maternal Body: The Paradox of Desire came forth from my finding a dead mother sqirrel on the road one day while out on a walk. I picked her up to move her off the road and felt such an urgency towards her that I took her home to paint her. Well I did 6 or 7 paintings of her in what is now a series of paintins based on her body. I have shown this series of her maternal body juxtaposed with studies of my own naked body. Together the work holds personal meaning for me about my relationship to the maternal as well as bringing awareness to our culture’s relationship to the feminine and specifically the maternal aspect of the feminine. Our cultural rejection of the feminine in its deepest form is the tension and pathos of this work. The paradox of this rejection is the desire for the maternal matrix which supports and brings forth life.
Deborah Thompson is a Canadian visual artist who resides in Nelson, B.C. She graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1984, a B.A. in Experiential Education from Prescott College and completed an MFA from the University of Montana in 1997 where she was awarded the Fell-Oskins Scholarship two years in a row for her studio work. She spent her final year at OCAD in Florence, Italy and has done research on medieval altar pieces in Holland. She has done residencies at the Vermont Studio Centre and the Banff Centre. She has exhibited throughout interior BC and recently in Vancouver. She is a founding member of the Oxygen Art Centre and has done some curatorial work as a curator for Touchstones Nelson: Museum of Art and History. She has taught painting and colour theory at the University of Montana, Kootenay School of the Art and the Oxygen Art Center. She maintains a studio and exhibition practice. Her work is held in private and institutional collections in both Canada and the USA. In 2011, she received a Major Project Grant from the Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance for the research and creation of Bird Woman a project that explores the nature of immanence through the life of Saint Teresa of Avila.
Before All Other Fierceness— an Essay by Susan Andrews Grace
Paintings by Deb Thompson
Motherhood—unmentioned in the histories of conquest and serfdom, wars and treaties, exploration and imperialism—has a history, it has an ideology, it is more fundamental than tribalism or nationalism.
In The Maternal Body we have the essence of the history of two mothers, two species. There is a hint at what is fiercer than history’s tribalisms or nationalisms. There is quiescence of motherhood in the lactating squirrel hit by a car, an everyday consequence of our civilization’s heavy footprint upon the earth. And there is a human mother who reflects, in painted study, upon the similarities between the two, as a Tibetan Buddhist might— seeing all of nature as our mothers. The painter has survived. She is aware; it appears, of this privilege and the necessity to record the fact with compassion, painting as contemplation, working at the figure of the mothers much as Plotinus advised in the search for beauty: You must first become all god-like and all beautiful if you intend to see God and beauty.
A mother’s presence came before all other fierceness
contains wine’s ruby breath
the pomegranate’s wet seeds
soaking blue heaven
Deb Thompson paints an ideology which is older than tribalism and nationalisms. These bodies of work capture in glimpses what all mothers, across species, have in common: desire to keep alive the milky thread of nurture.
The viewer of enters a strange world when viewing The Maternal Body: The Paradox of Desire: cold observation literally and figuratively, reflection upon societal values, heartbreak. There is sadness and battle weariness in both mothers. The woman is carrying on, and the implication is that she is caring in some way for the squirrel mother, her death marked, noted, ritualized and mourned. The implication is in the juxtaposition of the two bodies of work
The soul’s femininity, like sages’ wisdom,
clutches at nothing.
It is hard to say at first sight whether the squirrel is a fetish object in a green cast or the mother treated with unusual compassion. Translucent glazes and bloody washes evoke interpretation. One needs to view the whole exhibition to understand the intelligence at work here, which would rescue the squirrel from the road and then freeze the body to capture her beauty and sadness, repeatedly. One is reminded of grave robbers, who supplied anatomists and surgeons with corpses to study. In this case, the need to study is not for anatomical knowledge but for spiritual understanding, the essence of the lactating squirrel, stopped mid-course in her life.
A mother’s presence pours itself
invisible to lenses of territory
has within it the terror of colour
spilling from arteries opened scarlet
returning boiling oxygen to the air
leaking chlorophyll grass knitting
earth’s white underground.
Deb Thompson’s art works are characterized by a beautifully strange psychological bent. The first Thompson exhibition I viewed, Impotent at the Langham Gallery in Kaslo, 2002 was shocking to me. I was mystified and intrigued. I wrote a compliment in the guest book, “But you look like such a nice person!” The comment delighted Deb. She has been reassuring me ever since, that indeed she is a nice person. I never really doubted it but I have been interested to observe the necessity of her work and I become more and more convinced that it is capturing an aspect of our life on this planet that few others have had the courage to do. And perhaps that is because few others have noticed. In The Maternal Body we have the female gaze painted loudly and clearly, fiercely and compassionately. It is most interesting that the female gaze would include two species. There is in this work compassion and beauty found in bodies well-used and well-worn by accommodation of new life, caught in the process of being maternal. This is a point of view that eclipses a dominating male perception and provides a shocking new one, which includes an open ended incompletion which honestly speaks of the tenure of human occupation of the planet.
Contemplation is clothing for the journey,
lighted shelter in the night.
Thompson’s art has experienced some transformation over the last few years, grasping what is essential (and probably invisible) by drawing in an immediate fashion, using traditional underpainting with translucent washes. This technical strategy is a part of the desire to subvert the patriarchal strictures carried in the psyche which both inform and conform the artist at work.
Thompson comes to the body-as-subject with information acquired from an education in art as well as medical illustration, an occupation which captures what the camera fails to see. The medical illustrator presents death as process. The Maternal Body, as exhibition, is a journey: the spirit inhabiting the human mother, the trace of spirit in the squirrel mother, the connections between them. Both wear badges of flesh, their breasts, with honour and authority in their biologically appointed roles as mother: the squirrel cruelly relieved, her body returning to a fetal position.
Few artists put psychological/spiritual states on the page, canvas or stage with the honesty and in such states of nakedness as Thompson does. There’s an urgency in The Maternal Body as there is in all of Thompson’s work but this work goes beyond that, including for the first time figures from the families: Scurius and Hominoidea: two species, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus and Homo sapiens.
The Maternal Body is new direction for Thompson. It may well also be sacrament.
The mother is before all and will reclaim.
Adrienne Rich Of Woman Born, p15
Plotinus- Enneads (1.6.9)
All right-justified text from Gathering, Selah, Book 3, a manuscript in progress by Susan Andrews Grace