Header Image: Izzie and Evie (crop)
Tell me about the aim of Breastfeed and how you got involved.
The project has evolved really organically. I have always been a portrait painter, but it hasn't been at the forefront of my career until now. I decided to really focus on doing this after having my children. I was also inspired when I was on the hunt for a piece of art and found this gallery/art shop with a drawer full of Unison pastels, and bought some because I am just a colour addict, and started to use them to create portraits again. At the same time I was breastfeeding my youngest daughter, and thought, 'I am going to paint a portrait of me and her,' because I felt it was a special experience and gorgeous! Then I felt there was really something in it, so I posted the picture on a closed Facebook page for breastfeeding mothers, and asked for models, so I could make a collection of work. I was inundated with women saying, 'Yes please!'
Hannah and Alex
For example this painting, with this premature baby made me really think I needed to do something with this collection of work. I also had done a breast feeding support course, to help other mothers with breastfeeding, but I didn't feel confident in an advisory role. So I thought maybe my work is the way to encourage breastfeeding. Ten massive paintings later I am organising a touring exhibition, The first of which is at Sunderland University, this April and then R.I.V. Hospital in Newcastle, in September. I would like to be more interactive with it too, it not just being paintings on a wall. I would perhaps run workshops alongside for mums- to-be, or breastfeeding mums, or young people to get them familiar with breastfeeding.
As a child all the women in my family breast fed, and I naively thought that's what all mums do! But they don't. So I want to normalize it.
Are the rates of breastfeeding low in the North?
Fairly low throughout the UK and in particular in the the North, except for Harrogate. It is different in different areas, but on average the uptake is around 48% at birth, then down to 20% two weeks later, and by six months only 1% of mothers are breast feeding.
I want to use my paintings as a device to gather research about what people actual feel about breastfeeding. Maybe displayed in doctors' surgeries, not just art galleries where you are possibly speaking to the converted. You could even have just one picture with a comments box, so people could express what they thought, gather these, so the NHS could use these findings as a source of research.
As well as supporting mothers to breastfeed, do you also want to challenge people's views on breastfeeding in public?
Well yes, someone asked me to remove a picture on Facebook. In fact I thought 'Great' as these are the people I want to start a dialogue with.
Going back to when you were doing the paintings, did you do them live?
I would like to, but it's really hard to paint wriggly babies. However, I feel it's important to meet the sitters, so that their personality can really come through.
At the moment I am painting 'Hannah and Alexander.'. He was a premature baby, but because I didn't meet him at this stage I'm struggling to get it right, and his mother gave me a tiny photograph to work from. It's such an interesting image, a baby being fed by a tube and being breast fed. Premature babies need too many calories to just be breastfed alone at this stage.
Boadie and Me, Self Portrait
How would you describe the connection you see between mother and child?
That is the key element, and the essence of what I want to portray! That bond in formation. For me it is such a lovely thing.
Lucy and Winston
How do you balance the different aspects of your life, painting, being a mother, organising events etc.?
I find there are not enough hours in the day. I wish I had staff to do all my admin!! My little girl, Josephine 4 and Boadicea 2 are in nursery two days a week, so I can work then. The rest of the time I am up painting at midnight!
In terms of project management I do everything myself. We are also looking to open a gallery in Gateshead! And we are getting married this year, so we have a busy llives!!
Have you got a place in mind for your gallery?
Yes it will be in a place called Birtley, about two miles from the Angel of the North. At the moment it is a vehicle maintenance repair shop with a big inspection pit. We have to remove asbestos first!! It is going to be a social enterprise, so we are talking to the council to see if we can get 'change of use', to include a cafe, as this would bring people in too. As a social enterprise, myself and staff would get paid a wage, but profits would go back into regenerating the business. Our aim, after the gallery, if we are in profit, is to put that profit into subsidising studio spaces for other artists.
Beth and Willow
Do you view art as having a greater social purpose?
When I was a university, I wanted to paint portraits. However, that wasn't enough for me. I was desperate to have a bigger concept behind the work. I discovered this when I had children. Now I call my work 'Portraits with Purpose!'
It's about something being other than just a painting I just want to paint. That sits really comfortably with me. I've got many other ideas for 'Portraits with Purpose" I am aiming high. With the Breastfeed project I have promised the women I painted that it will go somewhere, which is good for me, because people are invested in me. I have been in touch with MIMA (Middlesburgh Institution of Modern Art). There is a new curator there, who wants to run the gallery differently, where the users/visitors can contribute to the gallery, rather than be dictated to by a curator as such. So I pitched my exhibition concept to him. I think he's motivated by the concept behind the artwork I have done, not the artwork itself! Some people mind find it 'twee' to be painting portraits, as installations are currently fashionable. But my argument against this is, that some installation- based art may be frightening to people, and they might feel it has nothing to do with them, and therefore not want to explore it. The barrier may be too great for them to get over. Even for me, sometimes I can see an exhibition and think 'What on earth is this about?' I feel no connection to it. I want to be moved byart visually and conceptually, I love colour. I feel things inside my stomach when I see beautiful imagery. It doesn't have to be representational, it can be abstract, but sometimes things could be too abstract for a lot of people. That's who I am aiming at, the people who might get frightened by work in some galleries. So this it just showing women feeding their child, in a celebratory way, to help normalise it. That is my argument for it not being 'twee'!
Alex and Max
What kind of response have you had to this project?
It's been really good. I have had good support from friends, and I love it when strangers get pulled into the mix, even if it is negative comment, I don't mind, as I like to ruffle feathers! I am just learning how to tweet!
I have put together a 'Crowdfunding' bid to pay for this exhibition to travel, but that is difficult because I am asking for money. Yes I am asking for money cold. But it is in exchange for a warm-hearted project!
To find out more, or donate to project click here.
To find out more about Leanne Pearce click here.
Cat and Archer