NEW ALBANY — The artists featured in the Carnegie Center for Art and History's new exhibit share strong connections. They became friends while studying fine art together at Indiana University Southeast, and all three are young working mothers.
While each artist has distinctive artistic styles, they all delve into the subjects of motherhood and family in their collection of work.
The Carnegie Center presented its opening reception for the "Spawning Grounds" art exhibition on Friday. It will be open until Sept. 22. The show features work by artists Rebeka Sweetland, Katy Traughber and Aberlyn Sweetland-May.
One of the inspirations for "Spawning Grounds" came from a quote by feminist poet Audre Lorde, which discusses the importance of women creating art from their own emotions and experiences, and creating sanctuaries for each other as women artists.
The three artists were also inspired to create art for the exhibit after connecting with each other through their art and personal experiences on a private Facebook group. Sweetland said this communication created a healthy competition and motivated them in their artwork.
In Sweetland's art, she is focused on introspective personal narratives, including her experiences of pain and grief as a mother. In recent years, she has faced a miscarriage and the death of a daughter born with a lethal form of skeletal dysplasia. She is now the mother of a 9-month old son.
She said she wants others who have faced similar experiences to be able to connect with her artwork.
"I want my art to be able to speak to others who have gone through that kind of trauma," Sweetland said.
Many of Sweetland's pieces represent various aspects of motherhood, including the love and exhaustion involved in nursing children and the change in identity she experienced as a mom. She said in addition to representing the pain of losing two children, she wanted to show the renewal of life she's felt after having another child.
Traughber's work includes intimate portraits of friends and family. One painting depicts Sweetland's experience of losing her first two babies. The painting depicts her with a lamb inside her belly, representing Eleanor, the daughter she lost soon after birth. The piece also shows ghosts coming to take Eleanor's life.
Telling Sweetland's story was a difficult but beautiful process, she said. In the painting, she aimed to portray the cycle of grief, including both the pain and grace that comes with loss.
Another of Traughber's portraits captures her cousin, Jessi, who died of cancer in 2017. In the painting, Jessi is surrounded by sunflowers during a solar eclipse.
After her cousin's death and the creation of the piece, Traughber came across two coincidences between her painting and Jessi's life. She found that her cousin, who was a musician, wrote a song with lyrics referencing a "sunflower witch." She also realized that there was a solar eclipse in the year she died.
For Traughber, creating portraits of other people can also be intensely personal.
"Sometimes when you are drawing another person, you are really drawing yourself and the things you see in yourself," she said.
Sweetland-May said she likes to paint portraits depicting resistance in today's political climate in a lighthearted but cathartic way. In one of her paintings, she portrays her husband's specific form of activism, which involves his religious beliefs and his use of social media.
The work depicts her husband holding a cell phone and a theology book about a pacifist, anti-nationalist interpretation of Christianity.
Another work portrays Sweetland-May calling representatives while holding her daughter, Eve. It shows how she remains politically active while her life is going in many different directions, she said.
"I work multiple side-hustles and I paint and I'm her primary caregiver," she said. "So for me, just being a pain for all my representatives is a really easy way for me to participate from anyplace, especially at home. I find humor in the idea that I'm toilet training a toddler and trying to keep representatives in line and kind of the double entendre there."
Carnegie Curator Daniel Pfalzgraf said he appreciates how the exhibit demonstrates both the connections and differences between the three artists.
"They are also their own unique individual artists and people in how they approach things," he said. "It’s a great balance that sort of has this thread that ties the work together, but they all individually shine through with their work. "
After working for so long on her art, even the pieces Traughber loved started to feel like a burden, she said. However, after finally seeing her work displayed alongside her friends' pieces, she was excited to see how the individual paintings related to each other.
It felt like everything belonged together, she said.
"It was really mind blowing walking in there and seeing our friendship, this interwoven dynamic between us, and how we resonate with each other," Traughber said.