Art and Film,  Featured Artists,  The Good Life

Wellspring: A Mother-Artist Project

A Veritas Interview with Jess Sweeney

Recently Abbey von Gohren, the managing editor of Veritas Journal, sat down with Jess Sweeney, the co-founder of Wellspring: A Mother Artist Project, to discuss the unique collaboration between her and co-founder Mia Eckes. In their own words, they believe that “to flourish creatively, mother artists need moments of rest, contemplation, community, and freedom, supported within their process.” Wellspring’s quickly growing network of women crosses national boundaries, cultures, and artistic media, bearing witness to the great need for encouragement and support for this specific group. Their combination of one-day retreats, weekends, life coaching, and online events provide essential grounding for the spirits, minds, and bodies of mothers whose artworks often go by the wayside. 

Abbey: Where, when, and how did you perceive a need for the Wellspring Mother Artist project?

Jess: In November 2021 I was still a new mom, my youngest was 6 months and I was struggling with how to be a mother and fully human. I was not content with where I was at and felt I’d lost my artistic inspiration. Like many new mothers, I craved space for myself. Around this time I randomly entered my name into a giveaway of pieces from Minnesotan artists, and I won! I received a number of original artworks and prints, but two pieces really struck me. I thought, “Whose are these?” It turned out they were both by Mia Eckes who was training as a creativity coach. I decided to reach out to her and she led me in five coaching sessions. Right near the end of that time (in 2022), I encountered more women and artists, particularly Lee Nowell-Wilson. Many of these artists were creating a unique subculture on Instagram. So I approached Mia with some early ideas which eventually became Wellspring. (Mia has six kids, including  two sets of twins, so the “mother artist” identity resonated.) I had been kind of shy about coming out and identifying as an “artist.”

I get that! Kind of like saying:I’m a writer!”

Yeah! But there was something really special about realizing that I wasn’t the only one trying to balance mother life and artistic life. Also, many of these women had a very alive faith and they were making not only sacred art, but other kinds as well! 

Is a particular kind of faith or spirituality an essential component to this project? 

Yes, faith does play a huge part. I’d say we’re both ecumenical and inspired by the Christian imagination. We were realizing that there wasn’t a lot of evident space for women of faith in the broader Instagram culture. Plenty of political stances out there, but Wellspring wasn’t interested in political stances. So we put in a lot of reading of the history of female artists, especially visual artists — and there’re all these women in history that have done this! You hear a lot about “women artists,” which is good, but there’s not as much in the written history about mother artists. A lot of them were mothers! There had been so many things I had assumed about the narrative of art history, like women artists being single or in terrible relationships. But often you find beautiful, fruitful marriages, people who love their children as well as being creative. 

Which mother artists are you most inspired by lately, past or present? Are there any names that might come as a surprise to our readers? 

Artemisia Gentileschi? Lavinia Fontana? 

I’ve never even heard of those! 

I know! We also get a lot of inspiration from Dorothy Day, Madeleine L’Engle, and Hildegard von Bingen, among many others! We feature them regularly on our social media (Facebook and Instagram). Henriette Wyeth is another. 

Oh! There’s another Wyeth? 

Yes! Andrew’s sister, and an amazing artist. We just featured her story on our social media. 

So, switching gears a little to the practical, how do you address the “limits” of time and space with your community of Mother Artists? 

It’s very much an ebb and flow. Things work for a while, then get frustrating. Recently, a friend of mine told me that compartmentalizing things works better for her; but, for me, when my life is integrated, it brings me more joy. I’ve actually found that I couldn’t paint in the same way after I delivered my first baby. So I had to shift modes. I actually had to change. I learned how to paint alongside or with my little ones. 

That sounds lovely…and difficult! 

Yeah! [Lots of laughter]. It’s really fruitful for my own practice though. I introduced my daughter to watercolors and I loved watching her freedom with the material. There was something for me to learn from her. Freedom in her practice. I do get quite perfectionistic in my approach to art, and there was one day when I was working on this painting, and I resisted her offer for help. But then I thought: maybe if I slowed down, she could help me. I let her take the brush. I managed to integrate her movements into my practice.  

All the same, nighttime and naptime tend to be the times I can paint, so I can find focus. I don’t leave my materials out (but someone else might and have it work for them!) I tend to do most of my painting on the kitchen table or couch. I’ve found the right setup for me. I ask myself: What things do I need to bring to the table? I have a shelf with my palette and sketchbooks near the main living space, but out of reach from little hands. 

When Nora was six months old, if I didn’t choose it intentionally, the regular practice of art would slip away. I can get so busy as a mom and a parent. Becoming a mom actually made me more intentional about pursuing my art. 

What does it mean, practically, to be a part of Wellspring? What is your vision for the future? 

It’s a developing organism, a growing community of women pursuing a creative practice. There’s a huge diversity of situations – we have professional artists who are well-established, and we have women who and even those who have a nascent creative impulse or desire and want to develop that. We cultivate rest and renewal for these people through a four-part annual framework, in the hopes that it’s a sustainable rhythm for women with full lives. First, we have our retreats. Those take place once a year in Minnesota and Philadelphia (for now!). Next, we host an online event/panel conversation. Third, we send out a call for art/exhibition (multidisciplinary). Finally, we host in-person, one-day workshops. Mia just did one in Bloomington, IN, for example, with writer Adrienne Garrison who had attended a retreat in Minnesota the previous fall! 

We also tell the stories of women artists from the past and present. For example, we just featured Alice Neel who does these amazing portraits that capture the soul of the person. She’s a collector of souls. In the future, we’d love to keep growing this part into maybe an online encyclopedia of women artists. Maybe a handbook? We have a lot of ideas!  

I’m so excited to see where this goes. Thank you for all that you and Mia do! Can you tell me again when the 2024 Retreat dates are again? I need to get signed up!

Of course! They’ll be September 27-29th at St. John’s Abbey Guesthouse in Collegeville MN and Saturday, November 9th in Philadelphia. Please subscribe to our email list to express interest or stay informed, which you can find on Wellspring’s website.

Jess Sweeney is a wife, a mother of three, and an artist exploring the in-between spaces of everyday life. In her paintings of people and objects, as well as her writing, she seeks that wonderful “shine on things” that philosopher William Desmond talks about; to uncover what is often unseen. She is the founder and curator of Commonplace Living and Director of the Collegium Institute’s Ars Vivendi Arts Initiative. Her work has been featured in Dappled Things, Genealogies of Modernity, Everyday Mamas, The Curator Magazine, and recently at The Delaplaine Arts Center.

Learn more about Jess and her co-founder Mia Eckes on the About page of Wellspring.

all images courtesy of Wellspring and used with permission

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