Arts and Culture

It is by now axiomatic that we live in an age of distraction. Bewitched by the infinite scroll of social media feeds and intoxicated by the cheerful pings of smartphone notifications, our attention spans are now shorter than those of goldfish. And for mothers, navigating these contemporary distractions is complicated by the other competing demands for their attention – albeit of the cuter, snugglier variety – that children provide.

Two mothers and artists, Karen Weeks and Mychaelyn Michalec, explore these ideas of technology, motherhood, domesticity and distraction in a new show at houseguest gallery titled “Femme Maison.” The title, translated alternately as “house woman” or “woman house” refers to a series of paintings created by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois while she was raising three young children; the series held great importance for feminist artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

While gallery owner and show curator Megan Bickel is not a mother herself, she believes the show offers insights that will resonate with anyone who has felt conflicted about the addictive lure of digital technologies. “The influx of information that we’re presented with at any given moment in time is really overwhelming at this point in history,” Bickel points out. “It can inhibit closeness and it can inhibit how we choose to divide our time even when we are choosing to be with one another.”

Reinterpreting Traditional Textiles In The Instagram Era

Michalec, who has a teenage son and pre-teen daughter, often observes this physical closeness coupled with emotional distance within her own family’s home life. As her children grow more absorbed in their devices, she documents these (non)intimate moments with her own smartphone and turns them into drawings executed in a flat graphic style and optimistic hues. These tightly cropped portraits reflect adolescent subjects that are in the presence of the viewer but in relationships with their phones, often looking annoyed at the interruption or worse, oblivious.

Megan Bickel

Mychaelyn Michalec, “I may try to guess just what it is that I do not know,” (top) and “We told him not to.” (bottom), both tufted yarn on stretched monks cloth, 2019.

“Those are a lot of the strange dynamics you see with being in the same space with another person but one of these people is on their phone and clearly in a different headspace,” Michalec said. “So our relationship is changing and that’s what gets documented a lot, that kind of distraction.”

About a year ago, Michalec was looking for a way to amplify the domestic aspect of these scenes through the textiles that had been part of her artistic practice before she became a mother. But weaving and other forms weren’t immediate enough for the work she wanted to create, and she took her search online. There she found industrial rug tufting guns that electrically inject yarn through canvas, accelerating the traditional process.

Megan Bickel

Mychaelyn Michalec, “I cannot bear how quickly and slowly time moves.” (top) and “Difficult to witness and impossible to look away.” (bottom), both tufted yarn on stretched monks cloth, 2019.

Through her use of the tufting gun, Michalec not only mirrors the rapid pace of technological change, but also its concomitant loss of connection. Just as many of our personal relationships have become mediated through electronic devices, so, too, has the artist’s relationship with the materials of her work, leaving us with the uneasy feeling that we’re sharing only the simulacra of real connection. 

Finding Comfort In Abandoned Projects

If Michalec’s work depicts the sources of our contemporary distraction, Weeks’s illustrates the consequences of our addiction to them. Her installation “Undone” brings together more than a dozen abandoned knitting projects, many of them hers, some of them borrowed from artist friends and mothers who have experienced the same inability to complete their pieces when confronted with competing demands on their time.

Megan Bickel

Detail of Karen Weeks’ “Undone” with some of the myriad distractions that have prevented the artist from completing her knitting projects.

Before becoming a mother, Weeks frequently knitted in public and was often approached by people who all wanted to share a similar anecdote.

“It seemed like every person who saw me knitting had a story about one of these types of projects,” she said. “They would tell me, ‘Oh, I used to do that’ or ‘Oh, my mom knit me something and I think she still has it’. And this is a 40-year-old person talking to me!”

But after the birth of her daughter, Weeks’ perspective began to shift.

“Your sense of time changes when you’re starting to care for another person,” she said. “What had seemed inconceivable to me — starting a project and having it around for forty years — started to become an understandable idea. And it was kind of scary. But also really poignant.”

Megan Bickel

Karen Weeks’ “Undone” (2020) features the artist’s collection of abandoned knitting projects.

“Undone” includes a tiny sweater vest that was nearly finished when a moth infestation made a gaping hole that was never repaired, a young girl’s dress with a damaged hem, several examples of beautifully knitted — yet companionless — socks, and more than one project started for a niece or nephew and interrupted by school, work, children and everything else.

At times, Weeks said looking at these projects made her believe she was failing: “Because of Instagram and because of Facebook, all you see are the successes.” But in gathering the pieces for “Undone,” she began to feel a sense of relief as she realized she wasn’t alone.

“To hear the actual stories of people where they didn’t get it done or they were struggling with similar things, that was really heartening,” she said.

While neither Michalec nor Weeks provide any solutions to the challenges of finding balance and meaning in our always-connected digital world, what both artists do offer is a sense of collective frustration and anxiety about what technology is doing to our relationships — both with our families and with our own personal pursuits. And in baring their own vulnerability and imperfection through their creative work, the artists open up a space for true dialog and connection.

“Femme Maison” runs January 31 – April 3, 2020. houseguest gallery is located at 2721 Taylor Boulevard and is open Saturdays 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. and by appointment.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.