Michelle Hartney’s Powerful Art 

Michelle Hartney, featured this week in CNN’s Great Big Story series, is a Chicago based artist with a unique vision and talent.

Video from Great Big Story

Through a collection of art installations, performances and pieces all focused on maternal health, she’s raising awareness about the potentially life-threatening and often demeaning treatment too many women face while giving birth in America.

Every Mother Counts: Michelle, tell me a little about how your life and work inspired your artistic focus.

Michelle: I live in Chicago and have a four-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. I studied art in college, went to graduate school for art therapy at the Art Institute and practiced as an art therapist for a few years. I didn’t become a full time artist until a few years ago. It was the experience of giving birth to my kids that inspired the artwork I’ve been working on lately, which has to do with maternal health.

EMC: What sparked that? Did you have a tough birth experience?

Michelle: They were a mixed bag though both births were ultimately very empowering. I didn’t have any health issues, nothing scary in that sense. With my daughter I was able to have a natural childbirth. But with my son, certain things happened at the hospital that were really upsetting. That became the catalyst for my work.

EMC: Tell me more about your Mother’s Right project?

Michelle: For that project I sewed 1200 hospital gowns, one for every woman who died in childbirth in the US in 2011, based on the World Health Organization’s data. I worked with several interns, midwives and doulas who helped me sew the gowns. It was a very hands-on, Chicago-based project. A fiber artist, who is a mother of two, printed all of our fabric, by hand, for a very reasonable price, while juggling childcare. The print on the fabric is made up of little drawings of the plant derivatives for drugs that have been used on laboring women for the last 150 years. For instance, we printed some of the hospital gown fabric with little poppies, the plant derivative of morphine. We did a print that represented Ergot, a mold that grows on rye that was used in the first forms of labor induction. It caused such strong contractions that it was eventually associated with ruptured uteruses and brain damaged babies. We also did a little flower to represent scopolamine, a drug used in twilight sleep.

EMC: This is brilliant. What was the rationale behind the concept?

Michelle: After I had my son, I knew I wanted to do work about the history of childbirth and status of maternity care in America, but I was only coming up with cheesy visuals. I started reading about the history of childbirth, taking notes and doing sketches. The idea for the gowns just popped into my head when I was having coffee one morning.

EMC: What about your Birth Words project?

Michelle: That one is pretty disturbing and directly related to my son’s birth. I had an argument with the resident that assisted my delivery. I was lying on my side and my baby was about to come out and she kept telling me to, “lie on my back” and I couldn’t move at that point. My baby was 10 pounds and I was stuck. The doctor and nurses kept telling me, “You have to lie on your back.” I told them, “I don’t have to. I don’t want to and I know I don’t have to.” My doula advocated for me and I stayed on my side. That argument reeled in my head for months after his birth. It’s ridiculous that doctors, who should know how babies come out, don’t know that they can come out when a woman is on her side. I was reading an article by Cristen Pascucci from Improving Birth about why a healthy baby isn’t all that matters. It was about how we often negate the birthing mother’s experience. I was so inspired I painted “lie on your back” on a canvas and that series was born. I used phrases from her campaign, which she called, “Break the silence.” She’d asked women to share the abusive phrases they’d heard from doctors during childbirth and I sewed those on to canvases.

EMC: You’re channeling some deep creativity here Michelle. What’s next?

Michelle: I just launched a project called MOM$. It’s a collaborative project because I’m asking women to upload their hospital bills to my site (with their personal information blacked out). I’m hoping to gather data to show the wide range of how much it costs state-to-state, city-to-city to have a baby. Then I want to create a visual that represents the wide gaps and inconsistencies in healthcare costs. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like yet, but I love adding facts and stats to my visual artwork. I’ve also just started as a running ambassador for Every Mother Counts. Art and running have been my longtime big passions. Art activism is more recent and to have these three passions come together just blows my mind.

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