Sunlight pools on the paint-marked floor of Aimee Gilmore’s studio overlooking 34th Street, Philadelphia. Aimee, wearing a spotted apron and athletic sneakers, welcomes me and offers me a cup of tea. I’ve been looking forward to this interview for a few days, ever since a friend gave me Aimee’s email, telling me “She uses her own breast milk in her artwork!”
This was no lie. One of the first works Aimee shows me in her studio is part of a series she put together entitled Milkscape. It’s a large tapestry, and the original colors have been manipulated to preserve red tones. This was on purpose, Aimee explains. “I wanted it to represent Body, and red is an important color for that.”
Without the red, and even with this addition, it is not clear to a spectator that the origin of these shapes is the formation of breast milk. They are mysterious, even celestial. The piece is therefore wholly abstract and open to interpretation, whilst still grounded in bodily material.
Aimee’s daughter, Maya, was born just three months before Aimee began her MFA program at the University of Pennsylvania. Aimee describes her pregnancy as the most spiritual experience of her lifetime:
“Having her inside me, I shared the most sacred space with her. We coexisted, we held an intimate connection as strangers for ten months … you really do feel like it’s you and this baby against the world.”
Her birth has prompted Aimee to delve into themes of motherhood through her artwork, a topic that is still considered taboo in the art world: “Motherhood is often discredited as ‘serious’ content for artwork because it can be overtly sentimental, but I consider that a strength, not a weakness,” she explains. Working mothers are forced to place their experiences with their children in a metaphorical Pandora’s Box, never to be let out in the professional arena.
As Aimee talks about this, I find myself greeting a memory intruding into my headspace. Picking up my mom’s cell phone as a 12-year-old, I asked her why she didn’t have a photo of my baby sister as her background, like Dad did. Men, she explained, get to be dads and professionals. Women have to pick one.
As the only mother in her graduate program, Aimee seeks to reveal what society has sought to erase: “There is no separation between my life and my work.” The origin of Aimee’s Milkscape series was serendipitous. Once, while at the studio, she accidentally spilled her milk onto a piece of paper. The stain that formed held the appearance of a purposeful mark, and Aimee was inspired.
Now, the series exists in multiple dimensions and media. The tapestry was the largest-scale rendition, and the smallest is a tiny book. She has several copies in her studio and gifts me one. Aimee explains that the contrast in scale was important to her: the booklet is more intimate and meditative in purpose. It is small enough to carry all the time and resembles a prayer book or pocket journal.
In her studio hang portraits from a previous series in which she photographed herself breastfeeding her daughter. She pauses as she reflects on these images. I ask her if she sees purpose in the quotation “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted.” She nods and acknowledges that she strives for that in her artwork. But she expresses frustration that this type of work should be necessary at all:
“I want to add an element of discomfort, but at the same time, it bothers me that an image of a mother feeding her child brings people discomfort. Now that my breasts belong to someone else, now that they’re not performing for a man, they’re considered gross.”
To the right of these portraits hang sketches of everyday objects familiar to mothers, including a nursing bra and breast pump. These drawings are preliminary drafts of a new project she has started, which will be a coloring book: “I like the childish joy associated with a coloring book,” she laughs, and notes that these objects are meant specifically for babies.
This is not the first time she has worked with objects symbolic of motherhood. In a previous series, she chrome-plated a breast pump. “People had no idea what it was,” she recalls. Oddly, the baby bottle is an object instantly recognizable to anyone.
Motherhood will clearly be a theme for Aimee’s work well beyond her daughter’s infancy:
“As I had her, I was immediately reminded of my own mortality. I thought the next generation is literally here with me, by my side … I started to think about death in a way I’d never thought about before. It doesn’t scare me, but I’ve been thinking about transitions, and about letting go. Motherhood is a constant state of letting go.”
It has also made her more resolute as a woman and artist. She talks about how humans need to take responsibility for our beliefs and question our negative reactions to things we don’t understand. That’s where she sees her role:
“Now, more than ever, we need art. I have the opportunity to put my voice forward and expose others.”
Aimee Gilmore is a multi-media artist currently based out of Philadelphia. She holds a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Bachelors degree in Fine Arts with a minor in textile design from Moore College of Art & Design. Aimee works in sculpture, installation and printmaking and explores the topic of motherhood focusing on the continuously shifting and complex binaries, like connection and separation, that shape the role.