Elizabeth Walker and Maria Novotny on the ART of Infertility

Aug 17, 2016


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Guests: Elizabeth Walker and Maria Novotny

Elizabeth Walker and Maria Novotny curate The ART of Infertility, a national art, oral history, and portraiture traveling exhibit. They met through their shared activist, professional, and personal work around infertility.

Maria studies rhetorics of infertility as a graduate student at Michigan State University, and Elizabeth’s first exhibit The ART of IF: Navigating the Journey of Infertility emerged from her own experiences with infertility.

Collaborating over several years, Maria and Elizabeth developed The ART of Infertility. Maria and Elizabeth see themselves then as infertile art activists who challenge what infertility means in popular discourse, politics, and representation. In contrast to the common misogynist refrain that tells women they need to “fix” infertility by becoming mothers, Maria and Elizabeth show how infertility can be something to embrace and a way to form community. Their collaboration and identities as infertile, childfree women has allowed them to collect hundreds of oral history interviews and accumulate nearly 200 pieces of art made by women and men diagnosed with infertility.

People and projects discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.


Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

Welcome to the Imagine Otherwise podcast, which is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars write awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds. This is episode 17. Today our guests are Maria Novotny and Elizabeth Walker, directors of The Art of Infertility, a national art, oral history, and portraiture traveling exhibit. They met through their shared activist, professional, and personal work around infertility. Maria studies rhetorics of infertility as a graduate student at Michigan State University, and Elizabeth’s first exhibit, The Art of IF: Navigating the Journey of Infertility, emerged from her own experiences.

Cathy Hannabach (01:10):

Collaborating over several years, Maria and Elizabeth developed The Art of Infertility. Maria and Elizabeth see themselves as infertile art activists who challenge what infertility means in popular discourse, politics, and representation. In contrast to the common misogynist refrain that tells women that they need to “fix infertility” by becoming mothers, Maria and Elizabeth show how infertility can be something to embrace, and a way to form community. Their collaboration and identities as infertile, child-free women has allowed them to collect hundreds of oral history interviews, and accumulate nearly 200 pieces of art made by women and men diagnosed with infertility. So thank you so much, Elizabeth and Maria, for being with us on the podcast today.

Elizabeth Walker (01:58):

My pleasure. Thanks for having us.

Maria Novotny (02:00):

Yes, thanks for having us. We’re excited.

Cathy Hannabach (02:02):

So you both are the co-creators of The Art of Infertility. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about that project?

Elizabeth Walker (02:10):

Sure. This is Elizabeth. I started the project, kind of by accident. I originally started out creating some artwork around my own infertility journey, and really found that helpful in having a way to express what I was going through. I was having a really hard time expressing the intense emotions around the experience with my friends and family, and started creating some pieces of artwork out of that frustration, and found that that was really helpful, both for me working through those emotions, but also in translating my experience to my friends and family. And after I’d been doing that for a while, I reached out to a local art museum in my hometown of Jackson, Michigan called Ella Sharp Museum, and they have a personal story of infertility as well, in that Ella Sharp and her husband John dealt with infertility in the early 20th century. And it was because they ended up living child-free after infertility that we have the museum and the park that it’s in today.

Elizabeth Walker (03:17):

Most likely if they had been able to have children, they would have given the estate to their family, and it would’ve continued on in that respect. But because they didn’t have children, despite doing what was available to them at the time, they were able to give that great resource to the city of Jackson. So they were interested in telling John and Ella’s story, and were unsure about how to do that. I approached them about doing an infertility art exhibit that would combine the artwork of people who were dealing with infertility, as well as photographs and interviews, and incorporating John and Ella’s story. So that exhibit opened in March of 2014, and I was really surprised by the response from those in the infertility community who participated, and also who used the exhibit as a way to tell the story of their own infertility to their friends and family, even if they hadn’t participated in the exhibit itself.

Elizabeth Walker (04:19):

They brought their friends and family to see it and it was a really great way to have a conversation around their diagnosis without it being so awkward, I guess, in that sometimes when we try to have these conversations, it’s hard to know where to start or what to say. But having this artwork to have a discussion around was very helpful in them sharing that experience. So I wanted to continue doing that in other communities, and we started traveling with the project. And right around the time that exhibit ended was where Maria joined the project, and she can tick over and tell you where she came in.

Maria Novotny (04:59):

Yeah, so I met Elizabeth then in May of 2014 at a National Infertility Advocacy event. We were both in DC. We had not met each other before, but we were both from the state of Michigan. I was running an infertility support group on the West side of the state, and Elizabeth was running one on the East side of the state. So we were both there for our first time, talking about infertility to our local representatives, and because of that, we were paired up for a lot of the same meetings. So we were going around talking about infertility and sharing our own stories.

Maria Novotny (05:41):

And through that day, it came up that Elizabeth had just done this exhibit for Ella Sharp. And I was just beginning my PhD, wanting to look at or study rhetorics of infertility. And through that, we both shared personal connections for how we used creativity to express our own experience with infertility. Elizabeth was more art-based and mine, I created a lot of writing around my infertility, and so a friendship was kind of formed and developed, and we began meeting rather regularly to talk through the project, and see how we could continue it, and in what forms and avenues. So through that, I kind of joined on with the project, and I’m now actually using the project, it’s part of my dissertation and studies. So I’m wrapping that up, and the whole dissertation is about The Art of Infertility.

Maria Novotny (06:42):

So yeah, that’s a little bit of the history. Am I missing anything, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Walker (06:47):

I think that’s a good overview.

Cathy Hannabach (06:50):

Nice. So one of the things that’s particularly kind of intriguing about this project in all of its forms… So obviously, it has an online component, you mentioned the traveling component, the interviews, the art, it’s definitely a multi-multimedia project. But one of the things that that strikes me about it is your keen attention to an incredibly wide array of experiences, with reproductive practices, with reproductive issues more broadly. And so, why that approach? So much of the discourse of infertility is rooted, particularly in the US, in this discourse of anti-women, this discourse of heterosexuality, this discourse of whiteness, for sure. And your project seems very interested in intervening in those kinds of histories. So why is it so important to talk to the various people who encounter these kinds of reproductive experiences?

Maria Novotny (07:49):

Yeah, I could speak to that a little bit. This is Maria. So Elizabeth and I both agree with what you just said, Cathy. There is this narrative, this mass dominant narrative about infertility being this white, upper-middle class woman in her 40+ trying to become pregnant. And the reality is that’s simply not the truth. And Elizabeth and I, both from our own personal experiences, as well as being peer led support group leaders, have seen this be a myth that gets perpetuated, and I’m not sure exactly why that’s the case, but it’s definitely becoming more and more the norm.

Maria Novotny (08:32):

And so we saw this project as a way to really represent the variety of stories and voices and art that really speak back, and try to dismantle this narrative that’s simply not true. And so really, I think the importance of why it is that we’re trying to seek out these stories that maybe don’t fit this dominant norm, is because we really need some more allyship in the work that we’re trying to do around infertility. And I think Elizabeth could talk to a little bit about how, actually, infertility does not contain a set definition by the World Health Organization or by the CDC, and they’re trying to revise it right now.

Maria Novotny (09:13):

Elizabeth, do you want to speak a little bit to that?

Elizabeth Walker (09:15):

Yeah, I can talk about that. That’s another reason why we want to broaden the discussion. Because the typical definition, as it stands now, is that someone is dealing with infertility after a year of trying to conceive without success if they’re under the age of 35, and six months if they’re over the age of 35. It also would include being able to conceive but being unable to sustain a pregnancy to term. So that in itself to us is not quite broad enough, in that it really leaves out same sex couples who can’t traditionally try to conceive.

Elizabeth Walker (09:57):

So a lot of times, even though they have to immediately move on to assisted reproductive technologies, they have to jump through more hoops to obtain a diagnosis. And that can be a big barrier in getting the treatment that they need. There can be problems accessing the treatment they need, dealing with different clinics or with their insurance as a result. The other problem is that there are single parents by choice who need to use these technologies to conceive. So in that respect, we want to offer diverse stories, so that people know that infertility affects a broader range of people than the classic diagnosis.

Maria Novotny (10:51):

Yeah, and I would only add too, infertility, like we were talking about, is often conceived to be an issue that impacts women particularly. And we just did an event for Men’s Health Month, which is happening in June, all about male infertility. And male infertility is particularly stigmatized, and we have quite the difficulty in reaching men and collecting their stories, because they simply don’t feel comfortable sharing them. And so, that’s a group that we’re really trying to aim and help figure out how we can better support that population.

Cathy Hannabach (11:28):

So how does the, and maybe this goes a little bit more to Maria’s work, but you probably both engage with it, I’m curious about how the project, or maybe how some of the interviewees speak to their experiences with infertility, in relationship to all of the really exciting work coming out of queer studies, coming out of disability studies, coming out of feminist theory, that’s interested in thinking more broadly about what counts as family and, what counts as parenting, what counts as being a child, what counts as kinship. Are these themes that you see some of your interviewees wrestle with?

Maria Novotny (12:10):

Yes. So I can talk a little bit about that. So a common thing that is constantly reoccurring, that’s kind of on our line, and thinking about it through queer studies, Sara Ahmed and her book Queer Phenomenology is something that I turn to quite often, to think about the ways that people are telling their stories. So in the types of stories that we’re collecting, and the ways in which they’re talking about their infertility, and also talking about their art as a form of artifact that allows for a different type of story, and a different type of theorizing of their infertility experience, we see two types of patterns. There’s a pattern of navigation, and a pattern of circulation. So this idea that they use art as a way to express all the different types of navigational challenges that they’ve had in either undergoing treatment, understanding treatment, undergoing the navigation of tensions between relationships, whether that’s between partners, family members, friends, also the navigation of cultural expectations of this, understanding that being fertile and female automatically assumes a type of perceived fertility all the time.

Maria Novotny (13:23):

And then there’s the theme of circulation, and the idea that they want to produce this type of art, to circulate and to communicate this experience that they often have difficulty in expressing through words, in some ways. So art, in a lot of ways, becomes this type of activist type of piece for these women to communicate those experiences with. But through all that, Sara Ahmed in Queer Phenomenology writes a lot about orientations, and the ways in which we are oriented to certain objects, and certain lines, and certain ways of thinking and being.

Maria Novotny (13:57):

And we can see, for one, they’re talking about navigation and circulation, it’s a constant reorientation of expectations of their own bodily identity as being infertile and female, and what that might mean, of being infertile and being a trans teen, and making decisions about if they’re going to preserve their eggs before undergoing testosterone. There’s also ideas of reorienting oneself to ideas of being child-free after infertility, and how even in the infertility community, being child-free is perceived as almost a type of failure in some ways. And so that can connect us of course, to Halberstam and ideas of queer failure, and ideas of queering the body and failure in fertility.

Cathy Hannabach (14:45):

This is a question for both of you individually, but perhaps your answer dovetails with each other. I’d be curious to know how you see or work combining academia, art, and activism in the service of social justice, either through this project, or through your other projects as well.

Maria Novotny (15:01):

Yeah. I would say there’s several different ways that this is happening, in which we’re trying to think through this. One is, we both feel that academia is a particularly privileged position to reside in, to do work in, to have that be one’s occupation. And that there’s a history in academia, in which people do community work, but this doing a community work involves more anthropological, ethnographic types of orientations to that work, meaning you are interested in a particular community, and you go and you observe that community, and work with that community to better understand it, and then you go back to your academic institutional space, and write about it and theorize about it, and then maybe get tenure based upon that.

Maria Novotny (15:52):

Elizabeth and I are trying to reject that in some way, in which she is becoming a co-author with me on several pieces that are going to be published about the project, as well as she travels with me to several academic conferences, in which we theorize the project through ideas of medical humanities work, our activist work, and then also feminist and queer rhetorical studies.

Maria Novotny (16:20):

And so, all that together is trying to make more visible, the community bodies that often get talked about and described, but aren’t actually present in those academic spaces. And so Elizabeth is someone who is much more of the curator and the founder of the project to some degree. Comes into those spaces and starts talking about her own experiences and her own reason for starting the project in some way. And because we both collect the interviews and the narratives together, she can speak to a lot of the ways that the same types of stories that I would speak to, as someone who’s in academia. So that’s one way that we’re trying to do it. And that also helps us to think through the ways in which communities can teach us about the different ways in which we need to revise our understandings about how we’re teaching, let’s say, gender and sexuality courses, how we’re researching communities, and also rethinking the ways in which we can value community based work as a legitimate curriculum to study, for classrooms and for students in college.

Maria Novotny (17:31):

Another way in which we’re doing it, I think, is making more explicit, the ways in which we see art as activism and as theory building. So we see a lot of the artwork that people are making as theory in itself. Lee Maracle writes a lot about how in every line of theory, there’s a story, and stories are really the basis of all theories, and so we’re trying to make arguments about the ways in which art communicates and connects and tells a different type of layered story that words simply cannot. Elizabeth, do you have other things to add?

Elizabeth Walker (18:11):

Yeah, I would just add that, like Maria said, I really value being able to come into the academic space as a community member. I have really valued some of the collaborations that we’ve been able to foster in academia, both with those in Maria’s line of rhetorics and writing, but also in the art world with some work we’ve done with art professors.

Cathy Hannabach (18:41):

So we’re getting to my favorite question that I get to ask us, which gets at the root of why I started this podcast. So this podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, and one of the things I get to talk with people about is their version of a better world, that world that they work towards when they create their art, when they write their novels, when they teach their classes, when they make whatever it is that they make in the world. So I’ll ask both of you, what’s the world that you’re working towards? What’s the world that you want?

Elizabeth Walker (19:10):

I would like to see a world in which it’s recognized as the health issue, and the public health issue, and the disease that it is, and that the decisions that people make around their personal diagnosis and their family building is truly respected, that each of us has the opportunity to make those decisions, and choose what’s best for us and that people will accept whatever that is, whether it’s not moving forward with any treatment, whether it’s moving straight to adoption, whether it’s going through treatment, and then at the end having it be unsuccessful, and not choosing to move on with parenting through adoption or through another method.

Elizabeth Walker (19:53):

Or even, as Maria mentioned, in the infertility community, those who are child-free after infertility are kind of the most silenced. And I would like to see that community have more recognition and more respect at the end of the day. And really knowing that this is a personal journey and a personal path that we all have to come to terms with what is the right answer for us, personally. And I hope that we’re able to broaden awareness through the project, so that that will one day be the response, that the personal decisions that people make in regards to their treatment or family building are acknowledged and respected for what they are.

Maria Novotny (20:46):

Yeah. And I agree with much of what Elizabeth said. I guess that makes sense. But I would really like for, at least, the world to understand that the ability to parent is a privileged one. There’s a lot of privilege attached to it. And I think even, I was struck just in listening to you Elizabeth, as you were just talking, about the word treatment, and how that word has so much energy and power to it, this idea that you need to undergo treatment in order to become a parent, in order to become fixed in some way, in order to become whole. And so for me, I really struggle with that personally, as someone who decided I never really wanted to do treatment. And as someone who decided that in her twenties, that she never really wanted to do treatment, it’s a rather stigmatizing thing, in which I feel very much the effects of that discourse on my body in many different ways.

Maria Novotny (21:53):

When I work in the infertility community, and I disclose that I never did treatment, I feel some judgment to a degree, in which I maybe perhaps didn’t try hard enough, or perhaps I may be not as infertile as some others. And so there’s this idea that we always need to be trying to fix ourselves, in order to become this fertile type of whole person again. And so I would really like it for the world to think through how it is that we’re attaching these ideas of fertility to femininity, and also how it is that we’re conceiving of child-free after infertility as some sort of failure, or some sort of last resort, and instead as, like Elizabeth said, a legitimate and valid choice that deserves to be recognized and voiced, and seen as a more desirable option, rather than as a last resort because treatment didn’t work.

Cathy Hannabach (23:04):

Well, thank you both so much for being on the podcast.

Elizabeth Walker (23:06):

Thank you so much for having us.

Cathy Hannabach (23:11):

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Be sure to check out our website at imagineotherwise.com to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books, and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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