Emma Haviland-Blunk, a senior at Swarthmore College, writes about the influence of her mother’s sculpture on her life and feminism.
My mother, Sarah Haviland, has always been a source of strength for me—her ceaseless impulse to be helpful and her capacity for kindness have infused my life. As I have grown and matured, I’ve also come to realize that my mother’s artwork—a facet of life I’ve always taken for granted, something that existed almost in the background—has no doubt influenced me, too.
From where I stand now as a strong feminist who believes wholly in the importance and power of women, I appreciate the work my mother has been doing with a new understanding of what it has meant to her. I spoke to my mother about her work as a sculptor of primarily female forms. A few excerpts from our interview are represented here, along with some of my own reflections. I began the conversation with the first piece I could remember as a child. Misericordia Cabinet (misericordia means “mercy” in Latin) presents a life-size, naked woman carved from polar wood standing inside a wooden cabinet, along with four smaller, child-like carved figures.
The picture shows me at age eight, mimicking the arm gesture of the woman; as a child I often explored and imagined in my mother’s studio. Sarah explained that she was carving it when I was a small child, and it was a different sort of sculpture—rather ambitious as her first wood carving—from what she’d been doing since graduate school at Hunter a few years before. I remember feeling a connection with the little figures, and she confirmed that “I do consider the little figures to be like children”; she added “they also relate to the Italian tradition of the Misericordia—which is about compassion.” Compassion is also part of the Quaker tradition in which she was raised.
Misericordia came directly after a transition in her work from more geometric sculpture to the curvo-linear figures that I grew up with. Sarah referred to it as a figure “that is just more lifelike and naked than anything I had dared to do.” The naked woman, as well as the opening and closing cabinet doors, represented myriad complexities of emotion: mixed thoughts on traditional roles of women, a new feeling of being visible and vulnerable as a young mother, but also a desire to protect the vulnerability of her new-born child, all wrapped up with a sudden willingness to expose the self and literally open up with compassion.
As a child I certainly didn’t appreciate the full, multi-layered meaning of this powerful sculpture; I no doubt just liked the towering figure who looked vaguely like my mom, and I was in awe of her talent as an artist. I grew up doing small art projects with my mother, as well as at summer arts camps, and I really enjoyed art—but I always knew, somehow, that my medium would be words. I’ve also loved reading for as long as I can remember, and can appreciate a good narrative anywhere—like the story that I’m realizing my mother’s work tells throughout her career.
Her work with strong women figures in history, particularly ancient Goddesses, and the Madonna as protector, evolved into open arms and then wings in the later bird-women, which are now settling down into bird-benches that welcome and support. “There is a kind of progression, emotional progression,” Sarah confirmed, that “tells a story: of being more reserved and self-contained, literally turning inward—and then opening out, becoming welcoming, and of leaping and flying.” These recent birds with spread wings seem to embody more action than her previous work; gesture was always important, but these birds—and women—are more poised to fly, to perhaps explore their own potential.
About halfway through our conversation, my mother acknowledged that “the feminism that is in my work has always been quiet.” Although I agree with her, I think that the quiet desire to have viewers interpret the pieces for themselves is also one of her most feminist impulses. There is such important freedom in that decision to not directly label a piece as “harpy” or “angel,” but to avoid simple categorization and allow anyone to interpret the pieces in the way most meaningful to them. As a millennial I’m used to having daily conversations about what feminism means to me with friends (and not-friends), but through my conversation with my mother I realized that she didn’t have that openness and connection as a young woman. Feeling like she couldn’t talk directly about feminist topics, even with female friends, she channeled those impulses into her art.
I’m sure my nine-year devotion to my all-girls summer sleepaway haven, Chimney Corners Camp, has also helped me to come to my current position on feminism and female friendship, as has my work as a Gender & Sexuality Studies minor at Swarthmore College. But growing up with a mother who created art from the female body, without any shame or stigma, allowed me to begin understanding the body as something powerful and independent. To combat the constant inundation of media and advertising that use the female body to sell things through sexual imagery, I believe that an exposure to the body as something not always sexual was a powerful thing. Delving into how my mother’s work has shaped my early understanding of women, and their roles socially and emotionally, has been eye-opening and important for my continued understanding of my own feminism—and I discover, once again, that I have endless respect for the art my mother makes and her quiet devotion to what is important to her.
Sarah Haviland’s abstract-figurative sculptures and public art installations have been exhibited widely in galleries, parks, museums, healthcare, and educational settings, including commissions at the National Marine Museum in Taiwan; Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ; Pratt Sculpture Park, Brooklyn; Sprint Flatiron Prow Art Space, and NYU Langone Medical Center in NYC. Her awards include a Creativity Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, fellowships from the New York and New Jersey State Arts Councils, and residencies at Sculpture Space, Skowhegan, and Yaddo. Sarah Haviland earned a BA from Yale University and an MFA from Hunter College, and maintains a studio at the Hat Factory in Peekskill, NY.
For more about the artist, visit sarahhaviland.com.
**A version of this article appeared in print in Honeysuckle Magazine’s HERS issue, summer 2017 edition.