Interview with Courtenay Johnson and Jo Blake

Mothers Who Make is a growing national initiative which offers a monthly peer support group for mothers who are artists and makers, in any discipline and at any stage in their creative paths. A new hub is set to come to Northamptonshire, led by Carbon Theatre’s Courtenay Johnson and storyteller Jo Blake. I caught up with Courtenay and Jo to find out more.

Can you tell me about Mothers Who Make?

CJ: Mothers Who Make is a peer-support network for mothers who are also makers! It started in 2014 with theatremaker and Improbable Associate Director, Matilda Leyser. The initiative grew from Matilda’s sense of experiences and challenges specific to being both a mother and an artist. She noticed many parallels between the two roles: both are concerned with creativity and play, both require stamina, patience, sensitivity, both keep her up at night. At the same time, she was struck by the strength of the cultural assumption that the two were incompatible, that she must compromise on either her creative work or her mothering. She wanted to challenge this.

The network has grown across the country and internationally and we are now starting one in Northamptonshire. Having experienced lots of great inclusive practices and also faced discrimination for being a working-creative mother, I really felt the need to assemble a supportive group of fellow creative mothers.

What can attendees expect?
CJ: Our first session is on Thursday (23 July) and is being facilitated by Matilda herself, Mothers Who Make’s founder, and then our regular session will be led by myself and Jo Blake (Storyteller, Dancer, Mother).

The sessions were due to be in-person sessions hosted at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, and at The Core at Corby Cube but now we are hosting them online via Zoom – to keep everyone safe during the pandemic. This means it’s really easy to sign up and join the session with simply a click of a link!

What to expect once you join us is a really open and supportive space to talk about being a mother and being a maker – those dual roles.  Our meetings are a simple but powerful talking circle, welcoming every kind of mother and every kind of maker. The meetings are adult-centred spaces, to nurture and nourish creative identity, where children are welcome. Where mother makers are able to be visible and supported in their dual roles.

How important is it to you to connect with artists and mothers at this particular time during the pandemic?

CJ: Mothers have been hit hard by the lockdown and pandemic restrictions. An IFS study stated that during the pandemic with school/nursery closures, “the additional childcare and housework has fallen far more on mothers than fathers, especially among working parents” – let alone single parents with no one else to support them in their household.

In addition to that, a lot of creative freelancers had all foreseeable work cancelled and many have fallen through the cracks in terms of government support. I work predominantly in theatre so the effect I’ve seen and felt has been monumental.

In a hugely simplified summary – the pandemic for mothers who make has been really hard. And it’s not over.

The beauty about the meetings is the supportive atmosphere and the space to talk about things with no judgement and to people who might understand what you’re trying to express – they probably share aspects of your experience. It’s vital.

JB: As a single parent and freelance artist in the performing arts sector, facing into lockdown has been one of the most destabilising experiences of my life. The loss of income and childcare support has been extremely stressful. But, significantly, so too has the loss of identity which has come along with the cancellation of creative projects and regular contact with the creative community, which, for me as with many others, is geographically spread.

Like many artists, I have dedicated enormous energy into establishing a professional creative practice, and accepted that certain lifestyle choices that may be expected in more secure professions, such as owning a home, going on holiday, having a pension etc, may not be possible or may take longer to achieve. So, as Courtenay has rightly pointed out, lockdown has revealed to an even greater extent the precarious nature of freelance professional art-making in the UK. Coupled with the intensity of mothering and home-schooling without respite, the strain on both mine and my child’s wellbeing has been significant. Consequently, it is all the more vital to connect with community during this time of huge cultural and personal change. We hope that the MWM meetings will provide a space to connect, find support, be seen, and be nourished as we collectively navigate the every-shifting landscape we find ourselves in.

What would you like the initiative to achieve?
CJ: We have funding to start the group and deliver our first meetings from the Avon Fund, Northamptonshire Community Foundation. The hope is that we can build a solid group of womxn who value these meetings and who can support each other with creativity, business, projects etc. It sounds a bit cliché, but ultimately, we’d like to form and connect a community of mothers who make and continue these meetings indefinitely with either more funding support or donations. All meetings are Pay What You Can so there isn’t a financial barrier to joining.

JB: I’m interested in how we can learn from each other about navigating these roles of mothering and making, and challenging limiting ideas about what is possible/acceptable as a mother who makes; encouraging peer support, community building, creative networks and may be even inspiring collaborations!

How can people get involved?
CJ: We have Facebook group for day-to-day and then of course, we have our meetings that people can join. You can find all the info on our page here: www.carbontheatre.org.uk/mwm-northamptonshire about who we are, the links to groups and to sign up to receive updates.

We hope to really shape what we can do to support our members in future – whether that is commissions or co-creations or something more social! So we’d love for people to join us and help us decide what the group can do.

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