Traditionally, MFA programs have been places to focus on art-making without distractions from the outside world. For local artist Natalie Bruvels, the pandemic threw that assumption asunder.
The 44.4 Mother/Artist collective member recently finished the MFA program at the University of Ottawa while supervising online school for her 10-year-old son Tomson. Together, they forged a daily routine which allowed both of them to learn.
Apt613 caught up with Bruvels to learn more about how absence of childcare amid the pandemic affected her and her son’s learning and creative process.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: Pandemic scheduling changed education completely. Your recent art production represents two kinds of schooling: your own MFA studies at uOttawa and your son’s online elementary school coursework. Were you able to keep the two educational tracks separate, or did they intersect?
Natalie Bruvels: My recent work is a melding of both Tomson’s schooling and my own—so much so that many professors have remarked how this is also Tomson’s MFA. There is one painting where he wrote his multiplication tables on the surface. For my final MFA installation, we made a giant diorama together. It was half studio and half domestic space, a place where he did his actual online schooling surrounded by a giant watercolour painting of an imaginary Google Meet classroom.
As a graduate student, I experienced a massive shift in my trajectory. My allegiance became to the moment. My central question was: how can I mark this time, in painting or otherwise?
The closures of public spaces since the start of the pandemic have translated into a great deal of time indoors, but I know that you and your son did at least one outdoor public art project during the pandemic. Where was it?
We did indeed! We made large drippy paintings along the Greenboro Pathway using homemade paint squeezed from condiment bottles. Our project was called Squeeze, and it was part of Microcosm, a City of Ottawa public art project intended to activate passive spaces during the summer of 2020. Local art supply shop Wallack’s captured photos of the projects. When I accepted the commission, I knew that Tomson and I would have to work together, because all of my childcare supports had vanished.
There was no school, no after-school care and no summer camp that spring or summer. It seemed like the perfect moment to bring the issue of childcare to the forefront of my practice. The paintings in Squeeze were cornstarch-based, so they washed away when the rain came. Their disappearance was a fantastic conceptual expression of erased labour. There was also a great moment when a city worker began pressure-washing our paintings just as we finished the first ones—he retreated apologetically once the situation was explained to him!
Video games have loomed large in the background for many parents. You plunged into Roblox with admirable enthusiasm and open-mindedness. What was that like? How do you think your aesthetic and emotional experiences of the gaming environment differed from those of your son, and how does that show up in your work?
Like many caregivers of children, I took a deep dive into Roblox, the video gaming platform that exploded in popularity during the pandemic. When we played together, Tomson usually showed me around, because he knew the rules of the game better than I did. One day, as we were playing together, I saw our avatars on screen at the same time and realized “Oh, there we are!” The Roblox image solved a problem for me, as a single parent, of how to take a candid picture of us both together.
I decided to take screenshots of us playing Roblox and use them as the basis for paintings. I think of these family portraits as a way of re-imagining the archetype of the Madonna and Child. In my Roblox paintings, it is the child who is happily helping the mother. The paintings explore the role of play as an essential way to decompress and safeguard mental health. I was also charmed by the idea of playing at world-building, because the act of raising a child is nothing short of world-building.
Video game aesthetics brought new information into my paintings, but the digital environment translated into emotionally-cold compositions. I was after more emotional readability, so I started layering the paintings with craft stencils and images from children’s books.
Tell me more about the S.S. Same Boat. When did the idea for it come into mind? Why did you choose to work with so much plastic?
I had been using dollar store plastic tablecloths as a quick way to get colour on my studio walls and cover up marks from previous inhabitants. Of course, the plastic tablecloths are conspicuously not eco-friendly. I decided to use them because I wanted the installations to feel ecologically accurate for my subject matter. Raising a child is a “plasticky” experience. The plastic tablecloths draw attention to the fact that sound environmental and consumer behaviours are largely predicated on economic structures.
I had a large number of tablecloths left over, and they have quite a good procedural durability and are very re-usable. They were piled into a gigantic mound on the floor, looking “like the party’s over,” as one curator observed. I felt the burning need to re-contextualize this mound of tablecloths and attacked them by tying them to a wooden support structure. The result is a large, fantastical boat, called the S.S. Same Boat, which loudly pokes fun at the oft-used expression “We’re all in the same boat.” The pandemic doesn’t affect us all equally.
When and where can people see your work in person?
I have a show coming up next month at Studio Sixty Six on Bank Street (Oct. 15 to Nov. 21, 2021). Desire for Proximity: Let’s Play will explore all things tactile, pleasured-filled and non-digital. Tomson and I will both have work in the OAG’s upcoming uOttawa MFA winter show. I’m a member of the 44.4 Mothers/Artists Collective, which recently won an exhibition grant from the City of Ottawa. The collective’s show, I’ll Only Show You the Good Parts, will also take place in 2022.