What inspired this project?
This project came about because of my lucky association with two phenomenal theologians: Rev. Anne Tiemeyer and Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson. I met Rev. Tiemeyer when I joined Advent Lutheran Church as a freshman at New York University. Eight years later, I arrived at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and landed in Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson’s seminar Sexuality and the Bible. Dr. Johnson encouraged us to bring into the classroom issues that we felt passionately about and could engage with for the duration of the semester. Having worked with Rev. Tiemeyer and the National Council of Churches, I was familiar with the Fistula Stories project and took the opportunity Dr. Johnson gave me to learn more about the social justice issues surrounding obstetric fistula and bring them into the classroom.
Can you describe the art and your process to our readers?
My artistic process always begins in second hand bookstores. I take an afternoon, or two or three, and move from bookstore to bookstore camping out in the art section. A week or so after proposing a project on obstetric fistula for class, I started to make my rounds of my favorite bookstores in the Atlanta area. Inspiration struck when I found an only slightly tattered monograph of the work of the German Renaissance painter Matthias Grunewald. I have seen photographs of his masterwork The Isenheim Altarpiece a thousand times, but sitting on the floor of a bookstore I suddenly felt like I was seeing it for the first time. I had rushing through my head photographs I had seen of women awaiting fistula repair surgery on the campaign to end fistula website and looking at Grunewald’s altarpiece I came back to the question I’ve been asking myself since I first started making art: How can Christian art be prophetic? How can Christian art follow the prophetic call in Isaiah 1:17 to “Learn to do good; Seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (New American Standard Bible)
What connections do you see between art, faith, and work for justice?
Christian art has an obligation to re-visit, re-interpret, and re-imagine our history. And one way that I try to do that with my art is by putting historical imagery in conversation with contemporary social justice issues. For the fistula work that meant starting with Matthias Grunewald’s images of the Virgin Mary on the Isenheim Altarpiece and photographs of women with obstetric fistula. I had the idea of making pieces that would re-imagine: the annunciation, Mary cradling and bathing the baby Jesus. I drew into each panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece women with fistula. They accompany Mary. Where they were photographed in Bangladesh and Ethiopia and Tanzania waiting for and recovering from fistula repair surgery, Mary is now with them. Where mothers cradle their babies, Mary sits with them.
What affect has learning about fistula and making this art had on you personally?
I worked on this series throughout the duration of my Sexuality and the Bible seminar and the central question, for me, was: how has Christian art, in its depictions of the Virgin Mary, contributed to a culture that valorizes motherhood, but often demonizes the pregnant body? And what are the ramifications for women with fistula? I haven’t been able to come up with any sufficient answers to these questions and so my art-making continues. I hope that my work reflects my struggles with these questions because the larger questions of how we tell our own stories and how we make a place for others to tell theirs are important not just for artists, but for people of all faiths.
Mary Button an M T.S. student at Candler School of Theology and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She developed a powerful art project in 2009 for Ecumenical Women at the United Nations during the Commission on the Status of Women and has created the “Hymn Book Project”. To learn more about Mary’s art go to www.marybutton.com.