Following on from my earlier exploration into family ties, I wanted to make a work which celebrated my mother, her central place in our family and the role of mothers in general, without being sentimental. I also wanted to consider the shifting roles and balances of power and responsibility as daughter becomes mother and mother becomes grandmother.

The image of ‘mother’ is widely present in sculpture since the Renaissance, especially in the context of Christianity. The Virgin appears with her new born son or in a Pieta, cradling a dead Christ across her knees. Instead of this mother/son relationship, I wanted to consider a wholly female relationship. My inspiration for this is less artistic than literary or scientific. A source of inspiration is one of my favourite poets, Robert Graves, and his book ‘The White Goddess’. He returned again and again to the idea of a mythic matriarchal society and a goddess, or trinity of goddesses, who embody maid, mother, crone. He was these roles as cyclical.

Another is various writings on the application of genetics to the understanding of human history such as Prof Steve Jones’ The Language of the Genes’, Jean Marco’s  ‘Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings’ and Brian Sykes’ ‘The Seven Daughters of Eve’. In paleogenetics, specific sections or types of dna are particularly useful for ananlysis. One of these is mitochondrial dna, the dna which in found in mitachondria in each cell. Mitochondria are energy producing organelles in each cell and their DNA is not recombined like chromosomal DNA; we only inherit it from our mother. Since it is not recombined, just copied (albeit with the odd transcription error) it can be used as a biological clock and also to track maternal lines back though many, many generations.

Science aside, mothers are often the glue which holds a family together. In my own case, my father died when I was relatively young, in my early 20s, and my mother was the linchpin of the family until such a time as the coin flipped and instead of me depending on her, she depended on me. This coincided with my becoming a mother myself.

I lost my mother fifteen years ago, but I often hear her words of advice as I undertake tasks that she taught me, cooking, gardening, sewing, financial management etc. I often wonder if she was repeating what her mother had said to her, and how many generations a phrase might be echoing down.  Robert Graves’ White Goddess resonates with this concept of daughters becoming mothers, wisdom echoing down the generations, mother to daughter, and the idea of a mitochondrial chain of existence.

Once again, I didn’t want to create a statue or model of a mother. I wanted to create a representation of the idea of mothers.

sketchbook (4 of 12) sketchbook (5 of 12)

One idea was to cut pieces of sheet perspex into idealised figures which could be piled up, one behind another, but still be seen through. These could be painted or printed in different transparent colours so that the colours would accumulate and make new colours.

Another idea was to create a kind of shrine or temple inspired by the Roman Lararium in which each household kept small statues of the Lares and Penates, the household and ancestor gods, who were responsible for keeping the house safe, and to whom they prayed every day. The appeal of this approach is that it would allow me to add context and meaning.

sketchbook (6 of 12)

Rather than make a classical Lararium out of plaster, as the Romans did, I wanted to make a very modern one using plastics, and light. I researched types of plastic, how they could be cut and finished, glued or fixed and how they would transmit light. The idea was abandoned due to cost and the technical difficulties of producing a robust structure with sightly 90 degree joins.

My next step was to make a maquette out if cardboard and consider proportions, materials and simplifications. Here, I have painted a cardboard box white and created a simple pediment. I have mocked up a couple of columns from cardboard tube and yoghurt drink bottles glued together. An old photo of Mum has been blown up an attached to the back wall as a backdrop to allow me to consider the merits of using digital print on the interior walls.

life (10 of 3)

In my sketchbook, I looked at ways of abstracting the female for or at symbols which I could use to represent it. I drew on prehistoric art, cyclades art, family photos and the works of artists like Eva Hesse and particularly Louise Bourgeois.

sketchbook (10 of 12)sketchbook (11 of 12)

idols (1 of 2) idols (2 of 2)

One of the outlines from old photographs was enlarged onto 2mm thick  acetate, cut out and transparent pigment was applied to it. This was evaluated in the maquette as a totem.

sketchbook (12 of 12)death mask (6 of 6)

I felt that this was too flat and too representational. In my consideration of symbols, I had thought about the triangles in the cave art of Gran Canaria where we walked last year. Archeologists deduce that these are symbols of fertility and the female. By joining these, I could create a dynamic form which would represent a female trilogy.

mitochondriam (2 of 1)


death mask (3 of 3)

This figure works much better than a human form. It was cut out of board and developed into 3D with applied card, then papier mache and then filler mixed with pva.

mdna (6 of 6)

During the construction, I considered how to give the work volume and mass through columns, base and pediment. I considered how to make it modern, relevant to my subject but referencing a Lararium. Symbols for the female, double helix, mDNA etc were considered.

The basic box was made out of hardboard, and this was unscrewed and laid flat so that a motif could be painted across the back and side wall.

mdna (2 of 6)

mdna (3 of 6)

The loose spiral/concentric circle was painted in heavy body acrylic to give it a raised texture. The colour was chosen in homage to Louise Bourgeois’ gouache paintings which I saw at the Tate Modern last year. This colour was mixed with gold so that light would pick up the texture and add visual depth.

mdna (4 of 6)

Adding and rejecting materials, the ‘shrine’ was completed. The yoghurt bottles were rejected and modelling paste applied to the front columns in spirals to reference DNA. The idol was initially painted in irridescent paint to shine out, but the faint blueness of this was discordant in the space, and it was overpainted with a mixture of gold and irridescent medium. After light sanding, the figure has a textural surface which is satisfying and I made no attempt to create a smoother surface.

part 5 (2 of 11)

The portico was intended to have a recess into which I would put perspex cut outs, possibly lit from below with leds, but this evolved into a simple triangle of wood stencilled with an abstraction of a DNA ‘fingerprint’. This motif was also applied to the back of the box.

mdna (21 of 30)

mdna (16 of 30) mdna (17 of 30) mdna (18 of 30)

mitochondriam (1 of 1)

Mitochondriam      Final size 48cm x 41cm x 21cm

I think the most successful part of this work is the figurine, which could be a maquette for a much larger work. The plinth made for it within the box is too thin, so another was made, in better proportion, for it to stand alone. The gold acrylic finish, whilst fitting the context of the whole, was very plastic. It was over-painted with gesso and alternative finishes considered. In the end, I have decided that she is a earth-mother figure and painted her in a natural earth pigment, rubbed to show the texture.


I have enjoyed exploring the visual ideas around mDNA and mothers. I think that this has yielded some interesting motifs and designs which I see as a starting point for future work. The actual shrine would have been much more interesting if I had been able to produce it in very modern materials, engraving my designs so that they showed up in transmitted light. The fabrication in wood is, at best, crude and lacks the physical presence necessary to give spirituality.

Of the motifs I used, the DNA ‘fingerprint’ is the most simple and effective.  It links modern science with simple hieroglyphic signs. The spiral behind the statue gives a sense of depth and suggests infinity but is crudely executed. The combination of symbols is too noisy; a simpler design would have been more powerful. Anish Kapour’s ‘Adam’ is the sublime example of the strength of simplicity. He has created a dark niche, unknowably deep, with no content. He is also referencing religious shrines and has created a totally modern work with real spirituality.

I think the most successful part of this work is the figure which could be a maquette for a much larger work. The plinth made for it within the box is too thin, so another was made, in better proportion, for it to stand alone. The gold acrylic finish, whilst fitting the context of the whole, was very plastic. It was overpainted with layers of gesso and alternative finishes considered. In the end, I have decided that she is a earth-mother figure and painted he in a natural earth pigment, rubbed to show the texture. This model, whilst three shapes in one, does evoke a human figure with perhaps horns (another ancient symbol of power), perhaps upstretched arms, perhaps wide hips. It is reminiscent of some of the cyclades figurines. If I was making it again, I would make it thicker, giving it more volume and round out the edges. It would have real presence scaled up for a public area.


About starrybird

I am mature student studying art with The Open College of the Arts. My passion is printmaking.
This entry was posted in Course Parts, Part 5 Developing Sculpture and Imagination and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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