m OTHER, one of ChaShaMa’s latest exhibits, takes a provocative look at the ways in which stepmothers are looked at in society, and the roles they play in the household. Through a range of live performance art, installations, workshops, and various visual mediums, m OTHER presents a powerful narrative that challenges the societal norms surrounding stepmothers. Curated, choreographed and produced by artist Blakelee Pieroni, the show delves into the many layers of an often unappreciated and voiceless identity.
Blakelee is an immersive media art creator, an experienced dancer, and digital maker. Her work has a signature theme of pulling at constructs and systems that already exist and challenging alternative ways of functionality. As a fulltime stepmother herself she felt tackling the issues within stepfamilies was a necessary action to be made on an artistic front, and she wanted to start that conversation
This interview has been edited for concision & clarity
T.K.: What was the inspiration behind putting this show together?
Blakelee: It started after I was accepted by Chashama and was granted the artist space. Once I got the acceptance, I knew that I had a really hard job ahead of me. I had less than 2 months to find as many stepmoms as possible to be in this collaborative and collective research space. I had over 10 open calls, and I was met within the first couple weeks with several messages. Things like, ‘I really want to be in your show, but I’m too scared about my partner might feel,’ or ‘I don’t want my kids to see this in the future.’ The interest was there, but I realized if I’m going to have any time to really curate a show with substance, I’m gonna need to change the dynamic.
So I flipped it from a research project and I started looking into past collections that revolved around stepmoms. I immediately thought of Karen Piovaty. Her collection is called ‘The Other Mother.’ It’s an exhibit from 1999, and I first came across it while going through a brutal CPS case alongside my fiancé. I would look at her imagery and it was what got me through tough times. The real-time isolation these situations bring to stepmoms. You are actively existing as decisions are being made for you and your family and you have absolutely no control over the outcome. I reached out to Karen, and not even a day went by before she responded. She sent me her collection from Canada, which was crazy. 24 4×4’ digital prints that are just out of this world – retro and brilliant at the same time. We shared a personal and intimate conversation about the reaction to her collection as it toured within the Arizona Commission on the Arts Traveling Exhibitions Program . She warned me of the potential backlash with the subject matter and we laughed as I told her I was ready for it! So that’s how this show really began to come together. When that conversation ended I had a new vision for the show and I knew in my gut that it was possible and important.
Karen connected with the woman who critiqued her work back in 1999, who is now a painter herself. Her name is JaneE Hindman. She’s had difficult experiences with two different stepmothers. Her work showed a perspective the show was lacking and in truth I as a stepmom also needed to hear what JaneE had to say. So that’s how I opened the show to display different perspectives, different walks of life.
Then I found Nicole Di Fabio who had this whole other experience as a stepmom. Nicole is a queer painter from DC. She is a stepmom in a lesbian couple with a trans coparent. Her work shows visibility to stepmoms in all dynamics and was a critical part of the exhibit. It’s all relevant because the biggest thing about stepmotherhood is that it’s the unrepresented norms that everyone endures no matter what situation you’re in. With that said, JaneE offered to teach a stepmom writing workshop open all stepmoms who wanted to attend. It was insanely powerful. The room was sobbing, but in a good way. For each other, as individuals, and also for the power that this subject holds over the majority of human beings in some way or another. It was undeniably impactful. So all four of us collectively made the show. That’s how it all started.
T.K.: As a stepmom, what made you want to explore that identity through an artistic perspective, and to curate a show around the idea?
Blakelee: The stigmas I faced from day one have changed the course of my life, of my identity, of my artistry, and my relationships with women. I am fortunate that my stepkids and I share a unique and strong bond. They genuinely love me, and I owe that all to my patience and acceptance that we share the same type of loss in this situation. Things happen to them and me the same way and we are forced to be resilient together. At the same time, the difficulties I was facing, the guidelines storm of stepmotherhood, the therapists, support groups, blogs, books, podcasts, etcetera weren’t working. They just weren’t getting to a deeper level where I could explore this idea. The information provided was structured and rooted in benefiting the original family unit, there was not enough of a personalized approach into the actual stepmom experience. I was trying to get to a level with parenthood in general, motherhood especially. I felt it was time to intertwine my career and home life, since it was already a mesh anyway. And that’s how the idea came. I just needed to get some stuff out on canvas. That’s what every artist says, I know. But when the show was accepted, it really became about making sure it was an accurate representation of who I am, and what this all actually is. I was thinking, how do I make sure that it’s not just about my experience but encompass where the problem starts, and how we -all stepmoms – move forward.
T.K.: There were several performance aspects to the show – what made you want to include that into the exhibition?
Blakelee: I was a professional dancer before my body gave out, which gave me an understanding of how you have to give up agency, especially as a dancer. You take on a role, you put yourself to the side, and you embody that role. And that’s exactly what being a stepmom is. You embody what’s in front of you, what’s needed, and you really do lose several parts of identity in order to obtain that.
The performance element was to get the viewers to see bodies in motion demonstrating all these different levels of identity loss and questions of personhood, all while in these domestic roles. Four women stood on individual columns for four hours. They dirtied the mirror, cleaned the mirror, looked at themselves in the mirror… repeat. The commitment was just as powerful and the issue they were addressing. The closing performance was a dancer moving in and out of shadows created by light. Each light representing an identity or role that she had to quickly fill. This resonates with all mothers, but for stepmothers there are several aspects where you are superficially present and acting your way through it to please and confront those around you. The concept was to show how we exist even while at a party but we do not have a say, we cannot provide action or response. We empty ourselves to embody the role.
T.K.: Rewinding a bit, when did you first start exploring your creative expression through visual art?
Blakelee: I took painting classes all through school, but I was a dance major. I really started painting seriously around 2013. And I’ve been doing it ever since. I love it. It’s a way for me to find motion when the body can’t. Plus, I got fed up with the constant audition experience and just the overall way that the dance industry functions. Meaning, for me dance was this transient and post gender/post human experience but when you are competing and trying to provide for yourself the spiritual nature of it died for me. Now movement is my base before painting and I feel much more connected to the grounding aspects of movement. This is just my opinion. I couldn’t do it anymore. So that’s how I started painting. And through Covid when supplies were short and money was tight I turned to digital art. NFTs were an outlet for my work and have consistently stayed in the way I express myself now. There is a demand for women in the space and I intend to stick around for a long time.
T.K.: What attracts you to the NFT marketplace? And could you explain how you incorporated NFTs into the m Other exhibit?
Blakelee: Web 3 has so many opportunities for women in general. But I also like the universal aspect and how easy it is to transfer work. I think that’s where things are going, especially with cryptocurrency. Plus, I’ve had some very deep conversations with NFT artists, NFT investors that I have not had in the art world. I believe it’s because everything’s so decentralized, so there’s really no gender in Web 3. It’s an equal playing field.
As to m Other, I have 20 NFTs in total in the collection. The first three are the performances that happened here. And then the other 17 are digital images that I created for the show. For example, there’s this woman in a glass box, and she’s embodying this cyborg type of form where she’s pulling her head off of her body – honestly that’s what it feels like you have to do as a stepmom. You release your identity and everything that comes with human behavior. You’re challenged with pride, with envy, with selfishness, with selflessness, responsibility, with all aspects of human weakness on a daily basis. In many ways this in itself is actually why I find the role fascinating. You are challenging yourself to beat the odds of human behavior daily.
Other work consists of the classic evil stepmom characters from the books and movies we love but they are saying compassionate and nurturing quotes. To me it’s a campy way of lashing back at the media outlets who have created this barrier stepmoms can’t seem to shake.
T.K.: You had mentioned earlier that Karen’s work has really resonated with you. Do you have a favorite from her collection?
Blakelee: Yes, her piece titled ‘The Confidants.’ In it, she’s speaking about how the stepmom and the children really carry a lot of the same role inside a blended family where you’re both witnessing a broken home. You’re both having decisions made for you. You really empathize with your stepchildren because, sure, you carry a role of responsibility, but you both are going through the same things. Children are resilient and no childhood is easy. I think any child who has to go through divorce faces that. You’ll see in the back there’s barbed wire behind the text. And it says ‘Being a parental confidant carries a high price. I cry for them. Finally, I cry for me.’ I love that because it’s really hard to remember yourself as a stepmom. As mothers, it’s hard.
T.K.: Could you tell me about the feedback you got from people who visited the show?
Blakelee: The opening night was stunning because we had most of the artists in house with their close people. We had people from see saw, ChaShaMa, and strangers all immersed in a stepmothers life. The conversations with men was eye opening, it was mostly explaining what it was for and then automatically, them saying something like ‘I’ve heard my mom say that so many times’ or ‘I’ve heard my wife talk about this.’ In real life this was a point of conflict for me. Here is where the issues lie… It’s a tale as old as time that women in motherhood are weighted down by the mental load of family. These conversations should have been deeper.
With women, it was like this is how I’ve felt since I was 12 years old.’ Another drastic point to be made here on how we raise women, and what we expect of them. A lot of the motifs the performers were emulating resonated. The people pleaser. The unheard. The overstimulated, and overwhelmed. Another represented personhood, where you’re smiling at Thanksgiving and you’re smiling at Christmas, but you’re not even in the room. You know, you’re cleaning up the trash, the dishes, you’re smiling, you’re healed, you’re whole. Another highlighted beauty rituals, and domestic work, and she worked her ass off. So I think that every single woman in the room resonated with it.
I choreographed the performance. The rehearsal was the day before. I like to challenge movers with fast movement and quick response. It gives me more of a real energy when it is not structured move by move and it makes the mover channel inner experiences to convey the mission. The rehearsal and the entire exhibit was all women led and the FORCE that was zooming through the gallery is unmatched in my choreographic experience.
T.K.: Lastly, what do you want viewers for the exhibit to takeaway?
Blakelee: I would say the takeaway is that how you raise children is important, no matter if they’re your biological or not. What you think of love, what you think of conflict resolution, that all comes from what you see in your house.
m OTHER is on display at ChaShaMa’s gallery on 340 E 64th St. New York, New York 10065 from Mar 25 — Apr 21, 2023. IT will also be featured in a documentary by filmmaker Claire Cheney, alongside Naja Hall and Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster, one of the first books to explore the role of stepmothers in the household.