Artist Creates Opportunities for Black Mothers
By Heidi OpdykeMedia Inquiries
Alisha B. Wormsley built her career as an artist around residencies, which provide opportunities to live and produce work in different environments, including in places like Houston and Cuba. Then came her first pregnancy.
"I had two years of residencies lined up," recalled Wormsley, who is a Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in art at Carnegie Mellon University. "I reached out to the organizations and they were all like, 'I guess you're not coming.'"
The experience was eye opening, and provided the inspiration for Sibyls Shrine, which gives residency opportunities to Black women who are mothers and identify as artists, creatives and/or activists. Wormsley founded the organization in collaboration with Naomi Chambers and CMU alumna Jessica Gaynelle Moss.
"For these women, the challenges of parenting in combination with systemic racism and sexism often make the barriers to entry into the art world insurmountable," Wormsley said.
Named after the priestesses of the Black goddess Mami Wata, Sibyls Shrine is motivated by a similar goal: helping Black mothers with opportunities for self-care, childcare, space and support so they can further develop their craft and create a sustainable arts practice.
"As soon as Alisha told me about the project, I was in love," said Chambers, who was selected for a Community Liaison Residency for Sibyls Shrine. "Being an artist in Pittsburgh, and being a Black mother, there's not a lot of opportunities that you get to take advantage of to still be a really good artist and maintain your practice while also trying to be a really good mom."
As part of her role, Chambers, who is a painter and assemblage artist, will be creating a marketplace for artists while working on her own art. She and her husband previously ran the Flower House in Wilkinsburg, which served as a community art studio.
"We all look at art making as problem solving and world building. It's just one of the ways that I've been able to survive and figure out things in my life," Chambers said. As a community liaison, she's looking to understand how to help people find resources they might not have known were available as well as develop her own identity as a leader.
"I'm learning more about what my skills and strengths are to understand how that can align with how to help those who need help," she said. "I'm excited by the opportunity."
Sibyls Shrine includes three additional residency programs and is funded by the Just Arts program of The Heinz Endowments, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and Opportunity Fund. Additional financial support has been provided by the Mattress Factory Museum and Silver Eye Center for Photography. Along with the Community Liaison, the Visiting Artist and Home residencies will begin Jan. 1.
"There's nothing else like this," Wormsley said. "Our goal is that this is not only successful for us but we want to create a model that can be replicated around the country. That's part of our mission."
Sibyls Shrine Visiting Artist Residency
A deliberate force in the landscape of contemporary American art for the last three decades, Renee Cox is an internationally renowned photographer and mixed media artist. Cox frames her self-portraits as poignant arguments on race, desire, religion, feminism and visual and cultural aesthetics.
Cox will begin her yearlong residency in January 2021. As visiting artist-in-residence, she will be supported for one year with an unrestricted honorarium, material and supply budget, travel and residential accommodations. While in Pittsburgh, she will have access to the facilities and support of multiple arts organizations and institutions, ultimately resulting in an exhibition with additional members of the Sibyls Shrine team. Cox will participate in public programming throughout the city and will serve as a mentor to the three Sibyls Shrine Home Residents over the duration of her residency.
Sibyls Shrine Home Residency
The Home Residency will support three Pittsburgh-based artists, Mary Martin, LaKeisha Wolf and sarah huny young, with professional and personal development, space, connectivity, mutual aid, financial and creative support, mentorship and exhibition opportunities. The artists will remain in their own homes, but will be supported with relief from some of their day-to-day tasks of homecare, childcare, cleaning, and grocery purchasing and shopping in order to provide them with the time, space and resources to support their creative practices. Other Black creative mothers and working professionals from the Pittsburgh area will be hired to provide support and assistance.
Martin is a high school visual arts instructor at Winchester Thurston School and a member of Women of Visions, Inc., an arts collective of Black female artists. She exhibits nationally and collaborates on educational programming for various cultural institutions.
Wolf is an artisan and owner of Ujamaa Collective, a micro-enterprise centered on making and wellness. She has grown her skills working to uplift and center her own healing, as well as other Black women and the Africana community, using nature, arts and culture. Wolf's resources are stones and natural elements, symbols and affirmations.
Young is an award-winning visual artist primarily documenting and exalting Black womanhood and queer communities through portraiture and video. Framing her muses as collaborators, she often shoots on-location across the country in personal, intimate spaces of the subject's choosing. Her work has been featured in Pittsburgh City Paper, New York Magazine and The New York Times.
At the conclusion of visiting artist and home residencies, a final group exhibition will be held at the Mattress Factory Contemporary Museum.
When Sibyls Shrine was first conceived, Wormsley had added travel and networking costs into her team's budget. COVID-19 changed those plans.
"We were like, well, we have this money, we can't travel, and moms need support. Let's create a network where we can," Wormsley said.
The Network Residency was born. Cohorts of 30 participants meet virtually for eight-week sessions. Each participant receives a stipend for joining as well as an honorarium for presenting on a topic of their choice. So far, 60 mothers have gone through the program. About 75 percent are from the Pittsburgh area. Wormsley said presenters provided information on everything from gardening, website tutorials, budgeting to discussing their artistic practices or doctoral research.
"I'm so happy. It's actually the right thing for right now," Wormsley said.
While Sibyls Shrine grew out of Wormsley's own experience, it continues to feed her art as she constantly explores ways to engage and create community. At CMU, her research fellowship is focused on the resurgence of practices in Black communities such as herbalism, plant medicine and midwifery. Skills, which Wormsley said, allow Black women to be sustainable in their communities.
"CMU is supporting my studio practice, which ties into all this work," she said. "My practice of making includes supporting the spirits of Black people in America; that starts and ends with Black women, and more specifically, with Black mothers."
In November, she was among the recipients of the latest round of Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh grants, a joint program of The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation.
The grant will support her ongoing project "Children of NAN," an archive of objects, photos, video footage, film, sounds philosophies, rituals and performances that draw on ancient knowledge, art social practice and mysticism.