For something that affects nearly one in eight couples, infertility is far too often misunderstood.
So goes the thinking of Elizabeth Walker and Maria Novotny, curators, public health activists and co-founders of The Art of Infertility, an arts organization that aims to educate and provide support for those living with infertility.
After a successful debut at the Old City Jewish Arts Center in 2017, The Art of Infertility has brought its newest exhibit, “Capturing Conceptions,” back to the North Third Street gallery for a month-long residency through Nov. 3.
Billed as a “photo-voice” exhibit, “Capturing Conceptions” features photos that capture the unvarnished everyday pains, struggles and even lighthearted moments of living a life colored by infertility.
The photos are accompanied by essays that are more than just captions incidental to the images — they capture the voice, or at least a voice, of infertility.
Artwork by Elizabeth, a Philadelphia-area artist, emphasizes that infertility affects one in eight.
In one black-and-white photo, viewers see the back of a woman named Elizabeth, who’s perched on a table littered with used hypodermic needles near a medical waste receptacle. The back of Elizabeth’s hand rests above her hip, and her palm faces the camera and has something written on it — “1 in 8.” The fingers on the hand are crossed, as if to say, “Maybe this time it will work.”
The accompanying mini- essay is Elizabeth’s “voice.”
“This is the reality of infertility, and what the last nine years have looked like,” Elizabeth writes. “It’s wanting to give up but your heart not letting go. It’s suffocating sadness from the loss of a dream. It’s having life, yet not really living.”
Why this particular exhibit for a gallery called the Old City Jewish Arts Center?
Gal Senderowitsch, the assistant to the director at OCJAC, points out that the pains of infertility are often acute in the Jewish community, where there tends to be a lot of cultural importance placed on building and raising families.
“A lot of people are looking to see what’s going to happen with the next generation … and, for lack of a better way to put it, there is pressure sometimes to make sure that we leave something for the next generation, that we have the next generation,” Senderowitsch said. “And sometimes it becomes very hard (in the Jewish community) to talk about fertility issues.”
At the OCJAC, part of the goal is to use art to evoke the entire spectrum of emotions. That means using art as a means to facilitate conversation about things that are hard to talk about and, sometimes, hard to even think about.
Jeff Clark, 33, a South Philadelphia resident and frequent visitor to OCJAC’s First Friday festivities, grappled with the heaviness of “Capturing Conceptions” at the exhibit’s opening on Oct. 13.
“What it did do is kind of bum me out a little bit,” Clark said. “Usually, when I go to a gallery, I’m like, ‘Oh, hey! It’s fun, it’s colorful.’ But this is dark, the explanations are very detailed, and when you read the whole thing it’s like reading this little diary of depression.”
It may not have been what Clark was used to, but how the work made him feel is part of the point.
“We’re always exposing beautiful and soulful things that are fun and colorful, but sometimes it’s important to point to the more difficult things that our society and individuals go through,” Senderowitsch said. “People are leaving and feeling really touched and feeling thankful for this exhibit because they can say, ‘I’ve struggled with this’ or ‘I’ve lost babies,’ and it’s been a very safe and nice place to talk about these things.”
In keeping with the OCJAC’s stated mission to explore “the universal messages of Judaism through the universal language of the arts,” Rabbi Zalman Wircberg, the OCJAC’s director, has started identifying passages from scripture that are particularly relevant to the subject matter of a given exhibition. The passages are displayed on the same walls as the art being shown, encouraging the viewer to digest everything that’s being communicated, as well as potentially see a larger meaning.
“With every exhibit, it’s a way to connect the subject matter of the art with some piece of Judaism,” Senderowitsch said.
For the gallery, this small act is an important part of placing art within a proper context and within the broader framework of Jewish spirituality and values.
“It’s easy to forget that art is very important in Judaism,” Senderowitsch said. “It’s important for the human soul, and it’s about making that connection between the mundane and the … you could say the divine or you could say the neshama, the soul.