When Words Fail On Infertility, There is Art

Infertility, so long hidden from view, is finally finding a spotlight in various contemporary art forms.

When Words Fail On Infertility, There is Art
Detail from Role Play (Woman with Cushion). Courtesy of the artist, Jessa Fairbrother.

Editor's Note: This essay deals with infertility and loss which some of our readers may find difficult.

When Elizabeth Horn, a Michigan-based artist and photographer, was going through infertility treatments, she kept the news from most people. Because the words wouldn’t come, it was art that let her express her heartache. 

Horn began ripping up pieces of paper, to help get her frustrations out, and used the paper in mixed-media pieces with acrylic and beads. The work allowed her to “be in a space where I could just sit with my grief,” she said. “It gave me a way to have something tangible that I could look at and that I could hold and I could see.” 

At an infertility support group, Horn met other people who also happened to be using visual arts to process emotions around their diagnoses—encounters which inspired her to curate an art exhibition, held in 2013 in Jackson, Mich., with the subject of infertility at its core. 

Not long after her art show, Horn co-founded, along with Maria NovotnyThe ART of Infertility, an arts organization which has since produced more than 30 exhibitions around the U.S., as well as one in Switzerland. (ART is also an acronym for assisted reproductive technologies, which include IVF.) 

Horn has since expanded ART’s remit, last year co-editing, also with Novotny as well as Robin Silbergleid, Infertilities, a Curation,” a book featuring works by artists and poets from North America and Europe. “I really wanted a book that would push back at a lot of the myths, like infertility is an older woman’s issue or disease,” said Horn. The reality is that infertility doesn’t discriminate, she explained. “It impacts all kinds of people from all different backgrounds and experiences.” 

Marissa McClure Sweeny, S/m/othering: Cassatt

Prevalent, but almost invisible

According to the World Health Organization, approximately one in every six people of reproductive age worldwide experience infertility in their lifetime. That number does not include social infertility—the idea that people might not be able to easily get pregnant because of their biographical background, say they are part of a same-sex couple or they are single—or those with underlying illnesses that can make pregnancy life-threatening. Yet despite its prevalence, infertility has not traditionally been openly discussed. One survey, from 2009, found that 60% of couples hid their fertility struggles from family and friends. And while social media has enabled more conversations, many people affected by infertility still choose to stay quiet.  

“How do you find a language to talk about something that's so hard to talk about? Or how do you visualize something that's invisible?”

This reticence to document infertility, loss and grief, absolutely extends to the field of art—including painting and mixed media, photography, sculpture, performance and dance. Pregnancy and motherhood have long been a part of the global art history tradition, from Pre-Columbian-era sculptures of pregnant women through to 20th Century works such as Gustav Klimt’s “Hope, II.” But depictions of pregnancies that never happened or were cut short, such as Frida Kahlo’s painting of her miscarriage in “Henry Ford Hospital 1932,” are few and far between.