jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Memento Mori, the Baby’s Dress

I’ve been busy. You know, busy with that other thing I do besides being a mom, wife, daughter, sister, friend, blogger (that still feels so weird to type), runner, and an auction volunteer, plus butt wiper (generally not specifically related to auction volunteer, but you never know…) and so on. This other thing is the thing I told my Dad I wanted to do for the rest of my life when I was just five years old.

Jennie, age 5, Kindergarten, 1976

Jennie, age 5
Kindergarten, 1976

“When I grow up I want to be an artist,” little Jennie Groeber, age 5, said.
“You’ll starve,” he replied. Which is sweet in its way, but perhaps not what I was hoping for.

So when I can manage it, I’m also an artist, and right now my art is printmaking. (I’m happy to report that my father’s prophecy was for naught by the way. I’m rarely starving.)

My prints will be part of an exhibit next month at a local museum. It’s more of an historical museum than an art museum, old toys and trains, clothing and dolls.

There’s a room in the museum from the 1600’s and if you tour it around Halloween, you’ll carry an electric candle and enter this dark and musty one-room house to find a woman hunched over, or should I say, inside a fireplace, stirring a pot. And as you stand there in the near-darkness, corralling your kids into a dank corner of the room, they explain about the Murphy-style rope bed that folded down each night for the parents with the pallets around their feet for their kids. Next to the kitchen table. Next to the fire. On the dirt floor. Of this one room house. But where’s the toilet?! Exactly.

It puts things in perspective, I tell you.

The show to be hung next month is made up of modern artists influenced by the collection. With my woodcuts of old children’s clothing, it seemed a perfect fit. They saw my work and made connections to their collection of children’s clothing… Except their clothing is from when Little House on the Prairie actually happened, and my clothing is from when Little House on the Prairie actually aired.


Mid-19th C. dress from the collection of the Wenham Museum

So I asked to see some of the pieces that they had in the collection for the sake of authenticity. And I fell in love: with the wee baby armholes, the dresses for boys, the total absence of both pink and blue, the seriousness of these precious garments, all truly lived in, mended and stitched by some other mother’s hand, like my mother did to my clothing, and I do to my children’s clothing. But this mending goes back four generations.

When I asked if the curator knew something more about the provenance of this dress, she could tell me very little except that it was a mid-19th c. garment. The child who wore this dress is gone. Her mother is gone. Her grandchildren might even be gone.

Memento mori, loosely translated, is Latin for “Remember you must die.” It’s a conceit in art often represented through the use of a skull, rotting fruit, a timepiece. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

It’s both a horrible thing and a beautiful thing, this reminder of what is permanent and impermanent. The child, even though we hope she grew to be a grande dame, has passed. And I know nothing of her. I can find nothing about who she grew up to be, what she did, who exactly she loved.

But I am comforted then by the smallest detail. There, right along the armhole of the sleeve, you can see them. The tiny stitches where her mother mended this treasured dress, they remain. That this child was cared for by someone, someone who stitched and coddled and somehow fit two chubby baby limbs into the tiniest armholes imaginable, that is what carries me. The caring and mending, that evanescent love, that is what remains.

Memento Mori  woodcut  18 x 26" Jennifer Groeber  2014

Memento Mori
18 x 26″
Jennifer Groeber

15 comments on “Memento Mori, the Baby’s Dress

  1. Matt
    April 20, 2014

    Another lovely post, Jen.

    Filled with reminders to pursue our passions no matter what. To choose love. To find beauty in sadness. And to take nothing for granted.

    I’m so glad I found your work and that you’re willing to share it.

    Wishing you and your family a very happy and blessed weekend.

    • jgroeber
      April 20, 2014

      Oh, you are too fast!
      Reading your post about your spiritual trajectory I got to thinking how important that is to suss out. But I just couldn’t pull it together for this most holy of weekends. Must be the Peeps and the malt balls.
      Memento Mori was my tiny nod to the big holiday (which was spent with my family, three egg hunts and more Peeps than I’m willing to tell my dentist about.)
      Thank you for the happy wishes. Right back at you. Although, do us all a favor. No Peeps.
      Looking forward to your next post!

  2. sbhansen2014
    April 20, 2014

    Like most of us, sounds like you are wearing a ba-gillion (spelling?!!) hats. So happy to see that you are an artist, as well. Beautiful woodcut dress. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • jgroeber
      April 24, 2014

      Thanks so much for commenting. And yes, too many hats for all of us! But which one to get rid of?!
      And thank you for the compliment on the woodcut. It’s a perfect metaphor for life, actually… the stripes are against the grain so they were nearly impossible to cut. About halfway through, I started to doubt the outcome. In the end, the print turned out way more awkward than I intended, but I think I like that. Awkward is good.

      • sbhansen2014
        April 24, 2014

        I agree. Awkward is good. Really good. When I’m teaching a painting class, I always say, “Every one of my paintings goes through a teenage phase. Don’t be worried if yours painting does, too.” Just like life, our art has to go through that gangly phase to enrich the work. Just working through it makes it real. And when our audience can sense that, the work sings.

  3. Sasha
    April 20, 2014

    Your words bring the reader right into the moment with you. I never thought once about a little old dress but you now have me enthralled. Congrats as well, what an honor!

    • jgroeber
      April 24, 2014

      Ah, thank you. These dresses at the museum are so inspiring and maybe a little spooky. We could all write books about the possibilities inside these wee baby dresses.

  4. Anna Spanos
    April 20, 2014

    Well, I guess I should count myself lucky that my creative practice is actually, supposedly, this thing that I do while blogging – which is to say writing, of course – and so I, supposedly, I’m killing two birds with one stone here on WordPress. But I’ve been feeling more and more lately like blogging just isn’t cutting it as far as satisfying that creative appetite. I love it, I love the constant writing that it forces me into, the lack of time for self-editing and self-doubt. But I can’t help but ask (at least a hundred and fifty times a day): is this really what I went to art school for? And so I go on the hunt for time, trying to create the space in my life to pursue that other, “real” writing, chipping slowly away at what might someday become a book. Or not. But it’s nice to at least feel a little less constrained by all of these rules I’ve created for myself about what blogging should be and shouldn’t be.

    I’ve often wondered about your visual art and whether you’re still pursuing it in the midst of all of the million other things you’ve got going on, so I’m really happy to hear about this show. Congrats! (And good for you for making the time, and for even just showing up, which is, like 90% of the battle.)

    • jgroeber
      April 24, 2014

      How much do I love reading your comments?
      And what did we go to art school for? I laugh. I think my parents sent me to Yale thinking that at least I’d get a good husband out of it. Ha! Such classic 50’s parenting. And I found mine at art school! With that said, I’ve totally set up all these writing constraints and art constraints, too. Art school was the boundary-less creating. Installation, collage (I may have even collaged porn into bizarre images from my childhood… classic art school!), HUGE paintings, anime… but now, trying to communicate these more or less unchanging concepts in a constrained way forces elegance, but potentially redundancy. I don’t know how long I’ll blog in the same way. My goal is a year of blogging, not thinking about why or how. Then I revisit this thing and consider if it’s working. Do I want to write a book or do more art or give myself a new assignment? I’m so amazed by the people who have kept at it for years. A-mazed.
      I love your comment about showing up. We perhaps all (including you, I’d guess!) need to give ourselves a bit more credit for showing up. Showing up is herculean most days.
      I love reading your blog, and I look forward to reading that book. 😉

  5. Kelly L McKenzie
    April 21, 2014

    This lovely post got me thinking about my late dad. He was a pediatrician and his love of antique cradles got me into the back dusty rooms of many a museum. I often thought about the littlies that slept in them and wondered “where are they now?”

  6. adventureswiththepooh
    April 21, 2014

    Given my recent parting with the Pooh’s baby clothes, this post hit home for me. Congratulations on the exhibit, chica. Which museum? Just wondering if it is within driving distance for me and a small bear.

    • jgroeber
      April 24, 2014

      Wenham Museum in Wenham, MA. It’s a lovely little place with a room in the basement filled to the brim with trains (literally, they’re on the ceiling.) Children love this place, as it allows for interaction. And if you make the trip up this summer we can drive out and turn it into a play date! There’s even a tea house and a tiny playground across the street… How fun would that be?

  7. Margie S
    April 24, 2014

    You brought to life that little old dress in a way I never could!! You are such a talent!

    • jgroeber
      April 24, 2014

      Thank you. Hope you can make it out to the Wenham Museum this summer to check out the show. It sounds like it’s going to be a fun collection of museum collection pieces and modern artists.

      • Margie S
        April 24, 2014

        I will check it out for sure!

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This entry was posted on April 20, 2014 by in Memory, This One Contains Art, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , .

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