jen groeber: mama art

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

Life’s a Journey: This Woman’s Work

[I’ve been away. And honestly, I’ve missed you. And this. And feedback (jazz handsssss.) But I had some art to make and a birthday party for the twins and so on and so forth. Stuff has been happening.

And so I went away. And then I actually went away to Bryn Mawr, PA, just outside of Philadelphia, where I hung that art. And while I was there, I spoke to about 400 students and whichever faculty members crawled out of the faculty room and came to assembly like they’re supposed to. They mostly stood in the back like I used to when I taught there six years ago.

I have to tell you, you could have heard a pin drop. Which was unexpected. And yes, I got the chokey voice, which goes without saying. Come along and read what I shared  with those 400 students. You can even pretend you made it to the opening and pour yourself a glass of champagne. Cheers!]

This Woman’s Work

Someone once said something along the lines of, “You spend the first 18 years of your life surviving your childhood and the rest of your life recovering from it.”* I wrote it down somewhere in a book of important quotes that I’ve long since lost, but I haven’t forgotten it.

Jennie, Age 5, Fractured  woodcut, collage  22" x 37"  Jennifer Groeber

Jennie, Age 5, Fractured
woodcut, collage
22″ x 37″
Jennifer Groeber

And to understand anything about my art and what it all means, I guess it helps to understand that.

Jennie, Graduation  1989

Jennie, Graduation

Thinking about talking to you all and remembering that it was November, I couldn’t help but think of my college applications. (I used to work in the college counseling office as well as the diversity committee and art department here) and I was remembering my college essays. I wrote about a life-changing trip to work in an orphange in Santo Domingo my freshman year which I literally ended with the line, “But in the end, they helped me more than I ever could have helped them.” Seriously. Don’t do it. It’s the most obvious, overused essay ever. Like ever. You’re welcome for that.

I also wrote a Why Penn essay in Suessian rhyme that began, “I was to visit Penn one day. What a mighty bother. My mom said, “But it has art, chemistry, and it’s your sister’s alma mater!” I included a puzzle I painted that featured paintbrushes, field hockey sticks, William Penn and… wait for it, a puzzle piece that was me in a separate envelope. Get it? I was the missing piece? I couldn’t make this up.

The thing is in all that there was almost nothing at all about who I was or why I was or what I was.

Mom, Jennie, sister, sister, father, Butchie, brother  circa 1977

Mom, Jennie, sister, sister, father, Butchie, brother
c. 1977

I should have written this… I am the average sibling in a family full of disabilities. I am not blind or deaf like my sister, I am not mentally retarded or physically handicapped and I do not throw food or pull hair or sleep in an adult-sized hospital crib like my older brother.

Butch Braces  woodcut  11" x 17"  Jennifer Groeber

Butch Braces
11″ x 17″
Jennifer Groeber

I do not get fed through a tube or handfuls of medicine every day or have seizures or take insulin shots twice a day like my father, I do not take pills to get my brain to quiet down enough for me to get through a school day like my other brother. But I am intimately acquainted with all these things.

And with all that knowledge comes great responsibility. I was an average sibling in a family of disabilities, people who I love and carry with me wherever I go.

See how much more you know about me already?

Butchie  collage, graphite, latex and acrylic on panel  4' x 3'  2003

collage, graphite, latex and acrylic on panel
4′ x 3′

And I think we all have these stories: stories of loved ones who died or feeling like an outsider or knowing too little or too much, of hating ourselves or our bodies, of needing to take pills to get our brains to do what we want, of parents divorcing or feeling like an outsider because of our family or our color or gender or religion or sexual identity or gender identity.

So my art follows this arc of trying to figure things out, picking at pieces of my identity or that of my family and inspecting them, holding it up to other pieces for comparison.

The Early Years

I knew I had a thing for art at a very young age. When I was 5 I told my father I wanted to be an artist. He said I’d starve, which apparently is inaccurate, as it turns out. I was what my mother called the family diddler, always latch hooking or making books or drawing from lesson books that teach you how to use charcoal or draw a Great Dane. Really.

High School and College

Homecoming 1987  high school artwork in the background  Did I mention that I'm from New Jersey?

Homecoming 1987
high school artwork in the background
Did I mention that I’m from New Jersey?

In high school my art was what I call good-girl art. I was a class officer, a lacrosse captain, in all APs. They let me take art as an independent study because I couldn’t fit it in my schedule, which worked for me because I was too scared of navigating the social challenges of lunch in a public school cafeteria anyway. I did pen and ink drawings of vegetables, drawings of flowers and shoes and yes, even dresses. And my drawings always looked pretty much exactly like what I was copying from. Then I went to Yale to study engineering and to please my father.

By then I was painting portraits of people, beginning my fascination with identity. These were looser, hurried, out of focus. I painted a self-portrait of myself nude in a white men’s undershirt standing in front of a urinal. I painted myself as Frida Kahlo in the style of Alice Neel. I changed my major to art. A famous artist came and critiqued our art and she told me not to quit my day job. Which was nonsensical because I didn’t have a job. But I got her point.

Jennie with Dahlia  oil on canvas  36" x 63"  c. 1996

Jennie with Dahlia
oil on canvas
36″ x 63″
c. 1996

Art School

When I began teaching I continued to paint self-portraits and also huge fruit paintings… Pears specifically. And let me tell you, fruit sells.

Pears  oil on canvas  c. 1995  Jennifer Groeber

oil on canvas
c. 1995
Jennifer Groeber

I got into grad school at Maryland Institute College of Art anyway. My father died that spring before I began, and so I painted all the toys I insisted that my mother give to Goodwill when she cleaned out our house. I wanted him back.

And then I officially began to make kooky art school art. I used old family photos and created a cartoon character based on me wearing the dirndl dress I had when I was five.

Kooky art-school art from my sketchbook  c. 2000   Jennifer Groeber

Kooky art-school art from my sketchbook
c. 2000Jennifer Groeber 

I was searching outright and unabashedly. How did we get here? How did I get here, to me?


And each year that passes I get closer to where my parents were when I was a kid. Last year I turned 42, the age my father was when the doctors made a mistake so huge, it would cost him his life after 18 more years of suffering. My oldest son is 7. I was 8 when my father got irrevocably sick. I was 9 when I realized that most families didn’t have a retarded child screaming in his chair watching television, who wore leg braces that squealed when he walked.

Mom, Butchie, me, sister, sister  1972

Mom, Butchie, me, sister, sister

I am a mother now. How did my mother do this?

Mother's Day  2014

Mother’s Day2014 

So the dresses and the photos and the toys you see in my show? They are the evidence of my childhood, and the minutia of my motherhood. And it’s amazing how they intersect. Inexplicable, really.

I sort through these things that seem to be keys and I choose symbols to represent things- the dresses that speak to me of my mothers mending, the Halloween costumes that tell of innocence on the verge of changing, images from photos reminding me of times and places, objects from my life, things that resonate and I mix and match them with patterns and textures.

I used to paint, but when you have four children in three years, it’s hard to make painting work. Too toxic, too time-consuming and so on. During the chaos of the early years of motherhood I went back to collage and works on paper trying to capture small moments during the stolen minutes between feeding one and changing another.

Motherhood sketchbook  c. 2009  Jennifer Groeber

Motherhood sketchbook
c. 2009
Jennifer Groeber

Four years ago, right after my fourth was born, I taught an evening course of printmaking and painting. It had been 15 years since I’d done woodcuts and I did a demo of a child’s jacket for the class. I was hooked. Woodcuts and linocuts are something I can put on the counter and literally chip away at during the day.

Me, carving at the counter  Spring 2014

Me, carving at the counter
Spring 2014

And in the carpool line...  Fall 2014

And in the carpool line…
Fall 2014

I’ve called poison control to tell them that my four-year-old used my red water-based ink as a fruit squeezer only to find out that not only is Dick Blick water-based red relief ink non-toxic, it’s gluten-free! And wood shavings in their oatmeal I just consider roughage.

And just to explain, woodcuts are similar to those linoleum prints everyone does freshman year. You carve chunks out of wood with a gouge, which is really a u-shaped knife. You roll ink across what hasn’t been carved out and then you press a piece of paper on top. My larger pieces take maybe 10 to 20 hours to carve, an hour to prepare any collage paper and about two hours to physically print by hand.

Let me tell you, you don’t stop making art… or playing music… or writing poems… or whatever creative outlet sets your spirit free. Even if your dad tells you you’ll starve or you’re supposed to be an engineer or they tell you not to quit your day job or you’re too busy teaching other people or you have a newborn, two 18-month-olds and a three-year-old. You do it. Do it in the carpool line or at the kitchen counter. Whatever. You just do it.

Jennie in dirndl dress, age 5 1976

Jennie in dirndl dress, age 5

Cabot, first day of pre-school, age 4  September 2014

Cabot, first day of pre-school, age 4
September 2014

Cabot, Jennie, Butchie's Braces  woodcut and collage  22" x 39"  Jennifer Groeber

Cabot, Jennie, Butchie’s Braces
woodcut and collage
22″ x 39″
Jennifer Groeber

The Lederhosen Story (It Gets Me Every Time)

Here’s a story. My father, before he got sick, traveled to Germany for his job. At that point my parents had maybe 4 children and very little money. My father brought back gifts for us, a dirndl dress for my mother, a dirndl dress for my older sisters (featured here on me) and for his son, his firstborn and namesake, a pair of leather lederhosen. My mother saved these, plus many of my childhood dresses in boxes and bins in the basement. When I started having children she gave them to me.

Lederhosen  woodcut, collage  14" x 22 1/2"  2012  Jennifer Groeber

woodcut, collage
14″ x 22 1/2″
Jennifer Groeber

Now most of you probably have some of these boxes filled with evidence of your adolescence in your basement, things you would probably find annoying right now, then maybe later, angering, this evidence of how badly your parents screwed up, then later, possibly much after, you’ll find it poignant, maybe even tragic (and tragically funny, if you allow it.)

My father bought leather lederhosen for his seven-year-old son, who wasn’t toilet trained by the way and who probably didn’t even walk at that point. Leather lederhosen!! Get it? That’s funny! Awkward, but funny.

But then, can you imagine that? [And here’s where I always get the chokey voice…] This man who knows his oldest child and namesake may never walk, or be toilet trained, will likely never talk, and certainly never have a family of his own, well he bought him leather lederhosen. Because that’s what you buy your son when you travel to Germany apparently. I can’t figure that out. The hope, the naïveté, the longing, a parent’s enduring love.

My show is called This Woman’s Work because it’s about being a mother and a daughter and a woman, about buying, washing, mending those dresses, collecting those toys, taking that photo on the first day of school or Halloween or on a brilliant summer’s day, being that child yourself. Also, that Kate Bush song just kills me.

We All Fall Down  woodcut, collage  36" x 22"  2014

We All Fall Down
woodcut, collage
36″ x 22″

In Summary

In summary, I thought I was just going to commiserate with you by saying that childhood is what you spend your adulthood recovering from. But really, I think what I mean to say is that you each need to figure out what matters to you, figure out why you are who you are, hold it up to the light, hold it fast, and then persevere, just keep going.

That’s this woman’s work.


*Fun fact:  I actually did a search for that childhood quote and the closest I could find was in Hope Floats, a movie so ridiculously sappy that my husband refers to every cheezy romance-type movie I ever watch as “Hope Floats”, as in, “What garbage is this? Hope Floats? Is that Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks again? Haven’t you seen this 200 times?” And for the record, the movie is pretty bad and it features Sandra Bullock, not Meg Ryan. I’m just sayin’…

39 comments on “Life’s a Journey: This Woman’s Work

  1. Burns the Fire
    November 14, 2014

    Breathless; couldn’t consumer this fast enough. Gorgeous post, art, you. Great to have it all back. Bravo!!

    • jgroeber
      November 15, 2014

      How much did this make my day?! Kindest words ever, as usual. Thank you for hanging in and checking in. Really. I missed you, too.

  2. kellylmckenzie
    November 14, 2014

    Have just tweeted this gem. I am so moved by it. Wow. I can well imagine the room was silent when you finished. Welcome back. This post makes me realize how much I missed you.

    • jgroeber
      November 15, 2014

      You just Tweeted this? I don’t even know what that means except that you just made me way cooler! Thank you. It’s good to be back.

  3. Matt
    November 14, 2014

    I really am in awe of you, Jennifer.

    The thoughtfulness with which you explore your childhood AND your children’s.

    Wonderful artwork.

    And as subtle-ly magical writing as I’ve ever read. Thank you for sharing this.

    • jgroeber
      November 15, 2014

      What a lovely comment. You guys are all just making my day. Thank you for reading and for getting it. Subtle-ly magical? Now that’s something to aspire to. Thank you.

  4. Jenn Berney
    November 14, 2014

    That was worth waiting for! I want to file the away in a folder titled: to read when in need of inspiration.

    • jgroeber
      November 15, 2014

      A folder for inspiration. Brilliant. I’ve been relying on Lindt truffles and Applegate salami for inspiration and it just hasn’t been working. Not sure if it’s the combo of the two or one or the other…

  5. Kathy D
    November 14, 2014

    Jen, you rock (Big time)! Wise woman, mother, artist, writer…!

    • jgroeber
      November 15, 2014

      Too kind. I rarely feel like any of those so to receive that compliment is chicken soup for the soul. (Or maybe chicken pot pie. I like chicken pot pie better. Crust.) Thank you for reading and commenting so kindly.

  6. Amy Reese
    November 14, 2014

    Your artwork is amazing, Jen. And you’re such an inspiration. If you need to create, you do it, and you just don’t stop doing it. What a wonderful piece! I feel lucky to have read this. Brava!

    Also, I remember that dumb movie! I still like Sandra Bullock though.

    • jgroeber
      November 15, 2014

      I love Sandra Bullock and that singer guy who was in it, too. But something about the whole going home to lick my wounds thing. (Am I even remembering the right movie?!) But it does crack me up that my husband literally calls every rom/rom-com movie Hope Floats. Where does he even get that?!
      And your new horror/thriller thing is just so well written. I have to say, I can only read it in the morning. That way by bedtime life has scoured it from my memory bank. Because I do not need to replay that in my mind…

      • Amy Reese
        November 21, 2014

        Thanks for your lovely comments about my horror story. I’m thrilled you’re scared (in a good way!). Posting has been delayed. I’m waiting for a new battery charger for my computer. Boo hoo! Thanks for all your support.

  7. jaklumen
    November 14, 2014

    ^ here by way of Amy Reese.

    Your artwork is incredible. I’m not just casually saying that– I hung out with a LOT of art students from high school, to college, to uni– although I didn’t develop my own skills quite so much. I’m envious of my wife and my daughter; my daughter is learning the shojo manga style in particular. (TJ Lubrano and Jamie Lynn Lano are helping me give her support.)

    “You spend the first 18 years of your life surviving your childhood and the rest of your life recovering from it.”

    I agree– that’s a great quote. Been working a lot on it lately, actually.

    • jgroeber
      November 15, 2014

      Ah, that Amy! She’s a rock star, am I right?
      And thank you for the compliment.
      So good to hear about kids being truly supported in their artistic expression. Really it transports you. And it can help you process so much.
      And yes, most of us have some stuff to recover from. Hopefully we can make less stuff for our kids, right?

      • jaklumen
        November 16, 2014

        Right! It fits together so well, actually– Cimmorene (my wife, a.k.a. @wavemistress) uses a lot of her artistic skill to educate our children. Our 7-yr old son has autism, and it’s especially useful that she can draw things to help him visualize the social skills he’s working on.

  8. momasteblog
    November 15, 2014

    You sort of blow me away.

    • jgroeber
      November 15, 2014

      Who, me? Aw, shucks. Thank you for that tiny burst of sweetness in my comments.

      • momasteblog
        November 15, 2014

        Its like i kind of wanna be jealous of you, but you’re too good and i like your work and am inspired by you as an artist, mom, and writer way too much. Thanks for keeping that bar high. 🙂 xo

  9. melirose3
    November 15, 2014

    this is very beautiful and moving. thank you x

    • jgroeber
      November 15, 2014

      Such a lovely comment. Thank you for that.

  10. Sing Better English
    November 15, 2014

    You’ve inspired me to have a go at woodcuts. The idea of setting them up and doing a bit at a time is very appealing. I remember making lino cuts at Christmas time back at school so it will feel nostalgic too.

    I absolutely agree with you – ‘you don’t stop making art… or playing music… or writing poems… or whatever creative outlet sets your spirit free.’ The trick, when you have little children, is to do something that only needs little bursts of time.

    You might be interested in part of this programme on the BBC. A woman called Nazrin talks about how women in prison in Iran carved messages on tiny stones for each other. She begins speaking about 12 minutes in: Tiny things have great power.

    • jgroeber
      November 21, 2014

      Tiny things do have great power. Thank you so much for your comment here on my tiny thing. Really. Heading to check out that link right now. And good luck on your linocuts. It’s fairly inexpensive and easy to get started and as long as you remember that everything prints in reverse, you’ll do great!

      • Sing Better English
        November 21, 2014

        Thanks for reminding me. I hadn’t remembered – I think when we made lino cut Christmas cards at school most of the detail could go either way round without destroying a small artist’s confidence or credibility – Christmas trees, snowmen and the 3 Wise Men – all forgiving, reversible subjects. The invisible, encouraging wisdom of Art teachers.

  11. Christine
    November 15, 2014

    I found you! And just stayed up too late reading your posts. Lovely to meet you this morning. Thanks for the blog recommendations. Your work (writing and art) is beautiful). I’ll be checking back

    • jgroeber
      November 21, 2014

      Ha! I’ve never successfully picked up a super-cool Mom at a kid-birthday-party. Yay! It must have been the smooth opening line, that you look like Piper’s best friend. Although you really do. And any Mom with more kids than me. Well, I bow down.
      Thank you for the kind comment and for finding me.

  12. Heidi
    November 16, 2014

    You are amazing. How fortunate those students were to hear you and see your art in real life. It is incredibly moving to read your words and see some photos. Thank you.

    • jgroeber
      November 21, 2014

      I feel incredibly lucky to have you as a supporter and a friend featured, actually, in some of those early portraits. I know this because I almost used one in my slide show last week. Thank you, too.

  13. talesfromthemotherland
    November 17, 2014

    Stunning! Could’ve heard a pin drop in my kitchen too… except for me sniffling, as I read. Your work is so beautiful, Jen– all of our work: your writing, your drawings, your paintings, your children, your life, your wood cutting… I just want to crawl inside your world, sometimes, as I read… it moves me that much.

    Do you sell this work? Where? How can I see it and the prices? I’m interested. And again, where do you live?? I think we must have coffee sometime. Seriously.

    • jgroeber
      November 21, 2014

      And I want to crawl inside your world… well, when you’re in Fiji or Iceland anyway. 😉 And the current work is for sale now in Bryn Mawr, Pa. There must be an easier way, though, right? Prints run somewhere between $200 for the smaller black and white pieces and $500 for the really big pieces with multiple plates. Perhaps someday I’ll actually get it all on-line with actual prices and all.
      And yes, we must have coffee/tea one of these years. I really am pretty close to your old stomping grounds, methinks. An easy drive from the original tea party, actually. 😉

      • talesfromthemotherland
        November 21, 2014

        Then we will have to make that happen! The meeting. Thanks for the info on how to find your work. Yes, it would be really great if it was on a website… where, you know… people could buy it… without coming to PA and all. 😉 How big is a “really big piece?” Love what you’re doing!

        • jgroeber
          November 22, 2014

          Ha! Pieces that are 11 x 17″ and have some collage are usually around $200 unframed and the huge collage pieces (22 x 37″, it doesn’t seem big but for a print it’s huge…) are from $400-$500. I also have a whole bunch of ocean-inspired pieces: buoy, horseshoe crab, lobster, a mooring. $150-$200ish. I really ought to get these things up on Etsy, right? That may be my next goal! Send me an e-mail, my dear, if you’d like to see more!

  14. Anna Spanos
    November 19, 2014

    Yay! So good to have you back.
    And congrats and good work on the talk and the show. It’s so gratifying to see you get some props for that other art you do 🙂

    • jgroeber
      November 21, 2014

      Loved your recent posts about finding balance and peace. You can understand my need to take a few weeks away. And coming back here to find so many positive responses has been a delight.

  15. Pingback: Giving Thanks: To You | Amy Reese Writes

  16. Pingback: 50 (ish) happy things from 2014. | jenny's lark

  17. Linda Friday
    September 2, 2015

    I decided to randomly read more of you today and clicked here. Now I just love you more. Those were some lucky students.

    • jgroeber
      September 18, 2015

      Ha! Just saw this here. How bad am I?
      And thank you for reading some of the old stuff. I feel so bad for it sometimes I wander back here myself to read it, too. 😉

  18. Stacy di Anna
    May 8, 2016

    Quiet Sunday morning here and I’m going through some of your older posts. Now I’m all teared up and my heart is full. Sending you love this Mother’s Day!

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