The Venus of Willendorf, a Stone Age figurine, is one of the oldest sculptures ever unearthed. And it pays homage to motherhood. Mothers -- Madonnas, Venuses, Earth Mothers, anonymous ripening women -- have long been the subject and the inspiration of art.
So imagine the surprise of three female artists who could find no home for an exhibit that would continue this centuries-old conversation about motherhood.
"Nobody would touch it," says painter Moe Davidson. "Too controversial."
Controversial? We're not talking crucifixes and urine here. But even female gallery owners said no.
"They must have thought we'd do big nudes giving birth," says sculptor Deborah Banker.
"They must have been thinking Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair," says painter Margaret McWethy Jr.
It took a year, but Moe's idea for an exhibit extending the artistic dialogue about motherhood found a place in The Gallery in West Annapolis.
"The only reason I can guess," says gallery owner Lizabeth Lind, "is that they were afraid . . ."
"Of their mothers?" asks Deborah.
"No," says Lizabeth, "of offending their framing customers. I would never censor the work that shows here. That's insulting."
Nothing about this show is insulting. Or shocking. Or trite. Or sappy. Instead, the work of these artists comes at motherhood like three separate beams of light. And the place where they intersect is both bright and warm.
Moe is a portrait artist whose work has a photographic yet otherworldly quality. The mother of two preschoolers, she works on weekends, when Dad takes over. Her series of drawings in somber grays and blacks depicts a woman in the universal poses of motherhood -- praying, embracing, burdened, teasing.
"I tried to remove my own mothering from my work," says Moe. "My own is go-go-go. Not very artistic." Instead, she reached back into motherhood for one of her drawings -- that of her own mother.
Moe's mom is wearing the traditional black shoulder drape of a formal portrait. But her graceful hand gesture hides the scar of heart surgery and her face reveals a woman who slipped into death and was changed by the journey back.
Seeing her portrait the night the exhibit opened, Moe's mom wept.
Margaret has no children. But she has 10 nieces and nephews under 7. She went to the shore on a family vacation to capture the children in oil paintings that explode in the bright colors of children's summer clothes in sunlight.
"I was taken aback when they asked me to join this," she says. "I didn't think I could contribute. I am drawn to children, but I feel emotionally cut off from them."
You can see that distance in her paintings. You are watching the children and their mothers and their dogs on the beach. There is a wall there, but it is a welcome separation from the intensity, the intimacy of mothering.
It has been a hard year for Deborah. The birth of her third son kind of pushed life over into chaos. She waited until the last minute to complete her tiny sculptures for the show so the scary, negative feelings might pass. They did. Their residue is the sardonic humor mothers only share with other mothers.
Deborah collects, well, sticks. The debris of nature she has saved for years found a place in this show. Re-created in cold cast copper, her twigs became a child's stick-figure drawings -- but with a mother's wit.
One stick figure is topped with a tangle of copper wire that recalls Deborah's own red hair. In that tangle are little copper babies.
Another is three little slingshots -- each with a tiny copper penis. It is titled "Three Boys."
"That one is dear to my heart," says Deborah, her freckled face flushing. "But the humor sneaks out."
Each artist has a favorite work in the exhibit. Moe's drawing of a woman wearing the hat made famous by Dr. Seuss' cat. Margaret's painting of a mother bending down to speak face-to-face with her small son. Deborah's stick-figure mother holding a tiny copper baby up to heaven in exaltation.
But one resonated more than the rest: Deborah's stick-figure woman holding a stick-figure house on her back.
"A Mother of An Exhibit" will be on display through Nov. 30 at The Gallery, 101 Annapolis St., (410) 269-5828.