It's a pandemic and all her toddler's meals are on the floor, so this mom found the art in the mess

Karina Garcia Casanova's playful new series highlights the unsung labour of mothers during the pandemic.

Karina Garcia Casanova's playful new series highlights the unsung labour of mothers during the pandemic

Karina Garcia Casanova's son Mathias. (Karina Garcia Casanova)

When COVID-19 first hit, artist Karina Garcia Casanova found herself struggling to make new work. With daycares closed for months and two young children to care for full-time, the Montreal-based filmmaker was too busy washing, clothing, cooking, feeding, cleaning, educating and entertaining to do much filmmaking.

"This problem of reconciling artistic creation and domestic work existed before the pandemic," she says, "but during COVID, it took on a whole new level."

Among her myriad duties, two or three times a day, she'd have to wipe up beneath the high chair of her two-year-old, Mathias, who is a particularly messy eater. The blueberry smoothie she made him would inevitably end up on the floor, joined maybe by a slice of kiwi and a hunk of crepe. Sometimes, when the day was especially hectic, the debris from lunch might meet the mess from breakfast earlier. When she dispatched the muck, she'd take notice of the patterns it created, like little Jackson Pollocks painted in overturned cereal milk and fumbled raisins.

Casanova began documenting these "accidental compositions," posting the photos online, where her friends would try to guess what her children had — and mostly hadn't — eaten that day. The project grew into a photo series, titled Under the High Chair, which was included in the recent digital publication, Time Out, by the Blackwood Gallery work-study team.

Under the High Chair - June 11 - Lunch. (Karina Garcia Casanova)

Although Casanova says neither she nor Mathias — as far as she knows — were explicitly referencing art history, the connections to all those titan abstract expressionists are easily made. In her most recent update, for example, the curlicued spaghetti recalls the kind of mark-making Cy Twombly made famous. In another, there's a constellation of ham, scrambled eggs and pasta shells that has a real Arshile Gorky thing going on. The slopped blueberry smoothie, titled "Under the High Chair - June 11, 2020 - Lunch," is the right shape and shade for a Helen Frankenthaler. And though it's good fun to recognize the spirit of Franz Kline in a dramatic slash of apple sauce, the concept here isn't, "My kid could do that." It's more, "My kid did that — and now I have to clean it up."

While care work is too often invisible, Casanova's photo series visualizes this small, twice- or thrice-daily task to address the hours and hours of domestic labour that each day go unrecorded. "Had I not taken a photograph," she says, "it would have not been regarded."

Under the High Chair emphasizes how the pandemic has disproportionately affected women. Earlier this month, Statistics Canada revealed that the number of mothers who worked less than half their usual hours in September was 70 per cent higher than in February; compare that to an increase of 23.7 per cent over the same period for fathers. As an April United Nations policy brief said: "Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is therefore less than that of men."

The pandemic has only accentuated some of the "very big questions about distribution of labour amongst partners," Casanova says. "Women tend to have the 'double shift,' as we say. We work and then, when we come home, we're often also the primary caregivers: cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids."

Under the High Chair - April 6 - Breakfast. (Karina Garcia Casanova)

Finding the time and energy to give her regular creative practice has been a challenge. But she's also noticed how her artmaking has adapted to the constraints. She's shifted toward more "modest" and "introspective" ways of creating, she says — less equipment, no crews. "I've been collecting these little moments of domesticity and framing them within an artistic context." Under the High Chair is one example; "Dada Machines" is another. The short film shows the regular shenanigans of her two children — their intense gibberish poetry, impromptu song, a spontaneous contraption made by her five-year-old running around the room with a roll of garbage bags — as paragon of the famous avant-garde art movement.

While chronicling these scenes from motherhood remains part of her creative practice, she's also "moved on to other messes," she says. Currently, Casanova is making an experimental nonfiction film — "caméra-stylo," she calls it, "something very personal and intimate using simple means to create." The fragment she's working on right now explores a childhood crush she developed for Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North during the summer of the Iran-Contra trials. For the moment, she's scouring more archival footage than tile floor, but it's important, she says, that she gets in as much work as she can because, with COVID cases spiking again in Quebec, nobody knows if schools and daycares will remain open in a month's time.

Casanova recognizes the pandemic has been something of a setback. However, she also sees in it the tremendous opportunity for change. "People are becoming aware of the value of care work," she says. Daycares; support workers; long-term care staff; the people who cook and wash and care for our families; whomever it is that cleans under the high chair — it is her hope we've learned just how essential their work is.

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