Student view:

Maria Novotny: Art as advocacy

Nov. 30, 2016

Maria Novotny is a fourth-year doctoral student in the College of Arts and Letters. A co-director of The ART of Infertility, she travels the world exhibiting stories of infertility. She fuses her academic research with community outreach by offering art and creative writing workshops to infertile individuals.

shadow of woman holding babyIn 2011, I received what most 25-year-old women don’t expect: an infertility diagnosis.

I remember driving back to our house after that first meeting. Almost the entire car ride home, we drove in silence. It was really, really hard to wrap my head around the reality that we probably would never be able to get pregnant naturally.

But instead of beginning a regime of doctor appointments and hormone therapies, we founded a local support group with the help of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association.

Shortly after getting our support group off the ground, we were invited to attend a national Advocacy Day event in Washington, D.C., hosted by RESOLVE. This annual event aims to increase infertility awareness by lobbying Congress for federal mandated fertility insurance.

And during the event, I met Elizabeth Walker, founder and co-director of The ART of Infertility.

Elizabeth and I spent two days together lobbying our Michigan representatives to support better fertility coverage. During this time, she shared with me an art exhibition that had just debuted at the Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson.

At the same time, I was beginning my doctoral work in rhetoric and writing at MSU. Wanting to connect my own experiences with infertility, I began examining the “rhetorics of infertility,” exploring how infertile individuals make meaning, communicate and navigate experiences related to infertility. Wanting to see how others were representing personal moments of infertility, I was excited to view Elizabeth’s curated exhibit.wire bowl

I was so impressed with “The ART of IF: Navigating the Journey of Infertility” exhibit. It was emotionally powerful, but also connected with much of my intended area of research: rhetorics of infertility. The exhibit demonstrated how artwork is multimodal composition and how multimodal composing practices can reveal so much about embodied experiences of medicine.

Two years have passed since that initial “ART of IF” exhibit and the project has traveled around the United States collecting oral histories of infertility, hosting art and writing workshops and curating a variety of art exhibitions.

Most recently, Elizabeth and I returned from Coinsins, Switzerland, where we were invited by Merck KGaA (known as EMD Serono in the United States) to curate an exhibition and present stories of infertility for its patient day event for its medical deliverables team.

circular patterns made with needlesIt was an honor to be asked by such a large pharmaceutical company to share patient stories of infertility. So many of the pieces of artwork and oral histories that we’ve collected have talked about how invisible patients feel when going through infertility. Unlike other diseases and even reproductive loss – like a miscarriage – infertility is hardly “seen” in our culture. So it was a privilege to raise awareness of the series of daily challenges infertile women and men face - both medically and culturally.

I often get asked how I can research a topic that is so personal and emotional. I don’t really understand this question. For me, this work is simply an extension of who I am and motivates me to advocate on the behalf of so many infertile women and men who desperately want a family of their own. I know that feeling, deeply. So my only response is, “How can I not do this work?”