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On the Nest: Before and after of parenthood

Art faculty Dona Schwartz brings expecting parents and empty nesters in front of the lens


Lollie & Alan, 3 Months. In some houses the rooms are kept, like an archeological site, with an amazing accumulation of things that say a lot about a child’s family history. This room for example, has decorations from the nursery, but there are also elements of young adulthood such as a pencil holder made out of a Heineken can and an electric guitar. Photo by Dona Schwartz

By Aurelie Maerten

Photographer Dona Schwartz’s portrait series, On the Nest, is getting attention around the world. A feature article in The Guardian netted nearly 800 comments and more than 13,000 shares. This great interest follows the publication of her book and her exhibition at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto. Certainly, the series hits home for so many viewers.

On the Nest examines two key transitions in life: becoming a first-time parent and becoming an empty nester once the children have left home. By looking at both groups, Schwartz is trying to understand both how we experience those distinct life transitions and how they change our identities. She not only focuses on the individuals, but also on the spaces, by taking her photos in the children’s rooms.

“There are things one can learn from looking at people’s appearances and interactions; for example, how they choose to stand next to one another, what kinds of gestures they use… those things tell you quite a bit about relationships,” says Schwartz, an associate professor in the Department of Art. “But the environment tells a whole other set of stories.”

Schwartz noticed that most nurseries are like showcases. The assembled books reflect parents’ beliefs about what it takes to be good parents. Everything is very neat and controlled. It’s almost a sacred space, she notes. It’s demonstrating that last moment of control before the baby is born.

With the empty nesters, however, it’s a very different story.

“When you’re going to have a baby, you have 9 months, you become a parent and your identity is changed,” says Schwartz. “Becoming an empty nester is a slower and less defined transition. The children might come back and you may still feel like you’re a parent, not ready to relinquish the role. I think the rooms reflect that ambiguity. They’re all very different.”

In some houses, the rooms are kept, like an archeological site, with an amazing accumulation of things that say a lot about a child’s family history. In other houses the rooms are redecorated really quickly.

Comparing both groups, Schwartz notes that the transition to empty nester is not as recognized as the transition to parenthood.

“When you become a parent, people give you a baby shower, there are celebrations, people recognize that this a significant change in your life,” says Schwartz. “When you’re an empty nester, no one gives you a party and tells you ‘Job well done. Let’s celebrate!’”.

Within the context of popular media the work has been seen by a lot of people, she notes.

“The comments on The Guardian feature are very interesting. People are reflecting on their own experiences. That’s something that I really wanted the work to do,” says Schwartz. “Another article in Canadian Art focuses on my practice as an artist. It speaks of the success of the work in the specialized arena of art discourse. Through the project, I’m able to address multiple audiences and that’s very gratifying.”

On the Nest is exhibited in the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto until February 27 and is published as a book by Kehrer Verlag.