Membryonics exhibition creates dialogue, raises awareness on 'silent loss'

(Edmonton) University of Alberta art and design student Emma McLay was a year from finishing her undergraduate degree when doctors found a medical condition that had the potential to threaten her fertility. She and her husband decided to become pregnant earlier than planned—a decision that resulted in a series of complicated miscarriages, but eventually the birth of the young couple’s first child.

The experiences took her to the Lois Hole Hospital for Women, and it is to women working at the hospital that she dedicates her master’s of fine arts in painting thesis show, Membryonics, which run at the FAB Gallery until June 11 and starts today.

“I owe the women at that hospital my life. This show would not be without them, nor would my daughter,” McLay said. “I went through numerous miscarriages and complications. During the last miscarriage, I accepted counseling from the hospital. This was good because I was already in a state of depression from previous loss. These caregivers have saved many lives from being consumed or ended by depression and grief, including my own. They provided me refuge where I could grieve without judgment and gave me tools to cope.”

McLay says she hopes the exhibition contributes to a conversation about the silence, lack of empathy and misunderstanding around reproductive difficulties, and hopes that it helps change public perception on infant and pregnancy loss.

“The way people in our culture react to the families left behind is often insensitive and uneducated,” said McLay. “The experience and pain women go through during miscarriages or infant loss is different for everyone, and nobody outside of that individual experience is equipped or qualified to judge how much grief or healing is required.

“With support, parents can learn to carry the memory of their babies, but they need that loss to be respected. I met many women who were feeling incredibly alone and unsupported;not just women, but parents, partners and husbands suffer too.” 

The exhibit deconstructs perceptions of the female body, especially during reproductive processes, through eight works, each of which reveals a different layer of vulnerability.

“I have thought of my own body as a monument, impenetrable with definable boundaries,” said McLay, “but emotional and physical trauma—in my case related to bearing children—takes away that idea.”

McLay says the paintings start very contained and show very clear boundaries around the body. Those boundaries begin to open to the point where towards the end, two pieces flow out to the floor.

“They have no control as they flow right into the viewer’s space,” said McLay. “The body is no longer acting as a vessel or container of the self.”
The exhibition also addresses questions about female identity, such as whether a woman who has had a miscarriage is a mother.

“With a miscarriage, [some] women feel like they’ve become a mother and yet they have no child to hold,” said McLay. “That’s a very strange place to be in your identity because I felt like a mother, but I was not fulfilling that role—I was left empty.”

McLay says her experiences around pregnancy have changed her. “I’m certainly more mature and at the same time, I’m more understanding and aware and empathetic,” she said. “It comes down to human empathy. People need to be kinder and more understanding of people who experience these difficulties. There’s a lot that needs to be done on this silent loss and much of it has to come from public awareness.”

The show’s reception begins tonight at 7 p.m. For more information on Membryonics, or other upcoming shows, visit the FAB Gallery website.