Madeline Donahue

The paradox of motherhood

<em>Scissors</em>, 2022, oil on canvas.
Scissors, 2022, oil on canvas.

Painter Madeline Donahue has long dealt with themes of family and intimacy in her work. In 2016, with the birth of her first child, she began focusing on motherhood. “I try to sit with feelings of shame, discomfort, and joy—all the experiences of being a mom,” she says. Her paintings narrowed in on the tight bond she felt with her daughter, often representing their interconnectedness using a palette of Prussian blue and rose—the mother figure swirling around the infant figure, like the inside of a conch shell. When she had another child in 2019, her canvases began to reflect the more chaotic side of parenting: of “the trio and how we exist together,” she says. “Like, how do you entertain a toddler while feeding a newborn?”

  • Squash, 2019, oil on canvas.

Donahue’s recent works—featuring bright, playful patterns of textiles and other patterns found in her home—are infused with joy and humor but also the struggles of a working mother. In Scissors, for example, two children are taking shears to their mother’s dress while she tries to focus on painting; the family dog peeks through some of the holes, while the mother paints on. Parenting young children can be a lonely experience, and the reality of being a working painter—spending entire days in a studio by herself—only intensifies the sense of isolation. But the personal themes she expresses have helped relieve her loneliness. “It’s every piece,” she says. “That’s the shocking part. The number of people who have reached out to me to say they feel seen—it’s just crazy. Now I’m never alone in the work because so many people connect and feel the need to tell me.”

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Noelani Kirschner is a former assistant editor for the Scholar.


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