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HAPPY BIRTH DAYS – Using art to make space for conversations on birth

By Ellie Shipman, Visual and participatory artist 

Over centuries different mediums of art have been used to illustrate and explore pregnancy and mother and parenthood. It is also used to support wellbeing following birth in different ways. Ellie Shipman, visual and participatory artist in Bristol, shares some of her work and her current project. Can you collaborate?  


The ways in which we express ourselves are vital to the processing and understanding of our own lived experience, whether we are creating them or viewing the creations of others. As a visual artist with over 13 years of experience co-creating projects with communities and researchers around themes of sustainability, community, urban change and what it means to be a woman, it took giving birth to really embed my own lived experience into my art practice. 

Following the challenging birth of my son in 2021 my work has been exploring birth, the complexities of motherhood and hidden women’s labour. This led to a new body of work including: collage series Expect the Unexpected; photograph Unheard; sculptures using found quilts and medical training devices How Was The Birth? and Held With Volume and participatory birth-day party HAPPY BIRTH DAYS, all 2023. Bringing birth as a thematic deepening of my practice has led to fascinating commissions along these lines, from Empowering Parents in HE by Dr Jennifer Crane and Dr Erika Hanna, a 6 month research project with the University of Bristol in which I am using creative workshops and sculpture to visualise how the institution impacts academic m/others; to co-designing STICC – Some Things I Can Control with artists Jack Stiling and Amy Rose – a prototype for a birth bag storage unit for Dr Victoria Bates and Dr Rebecka Fleetwood-Smith’s research project Sensing Spaces of Healthcare, to be trialled at Southmead Hospital with Fresh Arts; and proposals to co-design wallpaper and interiors for maternity spaces with staff and patients.  

I wanted to reflect on the piece HAPPY BIRTH DAYS as an evolving and ongoing project, exploring our internal dialogue around the birth experience through engaging communities of those who identify as mothers. HAPPY BIRTH DAYS is an installation in the form of a birth-themed birthday party acknowledging trauma, grief, joy, hope, and incredible change. The piece was piloted last year at my solo show RE:COLLECTION – Regathering Social Practice at Bricks, Bristol, and recently exhibited at All is Joy Studios, London – the first two locations on what I plan to be a UK-wide tour.  

The artwork came to be as I was struck by a grief-like feeling around the first birthday of my son alongside the joy and celebration of him and found there was little to no space for reflection on the birth itself on the anniversary for the mother or parent. HAPPY BIRTH DAYS aims to widen this conversation, visualising this juxtaposition of celebration and reflection through a birth-themed birthday party for 10 fellow mothers, with the aim to shed light on the diversity of the traumas and triumphs of birth. The 10 party attendees, and later visitors to the exhibition, are invited to write their own birth-day cards of support to their birthing self: a copy to take home to open on the next anniversary of their birth, and a copy to leave anonymously for others to experience. The remnants of the birth-day party – leftover placenta-shaped cake, messy plates and the birth-day cards – remain on display as an installation simultaneously evolving and degrading.   

© Ellie Shipman, HAPPY BIRTH DAYS project

HAPPY BIRTH DAYS has taught me that allowing my work to be informed by my own personal experience creates more powerful, connecting and lasting artwork and prompts real connection and community. Each iteration of the ‘party’ involves 10 mothers – this has included people who identify as mothers who have had a bodily experience of birth at all life stages, some who are currently pregnant with their second or third children right up to grandmothers who have witnessed their own daughters’ births and complicated experiences with a system they hoped had changed.  

The cards the mothers write to their birthing selves reveal commonalities behind our own internal dialogues – bringing isolated reflections into a powerful collective, acknowledging the complexity of the birth experience and our own origin stories. Written in various looping scripts, the personal handwriting speaks to internal power, trusting our bodies, knowing our strength and having compassion and forgiveness to ourselves when birth has not been what we hoped. It is these messages I hope will touch many experiences of birth, and show all those who feel unheard and isolated, shocked, confused and everything in between that we are not alone. Adeline, a London participant, said: “We (as carers) are providers – so to have something provided to us was bliss. It felt real and honest, calm and open. Ellie opened a space that allowed us to reflect on our own birth / mothering experience. By doing this as a group, it felt powerful and you could feel the care in the room!” Attendees said they felt supported, comforted and welcomed the space for reflection – one suggesting: “This should be a service on the NHS!”.  

The bringing together of women in this way creates a personal round table, not far from a quilting or sewing circle, where I imagine women once shared similar stories and messages of support to each other. I am not sure where these spaces exist in our contemporary society, or if they have dissolved into the vastness of Instagram and other online spaces, or perhaps still bubble away behind closed doors with the support of a community group or charity. Intergenerational and inter-community conversations on birth and motherhood are still hard to find, although organisations like Maternal Journal, who facilitate journaling groups on motherhood and parenting, creativity and mental health, are meeting a need across the country, and I have written a new journaling mini guide for Maternal Journal on writing a birth-day card of support – write your own here.   

HAPPY BIRTH DAYS is in its early stages – perhaps the fourth trimester – out in the world but still developing with every day. I am interested in finding a home for the birth-day cards written by attending mothers – these handwritten moments of incredible internal dialogue deserve to be carefully archived alongside libraries of medical texts and feminist histories. I am looking for places to tour the artwork, particularly art galleries or white spaces which feel blank and slightly removed from a domestic or medical setting. And of course, I am looking for collaborations with researchers and funders who could help make this work a larger scale piece, with academic perspectives on the cards collected, and outreach to invite mothers from a wide variety of ages, communities, backgrounds and experiences. I endeavour to hold these powerful conversations with different groups of women to inform how we understand internal dialogues around birth and our innate ability to access a deeper strength we didn’t know we had.   


© Jo Hounsome Photography 2023

Ellie Shipman (she/her) is a visual and participatory artist based in Bristol. Ellie studied BA Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art, UAL, 2008 – 11, and MSc Sustainable Development at UWE, 2015-16. Ellie is interested in birth and grief, sustainability, community and what it means to be a woman which she explores through social practice, public art, collage, textiles and sculpture.  

Ellie regularly works on commissions for universities, researchers, museums and archives amongst others. Commissioners, funders and partners have included: Arts Council England; Southmead Hospital; We the Curious; The Vietnamese Women’s Museum; Pump House Gallery; The University of Bristol; The University of Cambridge; Historic England; The Royal Shakespeare Company; Wellcome Trust. Ellie is an Associate Artist at Spike Island. 

Ellie Shipman 

Visual and participatory artist 

March 2024 


Instagram @ellieshipman 

© Jo Hounsome photography, 2023