Lauren Turner can’t help but journey back to experiences of giving birth and motherhood when she sits down to paint.

Turner, who became a doula so she could help other families on their birthing paths, picked up the artform nearly seven years ago when she was postpartum with her second child. Though she’s aided at least a dozen people in her work as a childbirth professional, she found her paintings can be their own avenue of support.

Turner’s works re-create moments of childbirth, motherhood, fatherhood, lactation and more, with an emphasis on people of color. By combining her passion for birth work and maternal health, she aims to create advocacy through art.

“The goal is to show birth being in a positive light and not always necessarily a scary thing,” Turner said.

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She doesn’t deny the physical pain associated with it, but she said “it’s such an amazing experience to connect with your body in that way.”

Much of Turner’s artistic inspiration is drawn from her own birthing choices and the stages she’s gone through as a mother of two children. Turner has several paintings of plump birthing pools similar to the ones her midwives supplied for her. It was important for her to have that experience at home because it was safe and she felt she could better control the environment and wouldn’t be forced to do anything she wasn’t comfortable with.

She’s not alone. Home births have seen an uptick in recent years, rising by 12% from 2020 to 2021 — and reaching the highest level since 1990 — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Turner also tends to create paintings from photographs submitted through her website, commissioned clients or stock images she comes across. She changes the stock images just enough so the piece aligns with her vision and there’s no issue with copyright.

“Every photo, especially when you are a mother or you’re a person in the photo, it’s always a story behind [it]. And my goal is to hold space for that person and help them kind of unravel whatever they need to unravel,” Turner said.

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Luckily, when she’s feeling the urge to paint — even in the wee hours of the morning — she doesn’t have to go far to create. She can just mosey downstairs to her finished basement, which she has partially converted into a studio. She’s grateful to work there and be close to her family.

Lauren Turner, at left, shows her favorite paintbrushes. She’s had the red one since high school. At right, paint and other supplies are seen in her studio. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

A corner of the studio pops with colors as acrylic paint pieces show several brown-skinned mothers cupping the heads of their babies as they breastfeed. One of Turner’s earliest paintings, “Birth of the Universe,” shows a lotus birth — in which a newborn is still attached to the umbilical cord and placenta — against a purplish black backdrop speckled with stars. It’s akin to a scene borrowed from outer space.

Turner’s pieces aren’t always inspirational, but they are inclusive of varying birth stories. For a commissioned piece of a mother and older sibling holding a stillborn baby, “We focused on the celebration of this baby that was here, even if the baby was here for such a small moment. … You have to be very delicate,” Turner said.

Representation is important to Turner in her paintings, especially when it comes to breastfeeding. She credits oxytocin — also known as the bonding or love hormone — for the profound connection she felt breastfeeding her daughter, which she said specifically helped her get through postpartum.

“People don’t value the space that we hold, and I hope that Black mothers and birthing people see themselves [represented] enough to celebrate their moment, even if they feel like they can’t, you know, openly breastfeed in public,” she said.

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Turner was once shamed by a family member for doing so, so creating artwork around the topic is her way of “breastfeeding out loud” in defense of an innocent action that is often sexualized. For Black women, breastfeeding carries some negative connotations because it’s entangled in the legacy of slavery. Many enslaved Africans were used as wet nurses for white babies, often at the expense of feeding their own children.

Turner said, if she saw more representation of women who look like her breastfeeding in art or elsewhere, she might have felt less of a need to do it in her car and other secluded places.

A collage of Lauren Turner’s works hangs in her studio in Rosedale. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“I just hope that more people see themselves enough to celebrate what they’re doing for their baby,” Turner said.

The artist finds it difficult to venture outside themes of parenthood in her paintings, considering herself a “birth nerd.” Birth Nerds is also the name of her small, online shop that takes more of a political stance on maternal health. Stickers, mugs, crew necks and more are emblazoned with phrases such as “introverted but willing to discuss reproductive justice” and “trans bodies deserve dignified prenatal care.”

Turner said she’s received backlash online for the messaging, but she’s more focused on the supporters of her work.

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Jacquelyn Clemmons-Muhammed has followed Turner’s artwork for at least five years. As an author and birth worker of over two decades, Clemmons-Muhammed is inspired by Turner’s ability to uniquely prioritize maternal health.

“I think Lauren has done a tremendous job of showing us that your passion and dedication to maternal health can really show up in a myriad of ways and you don’t have to follow one path,” Clemmons-Muhammed said.

She’s also drawn into how lifelike and relatable Turner’s paintings can be and has purchased several items.

“When you see yourself represented in these beautiful ways … it’s extremely empowering and it plants seeds,” she said. “We often feel isolated because we don’t know if people are experiencing what we are experiencing unless we see it.”

Lauren Turner’s car is decorated with Birth Nerds stickers, including her painting “Birth of the Universe.” (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Turner recently landed her first solo art show with the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex, her alma mater, after applying to its open call. One of her pieces will be purchased by the community college’s gallery and placed in the Deborah Wainwright Memorial Collection, which is named after an associate professor and coordinator of minority affairs who established a collection of African American art at the college in 1999.

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Nicole Buckingham Kern, a gallery coordinator, said Turner was chosen by a committee for the opportunity. Buckingham Kern said they enjoyed “how her [Turner’s] life informs her art and her art informs her life” and the empowering of mothers of color. It’s been years since Turner attended the community college, but Buckingham Kern can recall Turner as a budding student.

“I remember really enjoying seeing her concept and finding her voice. I think the skill was always there. She needed to find what she was passionate about and what she wanted to say,” she said.

Buckingham Kern hopes to get the show up in April, and it will run for a year. Several of the pieces Turner used in her application have already sold on her website, Lauren J. Turner Fine Art.

She is currently working on commissioned pieces but plans to make more time for the art that she wants to create as it comes to her.

“My market is very niche, but it makes me happy,” Turner said. “It fulfills me to advocate in this way.”

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983.

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