MILFORD, Mass. — Artist Ashley MacLure’s world is filled with fairies, young girls riding giant moths — and anguished, bleeding women.
A grimacing young woman rendered in black and white is curled in a fetal position, splashes of crimson staining her bottom. Here she is again, leaning against a bloodied wall, her abdomen nothing but a large oval hole. There’s a self-portrait in charcoal pencil — a close-up of a face pinched by sorrow.
In her artist’s mind, this is what miscarriage looks like. And while MacLure’s story seems destined for a happy ending — she and her husband are expecting their first child this summer — the high school visual arts teacher hopes her provocative works will help take away the enduring stigma of pregnancy loss.
“It’s my way of shouting into the void,” she says.
As many as one in four pregnancies ends prematurely in miscarriage, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine says. With miscarriage so commonplace, women increasingly are pressing for society to stop treating it as taboo.
Among them is figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, who revealed last year during an episode of “Dancing with the Stars” that she had six miscarriages during an eight-year span. Now a mother of three, she told ABC’s “Good Morning America” the losses were rough on her marriage.
“We don’t talk about it as fluidly as we should,” says Dr. Jessica Zucker, a Los Angeles psychologist and mother of two who lost a baby and launched a social media campaign — #IHadAMiscarriage — to get people talking openly.
“The unfortunate consequences are that a majority of women are reporting shame, self-blame and guilt,” she says. “Loss is devastating, but the women who live these losses are strong. What they have to share is deeply important.”
MacLure, 30, who’s had two miscarriages, says other women’s stories can make her feel like an impostor. But her grief and pain — both physical and psychological — are no less real.
That’s captured in her art, which is honest and edgy — some might say brutally so.
“One moment, you’re elated. And then it’s just over,” says MacLure, who grew up in North Providence, Rhode Island, and moved to Milford, Massachusetts, after earning a degree in illustration from Rhode Island School of Design.
“It’s very surreal. You’re mentally in a different space, starting to think about the future. And then, suddenly, you’re not.”
MacLure, who teaches at Blackstone Valley Technical Regional Vocational High School in Upton, Massachusetts, sought solace in her paints and brushes. She began somewhat jarringly by painting diseased ovaries and uteruses — a cathartic escape as she battled feelings of failure and fears that she might never be a mother.
She’s since done a series of paintings on clear glass dinner plates — a fragile domestic item that seemed like the perfect medium for capturing maternal anguish.
MacLure’s more whimsical work has been showcased in juried exhibitions, and some has won critical acclaim. Not these paintings. Galleries don’t know what to do with a likeness of her husband holding her as blood flows beneath them, or a plate depicting her naked and curled in a fetal position with a bright red blotch on her belly.
“They don’t want to make audiences uncomfortable,” she says. “People want to see flowers and sailboats and landscapes and pretty things. I’m all about making people uncomfortable.”
Even so, MacLure is gaining a following. Women she’s never met who have experienced the pain of miscarriage have been connecting with her, posting comments and sharing their own stories of loss and healing.
Among them is Lauren Lowen, a fellow illustrator who miscarried. Like MacLure, she’s now expecting her firstborn this summer.
“I saw her art flash up on my feed, and I found it poetic and beautiful,” says Lowen, of Nashville, Tennessee. “Her work really moved me. Miscarriage is a unique form of heartbreak.”
Men, too, have sought out MacLure. Cambridge entrepreneur Chris Tolles reached out after his wife twice miscarried. The couple now has a 2-year-old daughter, but Tolles still feels a “profound connection” to her art.
“Suffering is a real thing, and it’s best shared,” he says. “People talk about miscarriage as though a baby just disappears, but the reality can be really gory and awful. Her work embodies that attitude of, ‘Here’s real life — take it or leave it.’”
For MacLure, an only child, fast-approaching motherhood is bittersweet. Six years ago, she lost her own mom.
“I’m so grateful that I get to be a mom — to pass on all the positive things my mom taught me, and teach the strength and resilience I’ve learned along the way,” she says.
“I’m also excited to know this whole new person.”