Alisha Wormsley wasn’t about to let the pandemic derail her dream of starting an artists’ residency for black moms. She simply modified her idea.
On May 1, Wormsley launched the first eight-week cycle of Sibyls Shrine Network. The online program supports black creative mothers in Pittsburgh as part of her Sibyls Shrine artists’ residency program for black moms who are artists, musicians, makers, crafters or activists. So far, 20 moms have signed up and there’s room for 10 more in the first phase.
She chose the name to pay homage to the Sibyls who were the original priestesses of the black goddess Mami Wata. These ancient oracles out of North Africa predated those of Greek history, according to Wormsley, in a time of matriarchal societies.
“I’m using that as a way to get us back into respecting mothers and taking care of mothers,” she says.
“We’re just starting. We’re in the planning phase right now, hoping to start our residencies in September,” says Wormsley, whose project has support from the Office of Public Art. She obtained a $150,000 grant from The Heinz Endowments and more money from The Pittsburgh Foundation to establish and operate the program.
Artist Jessica Gaynelle Moss will be the Sibyls Shrine administrative director and offered a house for the residency program that her family owns in the Hill District. Wormsley envisions having visiting artists who could mentor local creative black mothers. Naomi Chambers, who ran FlowerHouse, an art center in Wilkinsburg, will be the community liaison.
But while people are adhering to social distancing because of COVID-19, Sibyls Shrine will be online.
“Now that we’re in this COVID reality, we’re changing,” Wormsley says. “We’re thinking that these residencies are going to be home residencies now because of the corona.”
She and Moss have scrapped plans to travel to Houston and London to see similar programs in action. “Since we can’t travel, and people are struggling right now, we thought we could use our travel money to support people right now — get their house cleaned once a week, bring cooked meals once a week, pay for child care, things like that,” Wormsley says.
Through Sibyls Shrine, creative black mothers will connect through an online meeting space for digital classes and workshops. They’ll be encouraged to share their skills with the collective. Participants will get a modest honorarium.
“It’s grocery money, pay a couple of bills,” says Wormsley. “We’ll also pay people in the network or other creative black mothers we know to do workshops in professional development, self-care, even just on homeschooling — things that could support moms right now.”
Wormsley, a digital media/video installation/performance artist, is mom to Amiel, 11, and Shepherd, 4. She knows how difficult it can be to juggle a career and child-rearing, having been turned away from residencies because she was pregnant or had young children. She remembers other black mothers being the biggest help to her.
“In my experience, as an artist and mother of black children, I just found a lot of roadblocks, a lot of negativity,” she says. “It was just so difficult to exist that I wanted to do this.”
When the initial eight-week program ends, future cycles and opportunities to join will be announced. There is no age limit to join the group. All black creative mothers in Pittsburgh are welcome, regardless of their media or discipline and whether they are an emerging creative or experienced practitioner.