Debra Cartwright Paints an Intimate Portrait of Black Maternal Health

Brooklyn-based artist Debra Cartwright explores the vital importance of listening, the gynecological history of America, and her emerging body of work on black maternal health, inspired by her mother. 

Debra Cartwright Paints an Intimate Portrait of Black Maternal Health

“When you’re making art, you are in conversation with other artists. You’re talking back and forth. There are certain conversations I want to be part of: the history of this country, race relations in the United States, sexuality of black women, sexual health of black women, our gynecological history. I want my work to make people think about these [topics] more; to talk about them more.”


Debra Cartwright is a Brooklyn-based artist known for painting the interior lives of black women in intimate spaces. In these works, Debra portrays her subjects at ease, challenging traditional expectations of black womanhood and exploring the ways that rest can be powerful rebellion. 

“I want to portray the vulnerability and femininity of black women. I want to give them autonomy. I don’t want them to be seen as just a mother or just a wife. That’s why all my women are basically by themselves in these paintings – because I want to represent their intimate space; to let them be lush and comfortable within themselves. I’m addressing more than sexuality. It’s self-love.” 


After six years of working in the commercial art space, Debra is transitioning into the fine art world and exploring ways to connect these stories with even deeper historical and sociological narratives. The inspiration for the next chapter of her work draws from a different, but equally intimate topic: the maternal health of black women. 

“My mom is a gynecologist. A lot of my friends are pregnant. Two just had babies. As they were going through their pregnancies, I started reading about the maternal mortality rate of black mothers, which is 3-5 times higher than any other race nationwide. I kept reading and went down a hole about the history of gynecology in our country. It’s heart wrenching.” 

“The statue of Marion Sims, who was lauded as the father of gynecology, was just taken down in Central Park a couple of months ago. He used slave women as guinea pigs, with no anesthesia. That’s a thread from the past that has not been fully addressed or broken in the medical world.” 

“I obviously started talking to my mom about it. She says the number one challenge of being a doctor is knowing how to listen. When someone tells you what’s going on with them, you have to be able to respond appropriately. If you are not able to listen, you are not able to see the humanity in your patients. If you can’t see the humanity, then you are going to mess up.”

“Medical options are not offered to black women in the way they are offered to white women. Doctors are making decisions for them, because they think they lack the knowledge [to be part of the conversation.] That shouldn’t be decided by their race. [The medical world] is not giving full agency and full humanity to black women. Hopefully I can get that conversation rolling. It’s a conversation about listening.” 

“So that’s where I am at right now: trying to figure out how to visually represent [this issue] which is being repeated all over the country. I’m doing a lot of experimentation these days, because it’s hard for me to get away from figurative art, which I’m much more comfortable with. I’ve always been good at copying from life. Now, I’m stretching myself to paint from feelings.” 

“Until now, my entire focus has been commercial artist. Doing commissioned work for other people is work-work to me. It’s not as much my freedom of expression. It’s a collaborative process and I’m always expecting changes. I have three rounds of changes written into my contract, and expect them to use all three. It’s the same as any relationship: you both state where you are coming from and try to meet in the middle.” 

“I’ve come across artists who are sensitive, but not the good ones. The ones that I extremely respect are constantly doing artist talks in order to be challenged on their work. And every time I’ve had a harsh critique on my own work, my work has come out better. I’ve come out better. It makes you stretch your analytical abilities and creativity. Critiques are gold. I miss them. I was totally hazed in grad school. I cried every day. Now, I don’t feel as sensitive about my work, but I’m trying to go back to school, because I want someone to tear me apart again. I’m constantly applying to residencies and graduate programs, because I want to grow.” 

“My perspective on art has changed so much in the past year, as I try to enter [the fine art] space. I’m starting to see making art as a lifelong practice. A study. You are a student forever. Before, I thought, ‘I made this beautiful object and I’m done. Everybody look, it’s great!’ Now, I think, ‘OK, that was a journal entry, but I’m making a book. Keep going.’” 

As Debra rediscovers art as a lifetime practice and ongoing education, she is challenging a desire for perfection and seeking new ways to find freedom in the process. 


“I’m very particular about my art. I want everything to be perfect – but as I move into a more abstract world, I’m giving myself little challenges: do this in ten minutes, paint this without blinking. When I get [stifled creatively,] I usually turn straight to reading. I read history books. I read artist statements by artists I respect. Sometimes I go to the museum. But my mother and art coach keep telling me that I need to sketch, to draw, to let myself be free. That’s been working lately.”

Over the years, Debra’s mother has encouraged freedom and feeling in more than just her artwork. When it comes to a woman’s body and relationship with size, Debra’s mother taught her to think in feelings, not numbers – a mindset that continues to make all the difference.  

“I’ve always had a good relationship with my body. I don’t think I’ve ever cared about numbers or size. It’s more about how I feel. I definitely get that from my mom. She’s never been about size. I remember her saying, ‘I’m a four today, a two in this dress, a six in these pants, and if the eight fits, get the eight.’ Whenever she would cut down on her diet, she would say, I ‘feel’ bigger and I want to ‘feel’ smaller. It was never, ‘I want to lose this much weight or I want to fit into this size.’ So, numbers have never made me feel any type of way.” 


“I don’t think there’s a bodily thing I wouldn’t share with [my mom.] I remember when I got my period, and all my friends were using pads, my mom said, ‘You don’t want a diaper.’ She handed me a box of tampons, told me to go into the bathroom, and talked me through it. The first time I had sex, I immediately called her. She said, ‘Thanks for telling me. Did you use a condom? How are you emotionally?’ My friends used to call me and ask to talk to her – and I’d know it was about body stuff.” 

“I don’t have the same relationship with medicine and doctors as most of my friends and the majority of black women. I trust medicine so much, because I see it through my mom. I see her passion and how many women she has helped; how many women who praise her for saving their lives. So, I’m [approaching this next chapter of my work] from a weird dichotomy: our history with it is so bad, but my personal relationship with it is so good.” 

“My mom keeps sending me all these articles on the maternal health of black mothers. She’s excited, because she never thought our paths would cross.”

Interview by Kate Mack. Article by Molly Virostek. Photographed by Stephanie Lavaggi. Styled by Emily Newnam

Tags: bodytalk , Purpose

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