[Editors’ Note: This interview inaugurates a series of conversations between poets and artists on new languages of motherhood across various media.]
by Megan Pugh
I learned about the work of Lenka Clayton three weeks before giving birth to my first child, and our interview—conducted over e-mail, in fits and starts on my end—concluded when he was three months old. I felt bad about those long gaps in communication, but I had an understanding correspondent: for the last year or so, Clayton has made the constraints of motherhood a central part of her artistic practice. For Artist Residency in Motherhood, Clayton has created art during her children’s naptimes, while taking them on trips to the park, and—in a performance that makes you think simultaneously of alphabet board books and postmodern poetics—in the grocery store checkout line. For some pieces, Clayton enlists her children as collaborators, taping her son’s experiments with the contents of a magician’s suitcase, holding her squirmy baby for A Nice Family Portrait, and valorizing young curatorial tastes with a collection of objects babies have put in their mouths. She’s also invited contributions from fellow parents around the world, as well as involving people she knows only in glances from antique photographs and postcards. It adds up to a body of work that’s welcoming, tender and smart.
Take The Distance I Can Be From My Son, a series of videos in which Clayton records her toddler wandering off through a landscape until, in the last few seconds, she bolts after him. This isn’t just a documentary experiment, and it’s not just a moving account of parental love and fear and responsibility—though it is all of those things. It’s also about a particular kind of attentiveness, about looking at a person the way one might look at an artwork, and then again—with that final break into the frame—not that way at all. Put another way, the idea joins forces with feeling.
In the haze of new parenthood, Clayton’s work had a new urgency for me. I’d sit on the couch for epic nursing sessions with my son, one hand cradling him, the other scrolling through the pages of Mother’s Days, records mothers around the world sent Clayton, who retyped them on her old Underwood. Her typing gives the project aesthetic unity, but it’s also, as she describes below, a way to share other mothers’ experience, if only through the fingers and the mind. It’s sympathetic without being sentimental. In the isolating wilderness of postpartum hormones, Mother’s Days was a remarkable comfort.
An exhibition with much of the work from Artist Residency in Motherhood just wrapped up at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (the final day featured a poetry reading by the fabulous Joy Katz), but you can see much of the work on Clayton’s website. This, too, feels like a generous move: can’t get out of your house to see the work? The work can come to you. That’s not to say that Clayton’s work is all about rejoicing in possibilities: constraints, after all, constrain. The very premise of Artist Residency in Motherhood reminds us that a normal artist’s residency, in which one retreats into a world of solitary art-making and summer camp-style socializing, doesn’t really work for mothers. So Clayton finds other things that will: art that takes into account the rhythms of daily life, and that sometimes depends, for its existence, on other people—as other people depend on mothers. She also keeps lists of projects not yet made: her Idea Archive is all about the conceptual gesture, but it’s also pragmatic: sometimes mothers just don’t have time.
M. PUGH: Part of what I love about the Artist Residency in Motherhood is how much you flout the old idea of separate spheres, so that domesticity seems incredibly porous. Even before the Residency, you were making art that included other people: sending letters to everyone in the world; getting folks to bang a drum and proclaim their ages. So I’m curious—could you talk a bit about creating art that involves others? And has motherhood changed or enhanced your ideas about that in any way?
L. CLAYTON: I really like to collaborate with others who have (or had) very different intentions to me. A group of recent pieces, Ta Da!,100 Returned Postcards, Accidental Haiku, Two Collections, all started from discarded items of personal ephemera that I came upon in thrift stores or estate sales. A diary that ends in June, a child-magician’s notebook, a postcard sent 100 years ago. Each one was unfinished in its own way, and in each I became the unintended collaborator of the original author – taking their starting point and extending it in a new direction. In these impossible or inadvertent collaborations each found object brings with it an incomplete story of its author. These imagined people are my collaborators, and also my working materials.
At the moment I’m working on a piece in which one hundred married couples secretly made a single brown shoe, each from bits and bobs found around the home, then revealed them to one another. There are one hundred mismatched pairs in boxes in my studio at the moment. I have worked with two hundred people to make this project happen but have barely seen or spoken to any of them. The correspondence was by email, the shoes delivered for the most part by post. This is how I usually work with others; by myself, in private.
Since becoming a parent life has become a lot more collaborative in general. When I was pregnant I saw pregnant women everywhere and imagined their aches and pains and exhaustion. When I had a small infant, sleepy strangers exchanged compassionate glances with me just because they also had a baby in their arms. Yesterday when I struggled through the doors of Rite Aid with a double stroller, screaming baby and crazy toddler, the woman at the cash register told me that she has 23 grandchildren. I love this about being a parent, this access to the worlds of others. When Otto was a few months old and rode in a carrier on my back, I would ask strangers to put his hat on for me. It was a practical thing – I was usually by myself with him, he would take his hat off all the time and I couldn’t reach to put it back. But it was also, mainly, an excuse to share the intimate actions of parenting him for a moment with the world. I loved those interactions. People were sometimes a little taken aback (often it was teenagers or business men, or kids, people who maybe never had tied a sun hat on a baby before), but they always did it. And I was always grateful for that odd little moment. I remember going into Gap in Paris especially to ask the shop assistant.
The idea for starting Mother’s Days came from a real isolation I was feeling, and realizing that the part of parenting that I told my friends about or that they shared with me wasn’t the main business of it, wasn’t the part I wanted to hear about. No one talked about crying by the toaster, or at least not enough. The wonderful comedian Mitch Hedberg said that when he would go to shave he’d say “I’m going to shave, too” realizing that at that moment around the world other people were definitely also shaving. That nod to the concurrent isolation and connectedness of individual experience is beautiful to me. In Mother’s Days I wanted to create a record of aloneness and togetherness, all doing the same things with different words, in different places. Through the recording on the part of the mothers and the typing on my part, I want to direct labour and with it, attention to these shared cycles of daily domestic life. This work feels very intimate to me, but it is for the most part a symphony of strangers, each singing their bit in their own separate world. When I have collected one hundred days I plan to publish them as a paperback book.
M. PUGH: It strikes me that part of what you’re talking about is recognition, which I’ve been thinking about quite a bit since becoming pregnant for the first time. I’ve been surprised to find myself chasing down poetry about motherhood, in search of something like models. It’s not that I want to be instructed, or that formal estrangement and experimentation don’t remain interesting, but there’s something so helpful about being able to say, “Oh, so this is how Alice Notley handled things—she had her sons help her write poems!“ Finding your work felt like that too—a sign of what motherhood might be like, if handled with thought and feeling and attention. I wonder if you’ve experienced anything similar, as a parent and an artist. Have you found yourself drawn to different artists, or have you found yourself approaching art differently than you used to?
L. CLAYTON: Thank you!
When I was first pregnant with Otto, I remember just feeling this huge blank (mysterious) space was coming up. I knew that everything would soon change, had no idea how, and couldn’t stop trying to imagine it. I found myself knitting suddenly. I just learnt and started compulsively knitting as soon as I became pregnant. I knitted a baby jumper first, then baby trousers, then a baby hat. Later I realised that I was knitting the negative space of the baby I was trying to imagine, attempting to summon him up in wool somehow.
I did look at the work of a few artists that explored motherhood, but didn’t find too much that had a tone that resonated with me. The residency was born out of not really finding those models, and thinking about that in a public way.
Becoming a parent drastically changed my approach to making my work in many ways. When I had Otto and spare time became rare and precious, I realised that I didn’t much enjoy my art practice at all! This was both a slightly disturbing and very liberating realisation. Slowly, I let myself concentrate on the parts of my work that I did enjoy; collecting, playing, writing, thinking up ideas. I let things be half-finished. I asked for help, and made work that responded to my new life, rather than trying to pursue a limited version of what I had been doing before. This approach became formalised as the Artist Residency in Motherhood. I have relaxed my expectations a lot, and got very much more done.
M. PUGH: There’s a great photo in your studio diary of Early in her Bumbo, next to your typewriter, captioned “preparing for an exhibition, writing mysterious letters, breastfeeding.” Is that a pretty normal juggle? Do you make art on a schedule? During naptimes?
L. CLAYTON: My work structure changes all the time, as the kids develop, and as resources allow.
Otto (2 ½) was a great napper for a while so I had three hours a day of studio time, during which I tried not to do any cleaning, life administration, or other distractions and just work in the studio. For a while I also tried waking at 5am and working while everyone else was asleep. This was great actually and I got a lot done, but I stopped that when I became pregnant for the second time and was too tired. Now with a very lively-at-night four month old and Otto napping less these plans don’t work as well.
So at the moment I work whenever the kids are asleep at the same time which is about an hour a day at most. Otto is also at school for two mornings a week, so I work then while Early (the baby) sleeps or I bounce her in a bouncy chair with my foot while I write things. Occasionally I have a baby sitter for an extra morning if I have a show or deadline coming up. Every Sunday I usually have the whole day as a studio day when my husband Seth takes the kids. (He is a ceramic artist but works as a carpenter in the week for our family income. He has his studio day on Saturday). We call this studio weekend our McDowell Days after the McDowell Colony. The one who has the kids also makes the meals and clears up. Occasionally we put these meals in baskets as at the McDowell Colony but not often enough. Actually we must restart this, basket-meals. We both work at home (Seth in the basement, me in the attic) so we usually get to eat together and visit studios.
I always feel that I don’t have enough work time though. At the moment I let a lot of other things go (housecare, big chunks of all-together family time, and an evening social life) in order to make time to work and our house is often in chaos of one kind and another.
One really important thing for me has been to have a structure that I am working within, at the moment the Artist Residency in Motherhood, so that the tiny gestures and bits and pieces I am able to achieve each day have somewhere to go, and add up eventually to something. When it works best, I use my studio time to set things up in and do administration, so that things are happening while I can’t be in the studio. Things like materials being shipped, shoes being made, applications pending, other mothers documenting their days. This is how I recently made One Brown Shoe, and am making Mother’s Days. Often the ideas for my work come during the time I am with the kids, then I use studio time to realise them. I try to carry a sketchbook most of the time, but am always putting it down somewhere and losing it.
Other tricks: I use an anti-baby monitor (a white noise machine) when in the studio and the kids are downstairs with my husband so that I can think of things other than “is Otto falling down the stairs? / is something hot landing on Early?” I swap time with friends where we watch each other’s kids. I think of questions or problems about my work during studio time then daydream about them when I’m walking to the park. I meet a dear artist friend every Thursday naptime to measure our studio progress. We write to-do lists each week, and share them with each other. I find it really inspiring, and it helps me to focus on the things I’ve done as well as all the things I haven’t. And I keep a list of all the projects I’d like to do one day when I have time. It’s quite long.
Megan Pugh’s poems and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in The Believer, Boston Review, Common-place, Denver Quarterly, La Petite Zine, The Oxford American, Sixth Finch, VOLT, and other magazines. She lives with her family in San Francisco, where she’s at work on two new projects: a cultural history of American dance, forthcoming from Yale UP, and an epistolary poetry project about baseball, place, and friendship, in collaboration with Gillian Osborne.