I suspect Lenka Clayton will understand why it's taken me about twenty months since I first discovered her work to write about her Artist Residency in Motherhood, filled as these months have been with making ends meet and parenting and not much else. Ever since becoming a mother myself I've been hungry for stories about how other artist/writer mothers fit creating into lives now entirely dictated by beings dependent on them for survival.
Leave it to a conceptual artist to come up with the most brilliant solution I've seen yet. As Clayton explains:
Set firmly inside the traditionally “inhospitable” environment of a family home, the Artist Residency in Motherhood subverts the art-world’s romanticisation of the unattached (often male) artist, and frames motherhood as a valuable site, rather than an invisible labor, for exploration and artistic production.
... the fragmented mental focus, exhaustion, nap-length studio time and countless distractions of parenthood as well as the absurd poetry of time spent with a young child will become the artist’s working materials and situation, rather than obstacles to be escaped from.
It might seem inevitable for mother artists to turn their viewfinders on their own transformed lives. However, I think many do the opposite in an urgent bid to retain something of their pre-mother selves, to shrug off the socially imposed new identity of mother-above-all-else, to lay claim to the public respect that remains unchanged when male artists become fathers, to keep work and home separate and resist being ghettoized.
How refreshing, then, to see an artist devote multiple pieces over several yearsto the subject, aiming her spotlight from this completely unexpected direction on the brutally unfair way women are forced to reconcile these two competing, equally vital parts of their lives in a way men never have.
I actually participated in one of the pieces she produced during her residency. For Mother's Days Clayton collected accounts of a day (midnight to midnight) in the life of mothers from around the world. See if you can find mine! Re-reading it now is jarring - I realize I may have subconsciously waited to share it because it reveals some not-so-flattering moments in my parenting, which I try to resist justifying (it was a dark time in my life). But in fact it's exactly the flawed, human, raw aspects of these accounts that makes them so powerful. Especially for other mothers.
As Megan Pugh writes:
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 ... 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.
I love that I'm forever connected to other mothers this way and I'm really grateful to Clayton for letting me contribute. This is what so much mother art is about: connection. It can feel so isolating, you yearn for engagement with other adults. As Clayton says in this great interview with Pugh*,
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.
*Published on A. Bradstreet - a fab literary blog about motherhood.