Lenka Clayton, An Artist in Residence in Motherhood

Since 1860, in the afterglow of the Industrial Revolution and on the eve of the Civil War, the number of working mothers has risen 800 percent. For as long as women in contemporary Western society have been joining the workforce, working outside of the home, sharing the responsibilities of earning the household income, and in turn becoming career-minded themselves, they have had to navigate the challenges of being both a working woman and a mother – two separate social roles with their own unique set of expectations and assumptions, often at odds with one another.

Artists face the same struggle. Artists in residence programs – an important part of an artist’s career trajectory and vital to an artist’s financial sustainability – are not typically open to families, and women artists with newborns don’t get paid to take maternity leave. Plus, the life of a working artist is not quite the same as one with a salaried career. So when professional artist Lenka Clayton was pregnant with her first child and beginning to realize just how much her life as a working artist was about to change, she decided to combine her professional and personal lives and created An Artist Residency in Motherhood, in turn attracting the attention of some high-profile arts institutions and foundations.

“Motherhood can be seen as a choice often that women have to make; if you want to be a serious artist or an engaged parent, it’s a decision you have to make,” Clayton observes. “It’s difficult to talk about sometimes. There’s this danger of getting locked into a certain box. [Institutional recognition] helps bring visibility to those subjects, and enables an artist to work in public and have access to a conversation about it. It’s been really important to me to connect with new people and bring visibility to the subject.”

While pregnant with her son, Clayton was asked by the curator at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art to be a part of their biennial show. “It was really difficult for me to think about this show,” says Clayton. “It happened at a time when everything was going to be completely different – I was very pregnant and [my son] would be born [while I would be working on this piece]. I had to come up with some sort of rules for an impossible task to achieve, but I couldn’t promise to achieve an impossible task with a newborn baby.”

Thinking about this show got her thinking about some bigger issues, particularly the intersection of motherhood and the arts from a socioeconomic perspective. “What support is there from the government for freelance artists?” she asked herself. “All of these personal questions going on in my head really became the basis for this project which had never happened before.”

Clayton pitched the Carnegie Museum her concept for the show, called Maternity Leave, and they accepted it – surprising even her. Her space was a blank space in a gallery with a white pedestal and a white plastic baby monitor. As visitors got closer they could hear a baby crying or a lullaby – it was live linked to her nursery, and people were hearing what was going on live in her home. “I negotiated with the museum to be on ‘maternity leave’ as an artist and they would pay me $200 a week, the same as [London’s maternity leave allowance], for the duration of the show,” she explains. “It was a big group show in a big museum. That was really the first piece that took this personal narrative and summarized it.”

From that show Clayton evolved her An Artist Residency in Motherhood. “I was realizing that, having kids, not only was I not able to travel as before” – another integral aspect of an artist’s life is having to travel around to different shows – “but also there are not that many spaces for artists with families to be an artist in residence. It’s kind of a closed area. Successful artists are young, transient, nomadic, able to travel from thing to think at the drop of a hat and work for free. That didn’t apply to me anymore. That also applies more to a man.”

With a residency, she says, it’s sort of like being in another world. Resident artists are inspired by being in a different place and space, and the experience of having kids is similar to that. “The formal structure I borrowed from the art world and put over my everyday life to create a distance where I could be a mother and be in this messy world, but also keep my professional life by thinking of myself as an artist in residence,” Clayton says.

An Artist Residency in Motherhood was funded by the Robert C. Smith Fund and the Betsy R. Clark Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation and a Sustainable Art Foundation Award, and supported in kind by Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse. An Artist Residency in Motherhood was exhibited at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in 2012, and documents and works from the project were exhibited in Complicated Labors at University of California Santa Cruz last year. She also received the 2013 Emerging Artist of the Year award from the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

“That sort of fiscal, institutional support lent a sort of validity to the project, supporting motherhood rather than being this invisible thing that you have a family and hide it,” says Clayton. “That gave it this value. I had student visits and arranged exhibitions. I really tried to impose this structure of a residency onto this domestic space in life with a young kid. I would make work that wasn’t about motherhood, not as subject but rather as the material, like exhaustion, or lack of resources, or lack of movement, or the feeling of being invisible. I tried to use these as things to work with and play around with.”

She estimates that she made between 20 and 30 pieces while she was the Artist-in-Residence-in-Motherhood from September 2012 to May 2014. “It was really important to me that I was still working in the art world.”

Some of the work she produced as part of An Artist Residency in Motherhood was just her working by herself as an artist and focusing on her materials, what she calls the “ephemeral stuff of parenthood,” and part of it was a collective endeavor examining what it is to be a parent and work as an artist at the same time.

The pieces she made during this time include a video series called “The Distance I Can Be From My Son,” during which she allows her son to run away from her off the frame and lets him go as far as she can before feeling a sense of “sheer panic” and having to run after him, ultimately exploring what she sees as being an invisible tie and an immeasurable distance.

Another project was “63 Objects Taken from my Son’s Mouth,” a documentation of her life with her son aged eight months to 15 months as seen through the collection of objects she had to remove from his mouth – like stones and cigarette butts. “These little objects symbolize this horror and panic, but as soon as they’re out of his mouth it’s really funny; I was just sort of thinking about that land between humor and horror [that mothers experience].”

For a project called “Mother’s Day,” Clayton invited mothers from all over the world to send in a detailed account of the things they do with their children. “So much of the work of parenting is invisible,” says Clayton. The accounts she received were incredibly detailed. She calls them “a sort of poetry,” outlining “these absurd situations that happen every few minutes when you’re alone with a small child.”

She says she didn’t go into this work with an expectation of achieving a particular outcome, and she has been surprised by the response and support she has received at various points. “When the Carnegie engaged with what I was doing, having this very complicated conversation in this honest and humble way within this sort of institutional agenda, and people had to sign a release form to come into the nursery – this whole process was so complicated I was amazed and impressed they worked with me.”

When she started with “Maternity Leave” and followed it up with An Artist Residency in Motherhood, the experience of motherhood for an artist was a subject that there wasn’t a lot of conversation about at the time. “If you Google ‘artist motherhood,’ there isn’t much [content] around it,” says Clayton. “There’s a real need to have this conversation and support.” She says she receives emails from other artist-mothers thanking her for her work and saying it has inspired them in theirs. “I didn’t think so many other people would be touched by this. I’m so happy to be a part of this conversation that wasn’t visible to me [when I went looking for it].”

For more of Lenka Clayton’s work, check out her website and follow her on Instagram.