Friday, November 22, 2013

Interview: Lenka Clayton

Lenka attempts a portable "walking studio" with Otto
Lenka Clayton considers, exaggerates, and reorganizes the accepted rules of everyday life, extending the familiar into the realms of the poetic and absurd. In 2012, after the birth of her first child, Lenka founded An Artist Residency in Motherhood: a structured, fully-funded artist residency that takes place inside her own home and life as a mother of two young children. For the duration of the residency she has embraced the fragmented mental focus, exhaustion, nap-length studio time and countless distractions of parenthood as well as the absurd poetry of time spent with young children as her working materials and situation, rather than obstacles to be overcome. Lenka's work been shown internationally, including at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; FRAC Le Plateau, Paris; Kunsthalle St. Gallen, Switzerland and the Tehran International Documentary Festival, Iran. She was recently named Emerging Artist of the Year by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Lenka's work is smart, engaging, full of humor, and incredibly important. We're so very pleased to interview her here.

CR: Briefly describe your kids in your own words:

Otto is two and a half. He is interested in order and with it creates chaos. His books are in piles (divided by read/not read yet, or by size, or type, or providence; “from Davey”, from the “toy shop”, etc). Downstairs, long lines of cars wind around the living room in traffic jams, each driven by a different animal or small object. He is crying now because he doesn’t want to nap.

Early is six months old. She is wide-eyed and wide-grinned. She needs only four hours of sleep a night and is woken by the faintest wing-flappings of birds outside. She recently sat in her car seat crammed in a New York City subway carriage in the rush hour with the quiet contemplation of the Dalai Lama. She is crying now also.

CR: How did you decide to undertake a “Residency in Motherhood?” Did it develop entirely out of the postpartum experience, or was it percolating before that?

Maternity Leave (installation view)
Lenka: An Artist Residency in Motherhood is the second project I’ve made that takes questions and conflicts I experienced around parenting and working as an artist and uses them as a structure to work within. The first, Maternity Leave, started before Otto was born and was carried out when he was between 2 and 5 months old. It consisted of a live audio feed from a microphone placed above his cot that was transmitted directly into the Carnegie Museum and broadcast in an empty gallery, via a white plastic baby-monitor. For the duration of the exhibition the museum publicly paid me the weekly equivalent of the government benefit the “Maternity Allowance” that freelance artist parents receive in England, where I’m from.

The idea for An Artist Residency in Motherhood developed out of this project. It started when Otto was one and I was pregnant with Early but didn’t know yet. It took a while for the idea to fully reveal itself, then a while longer to secure the funding (from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Sustainable Art Foundation) that I needed both to buy myself the time and resources to carry it out as well as to “legitimize” the project as a real residency.

CR: You note in your artist’s statement something that resonates with most of us: “I find now that many aspects of the professional art world are closed to artists with families.” What changes or alternative structures would you most like to see in the art world?

Lenka: I would like that young women absolutely committed to developing their careers as artists who also want kids to not feel like they had to choose between being a serious, engaged artist and being a (serious, engaged!) parent. For that decision to not even occur to them, as it hasn’t for so many generations of young men. Whatever structures, role-models, and cultural shifts that it takes to make that occur.

Early in the studio
CR: Who have been your role models for artist-parenting / parent-artisting?

Lenka: I think the lack of role models that I found while I was pregnant and home with young kids (still) is what created An Artist Residency in Motherhood, and especially projects within it such as Mother’s Days. That project, a collection of one hundred accounts of everyday life by one hundred mothers around the world, came from a real sense of isolation I was feeling, and a realization that the things I wanted to talk about or hear about weren’t what I was hearing other people talking about. I am interested in the tiny details, the routines, the furious love and surprising rage, the poetry of time with people learning to talk, and the monologues that adults alone with kids narrate to themselves all day long. One of the women who took part in Mother’s Days describes googling “Husband doesn’t share nighttime baby." Another googled “benefits of working moms vs. stay at home moms." It is beautiful to me to know this. I am interested in the questions, confusion and poetry around parenting and working as an artist. I found lots of answers to things but relate to the uncertainty more and didn’t come across role models for that.

CR: One of the goals of your residency is to publish the experience as sort of a blueprint for other artist-parents. How has this document evolved, particularly once child number two arrived on the scene? 

studio window
Lenka: The website is the blueprint. It records the foundations of the residency, my process, studio practice, funders and manifesto as well as the responses of others to it. It is slowly evolving. Since Early was born, even more so (slowly). I’m still doing the same amount of thinking, it just takes me longer and longer to find a pen.

My goal now at the end of the residency in May 2014 is to pass it on to two other parents who are dealing with parenting and trying to maintain and develop their practice. The residency will take the form of a small grant and website space. At the end of both their tenures, they will pass the residency on to two further artist/parents each, and so on and so on, forever.

CR: Any strategies or advice you’d pass on to new parents struggling to maintain a creative practice while raising a family?
from the series "Dangerous Objects Made Safer"

Lenka: There is so much advice, that is one of the problems. How you choose to or are able to navigate babyland and keep a studio practice going has so much to do with personal circumstances. Our current situation is that my husband Seth (also a ceramic artist) works as a freelance carpenter and also currently teaches in the week, and I look after the kids and do occasional paid gigs. At the weekend we try to take one day each as a studio day. The conflicts I personally feel about my roles are both an essential part of my experience and a limitation that I love and also complain about often. I’m much happier having this situation be my material to work with though, rather than something that stops me working.

Otto looking at madonna and child
Some of my tricks are – to try to have a feeling of things going on in the world when I’m unable to be in the studio. In my studio time on a Sunday I order materials, or write up an idea, or post new work online, or apply for an opportunity. Over the week when I’m with the kids I daydream about these things going on behind the scenes. I meet one dear artist friend every week to check in about our art progress which helps me focus on the things I’ve done, and not all the millions of things I haven’t. I try to write a little every few days to capture thoughts that are otherwise lost in a sleep-deprived haze. I let a lot of things be unfinished, or uncertain. I have a lot of projects in my "to do one day" file.

In moments of despair and having no time at all, when I can’t remember what I’m doing or why, I like to think of the millions of other mothers covered in sick all around the world at the exact same moment too. Read Mother’s Days! That helps, I promise. And of course, remember Kurt Vonnegut’s famous phrase “and this too shall pass”. I had a rubber stamp made with that written on, for those kind of moments.

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An Artist Residency in Motherhood is funded by the Robert C. Smith Fund and the Betsy R. Clark Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation & The Sustainable Art Foundation. It is also supported in kind by Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse.

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