“Currently outside the realm of possibility.” That would be my response, not to some outlandish scientific inquiry, but rather to the prospect of whisking myself away from home and hearth to participate in a month-long writing residency. While my husband has adeptly managed our three children on his own when I’ve attended long weekend or mid-week retreats, and could without a doubt rise to the occasion, a month just seems like a long time to be away. Moreover, the pandemic and its concomitant travel and safety restrictions have placed any consideration of a residency on hold.
Or has it? Lenka Clayton, an acclaimed artist and the creator of An Artist Residency in Motherhood (ARiM), would gently disagree. Clayton has developed a way for mothers with children underfoot to embrace this time by mentally reframing it as both a haven for creativity and a source for productivity. Described as “a self-directed, open-source artist residency to empower and inspire artists who are also mothers,” the rules are just what busy mothers require—simple and flexible. “You don’t have to apply. It doesn’t cost anything. It’s fully customizable, and you can be in residence for as long as you choose. You don’t even have to travel, as the residency takes place entirely inside your own home and everyday life.” In brief, “ARiM is the reframing of parenthood as a valuable site for creative practice, rather than an obstruction to be overcome.” Clayton’s website offers a variety of resources to get started, including a planning outline, a map showing the locations of other participating mothers, and tools for accountability, amongst other features. Mentorships providing one-on-one support from Clayton can also be arranged.
Motivated by Clayton’s visionary idea and the encouragement to rethink and reimagine this season, I’ve developed a plan that allows my writing and editing work to thrive and flourish, centered in and around the context of raising three children. It is within the realm of possibility. And I am now engaged in a writing residency, not on Maui, not in Vermont, but happily, in motherhood.
We interviewed Clayton via email about the origins of this program and her hopes for mothers who create.
Kimberly Lee: What was your initial mindset in terms of how motherhood would impact your creative work and aspirations?
Lenka Clayton: I had no idea before having children as to how motherhood would impact my work, but I became aware early on of the myriad of expectations and prejudices held by others about how they thought it would be. Several people asked how I would continue my work after having a baby, a question I don’t remember ever being directed towards the kids’ dad. Before having my son Otto, I spent time googling things like “artist mother” and found very few examples. I was usually directed toward Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, a project that was created before I was born. I remember being quite discouraged and confused by the lack of visibility of other artist parents.
KL: Do you remember the moment that your perspective shifted, when you became proactive in joyfully incorporating your work into your time as a mother and seeing it as a residency? What do you believe prompted that?
LC: I’m not sure it was always joyful, but it was proactive! The conditions that I found felt limiting, sexist, and ill-fitting to my practice and way of being. Because of that, it became necessary to create new frames to think and work through, in order to avoid just fighting against or succumbing to the status quo. Creating the framework for ARiM was a huge shift for me. The pressures, frustrations, and experiences I was having became material to work with. In many ways—at least theoretically—the harder it was, the more material I had to work with. Of course, many of my daily experiences of parenting and working as an artist were extremely challenging, but even in the most difficult moments there was also an inkling of awareness of another perspective, that this could become directions for my work. It felt like a magic trick.
An earlier project called Maternity Leave opened at the Carnegie Museum of Art when Otto was 8 weeks old. The work consisted of an empty gallery with a baby monitor in it that was live audio-linked to Otto’s room at home, sharing the private world of our home life with the professional world of the museum and its visitors. I negotiated with the museum that for the duration of the exhibition, they’d pay me the equivalent of the UK government’s maternity allowance that I’d have been eligible for as an artist in the UK where I’m from, rather than Pittsburgh, where I live. This element was publicly acknowledged in the didactic text. The piece developed out of the fears and concerns I had about our financial situation, and the lack of support for new parents in the US. Embracing these questions as the form of the work itself planted the seeds for ARiM.
KL: What benefits did you reap—either abstract or concrete—from changing your mindset in this way?
LC: Looking at limitations as material was a necessity and became a major source of liberation for me. This approach is now always a part of my creative practice. Part of changing my mindset was learning to let things be simple, looser, and unfinished, and to allow projects to take longer. The frame of ARiM could hold any little fragment of an idea, and this took the pressure and focus off of the outcome. I turned my attention to what I could control; how I spent my time thinking and maintaining that space of thought; and how I paid attention to the place and situation I was in. I stopped thinking of working as a thing that was done elsewhere under certain conditions, but rather as a state of mind within which I would spend at least a few minutes a day. Over time, those minutes all linked up into an extended, engaged practice.
KL: What does a typical day look like for you? Do you set artistic goals for yourself? How you deal with things in the case of inevitable mishaps or the unexpected?
LC: I usually have several projects going on at once. I love systems and am always thinking up new ways to organize my thinking and creative activity. At the moment, my system is to break bigger projects down into little steps. Each morning I make a to-do list on a small piece of paper that usually has a collection of tasks from various projects as well as other necessary studio work and administrative items on it. I try to make sure that there are not more things on the list than I can do in that day, so that the amount of tasks matches the time I have. I email my list to my friend each morning, and she emails hers to me, and this helps in ways that I can’t totally describe. I cross things off when they are done. I also have an independent practice as a mentor to other artists, so I meet people online several times a week.
Because I make the list each morning, rather than days ahead, it’s easy to adapt to all of the changing elements. I deeply dislike planning, but this system works for me at the moment. I do set artistic goals for myself, and they sit in the back of my mind and help me navigate opportunities, decide what to apply for, and figure out what I want to agree to do, as well as what I choose to decline.
KL: What motivated you to share your philosophy with other mothers?
LC: People saw the work that I made during my residency and started emailing, asking me how they could participate. I created the website as a blueprint so that people could independently engage with the structure of ARiM and be guided to modify it for themselves. The page also shares all of the current and past residents around the world, so it functions both as a networking site and a living, growing monument to a group who have historically been invisible.
KL: What are your hopes for mother artists? Any tips to share?
LC: First, please feel free to ignore any of this that feels unhelpful. Next, try to be very easy on yourself. Look for any possible way, in both your expectations of parenting and your creative work, to make it easier, to do less, to let things be imperfect or unfinished or simple. Know that your struggles are felt everywhere, and that this is the daily reality for many people. For me, there’s always comfort in this imagined community. There are also very real communities of artist parents that you can connect with, including ARiM, if you prefer real people.
If you are struggling to find time, energy, or inspiration to work, just try to do a little bit every day, even if it’s only a tiny something for a few minutes. It is much easier to continue than it is to start. Like with a baby, the more they sleep, the more they sleep. Same with creative work, the more you work, the more you work.
Begin where you are, with what you have. Life and work is not somewhere else. Often, without kids, it gets linked to winning certain opportunities, or being in a particular location. ARiM doesn’t replace the idea of going on an artist residency, it just gives you the opportunity to take your working life into your own hands and claim what you need or reframe what you have in this moment, rather than waiting until conditions are perfect or for external validation. Once you start taking control like that, it becomes second nature. The idea of moving forward only by applying and waiting for those external opportunities starts to feel disempowering.
The framework for ARiM is very slight. It’s a gentle nudge from the outside in the form of a questionnaire that encourages you to think through and create form out of your existing circumstances, rather than looking for relief or rescue, as applications for residencies often present themselves. This can be applied by anyone, to any set of circumstances. If you read it and it resonates, then you can adapt it to work for you.
KL: Other thoughts for mothers embarking on creative projects?
LC: There is no static moment of parenting, although it can endlessly feel as though there is. Even if you do nothing, your world will change every few weeks, and unrecognizably if you measure time in years. A unique quality of being a parent is that it’s like living in a country with radically shifting policies and governments, and revolutions every few months. Keeping that in mind is helpful to me. And it’s why paying close attention to this world can feel like traveling, especially in this pandemic moment when movement is less possible.