Ever since having a child, I’m especially interested (i.e., obsessed) in learning how mothers create, how they make the time, how they view their work, how they may or may not use motherhood as creative inspiration. I especially love seeing examples of women using motherhood as material. It’s a much better use of my time than reading doom and gloom narratives about how motherhood will kill one’s career (and creativity). Narratives that sadly are aplenty.
In 2012 when Lenka Clayton’s first child was one and a half, she founded An Artist Residency in Motherhood, a residency that she did at home for three years. According to Clayton, a British conceptual artist, “An Artist Residency in Motherhood is the reframing of parenthood as a valuable site for creative practice, rather than an obstruction to be overcome.”
To carve out time for her residency, Clayton started getting up earlier and hired childcare for 3 hours a day, three days a week. She made her residency as official as possible, including writing a manifesto, creating business cards and building a website, where she documented her process. She also applied for and received a grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation/Heinz Endowments and the Sustainable Arts Foundation.
During her residency, Clayton produced 32 interesting, super creative works, which include: “63 Objects Taken From My Son’s Mouth”; a series of videos entitled “The Distance I Can be From my Son” (until she runs after him); “Moons from Next Door,” which are balls that once belonged to dogs photographed as planets; and “Mother’s Day’s,” letters that document a day in the life of different mothers from around the world.
“As an Artist-in-Residence-in-Motherhood the most important thing for me was understanding that I was not making work about motherhood, but out of it,” Clayton writes on her website. “The residency was simply a framework around things that were happening anyway.”
Each of us will go through a variety of transitions, whether that includes motherhood or not. Some of these transitions, big or small, may gut our identity. Some may teach us eye-opening lessons. Some may spark interesting questions. Some may sharpen our senses. Some may give us a new perspective. Some we might not know what to make of.
But hopefully we make anyway. And it’s the making that makes us artists. And we can do the same with motherhood. We can make out of it.
Mothers Who Make is “a grassroots national initiative, dedicated to supporting mothers who are artists—working in any discipline and at any stage of their careers.” This community of artists was started by mother and theatre maker Matilda Leyser. “The initiative grew from Matilda’s sense of there being experiences and challenges specific to being both a mother and an artist. She noticed many parallels between the two roles: both are concerned with creativity and play, both require stamina, patience and sensitivity. Both are fuller than full time.”
As part of the initiative, seven London-based artists are working on different parenting-inspired projects. For instance, Delea Shand, a singer and music educator, is creating a graphic score with her children. Unlike conventional music notation, their score features images, pictures and symbols. Artist and theater designer Miriam Nabarro is interviewing other artists who are mothers about their parenting and creative practices. Writer and performer Zoe Gardner is creating a book inspired by her personal experiences of motherhood—poems primarily written in the dark while nursing—along with prompts for other mothers to inspire their own creations.
The Artist Parent Index features creations from many, many artists exploring parenting and reproductive topics. It was founded by Sarah Irvin, an artist who’s created various series of works, inspired by caring for her daughter. Here’s her description of an especially cool series called “Objects of Care“: “To make this work, I created digital negatives enlarging the various textures of my infant daughter’s toys, blankets and clothing that were gifted to us by our friends and family. I created cyanotypes with these negatives and re-developed them in Mother’s Milk Tea, a tea made with a set of herbs used for centuries to promote healthy lactation. The tannins in the tea create a chemical reaction with the iron of the cyanotype causing the traditional cyanotype blue to darken and additionally tone the white of the paper.”
How might you use motherhood to inspire your creativity? How might you use the limitations of time, money, energy to actually spark your imagination?
For instance, Clayton features a do-it-yourself residency kit to help mothers create their own artist residency, which you can download for free here. Like Shand, you might collaborate with your kids on a project. You might keep a diary and make observations about your day, about your child, about what your five senses notice during a particular time. Or you might photograph your observations. You might set a timer for 5 minutes and start working on a children’s story. You might set a timer for 5 minutes and write about your own feelings and thoughts and impressions.
The ideas you can pursue and the projects you can create are endless.
Whatever you choose, what’s vital to remember is that art and motherhood are not at odds. They can inform each other. They can inspire each other. And there’s nothing doom and gloom about that.