Megan Lykins Reich, Curator at MOCA Cleveland / June 2013
Essay originally published in June 2013 by MOCA Cleveland for the exhibition Realization is Better than Anticipation, June 28–October 13, 2013. Reprinted here by kind permission of the author and MOCA Cleveland.
“Our baby is due tomorrow. I forgot this strangest of feelings of waiting quietly for everything in the world to change.” — Lenka Clayton, Studio Diary entry, May 19, 2013
Lenka Clayton became a mother when she gave birth to her son, Otto, in April 2011. Five months later, I welcomed motherhood for the second time when my son Jasper was born. Motherhood changes you. Yet, you are still so much the woman you were before motherhood that it is often hard to reconcile the two realities. Right after my daughter Piper’s birth in 2009, I existed in a liminal space filled with joy, confusion, pain, and anxiety. This dramatic haze lifted when my daughter and I had a “moment”—a kind of intimate exchange, an unspoken affirmation of a new world—and something fell into place. A shift at the core. Perhaps the moment I accepted motherhood.
In September 2012, Clayton began an official Artist Residency in Motherhood, created by the artist and supported by The Pittsburgh Foundation. It was originally set to last until Otto’s second birthday, but was extended by the birth of Clayton’s daughter, Early, in May 2013. A steadfast experiment in combining two seemingly incompatible experiences, the project pushes together the open, autonomous freedom of artist residencies and the often isolating, bound routines of motherhood. It provides for things like materials and a travel allowance but also requires accountability. Through the residency, Clayton has produced numerous musings, artworks, project ideas, and collaborative activities. Reviewing this output as a curator, the work is prolific, smart, sensitive, relevant. Reviewing it as a mother, it is authentic, tender, bewildering, accurate. Clayton works within the physical and emotional spaces surrounding her, often starting with a simple idea or mundane object. Nearly everything, from the items her son places in his mouth (an impressive range) to discarded ephemera in a tiny thrift store, is fodder for Clayton. She applies an intense, compassionate focus to these materials in order to draw out hidden, lost, or new meaning. Clayton’s subtle mediations yield significant, often transformative outcomes, as revealed in the suite of her found text works featured in Realization is Better than Anticipation.
Ta Da (2013) is a small blue spiral-bound notebook Clayton found at an estate sale in a child’s magic kit. The cover is hand-decorated with two pieces of electrical tape that form wonky vertical black lines. Inside, an unknown author hand-wrote only two things: an underlined header, “Magic Show,” and one bulleted phrase, “Find the Card.” Clayton had a tiny mechanism mounted to the book so that its cover slowly opens and then quickly shuts, allowing only momentary glances at the content within. Ta Da emphasizes the excitement and magic of discovery, both for the original author, finding a new hobby, and the current viewer, glimpsing the book’s “secret.” The work also signifies the struggle to maintain the energy and commitment required to transform curiosity into expertise.
For 100 Returned Postcards (2013), Clayton resent 100 postcards dated from 1906 to 1992 to their original addresses, located in Cleveland and the surrounding suburbs. To each postcard, Clayton added MOCA Cleveland as the return address. Sent out three weeks before the exhibition, the cards may or may not return to the Museum; if and when they do, they will be displayed in the gallery and available for the audience to read.
Some of these postcards contain short greetings while others convey messages of deep love, longing, sadness, and hope. In its broad range of communications, 100 Returned Postcards generates humorous, puzzling, and intimate encounters for readers. The work conveys a new notion of preciousness, one found not in each postcard’s intrinsic value, but in the treasured relationships they represent. Each simultaneously symbolizes specific bonds and shared experiences.
Likewise, Two Collections (2013) and Accidental Haiku (2008) underscore the deep potential of personal significance. In both works, Clayton deftly infuses a discarded, commonplace object with enchanting potential. In Two Collections, Clayton displays a selection of tiny newspaper clippings that she found at a thrift store, upside-down and floating between two pieces of glass. A mirror positioned below the clippings reveals the collection’s unifying element: the Pittsburgh Steelers logo. In Accidental Haiku, Clayton extracted chance Haiku poems from a set of anonymous diaries from 1975. In Clayton’s hands, the diary’s entries—short formulaic notes about the weather and daily activities— become poetic reflections on life:
TEMP 0° TO 20°/ CLOUDY/ TOOK JENNIE UP TO/ HAIRDRESSER
A record keeper herself, Clayton revitalizes these bygone collections, letters, and ideas with a kind of artistic “sleight of hand” that expands their meaning. Clayton’s nuanced, incisive aesthetic results in works that are at once fresh and nostalgic. To experience them is to find yourself somewhere between being tickled and rapt. Although couched in daily life, Clayton’s art transcends its origins and offers new visions of the everyday. Which brings me back to motherhood. One drawback of pouring over Clayton’s recent residency activity is that it reveals to me my own lack. Not as a mother, but as an observer of motherhood. In preparing for this essay, I considered applying or adapting one of Clayton’s actions to my own experience of mothering. It was a fruitless endeavor, in part because the impetus was itself fraudulent. This is important, as it points to the sincerity of Clayton’s practice. Her work comes directly from her self and the things immediately around her—nearby physical things like people and objects, along with proximate concepts and conventions—in which she finds potential. In order to replicate her kind of earnest engagement, I would have to work within my own sensibilities.
Ultimately, it was my daughter who provided what I might call a “Lenka” moment of creative response. While driving to daycare on a recent muggy morning, Piper exclaimed, “Mommy, the car has a moustache!” I thought I heard her wrong, so I asked her to clarify: “Which car, baby? Did you say a moustache?” Unfazed, she replied, giggling, “No, our car, Mommy. Look, our car has a moustache!” I turned forward again to see a perfectly symmetrical pattern of condensation on the front wind-shield. Indeed, a perfect car moustache. Even if I wasn’t running late or thinking of a million other things, I would never have noticed this humorously-shaped mist cloud. And, without knowing Clayton’s work, I might have paid less attention to Piper’s observation. I turned off the radio and told Piper that she had made the most creative observation of the day. She was thrilled. I was moved.
In the press release for the Artist Residency in Motherhood, Clayton defines as the primary goal that “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.” Motherhood changes everything. But a dedicated, purposeful look at motherhood (or collections, or neighbors, or old notes, or childhood hobbies), can change how you see and find meaning in life’s daily routines.
Essay originally published by MOCA Cleveland for the exhibition Realization is Better than Anticipation, June 28–October 13, 2013. Reprinted here by kind permission of the author and MOCA Cleveland.