“I start every project with a structure, with some set of invisible rules,” says Lenka Clayton, sitting behind a desk in the attic-turned-studio of her home in the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
The 37-year-old artist, originally from Cornwall, England, is relaxed as we talk, sipping tea from a ceramic mug designed by her husband, sculptor Seth Payne, as early morning sunlight illuminates the room. Two floors beneath us, in the living room, Clayton’s father, visiting from England, plays mandolin for her 1-year-old daughter Early. Occasional squeals of laughter can be heard as the music emanates through the house.
“It’s not always like this,” Clayton jokes, aware of how idyllic the whole scene appears. She goes on to explain that, on a normal day, she would be juggling her duties as a mother of two—getting her three-year-old son, Otto, off to preschool while taking care of Early and tending to a long list of daily tasks.
“Motherhood has completely changed the way that I approach my work,” Clayton says. “This indirectly caused my art practice to transform from something I ought to be doing into something I’m desperate to be doing.” As Otto and Early’s primary caretaker during the day, her time in the studio is almost nonexistent. After becoming a mother, she says, “the studio walls became a little more permeable and my personal experience began to be part of the work I was making. Scarcity of time and movement also made my focus narrower and more consistent.”
Despite her time constraints, Clayton has managed to remain prolific in her art practice.
In her studio, she is surrounded by projects in various states—some completed, others in their earliest stages. On the desk in front of her, for example, is a stack of books, 63 Objects Taken from My Son’s Mouth, which is part of her ambitious Artist Residency in Motherhood project. A self-conceived, self-directed project, the residency was Clayton’s artistic response to becoming a parent, as encapsulated in her artist statement: “For the 227 days of the residency the 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.”
Another piece from Clayton’s Residency in Motherhood that is particularly salient is titled The Distance I Can Be from My Son, which acts as a visceral test of her comfort and anxiety levels as the parent of a young child. Both pieces are included in State of the Art, an exhibition currently on display at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
The playful, inventive nature of Clayton’s work is on full display in her studio. There are nooks filled with works-in-progress that hint at future ideas, not to mention the drawers, boxes, and shelves teeming with curiosities. It all gives the space a warm, lived-in appeal. But so much of it is practical too. As we talk, Clayton points out a shelf filled with miniature characters, furniture, and items that look as if they might have once belonged in a dollhouse. She explains that this grouping of miniatures, which she uses as a visualization tool, represents her network of collaborators and people who inspire her, each piece adorned with a tag that bears a name. At a quick glance, French filmmaker and poet Robert Filliou is represented by a tiny man wearing a fedora and a black cloak; writer, activist, and curator Lucy Lippard is a brown plastic box; and Michael Crowe, Clayton’s longtime collaborator on projects like Mysterious Letters, is a pink elephant riding on a small red wagon.
As a habitual collector of errant objects, pieces that all eventually find a way into her art, Clayton discusses how the idea of “beachcombing” has taken on greater significance in her art practice. Having grown up by the ocean in England, collecting items washed up on the beach was a mainstay of her youth, and an activity that now informs her creative process.
“I still spend a lot of time beachcombing,” she says, “in thrift stores, on Craigslist’s free pages, at church sales and estate sales, and on walks with my children to look for lost objects transformed by cars. Often the things I find suggest new futures for themselves, or ideas for works.”
As she talks, Clayton pulls out a small cardboard box inscribed with the text “Possible Snakes.” Inside is a collection of objects that she and her children have mistaken for snakes during walks in and around their home in Polish Hill. Two “Possible Snakes” that Clayton shows me include a roll of stretched and smashed masking tape imprinted with black tire tracks and a coiled piece of textured black rubber.
“Structure and the building of narrative through observation, collecting, and editing has become a fundamental part of my work as an artist,” she says. “My practice is trying to pay attention to the things that everyday life has to say, and then making work that speaks about those things.”
While Clayton has always been observant of the world around her, motherhood has changed the way that she works, heightening her awareness.
“The way I worked before, I could go weeks between projects without working,” she says. “Now I scribble things down the whole time. This integration of the studio and everyday life suits me much better. I also find myself with a lot of opportunity to play with two wildly creative playmates, which is something I never used to think about adding to the to-do list.”
As our conversation winds down, Clayton shows me a new way that she’s started to organize her thoughts. It’s a receipt spike, the kind you’d see in a diner, and it’s filled with small notes that contain ideas for future projects. It allows her to write ideas down so they don’t get lost in the ether. Then every few weeks she looks at all the notes impaled on the spike and see which ideas present themselves more than once. Those ideas are often the ones she eventually pursues.
These new ways of working have invigorated Clayton’s art practice in recent years. It’s also allowed her to continue to produce the kind of thoughtful art that she is known for while still being able to focus on her children. And of course the reach of the Internet, and placing her work in galleries and the homes of private collectors, creates connections that she deeply appreciates.
“Through the isolation I sometimes experience as a mother of young children, I realized how much I delight in the indirect communication of making something in one place that other people will see and think about later, somewhere else,” Clayton says. “Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I have an exhibition opening on the other side of the country and I can’t go because I’m at home cleaning up vomit.”
Originally published by Carnegie Museum of Art in November of 2014. Photograph: Bryan Conley.