Week 23. Postcard to Lenka Clayton

Note: We’re doing something a little different this week! We’d like to take a week occasionally to write letters to people who are doing things that inspire us: projects that merge art and science, activities that represent new ways of being and working and making.

This week, we’re writing letters to Lenka Clayton, a British conceptual artist, who has developed the idea of “residency in motherhood,” which is now an open-source project that provides tools, ideas, and a manifesto to explore the roles of parenting and art-making.

Dear Lenka,

My artist residency in motherhood – it was a new language for starters. The words made me feel like I was in a foreign country without having gone anywhere: nook, binkie, sleep sack.  I was so sleepless it outweighed memory formation of my first son, Byrd, other than an essay I published about it all.

Then came the construction and transportation vocabulary with classes of railway vehicles: shunter, slip coach, pendolino, and the associated sounds: clickety clack and whoooooooooooosh.  Byrd is 6 now. We are in the language of the ocean: blob fish, yetti crab, hydrothermal vents, the midnight zone. A recent face painter offered to draw anything.

“Can you do a spook fish?” Bryd asked.

She went blank.

“You know, they have eyes under their skin because they are see through.” Byrd continued.

Five ocean creatures later, they agreed on a flying fish.“I can do a fish with wings,” she sighed.

New words start as a question, “What is the deepest place in the ocean?” Then become jokes, “Your butt crack is deeper than the Mariana Trench.” And then they become metaphors.

I wake up at night sometimes, to get back to sleep I have to take my anxiety and transform it into curiosity, something to study. When I do this, a crevasses opens as deep as the Mariana Trench. I drop in my  questions, ideas, observations, stories. I fill the Mariana Trench and sleep.

-E.A. Farro

Dear Lenka,

Part of Toni Morrison’s Paradise has stayed with me since I read it: a house full of women drawing outlines of each other on the basement floor.

It made me think about how women’s lines can be dotted; we can have other bodies inside us and can even make hair, teeth, lifeless forms in the ovaries without fertilization.

Farro asked me, “What does it mean for you as a woman to see art made by mothers?” I was worried about assuming, pretending to be something I’m not, about looking at an idea as if it were an absence or defending that absence as if it were a firm choice devoid of complexity and all the weird, sad thoughts people have about their alternate imagined lives when they’re alone.

Lenka, you seem to enjoy patterns and fragments, things that take on meaning when they accumulate. Farro said that my walking everywhere is a kind of artistic residency, a different type of “hood” that builds understanding over time, something that many would find arduous, wasteful, unsafe, but the meaning’s in the minutiae.

I think part of residency is about carrying the things that take up residence inside you. In epidemiology, motherhood is viewed often in terms of risk, or like a woman has transitioned to only existing as part of a relationship. Though maybe none of us exist without our relationships: to ancestors, children, friends, and the lines between them.

I can’t answer Farro’s question. Art made by mothers: Its absence looks like a world made of scorn, and scorn, I think, stems from a sense of doom. So maybe it is the opposite. Maybe art and science made in motherhood is some subtle, slippery antidote to doom.


Materials: gouache, wax paper, sharpie

The image is a mental map of a hilly area in which I like to walk.


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