I. Scraping Myself Off the Floor
Last month, scraping myself off the floor after I had crashed into yet another professional dead end, I decided to take myself on a date. To go “shopping for images,” as Allen Ginsberg puts it. To “refill the well,” as Julia Cameron does.
In an upstairs corner of a local art museum, I found my muse.
It was a short video installation by the artist Lenka Clayton. “The Distance I Can Be from My Son” sets three different scenes – a park, a back alley, and a grocery store. In each, Clayton’s son toddles ever further away from a stationary camera, occasionally looking back for encouragement.
At a certain moment in each episode, Clayton herself enters the scene to give chase. An exact measurement of the distance her son toddled away before needing parental intervention is then provided (for example, 51 meters in the park vs. 14 meters in the grocery store).
The video makes brilliant use of pattern recognition. As each scene unfolded, a fellow museum-goer and I sat expectantly/nervously chuckling on a bench in the darkened room.
“The Distance I Can Be from My Son” simulates a classic parenting experience: long stretches of watchful boredom interspersed with brief moments of fight-or-flight urgency. It’s both poignant and funny as hell. The video juxtaposes raw, toddling life with the austere precision of data collection. The slap of the number of meters/yards onto the screen is also comical; it reminded me of the exaggerated freeze frame in a cheesy martial-arts movie.
On a plaque outside the gallery, I learned that “The Distance…” was part of a much larger project. Clayton embarked on An Artist Residency in Motherhood (ARIM) back in 2012, when her first child was one and a half.
One of my favorite pieces from ARIM is titled “Objects Taken Out of My Son’s Mouth” (2011-2012). Here is the materials list:
Acorn, bolt, bubblegum, buttons, carbon paper, chalk, Christmas decoration, cigarette butt, coins (GBP, USD, EURO), cotton reel, holly leaf, little wooden man, sharp metal pieces, metro ticket, nuts, plastic “O”, polystyrene, rat poison (missing), seeds, slide, small rocks, specimen vial, sponge animal, sticks, teabag, wire caps, wooden block.
“Objects…” reminded me of this quote I recently came across from the self-described “housewife-artist” Ursula Le Guin:
Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together.
Clayton makes humorously literal Le Guin's idea that regurgitated baby artifacts can be a valid basis for art-making.
What unites the pieces in ARIM is a pledge Clayton took to pursue her craft using the found materials of parenthood. She vowed that:
For 227 days the fragmented mental focus, exhaustion, nap-length studio time and other distractions of parenthood (as well as the absurd poetry of time spent with a young child) will be my working materials rather than obstacles to be overcome.
FYI: her web site offers you the tools to start your own residency in parenthood (babies not included).
II. A New Theory of Art
Clayton’s art moved me because it so deftly captured the inner life of the sidekick. Even more fundamentally, it acknowledged that we sidekicks might actually have inner lives!
As you fall into the sidekick role after 20 or 30 or 40 years as the lead, you are morphing, too. You need a way to measure that change, to acknowledge it, to grapple with it.
“The Distance I Can Be from My Son” playfully illustrates a major theory of early childhood development: that toddlers alternate between testing out their independence and returning to the safety of an attached relationship with a caregiver.
But "The Distance..." also gets at our own push-pull as parents. The tug of desire to be close to our children, to keep them needing us the way we need them, and the desire, sometimes simultaneous, to assert some distance of our own. To reclaim an independent sense of self.
In focusing on the minutia, Clayton offers something quite expansive: a new theory of art. She challenges the idea that solitude and self-preoccupation are the necessary prerequisites for meaningful expression. That caregiving inevitably gets in the way of the work.
Seeing ourselves as sidekick-artists entails a different perspective on the raw materials for a creative life. This view takes collaboration rather than competition as a model. It celebrates a creative process based in relationships.
Of course, this is by no means a partnership of equals. The superhero-diva might sulk, brood, or throw goldfish crackers on set. We sidekicks, in contrast, are expected to grin through it all. To talk the hero down from his overblown theatrics. To provide the comic relief, even if we are inwardly itching to punch a wall.
And admittedly, the work that our sidekick status might inspire often requires a degree of separation. For Clayton, that consisted of three half-days per week of childcare. As for me, I could not have finished a first draft of my Ada manuscript, or even taken myself on that museum date, without the support that my son’s daycare teachers provide – thank you, Maud, Olivia, Amiel, and Cassie!
Paying attention to the “absurd poetry” of early childhood can be a way to assert one’s own personhood in the midst of a process that can feel at times like an erasure. As I wrote in an earlier post, those scraps of time and attention can also generate new forms of expression, as well as new understandings about yourself and your relation to the larger world.
The distance between ourselves and the young children in our care might not be vast. According to Lenka Clayton, it measures 51 meters at best.
But that turns out to be ample ground for making art.
Then again, part of me doesn’t want to embrace the sidekick moniker at all.
During pregnancy, I remember learning that about 40 percent more blood was pumping through my body; that my uterus would grow to five times its original size. The science geek in me was fascinated by these transformations.
So, despite the fact that I was easily winded, that my gums bled, that my bedtime crept closer and closer to 8 pm, I arrived at the following conclusion: I am a meta-human. (We were watching The Flash at the time.)
Recently I came across Sharon Olds’ poem “The Language of the Brag” (via Mom Rage podcast). It reminded me of that intoxicating charge of super-human strength that I felt at odd moments during my pregnancy, labor, and even the postpartum period.
Olds weaves together the scraps of her maternal experience to compose on an epic, rather than a miniature, scale. She takes the language of the playground boast, the boardroom brag, and tries it on for size. What if, she speculates, we talked about mothering in the way that men have spoken about battles or ball games?
What begins, though, as an exercise in imitation, a poetic voice in macho drag, ultimately captures the power and centrality of a mother’s art:
I have lain down and sweated and shaken
and passed blood and shit and water and
slowly alone in the center of a circle I have
passed the new person out
and they have lifted the new person free of the act
and wiped the new person free of that
language of blood like praise all over the body.
Olds writes here about the act of childbirth, but the poem's animating spirit speaks more generally to the herculean task of person-making shared by adoptive and foster parents. She refers not to "the baby" or "the infant" but to "the new person." In her choice of language, she resists the diminishment of the mother's role, showing it instead for the powerful creative force that it is.
In Olds’ poem, the sidekick strips off her goofy spandex suit to reveal that she’s been the hero-protagonist all along.