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The Artistry of Parenthood

by Andrew Swensen and Katherine Leisen

A white Fisher Price baby monitor stands alone on a waist-high white plinth in a white gallery. Parenthood meets artistic expression.

Lenka Clayton, Maternity Leave (Photo: Carnegie Museum of Art)

Lenka Clayton’s installation “Maternity Leave” begs the question of how the arrival of a child impacts the creative life of an artist. During the recent Biennial exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Museum exhibited this work by Clayton. It consisted of a baby monitor displayed in the museum, which relayed a live “performance,” namely the sounds of Clayton’s newborn child Otto (for images of this work and more, please visit Clayton’s website).

Having a child is one of the most momentous occasions in someone’s biography, no less true of artists than of anyone else. Beyond just childbirth, parenthood defines one’s identity over the years, and all of its inspirations and challenges must surely shape the creative spirit. Clayton’s work reminds us that we have a long tradition of artwork drawn from our experience as parents.

Consider the inspiration of parenthood that gives birth to Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.” The poem opens with melancholy thoughts and moves through recollections of his own childhood. Then he turns to the infant sleeping beside him, and the reader learns of the context underlying this night meditation:

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes!

In the visual arts, Renoir’s evolution in the 1890s reflects a number of factors in his creative life, parenthood being one of them. He had long painted families and children, and in this stage of his life, his eyes turn to the young people in his own life:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Artist's Family (Photo: Barnes Foundation)

The work is in some respects a painter’s autobiography. The rich colors, the flowing lines, and the embraces portrayed certainly suggest an artist speaking from the place of a child’s inspiration.

Renoir and Coleridge differ on a number of levels from Clayton. They are creating expressions about their parenthood in verse and paint. Clayton, on the other hand, works in a different era and with a different purpose. As is the case with much of her art, her installation offers a commentary. All of us can of course go to any Target or Kids R Us and buy a Fisher Price baby monitor, and the art of the work is not in the sculpture of an item standing on at the center of the room. Instead, the work speaks to a life changed by childbirth. The installation’s title evokes our thoughts on maternity leave, as we read in the notes to the work: “Maternity Leave reveals and considers overlapping cycles of responsibility; of government to citizen, institution to artist, artist to audience, parent to child, and audience to artwork.”

As we consider intersections between arts and children, surely the world of artist parents commands our attention. We seek to inspire children with the arts. So too do we draw inspiration from them.

(Katherine Leisen offers a personal reflection on children, parenthood and the arts — thoughts that prompted her recent interest in Lenka Clayton’s “Maternity Leave.” Click here.)
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