Odd Jobs

Odd Jobs: Lenka Clayton

Welcome back to Odd Jobs, where I interview artists about their varied and non-traditional career arcs. For this installment I spoke with Lenka Clayton, whose works include hand-numbering 7,000 stones, searching for all 613 people mentioned in a single edition of a German newspaper, and reconstituting a lost museum from a sketch on the back of an envelope. Her practice exaggerates and alters the accepted rules of everyday life, extending the familiar into the realms of the poetic and absurd. Clayton received a BA in Fine Art from Central St. Martins, London, in 1999 and an MA in Documentary Direction from the National Film & Television School (UK) in 2006. Her work has been exhibited in Kunstmuseum Linz, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and MoMA, New York, among others. In 2012, Clayton founded An Artist Residency in Motherhood. She now oversees a public, open-source version of the work that has 275 registered current “artists-in-residence-in-motherhood” in thirty-one countries.

Lenka Clayton. Sculpture For The Blind, By The Blind, 2017; plaster, linen, wood, Braille sign, mounted digital photograph, portfolio of photographs. Courtesy of the artist. Photos: Carlos Avendano

Lenka Clayton. Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind, 2017; plaster, linen, wood, Braille sign, mounted digital photograph, portfolio of photographs. Courtesy of the Artist. Photos: Carlos Avendano.

Lenka Clayton: I had a paper route when I was young, delivering newspapers. I was also waitressing. When I started undergrad, I worked in an artist’s paper shop. It’s pretty normal in England to work the whole time through undergrad, in the evenings and weekends and stuff. In the second year of undergrad—I guess here in the U.S. it’d be like an internship—I wrote to Jimmie Durham and Mark Dion and said, “I love your work, can I be your assistant?” and they both wrote back and said yes, really astonishingly. Jimmie at the time was working in Berlin. I went to live with him and his partner for a month and assisted them. It was the first time I met a professional artist. So I spent thirty days alongside them.

Calder Yates: Jimmie, just from his work, seems like a funny, great guy.

LC: Oh, he’s extraordinary. We tried to make money together. We made a little edition together and we tried to do this fundraising thing. It was great to see what the life of an artist looks like. I ended up working for Mark for quite a long time. He did a piece at the Tate Gallery in London and I was project manager on that. It was the first job I had out of undergrad and I was essentially paid to go beachcombing.

CY: This was during and after undergrad. What did you do after working for Mark?

LC: I lived in Berlin and became a projectionist. There were five screens and all the films on all the five screens started at the same time and there was one projectionist. So there was like nothing to do for an hour and a half and then it was the most stressful thing in the world, running up and down ladders, in and out of dark rooms, and starting the adverts. The whole time I was in Berlin I started to see a lot of parallels between the way that I worked and the way that a documentary filmmaker would work. I purposely decided not to go to art school but to go to the National Film and Television School. After I left film school, I worked as an independent filmmaker. I was also teaching at a university in London. My partner and I made several films for television. But in the end, I just felt the limitations a lot. I always knew I wanted to work in a more open way. After I met my partner, we moved to Pittsburgh.

Lenka Clayton. All The Hours, 2014. Wooden letters on billboard. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jon Rubin / The Last Billboard.

Lenka Clayton. All the Hours, 2014; wooden letters on billboard. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Jon Rubin / The Last Billboard.

CY: What brought you to Pittsburgh?

LC: I had a vision.

CY: Really?

LC: Yeah, on a New Year’s Eve. I had my eyes closed and in my mind’s eye, really clearly, I saw the word “Pittsburgh” in yellow letters. I said, “We should just move to Pittsburgh.” And my partner was like, “Okay.” It was at a time in our lives where we’re looking for something new. We’d never been before. Neither of us had any idea what Pittsburgh was like. A friend of a friend put us up for a week. Otherwise we didn’t know a single person. It was like a new birth. We’ve been here for seven years.

Lenka Clayton. Posted Chair, 2014; oak chair, steel mending braces, screws, postage stamps, labels, ink, United States Postal Service. Courtesy of the artist. Photos: Tom Little.

Lenka Clayton. Posted Chair, 2014; oak chair, steel mending braces, screws, postage stamps, labels, ink, United States Postal Service. Courtesy of the Artist. Photos: Tom Little.

CY: Would you do it again?

LC: It was really hard. I definitely think there’s no way that I would do that again. But it was really, really good in a lot of ways. I love the beginning-again feeling. So it was really difficult, but I’m kind of drawn to that in life.

In the beginning in Pittsburgh, I was babysitting, working in an office… And then we had two kids, and that was a massive shift for us. My partner had the more reliable work and I became the main caregiver for our children. Before we had kids, I always made work, consistently—but it was often a battle where I would think: “Oh, I really ought to be in the studio.” I would have to push myself. When we had kids, it completely changed. My work became this incredible ally. Every little bit of time that I had that I wasn’t with my kids—like minutes during the day—I would be so grateful for the chance to work. It hugely shifted my practice into a central part of my life.

Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin. A talking parrot, a high school drama class, a Punjabi T.V. show, the oldest song in the world, a museum artwork, and a congregation's call to action circle through New York, 2017. Courtesy of the Artist and the Guggenheim Social Practice Initiative. Photos: Giacomo Francia.

Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin. A talking parrot, a high-school drama class, a Punjabi TV show, the oldest song in the world, a museum artwork, and a congregation’s call to action circle through New York, 2017. Courtesy of the Artist and the Guggenheim Social Practice Initiative. Photos: Giacomo Francia.

In England, there’s a government allowance to support you while you have kids and you’re not able to work. And there’s all this support for childcare. In Germany, it’s even better. Here, there’s nothing. We were struggling financially and there was no support at all. But it also became a real inspiration. I made a piece for the Carnegie Museum when my first child was eight weeks old. It was called Maternity Leave (2011). There was a baby monitor in the middle of the museum, a huge empty space. It was live-linked to our bedroom at home where our son was sleeping. For the duration, visitors could hear the very intimate life of my family in the museum, our son crying or me singing or whatever. The important part of the work was that I negotiated with the museum that for the duration of the show they would pay me this missing allowance.

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