An Artist Residency in Motherhood

Last week a fellow mama-artist pointed me to the work of Lenka Clayton, an interdisciplinary artist who in 2012 started a project she called An Artist Residency in Motherhood. At the time, her first child was one and a half and she found herself wondering “how I might… apply the framework of an artist residency to the wild new world that was unfolding at home, one that I usually felt entirely too tired to notice.” She wrote a manifesto, made business cards, put signage in her window, located funding, recruited mentors and childcare, and got to work creating art that spoke to her experience as a mother (for example, the fabulous “63 Objects Taken From My Son’s Mouth“). Later she decided to make the framework of her residency freely available to other parents.

When I read her story and saw some of the art she’d made during the residency — art that turned the mess and exhaustion of early motherhood into something wry and poignant — I couldn’t stop thinking, this is going to save my life. I mean, my physical life wasn’t in danger, but if you read my blog posts from the last half-year or so, or if you talked to me then, you know something was — whether you call it my sense of self, my inner artist, or simply my ability to feel at peace with the decision to be at home with Owl. Some part of me was dying and though I’d been trying to save it by going to therapy, taking more breaks, finding a babysitter, and making more local mom friends, it had only stabilized; it was holding on, but it wasn’t flourishing. Then I found Clayton’s page and got so excited I wanted to take big leaps across the apartment except my knees don’t do things like that anymore. I felt a vigor I hadn’t felt in months.

That weekend while Owl hung out with Erik, I took Clayton’s create-your-own-residency questionnaire to a cafe and worked on it for a couple of hours, finishing it up later that evening and talking it over with Erik to make sure he was on board. Two mornings later — today — I wrote out my manifesto in chunky marker while crouched over a roll of butcher paper on the floor, Owl crawling around me with crayons, scribbling in accompaniment. There was something very satisfying about doing it this way, letting the necessity of the moment dictate everything from my posture to the speed of my writing.

Artist Residency in Motherhood manifesto, Lisa Hsia, 2017, written quickly in black marker on a white roll of butcher paper

Here’s the full text:

Parenthood, perhaps especially for mothers, is a time of re-calibration and re-evaluation of self and of life trajectory. For artists, this transformation of self-understanding also undermines existing patterns of creative practice: creativity requires a basic awareness of the tools one has at one’s disposal, whereas new parenthood is a time of intense change and therefore constant absence of knowing what resources one has at hand. Old routines are disrupted or no longer serve their function. Old goals disintegrate while new ones have yet to emerge. Through all of this, a parent’s time (and perhaps body) is no longer their own, is no longer guaranteed, is no longer familiar; all the while, the world continues relentlessly, tasks pile up, and by the time the new parent has found a foothold, life has changed yet again. To put it more simply: it is hard to make art, or even remember how to make art, while also making a family.
This residency is a time to re-establish a creative practice and explore what it means to be an artist/mother within the often-limiting parameters of that role — and in so doing, redefine these limitations as sources of motivation and creative energy rather than confinement, isolation, diminishment. The residency will comprise several guaranteed weekly sessions of private time/space/effort during times of day when the tired parent can still call upon some energy, along with as-available moments of “stolen time” while the child is also present. The private sessions provide needed opportunities for the parent/artist to experience themselves without the ever-present filter of caregiving, while concurrent parenting/creating time testifies to these dual roles being not mutually exclusive, but potentially mutually generative. The residency also has a physical component, in acknowledgment that while motherhood is a physical — and physically strenuous — state of being, art-making also requires engagement of the physical body and therefore demands a physical practice to accompany the other aspects of the creative practice.
The residency has an initial duration of six months, at which end time the residency and its terms will be re-evaluated and may be renewed. Although the residency has no requirements other than best-effort commitment to its recommendations (in acknowledgment that parenthood can guarantee only effort, not outcomes), those recommendations are as follows:
  • at least 3 private sessions per week of at least 2 hours each (“private” meaning in separation from the child and all other demands on the parent), with the first taking place between Monday and Wednesday, the second between Wednesday and Friday, and the third on the weekend
  • non-private sessions as opportunity arises
  • daily foundational work:
    • one evening mental-physical check-in, after the child is asleep
    • at least one physical mindfulness session* of any length, at first possible opportunity during the day (*stretching, yoga, breathing, walking, meditating, etc)
  • a primary commitment to re-establishing a regular practice of journaling and visual expression (sketching, painting, doodling, photography)
    • with optional exploration of side projects in any medium and of any scope
  • a secondary commitment to weekly sharing of any presentation of this work via the blog at
  • regular communication with one’s partner to determine that this residency does not come at their expense or at the expense of family or household maintenance

I don’t think I could have written this manifesto even a few weeks ago. There were so many other things that had to happen before I could begin to think of rebuilding my creative life — before I could think of my life in terms of weeks and months, rather than hours and days — and I needed a semblance of equilibrium in other areas of my life before I could create in an uncontaminated way, without the knowledge of other neglected tasks creeping in and making it impossible to focus. As writing always does, writing the manifesto gave me some additional clarity around my situation. I’ve hung it up on one of our few available areas of wall (actually, it wasn’t available; I’m covering up another art piece… but not one of mine 😉 ), though after taking this photo I had to tuck the end under so Owl can’t reach it.

Artist Residency in Motherhood manifesto, Lisa Hsia, 2017, written in black marker on a long white piece of paper and taped on a wall

If all goes well, look for new blog posts from me every week for the next six months. They might be short, or they might even just be several Instagram posts strung together. But they’ll be something.