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This week we visit Lenka Clayton, another Pittsburgh based artist whose work finds meaning in ordinary, everyday objects. For her assignment, she asks you to partner with someone and recreate a lost childhood object, using their memory of the object and the materials you have around you.

INSTRUCTIONS - Lost Childhood Object
1. Ask someone to describe an object they made or cherished as a child. Make a mental image of that object
2. Create the object
3. Give the object back to the person (Ideally, you'd do this project in tandem)
4. Document and upload using #theartassignment
5. Fame and glory (your work might be in a future episode)

Sarah then connects this assignment to contemporary artist Roman Ondak.

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
(PBS digital studios intro)

Sarah: Today we're meeting up with Lenka Clayton, who's originally from England but now based here in Pittsburgh. She's known for her almost magical ability to suss out the poetic and the meaningful in the mundane objects and places of our everyday lives.

She revels in collecting, counting, and categorization, which you can see in such works as 43 Wishes, a stack of pennies she retrieved from a fountain, alphabetical shopping, a receipt for groceries she purchased in alphabetical order, Spared Tires, a collection of nails and screws taken from any road, and the self-explanatory 63 Objects Taken from my Son's Mouth.

That last work was part of Lenka's Artist Residency in Motherhood, a structured and fully funded residency that took place inside of her home and used the framework of motherhood as both a subject and a sight for production. Other works made during that time include Dangerous objects made safe and a video series called The Distance I can Be from my Son, where she sees how far she can allow her young son to run away from her before she feels she must run after him.

Most of all, Lenka's work encourages us to be attentive to the world around us, so let's go see what kind of assignment she has for us.

Lenka: Hi, I'm Lenka Clayton and this is your art assignment.

(art assignment intro)

Lenka: I think it's a way that I've always understood the world, by sort of paying very close attention to it, bringing fragments of it out of their regular context and sort of looking for new connections with them. I made a piece called One Brown Shoe in 2013, whereby I asked 100 married couples to each make a single brown shoe from objects that they-- materials that they had lying around their homes.

The really important part of the project was that they had to make their shoe in secret, without speaking to one another, and then when they were finished, they came together and revealed the shoe, so creating this pair of shoes. When you say the word "one brown shoe," you have like a clear image of what one brown shoe means, but of course like everybody's clear image is incredibly different.

And so the project-- the shoes themselves end up becoming this portrait. So they're a portrait of that mental image that comes to mind when you imagine one brown shoe and then, of course the portrait of a marriage or of a couple, where you see these two completely - mismatched in most cases - shoes and sort of tell yourself this story about you know, these two individuals creating this partnership together.

Your assignment is called Lost Childhood Object. It has three parts.

The first part: you find somebody. It could be someone you know really well from your family or a friend or someone that you've only just met, and interview them about an object that they made or cherished as a child. It's really important that you understand in the interview what the object was made out of, anything you can about the materiality of it, how heavy was it, what was the color, what was the pattern, how did it feel, and make a mental image of that object.

Part two: make the object as close as you can from your memory of their memory of it, using materials that you have to hand or that are lying around in the house. Part three: give that object back to the person.

Sarah: So John, what would your object be for this?

John: Mine would be bebe, my childhood blanket, which I remember being human-size and silk and all this embroidery that my mother had made. And I recently saw bebe and in fact it is a blanket approximately seven inches square.

Sarah: But you were smaller then.

John: Of course, I was much smaller.

Sarah: There are so many layers of things happening with this assignment. It's about the faultiness of memory...

John: Like my memory of bebe.

Sarah: Right, but it's also about sort of the various layers of translation that are happening.

John: Right.

Sarah: There's the translation between what you remember and how you speak it, and then there's the cognition of somebody hearing it, and then there's the layer of translation for when they imagine it.

John: And then there's the layer of translation for when they actually make the object and you run up against like... your own limits as an artist.

Sarah: Right.

John: I guess maybe like all art involves that translation of the mind to the world, but this is many many layers of it, so what's our historical precedent here?

Sarah: Well, we're actually not gonna dig very far back this time, we're gonna talk about the artist Roman Ondák.

in 2000, Slovakian artist Roman Ondák made a work called Common Trip, where he described places he had traveled to people from his home town who didn't travel much and had never been to the places he told them about. Ondák then asked them to create drawings and models based on what he told them, which he displayed in a group, forming a fictional universe of places that re-imagine and reconstruct the artist's own experience.

And in 2007 he asked the curators of an exhibition he was going to be in to describe what he looked like to a group of people who then made drawings of the artist based on that description. Ondák displayed the hugely varied drawings together in the show, a fascinating kind of self-portrait by proxy.

His work reveals the multitude of ways a verbal description can be interpreted and transcribed visually, and we're led to question that description, the memory of the person giving it, and their word choice.

Lenka's assignment also leads us to think about what we remember, how vivid or hazy that memory is, and on the other side of it, how our minds can take such small threads of information and extrapolate whole worlds drawn from our own experience.

Lenka: This is an assignment that a colleague, John Peña and I assigned to a class at Carnegie Mellon University a couple of years ago. It's called Lost Childhood Objects and it was one of the first projects that we gave them, so we'd just met them and they had just met each other. We chose this assignment for this moment in the class because it was a way of getting to know someone in a very sort of fast, direct way that gets around all the sort of normal ways that you might have conversations, straight to the sort of very deep, very personal point.

There's the thinking about memory, so you're asking somebody to recall something that they perhaps haven't recalled before or hardly have thought about in a long time, so there's a wonderful quality to that sort of dredging up the memory in the person, and then it's also asking for memory from the participant, from the person who's going to be making the object.

This assignment is really not about being able to make things well with your hands. There's gonna be beauty in the way that you find objects and put them together whatever your ability is, and that's-- I think that's part of the thing that's compelling about the objects that come out of this assignment, they look very handmade, they have sort of quirks of what you were able to find, or your-- often, it sort of pushes your ability, so you might be required to sew something, but you've not normally sewn before. Don't see that as a problem, I would say. Like it's a-- that's something to be embraced.

So to demonstrate this assignment Sarah and I are going to interview each other.

Sarah: So I was thinking about this Lego house that I made when I was probably around ten. So I built this house and out of mostly white Legos and it had a lot of windows and it had a little, like a driveway and a carport. And then there was an upstairs level where there was a bedroom. I do remember I did some landscaping outside, too. A very orderly child.

So what is your lost childhood object?

Lenka: It was a teddy bear. I made it in my infant class with my teacher and everybody in the class made the same thing, so this was produced en masse. It was about this size, although I guess my hands were smaller then, it might be about this size. It was made out of-- the way we made it was we cut a normal teddy bear shape, like you might if you think of a cookie-cutter, like arms out and legs, you know, and ears. That shape twice out of a piece of fabric, so you put like the fancy sides together and then cut it out and then sew around the edge and you leave a little gap and then turn it inside out and then stuff it and sew it back together.

Sarah: Great. Yeah. I think I've got it.

Lenka: I can't wait to see it again.

Sarah: I can't wait to see my house again.


Lenka: Why do I think this assignment is worth doing? I can't think of any reason it's not worth doing. (laughs) This is like the best thing you'll do all week.