I am in the middle of making a pot of macaroni and cheese for lunch when my phone lights up and catches my eye. The notification is a New York Times headline: “Claes Oldenburg, a Pop artist who made monumental sculptures of ordinary objects like cherries and clothespins, is dead at 93.”
Before that moment, I had never heard the name Claes Oldenburg, but I lingered an extra beat in front of the headline for two reasons. First, I recognized the cherry sculpture in the thumbnail picture that accompanied the words. Once in college, my Minnesotan roommates took me to the Minneapolis art museum and made sure we stopped by “Spoonbridge and Cherry”—a 29.5-foot tall spoon with a cherry on top—in the sculpture garden nearby. Second, when I scanned through the headline, my eye was immediately drawn to the word “ordinary” in conjunction with the word “artist.”
A clothespin. A cherry. An ink stamp. These are a few of the common objects Oldenburg magnified and turned into art.
A few hours before I read this headline, the kids and I stopped by the library on our way to Aldi for our weekly grocery pick up. Lily was out of chapter books which isn’t good for anyone and we also needed to get out of the house and we also just love the library and never need to look hard for a reason to go.
The children’s librarian greeted my kids and then immediately offered them a to-go story time bag filled with preschool appropriate sorting, matching, and counting games. Included were five small, multi-colored clothespins. After we filled a bag with books and the kids split up to read and play, I watched Norah take everything out of the bag and complete all the tasks—clipping clothespins to numbers and corresponding colors on laminated strips of paper. Before we left, she packed it all up for me and I didn’t see any of it again until much later when I saw all five clothespins pinned to Sawyer’s shirt and then again some time after that when Sawyer limped into the kitchen with an Ace bandage wrapped around his leg.
“It might take me a while to get the cups for you,” he said. “I think my leg is broken.” He limped past me, and I noticed he had secured the bandage with a small, black clothespin.
The kids dispersed throughout the house when we got home with the groceries but quickly reconvened at the counter peninsula when they heard food being pulled from the paper bags. I grabbed a bag of cherries from the top of one of the bags, rinsed the cherries in the sink, and then placed them in front of the kids. They wasted no time grabbing a handful each.
Jude smiled at me on my way back from a trip to the refrigerator. Cherry juice dripped from his mouth and hands, and there were red spots all over his American flag t-shirt.
“It looks like blood!” Norah squealed.
Never one to leave a laugh behind, Sawyer grabbed another handful and performed his own bleeding mouth bit. The laughter remained steady until almost all the cherries were gone.
After the library books and groceries were put away and the lunch dishes had been washed, I rallied the girls to the major to-do of the day: cleaning their room. I scanned the perimeter edges and tried to figure out the best place to start. The floor was almost entirely covered in books, toys, clothes, and trash, and I wondered again how we let it get to this. How we let them accumulate so much junk.
I sat down next to a bookshelf with a garbage bag in hand and started to sort through the contents of the shelf. I made piles of books to keep and books to give away and threw away anything I could while the girls weren’t looking.
I picked up an ink stamp with the phrase “I love you” in curly script. It didn’t look like it had ever been used. I went to throw it in the trash—I was in “no mercy” mode—but Lily snatched it out of my hand.
“I need this!” she said. Then, she found a gallon-sized Ziploc bag full of ink stamps and added it to the collection. A memory came back to me: Three-year-old Lily in our Cleveland basement, covering a piece of paper and her hands with stamps. I let the bag stay on her shelf though I can’t remember her using any of them in the years since.
I have been looking at pictures of Claes Oldenburg’s pop art and reading a bit about his life since the headline announcing his death popped up on my phone screen. About his own work, he said this: “My struggle has been to return painting to the tangible object, which is like returning the personality to touching and feeling the world around it, to offset the tendency to vagueness and abstraction. To remind people of practical activity, to suggest the sense and not to escape from the senses.”
The tendency to vagueness and abstraction. This phrase shifts something inside of me as I am prone to it—inclined to escape from my senses when life with four kids gets loud or chaotic or overwhelming.
Clothespins. Cherries. A collection of ink stamps. These are a few of the common objects I am suddenly convicted to touch and feel, and this notion grounds me in the tangible. It settles me in a way I didn’t realize I needed to be settled.
If I let them, these ordinary things can tether me to what is real—to what is happening around me. They can remind me that we are here, living this life together, if only I will choose to stay engaged in it.
A day later, the kids and I gather around the kitchen table after the breakfast bowls are rinsed. The tap of my computer keys is accompanied by four mechanical pencils scratching on paper. Two kids write books, one draws a horse, and another makes tiny lines in abstraction.
There are a million things to do today, but those four small pencils in four small hands remind me to stay here in this moment. It’s not a 45-foot tall sculpture but it’s big enough—magnified by its importance rather than its size.
This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “Ordinary Inspiration”.