I never planned to chafe against domesticity. I subscribed to interior design and architecture magazines throughout high school and college and planned gourmet meals to cook for my family on the weekends. I helped with chores around the house and loved the idea of making a home of my own some day for the husband and children I prayed I would have.
I married Paul while I was attending grad school and became pregnant with our daughter the year after I graduated. Almost two years after she was born, I gave birth to twin boys. Gone were the days of rearranging the objects on my mantle and trying new and exciting recipes. In addition to my job as a college professor, my days were an endless treadmill of baby care along with dishes, laundry, scrubbing body fluids out of carpets, and putting away items my two-year-old had unearthed from closets, cabinets, shelves, and baskets.
I was exhausted and frazzled, not only from the lack of sleep, but also from the constant repetition of domestic tasks that would only be un-done in a moment. In addition to this, I wasn’t making any art, a source of guilt for me as I taught college students how to paint and encouraged them to throw themselves into their artwork.
When my twins were six months old, I re-entered the studio, unsure of what I would make. My former work, landscape paintings in oil, was out of the question due to the scarcity of large blocks of time. I told a friend, “I don’t know what I’ll make, but it will have to be something I know.” All I felt I knew now were stacks of dishes in the sink, piles of towels in the hallway linen closet, and baskets of toys. Without much thought to their meaning I began gluing antique hand-made linens to wooden panels, using their decorative designs as a starting place for my new mixed media paintings. I liked the idea of salvaging the work of women who had come before me, and the softness of the textiles was comforting to me. I had accumulated boxes and bags full of crocheted doilies, hand-embroidered hankies, table linens, hand-woven table runners, and a christening gown.
The epiphany happened when a friend pointed out to me that the linens I was using in my work were a result of repetition. Crocheting is a series of knots, repeated to make a pattern. Weaving is the repetition of over-under, over-under, over-under. Sewing pulls a thread up-down, up-down through the fabric. For millennia, after women have retreated from their domestic repetitions of cooking, cleaning, laundering, they have taken up needles and yarns and threads and applied their tired hands to other kinds of repetition to unwind from pressures of the day.
These repetitions of sewing, knitting, crocheting, embroidering, and weaving reflected in a visible way the invisible repetitions of making a home. It had been hard for me to see the repetitions of cooking, scrubbing, and laundry as beautiful; the processes had become strictly utilitarian. I was struggling, seeing my efforts to straighten up and beautify my home swiftly negated by the people I loved the most. My domestic work didn’t seem to matter as no progress was visible. I was feeling split in half as I tried to be an artist and homemaker at the same time.
Seeing both my art and my household duties as life-giving repetitions began to tie these two parts of my life together. While I was doing the dishes, I was thinking of new ideas for my artwork about domesticity, and while I was in my studio I was sorting through my thoughts and feelings about home and family, praying over them, surrendering to God the parts I feared were impossible.
I now have a visible reminder that though my efforts around my house sometimes have little originality, though they seem to move forwards and backwards, though they loop around endlessly, they are creating life-giving patterns that will one day be visible. They are leading to an end, and meanwhile these repetitions bring comfort and beauty to my home and the lives of those I love most.
Michelle lives in Greenville, SC where she is an artist, college professor, wife, and mother to three rambunctious kids. For the last several years she has organized her studio practice around the concepts of home, repetition, care, and motherhood, and she’s passionate about helping other women find their creative voices alongside their other vocations of care. You can find her work at www.michellebergradford.com and follow her on Instagram: @michelle.radford.