Reverse Engineering Creativity

Millie Watters

Mierle Laderman Ukeles is a famous female artist who is known for challenging the low status of maintenance work – both domestically and also in society. I learned about Ukeles while researching during graduate school several years ago before becoming a mess-managing mother and a professional “maintenance artist” myself.

After graduate school, I landed a position piloting a rural community development program in an impoverished rural community in the county where my family is rooted. When I gave birth to my second child, I decided to step away from the 60-hour a week role that had been the fulfillment of a long-term vision and a precision fit to my gifting and passions. A year later, I found myself relatively isolated in the almost suburbs with a 3-year-old and 1-year-old.

For almost 20 years, I had been on a progressive trajectory of honing my creative and community development skills and growing a greater capacity to tackle complex ideas and projects. Full stop, now my days were spent moving from one room of the house to the next following two adorable troll babies who delighted in upending neatly curated bookshelves or scattering Cheerios on freshly mopped floors. More challenging was that they also seemed to fill, distract and interrupt every attempt at creative and critical thought. My delight had been envisioning new ideas, generating fresh programs, and making things. Simply thinking – during a drive, while washing dishes, or on the potty was now insurmountable.

As I write, I hear water running. My three year old is on top of the bathroom sink filling a bucket of water. I say, “This is not a good plan, what are you doing?” She says, “It’s a funny plan. Were going to play goofy, goofy puppy dog.” This time, the cleaning crisis is averted.

Six months ago instead of raging at every new disaster site, I began documenting the elements. Over time, it has become a cathartic collection and taxonomy of this season of life. My “Picking Up” series is as artist Allan Kaprow puts it, “blurring art and life.” It is a practice of pausing and memorializing the objects and little hands that formed, piled or deconstructed them that day. By reverse engineering my creative process, I have made space to not only enjoy the process of cleaning but also find a fresh way to collaborate with my children.




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Millie Watters is an artist, community developer, wife and mother to two young children. Over the past 15 years she has worked with various faith-based non-profits and has served as a visionary leader involved in piloting groundbreaking programs and tools such as the Cru:Tribeca Summer Arts Project, the Soularium dialogue tool, The Fireseed Anthology Project, and a rural community development program addressing root issues of poverty. Watters received her MFA from The University of Colorado Boulder (2014) and her BFA from Texas Tech (2001). See more of her work on Instagram and Etsy.