MOMuments offers unique Santa Cruz twist on Kondo decluttering

Sarah Buckius and family
Artist Sarah Buckius and daughters Amelia Buckius Penner, Mary Buckius Penner and Nell Buckius Penner.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Westside artist Sarah Buckius turns motherhood’s labors into art, and is encouraging Santa Cruz moms and caregivers to share their sculptures of childhood clutter as a community compendium.

I see the clutter, the child-detritus, on every surface in every room of my house and immediately need to take deep yogic cleansing breaths. Our kitchen table features chewed-up remains of an apple and a peach, a box of walkie-talkies, a doll’s hat, a half-eaten bag of vegan cheddar square crackers, a school art project, a cup full of flower petals and leaves. The counter displays books, scissors, a rock collection set, art supplies. Living room couch: a toy piano, fidget spinner, doctor kit, board book, dumped-out contents of containers of crayons and markers. I’ll stop there because you get the idea.

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The state in which my kids leave our house seems pretty dire no matter how much time my husband and I spend going from room to room, tidying. Joan Didion famously wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and there is a story I like to tell myself as an act of self-consolation so that I may go on in the chaos: Some time, long ago, little children were gatherers. They’d venture out with baskets and bring back berries, plants, leaves, bugs, pebbles and all kinds of found items adults would sort through to see what might be useful. In my story, their collect-and-spread compulsion is embedded in their genes. It helps my feelings of powerlessness in the face of all of their stuff.

Primarily what my kids enjoy collecting can be found at CVS: LOL Surprise dolls, Pokemon accoutrements, all kinds of plastic junk I feel guilty about purchasing, but cave into as a preventative tantrum strategy or because their love of unboxing surprises is so palpable I don’t always have the strength to deny it. Their love of objects is stronger than my parental willpower.

My kids love not only accumulating, but spreading their collections around on every surface as if the entire catalog must remain visible all at once.

I’ve never been a neat freak. But I had produced two tiny also-not-neat-freaks, and the sheer level of stuff in our house had become intolerable. I often gave up on organizing and would merely sweep through, grabbing up the piles of toys and detritus of the day, and dump it into nearby drawers.

One of my first thoughts early in the coronavirus lockdowns was, well, at least now no one is going to come over and see the disaster zone in my house.

Nobody tells you what will happen to your space during the early years you’re a parent. Maybe you saw it, when you visited the homes of friends with young children. Or maybe you didn’t, because five minutes prior to your arrival, your hosts swept all the detritus into a pile, shoveling it into a closet where it would remain out of sight during your visit. Surveying my home in which a 3- and a 6-year-old live, my most typical thought process is along the lines of you CANNOT Marie Kondo this s$^%.

Unless you are Santa Cruz artist Sarah Buckius. Then, maybe, you can.

However, Buckius’ strategy is less Kondo, more Dalí.

Creative motherhood

An accomplished multimedia artist whose work revolves around women’s invisible and emotional labor, motherhood, and overall absurdities of institutions and societal structures, she is passionate about “creative problem-solving and humor.” That’s an excellent coupling for parenthood, even though she insists she’s more of an “antihero” mom. To me, that is the best kind from which to extract inspiration and advice: more relatable than aspirational.

Sarah Buckius and one of her daughters, 6-year-old Amelia Buckius Penner.

Sarah Buckius’ MOMument-making community invitation

1. Clear a small space somewhere in your home for the construction of your MOMument. This can be a kitchen counter, a table, a desk, a coffee table. If you want your MOMument to feel MOMumental, you might consider having the background and site of the sculpture free of clutter so that the mixture of objects becomes MOMumental in comparison.

2. Gather the detritus left in the wake of your children and your caregiving. Toys, food, hair, dust, drawings, craft supplies, sewing needles, shopping lists, spatula, forks, a vacuum, diapers, etc.

3. Place these items in an arrangement in the empty space you have created. This arrangement might be inspired by the activities in one day. For example, all items could be from one time you pick up the living room in the afternoon (or maybe your kids help you pick up!).

4. Send the pictures you take of your MOMuments to sbuckius@gmail.com with any description that is relevant to be shared on a website/social media.

After studying mechanical engineering and industrial design in Illinois, Buckius earned her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Michigan in 2006. A prolific artist, her work has been exhibited internationally. For her multimedia sculpture project, “Everyday MOMuments,” which is documented and exhibited on her website, Buckius turns items from her kindergarten twins and second grader into temporary sculptures. It’s all there: the partial bagel, a hairbrush, glue, the remains of art projects. The sculptures are dismantled at the end of each day, but their images are on permanent display online. While her engineer husband went to work building various containment systems for their three kids’ clutter, Buckius’ “Everyday MOMuments” project celebrates it with humor and a touch of the absurd. The spirit of “MOMuments’” is playful, funny, surprising and involves unexpected uses of objects, items that seem to be unconnected but, viewed in this surreal form, formulate a narrative: the journey of one day as a caregiver to young children, as seen through a 3D collage of material possessions.

“Adults designed objects with a certain purpose,” Buckius says. “Children aren’t necessarily bound by these contexts so they can play freely with the objects. The MOMuments do the same.”

Buckius creates them in an improvised process, one she compares to raising children, not knowing how they’ll turn out: “You just help support their construction of themselves. I don’t have an image in my mind of what they will be beforehand. I tinker and improvise and mix and entangle the objects in a similar way that my children tinker with objects and words.”

For a collaborative project with her children, entitled “stay at home mom,” one of Buckius’ daughters inserted a doll head into a door stopper, the rubber head stopping the door from slamming noisily. She writes that the resulting “impromptu sculpture” represents “the Sisyphean dance of managing the emotions of oneself and three young daughters 24 hours a day; the emotional and physical boundaries often dissolve and your minds, bodies and physical spaces become so intertwined they it is hard to distinguish between oneself and another. Seeking out individual emotional and physical space feels like running into a door.”

Buckius has found a way to speak volumes to mothers and caregivers of young kids through these visual representations. Objects taken out of context become fresher and invite further contemplation. It wasn’t just a mess to toss into a drawer; it was a portal.

After living in Santa Cruz from 2013 to 2018 and leaving to spend two years in Southern California, she and her family returned to Santa Cruz during the pandemic, in 2020. They’ve settled in a house on a quiet Westside block with a redwood tree in the yard. On a hot, sunny spring afternoon, I meet her there to learn more about her work’s intersections with motherhood.

Buckius’ house is completely uncluttered, though she promised she had cleaned it up in anticipation of my arrival. “We’re lucky to have found our house,” she says. “It’s so hard to find [housing in Santa Cruz].” Another true point this mom relates to as well: We are lucky to have space here for our kids to clutter up with art projects, toys, found objects, odds and ends.

A child in a pile of play bricks
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She made a cappuccino and showed me some of her daughters’ recent messes — aka artistic inspirations — like “passion potions” in the garden, containers of colored water with beans and other items, a classic childhood blend, evidence of that universal love of mixing. (Our version is “chocolate fountain,” I said — mud, water and garden detritus mixed in the deconstructed water table they used when they were littler.)

Buckius points to the fact that this kind of messy play is “in some sense creative,” but also acknowledges it makes our lives as parents more difficult to manage. “We settled in at the table and delved into the good, the bad, the ugly of clutter, creativity, parenting and the importance of not letting the (literal) small stuff get in the way of enjoying your children’s youngest years.

“They don’t know the function of our objects,” she says. “The kids do things I wouldn’t think of with objects, like make a fountain out of a pool noodle. They look at things with wonder. It can be hard, but also interesting. Artists want to go back to that — that’s the goal, to go back to when things just connected in unexpected ways. In your life as a mom everything is connected, every moment, the time is all connected in a way it never was before. Everything is now.”

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The painful roots of MOMuments

Buckius is honest and disarming in discussing the deeper story behind her inspiration for creating MOMuments; she survived a devastating illness last year. In the face of it, “every minute you might have left feels meaningful,” she says. “Trivial moments and things become colossal in their importance.” Uncertainty about how much time she’d have left with her children granted her the urge to create what she terms “a physical manifestation of this feeling of immensity of each small minute, each small thing.” This is part of why the MOMuments are temporary, even momentary. “As a caregiver,” Buckius notes, “nothing feels permanent, everything is always in process. There is no real beginning or end.”

The MOMuments gave levity during that painful time. For a viewer like me, they had taken the bane of my existence and turned it into something that made me smile and see I was in good company, forming a dialogue on creative work and motherhood, and the creative work that IS motherhood. While my motherhood-related creativity is writing about its moments of strangeness, challenge and hilarity, I drew inspiration from Buckius and, in a sort of absurdist show-and-tell, brought whatever I’d swept up off the rug in my house that morning to improvise a MOMument of my own: Peppa Pig figurines, some sea glass, tiny plastic cup, little sunglasses.

A woman with a handful of toys
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Buckius concurs that the MOMuments would be a fantastic community project. “The last thing mothers need is more criticism,” she says. “Most of us have so much mom guilt anyway. What we need is a community to commiserate and support each other. If moms all over — and other caregivers because this is inclusive — made MOMuments in their own spaces and shared them with us, making it about support and community, wouldn’t that be fun? Each maker would have their own style, approach, strategy and cultural context. Each person brings their own personality, experiences, perspectives to each assemblage. These can become metaphorical, visual support structures for caregivers.”

Buckius hasn’t yet shown work locally in Santa Cruz “but would love to,” she says. Meanwhile, she invites all mothers and caregivers to make their own MOMuments (details in the sidebar) and send photos of them to sbuckius@gmail.com. “I can add them to a new community of MOMument makers,” she says. “I know that other moms and caregivers would make their own in more interesting ways!”

We had been talking for so long we lost track of time and verged on forgetting to pick up our kids. With the discussion still vigorously in progress, we had to depart. As I drove up the steep incline on Laurent Street toward the school, I noticed my mind was cluttered — with new ideas. The greatest takeaway courtesy of Buckius and her work is a renewed perspective that this business of parenthood isn’t about forcing change but rather embracing the adventure.

The life-changing magic of shifting your perspective

“Find wonder and delight in messes,” she advises, “and then start over again trying to contain them, then delight in them, then attempt to contain them, then delight in them. … This is your life with kids. And maybe people in general? If it feels like Sisyphus, you are in good company.”

She also encourages us to reframe our thinking: “Mess is not mess. Mess is a mixture, a combination, a collage, like a child mixes potions. Mixtures inspire unexpected connections, a creative impulse, creativity, invention, and ingenuity.” When it comes to clutter, “throwing things away isn’t really an option, because then there is another issue to contend with: ‘How do you keep them occupied without destroying things?’”

Art hanging from walls in artist Sarah Buckius' home
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The next time I trip on the clutter — I mean, objets d’art — my kids strew all about, I think I’ll pause a moment (a “mom”-ent?) before clearing away the piles. I might feel my heart, too, has become cluttered, not with annoyance but love and appreciation for a singular time that will be over in a flash. Do I want to remember spending it obsessing about clutter?

In the 1953 novel “The Go-Between,” L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Rather than everyday frustrations, images of the MOMuments represent material evidence of that which will soon fall away into that other land, morphing into sentimental — maybe even beloved — souvenirs of a fleeting time. Buckius and I, and perhaps all parents/caregivers of elementary-school aged children, are already disconnecting from them, in a way, shifting our roles in this stage to prepare them for the world, rather than the focused tasks of feeding, holding and constant care given during infancy and toddlerhood.

As I’m putting down these words, my younger daughter, 3, has donned her jeggings and proudly announced: “In case I have lots of treasure, I can put them in my pockets, because I have pockets! I can put anything in these pockets, anything that is tiny and small.”

OK, I tell her. Go ahead. Gather your treasures. We’re building something here.

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