Mierle Laderman Ukeles: The Maintenance Workers’ Artist

A computer generated image of a painter standing beside his paint roller.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Mierle Laderman Ukeles has been an artist since the 1960s. Her work has spanned from performance pieces to sculpture installations to writing. She has explored a variety of social justice issues, ranging from the role of women to the cultures of labor to the resilience of local communities.

Initially, she went to school for international relations, but later enrolled at New York’s prestigious Pratt Institute. Shortly after enrolling, she was expelled from the Pratt Institute for making pornographic art. Ukeles intended to create abstract art that showed energy pods bursting. While she believed they resembled images of energy, the dean disagreed.

In 1969, her Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969! exposed the role of maintenance in Western society and emphasized the importance of valuing it. A snippet from her manifesto reads, “The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning.” She wanted to fight the culture of forgetting to value low-end labor jobs.

In 1973, Ukeles traveled with an all-female group of conceptual artists and performed several controversial pieces. She became extremely frustrated when she had a baby and people stopped seeing her as anything other than a mother.

One of her most famous roles is as the unofficial Artist-in-Residence for the New York’s Department of Sanitation. Although this is an unpaid position, it’s served as the inspiration for a large portion of her pieces. One such piece shows workers publicly washing a sidewalk. Another piece involves taking Polaroid pictures of some 300 workers and allowing them to define their work in their own words.

Perhaps most commendable, Ukeles shook the hand of every single worker in each of the 59 sanitation districts and thanked them for their service. Ukeles is 73 and still finds interesting and unique ways to represent the value of maintenance work.

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