Artist Spotlight: Sawyer Rose Visualizes Women's Unpaid Labor

Katie Carey | December 1, 2016 (Updated September 20, 2022)

Renée by Sawyer Rose. Archival pigment print, Edition of 3. 24 x 36 x 1 in
Note: Article updated in 2022

A few years back, artist and sculptor Sawyer Rose started noticing a trend appearing among her female friends.

What she saw was that, on top of their professional responsibilities, the majority of the women she spoke with assumed the bulk of household chores.

And, it wasn’t just her circle of peers that confirmed this assumption.

In recent data from the OECD, you can see that women all around the world do a disproportionate amount of unpaid work.

While the margin is smaller in wealthier countries like the U.S., women in the United States still shoulder over 4 hours of unpaid work a day, compared to 2.5 hours of household work reported by men.

What’s more, the OECD estimates that by decreasing the global average of unpaid work that lands on women from 5 hours a day to 3.5 hours a day, their participation in the labor force increases by 20%.

With the numbers behind her, Sawyer took to the studio to communicate this finding in the way that she does best: through data, materials, and social participation.

We spoke with Sawyer about The Carrying Stones Project in which she documents the lives of 47 women who used a custom-built app to track the hours they spent on paid work, unpaid work, and other activities. Using one thousand handmade tiles, each representing a number of hours, Sawyer invites participants to come and interact with the data in a very physical way—through the collective building and tying together of a sculpture.

Want to see more of Sawyer Rose’s projects and sculpture work? Check out her Artwork Archive Public Profile Page.

Loeta by Sawyer Rose. Archival pigment print, Edition of 3. 36 x 24 x 1 in

When did you get the idea to start Carrying Stones? Was there one incident that inspired you?

The Carrying Stones Project began to take shape in my head slowly, over a few years when my children were still very young. Caring for two little ones while maintaining a full-time studio practice was (and still is) exhausting, both mentally and physically.

And, as I talked to my female friends, I heard the same from them, over and over: “I’m tired. Why does the cooking, cleaning, and caretaking always default to me?” Even the women who worked outside of the home felt this way, which seemed deeply unfair to me.

So, sensing a pattern, I swung into research mode. I learned that women in every country in the work do more unpaid domestic labor than men—every single country. I found out that in the US, women’s home labor adds up to as much as 26% of the GDP. I mean, it comes as no surprise that gender inequality is rampant and institutionalized, but now I had numbers to back up my feelings.

That, I thought, is what we need … more numbers. Exactly how hard are women working? Time to stand up and be counted.

The first sculpture from The Carrying Stones Project, titled, “Ties That Bind," documents the lives of 47 women who tracked the hours they spend on paid work, unpaid work, and other activities in a custom app that I designed. “The Ties That Bind” sculpture is a data visualization of those hours, made of 1000 handmade tiles—each representing an hour of time worked.

Building the piece felt like giving voice and space to working women who otherwise would be laboring in the background.


Loeta by Sawyer Rose. "In the sculpture of her hours, Loeta’s paid work hours are represented by gold-leafed pieces and her unpaid work hours by silver-leafed pieces. Hours, when Loeta was doing anything other than work, are represented by empty spaces."


Can you describe a little further the full scope of the project in terms of social practice?

People can understand data better if they can interact with it.

For “Ties That Bind," everyone who came to the opening got to participate in the actual building of the sculpture. There were tiles representing paid labor and unpaid labor, and as people tied them together, they were able to directly appreciate the sheer number of labor hours women are working. Some folks even brought their kids and tied while talking with them.

That was, undoubtedly, the best part of the experience.


Did you learn anything from the project that was unexpected?

A lot of project participants told me that the broken-up pattern of their workday makes it hard to concentrate.

So, their burden isn’t just the number of hours they’re working, but their “three-steps-ahead” thought process: take the kids to school, tidy the house, then off to work, grocery at lunch, schedule a dentist appointment, and so on. A husband or partner might say, “You had all that time this morning,” but a hundred small tasks need to be packed into those hours. 

Renée by Sawyer Rose. Archival pigment print, Edition of 3. 24 x 36 x 1 in

In your discussion with women participating in this project have any stories stood out to you?

There was this one moment when real life intersected with my work perfectly. A friend of mine who was supposed to attend the assembly performance at the opening of “Ties That Bind” called to tell me she couldn’t make it after all. Her father was moving to a retirement home that day and she needed to be there to care for him.

I said, “So you’re missing my project about women’s work because you have to do women’s work?” So apropos.


What are you hoping that people will take away from your project?

I would love for men and women both to understand that when the cooking, cleaning, and caring responsibilities default to women, it keeps them from advancing at work and in society—and that more balanced gender workloads benefit everyone economically as well as socially. So grab a broom, guys, it actually makes the world a better place.


Renée by Sawyer Rose. In Renée’s sculpture, solid wood boxes represent paid labor hours and wireframes represent unpaid labor hours, as unpaid labor often goes unseen and unrecognized. Open spaces represent hours when Renée was doing anything other than working.


So, how does Sawyer Rose manage to balance it all while maintaining a full-time studio career?

Do you have a studio routine when you get into the studio?

Unless I’m on a crazy deadline, I usually start by tidying up a little. I find it’s good to get my whole body moving in my space before I sit down. It helps me to be looser when I’m doing detailed work. Also, doing a few minutes of low-stress tasks is a good mental warm-up. It’s not healthy to walk through your studio door thinking, “Must create now.”


You have been awarded numerous residencies and worked all over the world as a result … how has this shaped your practice?

Going on residency has transformed my practice and my career. The importance of time and space to work, of course, cannot be overstated. But just as essential is the people you meet and what I’ll call the “clean slate.”

First, the people: if you attend a residency program with a group of artists, I can pretty much guarantee that you will have your mind blown by the amazing intellects surrounding you. Cross-pollination of ideas is one of the most valuable, and enjoyable parts of the experience. And on the practical side, the networking opportunities are innumerable.

The “clean slate” feeling I get when I’m working away from my home and studio has been useful, too. It’s freeing to have a fresh, new space away from my same four walls and that mess in the corner that I meant to clean up yesterday. It’s a great time to start a new project.

Dawline by Sawyer Rose. Archival pigment print, Edition of 3. 36 x 24 x 1 in

What advice would you give to other artists seeking out similar opportunities?

Think about how long you’d like to be away, whether you’d like to travel far or stay local-ish, whether you might prefer a small or large residency program … then go to Artist Communities,, or check out the Artwork Archive listings. 

There are hundreds, so play with the filters and you’re sure to find a few that are a good match. Then, apply! Make a good impression by putting your best images first and choose images that form a coherent portfolio.

Dawline by Sawyer Rose. In Dawline’s sculpture, the heavy golf-leafed sacks represent her paid work hours and the empty silver-leafed sacks represent her unpaid work hours. Spaces in the array represent hours when Dawline was doing anything other than working.


How would you recommend other artists present themselves professionally?

One thing I hear again and again from arts professionals is that artists are often painfully disorganized, bless their hearts.

Check your basics: be on time to meetings, deliver work when agreed, don’t deliver a whole solo show of paintings without hanging wires on any of the pieces (true story from a gallerist friend of mine!)

Past that, keep your art documents updated and accessible (resume, bio, statement, etc.) That way, when it’s time to apply for a show/grant/residency, there’s no mental hurdle to overcome.


An easy way to battle that “disorganized artist” stereotype?

Artwork Archive provides artists with an all-in-one platform to get organized, grow their art career, and present their work professionally. You can sign up for a free 14-day trial, with no commitment or credit card required here to test it out for yourself 

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