Sunday, March 27th, 2011 | 15 Comments
At the heart of every one of Heather Watts’ paintings are an epic struggle, a sinister threat, a tragic loss, and an underdog victory. The heroes of her allegorical scenes face the full range of life’s slings and arrows, yet the sense is always there that good might yet triumph over evil.
The Vancouver-based painter has been steadily evolving her narrative perspective since her professional debut in 2003, painting Tiki-styled scenes of mystery. Her previous series of paintings , The End Is Near (2007), introduced many of the thematic arcs now characteristic of her work.
Though strongly connected to the approach and aesthetic of Pop Surrealists like Mark Ryden, Heather’s work delves into her own personal explorations of inner strength and morality.
Hot on the heels of the success of The Lowbrow Tarot, a group show of Tarot card inspired art for which she painted The Wheel of Fortune, Heather is now readying her stellar solo exhibition Small Heroes at La Luz De Jesus Gallery in LA.
Since your start as a painter in 2003 your work has evolved dramatically, yet there’s a strong feeling of continuity to your themes. Your last solo show The End is Near in 2007 had a raucous apocalyptic vibe. Small Heroes, the title of your upcoming show, suggest a more hopeful outlook. What does Small Heroes mean to you, and what what kind of work can we expect to see?
What Small Heroes means to me, and what the work really stems from, even before this series, is a sense of idealism. Not about the world as a whole but about the individual. In that way I guess there is something hopeful about it. I see a lot of darkness in the world, but in the individual I see glimmers of possibility, potential for strength and honour, perseverance and courage in the face of struggle.
That’s what Small Heroes is about for me: that ideal, that inner potential which doesn’t always have a lot of opportunity to shine in our daily lives. I sometimes describe it as being like the glow of a lantern. You can’t always see it when the world around you is bright, but when night comes, when the world is dark, even the smallest amount of light is like a beacon. To me, these paintings are of characters discovering their inner lanterns, finding ways to shine, to be beacons in the darkness. There’s something so personal and thankless and humbling about that act which I think makes it heroic. That’s the spirit I’ve tried to draw on in creating this work.
There’s definitely a thread that connects Small Heroes to the work I did for The End is Near, but what sets Small Heroes apart for me is that it represents the first time I’ve consistently tried to create work that reflects this very precious part of my inner world, rather than trying to simply address a larger theme. In a strange way, these paintings for Small Heroes are like still life paintings to me, only instead of working from a bunch of objects set up on a table in front of me, I’ve been painting from something within, from some inner muse, my own inner ‘lantern’ maybe. If you can imagine me inside my own head, setting this part of my being up on a mental table and walking around it, viewing it from different angles, at different distances, under different lenses, you’ll begin to get an idea of where these paintings come from and the intensely personal meaning they have to me.
The images that make up Small Heroes are interpretations of this same thing as it reveals different parts of itself through the characters, stories and struggles of each painting. Doing this work has really inspired me, because I feel like it is very much a first step, like I’ve only just scratched the surface of whatever it is I’m looking for. I think that’s what keeps me painting, the possibility of stripping away more layers and searching for new stories and new ways to tell them with each work.
I see a lot of darkness in the world, but in the individual I see glimmers of possibility, potential for strength and honour, perseverance and courage in the face of struggle.
You’re a self-taught artist who has become quite successful. Did you find it difficult, or liberating to bypass traditional art instruction? Can you tell us a bit about your working process and how you approach making art day to day?
Looking back, I’m really glad I was self-taught, and that I got a solid university liberal arts education which I think is even more instrumental in the art I create now. But being self-taught has definitely come with it’s challenges. In one sense I think it made everything that much more difficult when I was starting out because I didn’t have the support of friends or mentors in the arts, or any general knowledge of the industry. I also didn’t have the years of practice and experimentation in other media that being a full time art student gives you. Everything was trial and error. It was incredibly scary. At the same time, the reason I’m so glad now to have been self-taught is that I credit it for a lot of the uniqueness and originality in my work.
Because I was such a quiet, don’t-rock-the-boat type of kid back in high school, I feel like if I had gone on to art school after that, the teaching itself, combined with the natural pressure to fit in and the osmosis of absorbing things around me would have tempered my work into something that was less ‘me’ and more ‘other people’. Instead I feel like I’ve had this gift of being able to develop a style organically in isolation that is really a genuine reflection of my attempts to explore what I want to create and why
It’s an ongoing process that continues with every painting, and I definitely haven’t ruled out the possibility of pursuing some art schooling in the future as I pick up oil paints and try other media.
As far as my process goes, or my approach to making art day to day, it is constantly in flux, changing according to my workload and the projects I’m working on. Also it’s by no means refined to where I want it to be.
I procrastinate a lot. I have trouble taking time off. I find it’s so easy to let painting take over and the mundane things pile up, like accounting, filing, returning emails. I think that’s maybe the thing people forget sometimes about artists, that unless they’re lucky enough to be fully financed or have someone who can manage all that stuff for them, being an artist is actually a really difficult balancing act of two huge jobs, art and business, a balance where it’s incredibly easy to get pulled too far in one direction or the other.
You make use of a lot of unique and interesting physical elements to complement your paintings: the black velvet from your last series, intricately carved wooden frames, or even the slate tile on which you painted you recent piece New Gods (shown at right). What draws you to experiment with new materials?
It’s interesting because I hadn’t really thought about this before, but I’d say there are two things that have drawn me to experiment outside of straight acrylic on panel. One could be described I guess as a sort of curiosity about how certain objects or textures might intensify the images I paint. I always have such a sense of wanting to more accurately capture what’s in my head.
There is a chasm between what I see there and what I’m able to paint, but something like the rough edges of a piece of slate, or the grain of raw wood can add an extra element of feeling, a reality or presence to the piece that isn’t there in just the image. When I look at New Gods I love the rough edges at the bottom where the relief of the slate is visible under the painting because I can imagine the feel of the rock in the desert. It makes the image more immediate for me, more tactile and visceral.
There is a chasm between what I see there and what I’m able to paint, but something like the rough edges of a piece of slate, or the grain of raw wood can add an extra element of feeling, a reality or presence to the piece that isn’t there in just the image.
Similarly, with the velvet, I had a hunch that that the light-absorbing nature of the black would really lend itself to a contrast with the illuminated style of my work. It’s amazing, but everything just glows brighter on that rich black background like it never could on a background of black paint or paper. I’m now experimenting with black light paints on velvet to take even more advantage of this property of the medium.
The second thing that has drawn me to experiment with different materials is much more mundane but just as important, maybe more so, and that is practicality. Being an artist is difficult. It’s a lot of work. If I can find a way to make things easier on myself, to speed the development of my work and get more of it out into the world without having to give something up or compromise something then that is a big accomplishment.
With the velvet paintings, I remember thinking that if I could master those, I would be able to produce a whole series of work in a lot less time, do something novel and different to intrigue people as compared to ‘traditional’ velvet painting or the non-velvet works I was doing, paint more, charge less, all while learning new techniques and making new connections. So aside from really wanting to try it artistically there was an endless list of practical benefits behind my decision to pursue velvet work alongside my other painting.
Your amazing painting The Wheel of Fortune was part of the recent Lowbrow Tarot group show at La Luz de Jesus gallery. Can you tell us about the project, and how you approached the theme of the wheel of fortune?
The project was put together by artist Aunia Kahn who pulled together 23 contemporary pop-surrealist artists to paint the 22 cards of the Major Arcana, with the 23rd artist painting the back for the cards. I feel so blessed to have been included in the project. In mid-2011 there will be a book released along with a tarot card deck containing all the art from the show.
Taking on the Wheel of Fortune card was the first time I felt I had a really serious challenge in terms of subject, in that I wasn’t just painting something out of my head, but was putting my own slant on an image that had a long and rich history. I would say I felt a big responsibility to interpret the card from my own perspective while keeping the image rooted within the context of it’s history and meaning. I took the project very seriously. I researched past images of the card online (there are a lot!) and learned the meaning of the card as well as I could, having the notes with me always and referencing them constantly as I was painting. In a way, it was like writing a paper in university. You get to know your subject, then you sit down with your reference material and do as honest and concise a job as you can to explain your own unique take on it.
In terms of the actual process, I had a foggy mental picture in my head when I started, of a number of characters in movement around the central wheel in a very complex and multi-coloured arrangement. I had planned to begin by sketching out all the details, but found I only knew some of the characters and some of the stories, the broad strokes. So I just started by drawing a circle for the wheel and then I was painting. Along the way a lot of characters ghosted in and out in the form of loosely painted figures until I found the right ones to populate the wheel. The wheel is about fate, chance and opportunity, and I incorporated all of this consciously right into the process of painting, allowing the painting to direct me along the way rather than trying to force it in a certain direction.
Can you tell us a bit about Beaumont Studios in Vancouver where you’ve recently set up a work space?
The Beaumont a privately-run two-story building at 5th and Alberta St. in Vancouver (not far from the new Olympic Village) catering to artists of every stripe. They have a number of small studio spaces shared by a collection of painters, designers, jewelry-makers and other artists and craftspeople, as well as a great stage and studio area where you can find acting workshops, musical acts and rehearsals, regular yoga classes open to the public and other events at various times throughout the week.
The main area of the building downstairs is an art gallery where original art (not limited to art by Beaumont artists) is shown and the walls of the upstairs hallways display both originals and prints by Beaumont artists. I believe they’re running regular art tours of the building now as well. The interior walls of the art studios are full of windows, so that even with the doors closed natural light filters through most of the building, and it is possible to see people when they are working. On a busy day it gives the building a really great creative energy.
I’m trying to split my time between my small home studio and my space at the Beaumont. What I’m finding I like most about it is having an actual physical space in the community where I can open my studio doors and show my art, meet people face to face who are interested in the work or who are even just curious about the Beaumont and strolling through the building.
So much of my art is sold in the U.S. and many of my customers are people I never get to meet, so being able to see people’s reaction to my art face to face is a real treat. I feel like it’s important for me to have a studio space in a place like the Beaumont because being a painter is such a solitary pursuit, and having a place to go to and work where I’m surrounded by other creative people is really inspiring.
S&TM: We want to extend our deepest thanks and appreciation to Heather for all her generous time and enthusiasm doing this interview in the midst of preparing for her show!
All images © 2011 Heather Watts.