Judy Watson

Judy Watson’s contemplative, original, seductive art exposes suppressed histories. A frequent traveller, with over twenty years of exhibiting internationally including Europe, Britain, North America and Asia, Watson uses inspiration from her connection to specific places and situations to recall concealed pasts. Accessing her Aboriginal culture, and strongly anchored to drawing and printmaking practices, her aesthetic has expanded to painting and public art.

When did printmaking enter your art-making?
When I was at high school in Brisbane, I did a small amount of printmaking, predominantly screen-printing, also a bit of lino block printing. At DDIAE now, the University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, I studied all visual art subjects and histories. Then, I focused on printmaking, because with the other subjects I wasn’t sure where I was going, in particular painting. I didn’t know where to stop. Printmaking gave me the discipline of creating layers, using compositions and several processes. I learnt skills which I use today, like registration, working from a small to large image and transferring visual information from one plate to another or across surfaces, working with the idea of different textures and backgrounds.

Where were you seeking inspiration for your painting and printmaking?
From life drawing and other sorts of drawing. And literature, two different strands of Australian literature – drama and poetry. Literature led me into looking at other cultures, studying Australian women’s fiction and American literature. The American literature was split into African-American, Jewish, Native-American and some Latin-American. These got me thinking about my Aboriginal background, and wanting to do something about my own culture.

What’s changed since you started printmaking?
My work was very overt when I began, more high-contrast, poster-like. As I’ve evolved the work is more mesmerising, more dream-like and a bit harder to get straight away. It’s the work that pulls you in, to seduce the viewer into the body of the work. It becomes an osmosis with the message, which might be about massacres or internal history of a site, leaked in like a deadly poison dart and imploding in the viewer, leaking its content slowly. A history lesson that stays with you.

Is there a specific printmaking process you prefer?
I love lithography but I don’t do it very often because not many people have that process available. I’ve never had any printmaking equipment. I tend to travel from press to press using other people’s equipment because I don’t want to load myself down with anything. Needless to say, I’ve still got a lot of crap in my studio space. Somebody has just loaned me a tiny portable etching press, which I’m about to try.

Lithography is a really beautiful process where you work grease-based materials onto limestone slabs. I love pooling tusche washes, a greasy wash mixed with water, onto the stone and letting the wash reticulate so it dries out and releases the lines of what’s known as peau de crapeaud or skin-of-the-toad, wash onto the surface of the stone. The stone is made up of pores, pores of the skin or head of the brush, and the grease particles, like little dots, sit on top. And then you go through the etching process to try to make the ink receptive to the grease and the rest of the areas more water-loving and resistant to the ink.

There’s something about that process, the wash that I bought into my drawing and my painting, even public artwork, because I find it very mesmerising and contemplative. Even the waiting time, there’s something exciting, wondering how it’s going to turn out. And I suppose with etching, it’s a similar thing in that I will place textures or lines or drawings onto the plate, having an idea of what I’m going to get, but once it goes into the acid bath, I’m never really sure, so there’s always that anticipation which is fantastic. And I think there’s always a bit of release and collaboration with the elements and the air and in some cases the ants. If I’m doing sugar lift, and they’re eating it, that contributes to the making of the work.

Have you ever made your own paper?
I have, at the Tasmanian School of Art, and in Banff, Canada. Somebody said if you wanted to have a really great asset that would grow in value, it’d be paper. And for an artist, that’s true: beautiful paper from around the world at places you visit, the paper carries the grain of the country and the culture within it. And when you’re working with that paper, it’s releasing that history at the sense of your touch.

Is your body movement comparable in your process?
Sure, with canvas, I’d be using all of my body and working on the canvas, often on the floor, sitting on the canvas, working across it, sometimes lying on it, then pinning onto the wall and reaching up and down or across. With prints, it tends to be a tighter movement unless I’m doing a whole lot of work together. But my body is still very involved because it’s a very physical process to be doing printmaking. It’s not just the drawing on the plate, but it’s also the inking up, the washing out – it’s a constant processing of materials.

Your painting often involves peeling, rubbing and using elements such as clay, charcoal, sand etc. Do you apply similar processes to prints?
With printmaking, I have carried the textural element over from painting. So, I’ve worked with wax on plates to resist the etching process in the nitric acid. I’ve also played around with the tusche wash from lithography, transferring them onto etching plates to get the same element of chance surprise wash, reticulation and water movement. I’ve also attacked the plates with various implements including scrubbing brushes slapped face-down onto it. They’ve been met with a lot of foul-bite as they’ve gotten scuffed and moved around. I’ve always liked that ingrained history within the plate surface or the canvas surface, or the drawing surface, because there’s something on there which I can add to and then work with.

Do you conceptually use the reproductive aspect of printmaking in painting?
The elements which I would transfer in a printmaking process, I tend to use a similar process in painting. I get a shape which might be a shell or bone shape; I’ll cut out a number of them and play with them, moving them around on the composition of the work. This comes very much from a printmaking process.

Your phrase “kicking life into the work” – can you expand on that?
If works are languishing a bit and they’re not sparking my interest, I will go and attack them by scrubbing them back, or throw something at them, drag them through the dirt, literally. I’m trying to invest them with that energy and that spark. So, I suppose that’s the idea of “kicking life into the work”. I never feel that anything has failed, I feel like it’s an opportunity to start again.

Your paintings as with your prints, including the Experimental Beds, Heron Island Suite, A Preponderance of Aboriginal Blood, and The Holes in the Land suites, all demand a contextual reference. Why is context so critical to your work, and is it ever a burden on your work?
It can be. If you’re just making work about the context of history, you might as well write it. But for me there is the visual layer that can be felt and subversive in a way reading or hearing it might not be the same. Sound can be a very strong medium for getting a message through: the visual can be the same. Something that you can’t hide away from once you’ve seen it, it goes through you. Sound can do that, smell can do that too. Walter Benjamin talks about how a smell can drown 100 years in the memories it recalls. It is that idea of breaking through and peeling back ignorance, looking at concealed history, at what lies beneath the ground; bringing those up to the viewer. If I go somewhere, I want to know the stories of that place, have a sense of where I am within it. That way I’m more grounded in that place. So I assume other people would like to know too, be more curious as I am about different histories.

Are you in collaboration with your master printer?
There’s always a collaboration, how you’re going to translate an idea into the medium of printmaking. But it doesn’t tend to leak over too much into the original idea. Usually the original idea is mine, I do get quite possessive about holding onto that. But it’s always a push-pull situation, it is about learning to listen and learning to accept other people’s advice.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 39, 2017

Judy Watson: memory scars, dreams and gardens
13 November – 12 December 2021
Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

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