Charlotte Watson is a New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based artist who works across mediums. Her works are often delicate with great control over line and tonal depth. Cameron Ralston interviewed Watson ahead of her exhibition The Small Hours at City Art Depot which opens 5.30pm on Thursday 18 April and runs to 8 May 2019.
Cameron: You’ve recently completed a residency at the Arteles Creative Center in Finland, what did you hope to achieve in that time?
Charlotte: I went over thinking I’m going to answer the big question in my art practice: why am I making the work that I’m making? But I found myself being drawn back to more familiar places. My practice was quite centralised to New Zealand, the sub-Antarctic islands and the coasts of Australia. I thought I was going to go to Finland and it would be all about Europe but really it was all about back home.
What was it like over in Finland? It must have been quite a contrast to what you’re used to.
It was a pretty unusual environment in that it was quite structured. We’d have four days of just normal talking and interacting with one another and three days of silence which rotated through the residency. They then took the internet away from us and reintroduced it but limited how much use we had. We were about 15 or 20 minutes from the nearest town so over the course of that month we mostly just saw the same twelve people.
You made the works back in Melbourne and you have your own studio space there. Do you have a printmaking setup in your space?
Although I have a separate studio, I made the works at The Art Room studio in Footscray, Melbourne. Special thanks to them.
Charlotte Watson’s Melbourne artist studio
For this exhibition you’re working with monotypes. I know this was a new process for you, how and why did you decide to go this way?
For a while I felt I had been reaching some limitation with drawing and drawing materials. So I attended a monotype workshop by a local print oracle and I just fell in love with it. It’s so spontaneous, you have to respond to the material. It’s also much easier on my arm. I get a lot of RSI with drawing and so monotypes are easier on my body. But at the same time it’s a very much a stand up and get down kind of process, you’re moving around the room a lot. And with monotypes you only get one outcome, you don’t get a series.
Some of the titles reference shipwreck disasters – what drew you to those connections?
When I got back from Finland I was in a pretty weird headspace, as you can imagine after not talking to anyone for a month. I was feeling very fragile. I got back and I thought, knowing that this show was coming, I was going to make some work about Finland. And so, I was trying to make these prints but it just wasn’t working. I thought to myself that maybe this was exactly what I experienced in Finland, where I couldn’t really respond to the place. It was beautiful and I could appreciate it but I couldn’t connect with the landscape or environment. I kept being drawn back to stories that I grew up with about boats and ships. My family on both sides has had various things to do with boats and shipping. I was in the print studio one day and I was like, ‘Let’s just do this.’
Artist photograph taken during the Arteles Creative Center residency, Finland
Do you use abstraction to achieve the forms or are they straight representations of the scenes? It seems to me there’s a bit of storytelling going on in all the artworks.
I guess so, maybe that’s just a direction that my work is moving in. Definitely since I last showed at City Art Depot I think I’ve loosened away from abstraction and moved towards a more figurative space. These are another step in that direction. They do all come from stories and real places although they’re not strict representations. I wasn’t looking at photo of the places when I was making them, if you know what I mean.
‘Near Puysegur Point’, Charlotte Watson, monotype, 2019
You also practise kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing pottery. How does this figure into your art making?
The kintsugi gets done between other things. The best way I can describe it is that when I’m trying to work something out, it’s good to have my hands busy on a different project that’s not my artwork. Kintsugi is an extraordinarily slow, meditative process that keeps you humble. That’s its main purpose for me.
How did you learn the kintsugi techniques?
I learned online from a man who has lived in Japan for decades and learnt the traditional way over there. He’s one of the few people who is available to teach it without having to go to Japan. A lot of trial and error is involved too.
You also have a lot of connections with galleries in Melbourne. What gallery are you working for over there?
I am the curator and gallery manager for Tinning Street Presents, I haven’t shown there solo but I curated the Pink Frost exhibition of New Zealand artists last year. Francis van Hout and Shannon Williamson, who both show at City Art Depot, had works in the exhibition.
Returning to your upcoming exhibition here at City Art Depot, how do you see the text works sitting alongside the image-based artworks?
I hope that they give a little bit of insight into not only what it was like to be in Finland but also my practice in general. I often do a lot of writing before anything visual comes out. But I neglect that writing in favour of having the visual outcome on exhibition. I thought this time I would try to challenge myself and put the text in as well.
Your writing isn’t something that you publish?
Haha – no. I write a lot, almost every day, but I’m very shy about it.
’13/1/19′, Charlotte Watson, scratchboard, 2019
Everything that I’ve read so far has definitely given an insight into the connections you have with coastlines and the moods of places. For example, you evoke strong imagery around water, which again comes through in the other artworks. This works quite nicely with the printing methods you use, wiping the ink off the plates and then printing them?
Some of prints are actually four or five passes through the press depending on what’s going on in them. In relation to the text works, I kept a journal every day during the residency and I’ve kept these artworks to the dates that I wrote them. I hope it can give a bit of an insight into how Finland, especially in winter, is extraordinarily calm. It’s very tame and so silent. The snow muffles everything and there’s hardly any wildlife because it’s all hibernating. But me, myself, was all over the place. So maybe I was trying to find something external, looking for the landscape, thinking, ‘Come on give me some drama, help me mirror something here.’ But every time I looked outside it was very even.
Artist photograph taken during the Arteles Creative Center residency, Finland
There’s a certain pressure or intensity that comes with doing an artist residency where you feel you need to be in that creating mode.
Totally, but also not being able to talk sends you into yourself really, really fast. In some ways it’s the best thing I’ve ever done because I got to think about my practice and have long periods of focus and concentration but at other times it’s actually quite frightening. The last person you want to be with is yourself because you’re feeling very vulnerable and very unstable. We were all feeling that and weren’t able to communicate it to each other.
Have you done other artist residencies prior to this?
Yes, I did one similar in terms of isolation on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait between mainland Australia and Tasmania. Again, that was a very isolated place.
That was prior to your exhibition Place of Return at City Art Depot in 2017. Those works also turned to shipping and navigation as themes.
I feel I had actually forgotten about those ideas for a while, but it’s come back just in time for this show again. I’ve also just applied for the Australian Antarctic residency to go to Macquarie Island.
‘Passage II’, Charlotte Watson, mixed media on paper, 2016. Shown in Watson’s 2017 City Art Depot exhibition ‘Place of Return’
You seem to be picking out the most isolated places.
Haha, yeah. I should add one last thing about the scratchboard works. Do you know Moomin? This (book and comic strip) character Moominis probably one of Finland’s biggest exports. All the stories are written in post-war Finland where they were extremely poor. The author, Tove Jansson, was a gay woman in an openly gay relationship, which was a pretty big deal. They have a museum in Tampere nearby where my residency was held. It was incredible – she would make marquettes of all the scenes in the comics by hand.
Were these on scratchboard?
She did her drawings of Moomin on scratchboard but I think she must have made her own boards because it wouldn’t have been available in wartime Finland. Her works have that nice tonal thing that scratchboard does, where of course I just go and write on it.
I think we’ve burned through all my questions. We’ll be looking forward to having you here in Christchurch for the opening of The Small Hours.
Thanks Cameron, see you soon.
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