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Interview: Rimbun Dahan Resident Artist Jessica Watson

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Sunnies, Sketches from Rio, 2008, 38 x 43 cm, hemp fabric, cotton and silk embroidery (All images courtesy of the Artist)

ARTERI recently caught up with Jessica Watson, this year’s Rimbun Dahan Australian artist in residence. We wanted to learn more about her as an artist working in textiles and how she was settling into life in Malaysia. So on one rainy afternoon in Kuang we had lunch, cakes and coffee to find out more. The below is an edited version of an email interview we conducted shortly after our visit – we were way too busy talking, eating and coffeeing to take proper notes at Rimbun 🙂 – (EM)

ARTERI: Can you tell us more about your background as an artist?

Jessica Watson: I started out at Newcastle University, Australia. Studied Visual Art there for one and a half years and then enrolled in the University international exchange program. I was an exchange student for a year at The School for Design and Crafts, Gothenburg University (HDK) and then transferred to HDK. I spent four years at HDK and graduated with a Master in Applied Arts, majoring in Textile Art. Parallel to my Visual Art studies I studied Pattern Making for clothing design in both Australia and Sweden. The more I learn the more the more I feel like a beginner, there’s so much to explore!

ARTERI: So where are you based now?

JW: Every time someone asks me where I’m based I hesitate… I’ve been on my way back to Australia for the past 13 years. In Sweden my studio is a shared studio in Gothenburg with five other textile artists. In Australia my studio is wherever I can make space.

ARTERI: Yes sometimes life takes us through complicated commutes from place to place! Ok, then with such international experiences what would you say your influences are as an artist?

JW: My influences are the world at large. Every person I meet makes an impression on me, whether good or bad. Just as every place I visit. A brief interlude with a martial art has given me strength and a distance to the world around me. I highly recommend this to everyone, particularly women. I’ve been teaching Fashion Drawing for the past 6 years, which really started my interest for drawing people.

ARTERI: What about influential artists?

JW: In terms of other artists, that changes as I go through different phases in life. Most recently Raoul Dufys’, retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, captured my heart. His ability to work in both small and monumental scale as well as his beautiful use of pattern is so inspiring. Aboriginal Artist Dorothy Napangardi is another artist that has left a long standing impression with me. I have never forgotten the movement in her work and I’d love to have one her works hanging on my bedroom wall. Other wonderful artists I like not only for their artistic expression but also for their philosophies are Sonja Delaunay, Madeleine Vionette, Jean Claude and Christo. Not to forget Kiju Fukuda who was designated as one of Japan’s Living National Treasures, a title awarded to certain masters of traditional crafts and performances. Mr Fukuda is the first and sole Living National Treasure in the field of embroidery.

Lava2, 2006, 19 x 19cm, cotton, watercolour, silk and cotton embroidery

ARTERI: Why have you chosen textiles as a medium to work in? What is the difference in your opinion creating images in this way rather than say painting?

JW: There is no conceptual difference between painting (or any other technique) and textiles when making images. The difference is in how the image is perceived by the viewer. Which ultimately depends on how visually educated the viewer is. If the viewer is taught that paint and canvas are what make art then unless they are willing to explore other forms of expression then this is what they will believe.

ARTERI: What are the technical considerations for textile artists?

JW: There are a few basic elements in images which artists have tried to master.  Light is one of these. Textiles enable an artist to play with this on many levels. Depending on what materials are used different effects can be created and the same goes for colour. Time is another huge factor. Textiles are generally known for the slowness of the process. In my weaving studio at university there was a gentle reminder to us that ‘it’s not that weaving is too slow but that the world is moving too fast’.

I’m not sure that I specifically chose textiles. I think it just comes down to the fact that I get a bigger kick out of looking at colours through threads and fabric rather than paint tubes, or any other medium. I’d rather hold a needle in my hand than a paintbrush.

My brother once said to me “why do you always have to take the most difficult path?” I enjoy the challenge of putting a traditional craft into the contemporary art world. Does that make me a masochist?

Peeling, 2003, 40 x 80cm, cotton, fabric ink, silk embroidery

ARTERI: And now you are in Malaysia! What drew you to apply to the Rimbun Residency?

JW: The opportunity to spend a year working solely on my own art making in a beautiful environment in Asia. Being interested in textiles in Malaysia is a great place to be.

ARTERI: What are you hoping to learn/research from your time in Malaysia?

I’m learning to live in a very different culture to what I am used to and that’s a great learning experience in itself. It’s pushing and pulling me in many unexpected ways which I both like and find frustrating. It’s perfect for putting a new exhibition together. I’m also interested to learn more about traditional textiles here and how they are used in a contemporary manner. And of course I would like to learn more about Malaysian art and South East Asian art in general.

Rain falling on Butterflies, 2010, 152 x 54 cm, cotton, fabric ink, silk organza, silk embroidery

ARTERI: We want to share with readers specific projects that you have done. Can we talk more about the Sketches from Rio project that you showed us?

JW: In 2005 and 2006 I travelled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and was fascinated by the characters that each day walked the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana selling their products to sunbathing Cariocas and tourists. Up and down the beaches they carried their goods…after a month’s beach going I could recognize the voices who called out:- “prawns!”- “acieeeee!” – “cigarettes!”- “grilled cheese!”

What impressed me the most was the perseverance of the sales people and the range of products they sold. Beach balls, balloons, bikinis, hammocks, fairy floss, prawns, jewellery (by the ton), clothes, sunscreen, sunglasses and even freshly grilled cheese (yes, they carry a portable grill!) … and some of them you can just wonder at, glass mobiles at the beach???

The embroidered works of Sketches from Rio are based on these charismatic hawkers, the traditional ‘plein-air’ sketch (capturing the worker at work) and identity. Although rather than the romantic vision of the farmers and their wives´ bringing in the harvest I’ve put a hawker in the center.  There’s no glamour in their work but they do it with a Brazilian style nevertheless. I have deliberately done simple embroidered sketches, which most people at first glance think are pencil sketches. So I am asking two questions, firstly what is the value of an image based on its’ technique? And secondly is that a sketch or is there more to the work, just as when we meet a person, are they their job or is there more to them?

Bikini Lady, Sketches from Rio, 2008, 38 x 43 cm, hemp fabric, cotton and silk embroidery.

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