Interview With Jessica B Watson

Jessica B Watson’s works reflect a world dripping in rich colour and fine detail. From Newcastle in New South Wales to Gothenburg in Sweden, and then Rimbun Dahan in Malaysia, Jessica’s navigation of various continents has infused her art-making practice with a multitude of aesthetic ideas. These ideas are delicately handled and tactfully merged together to create rhythmic patterns with textural depth.

Whilst Jessica reflects upon her art practice as mediation for all the debris one incurs in the midst of living, the end product is precise layering of fine silks and deep inks, hand stitched to form beautiful, clean-cut murals. She developed this technique when on a yearlong residency in Malaysia, but has let the practice slowly take over every space she occupies. “I think that I try to create precision and calmness in my work because I don’t have it in my head”.

You grew up in Avalon, on them Northern Beaches – how much has natural landscape there come to influence your work?
A lot of it. I grew up there and I spent a lot of my holidays in the Snowy Mountains, so we did a lot of bushwalking. Nature’s always been a big part of my work. It’s really influenced it, whether I’m doing direct nature depictions or as a metaphor for something else. I like the idea of using an image of nature, or whether there are other images into it – I enjoy that double meaning within an artwork.

How do you feel about using textiles in your work?
There are so many connotations associated with textiles, and in many ways I don’t really associate with a lot of connotations of that – I don’t know darning socks or something – but I like to reference those things in an unusual way. Weaving is such an old age process and then you do it in a contemporary way and it becomes more interesting to me.

Is the process a peaceful one?
Definitely when I’m creating it, it’s peaceful, but I often find my life isn’t peaceful, and life can be quite chaotic. The lead up to an artwork can be quite intense, and I’ve often got thoughts here, there and everywhere.

Tell me about your work for the Eramboo residency, ‘See Oh Too’.
This work is inspired by the fact that Co2 is destroying and acidifying our oceans, something I can’t sit down and be calm about.

In terms of structural choices, how is this work influenced? The strings and the fish…
With my works, what comes first is the idea and then I try and think of a way to express it in the media I’m familiar with. For this particular idea, with Co2, it was an old atlas that was given to me. It had east and west Germany still. I thought, that’s really interesting, as its totally out of date. Then I saw a documentary called, ‘Racing Extinction’, which was about Co2 and the effect on the environment. I pulled these things together using a hanging loom. When this work will be presented in Mona Vale it will actually be a staircase. A loom staircase!

Why the stairs?
When I first started this residency I was looking at stairs, and the meaning of stairs, and I wrote a little blurb saying, ‘the journey of a thousand steps begins with one.’ The old proverb. Then I wrote, ‘…is the step forwards, backwards and side step? Maybe it’s a quick step.’ And I’m sort of thinking to myself, what type of journey are we looking for?

My work is really labour intensive - a slow process and I’ve done a few different versions as I’ve explored options. In the middle of my residency I went to the library precinct to where I’d be doing my work. There’s a really big cement curved wall, and I had a vision of doing a huge loom. Then I started cutting up pictures of fish.

Why Fish?
Well I thought I could combine the atlas with the coloured paper, and then I told myself I can only use what is in my studio. So I swung back, and looked at the fish.

The fish is a simple shape, but also a biblical symbol. They are being washed up on beaches, thousands at one time. There are images I’ve seen of beaches where shoals have died on the beaches of Chile.

Do you want people to think a specific thing when they see it?
No, absolutely not. What I will be doing is that I will be sitting next to it. I will still be cutting out from the atlas. I’ll be doing it in front of people you’re told you absolutely have to respect a book – you definitely do not cut pictures from it! It’ll sort of be a metaphor. We look after our beautiful cars and lifestyles, but what about our beautiful planet that we’ve only got one of?

The vibe of your work feels quite serene – would you counter that?
No, I think it is. Also the materials that I use, like stitching are associated with very calm activities. And sometimes my works are just to be beautiful, but often they have an alternative thought behind it.

What do you think of the movement to women ‘reclaiming’ knitting and stitching?
Well I have my masters in textiles and Fine Art in Gothenburg. In Sweden they have a very strong textile tradition. You’re right, it’s a female dominated area, and we did talk about it at university, but think now that I’ve gone beyond it.

How does the Swedish and Malaysian aesthetic interact? (Jessica has worked in both Malaysia and Sweden)
Sweden is really simple and streamlined and I guess I’m attracted to that, where I really strip it back and it just becomes threads and pattern. The Malaysian is also has simple forms, but lotsof pattern, lots of colour – lots of things happening. When I was in Malaysia, a lot of other artists, young males, were doing really dark works. Dark in politics; dark in form in colour (this was 2010 and 2011). I think when I was there I steered away from that. I looked at how Malaysia as a country, but really I’m just a tourist – who am I?

Tell me about the works at Art Pharmacy
The artworks I’ve given to Art Pharmacy were some of the ones I created when I returned from Malaysia, and they exhibited at Tamworth regional gallery in 2015. For that exhibition I created by body of work I’d created from up till then. Some from Malaysia, and some Sketches from Rio, which are embroidered sketches of hawkers on the beach there. To create it I make a collage, which I stitch over. I paint a translucent fabric, and then I cut out shapes (often the same shape, like a fish) and then I create a composition with that, then stitch over the top with a running stitch. This is inspired by a Japanese style of stitching you often see on indigo, it’s a working class technique.

What is the most dramatic aesthetic change you’ve gone through as an artist?
It’s sort of just flowed I think. I do a lot of different things, because I’m still exploring what textiles can do. And it depends on what I want to do. For example, the Dreams and Demons project, I had a feeling I wanted to weave together dreams and demons, and I was trying to force it into stitching, and I was struggling. Then I thought, that artwork is not going to work with that technique. I’m going to have to start with something new. But now I don’t feel the need to do something the same over and over again.

You can see all of Jessica's works for sale here.