still-opening, 2020, linen and silk thread, 15 3/4" x 15 3/4"
photo by Mario Gallucci
When I was asked last winter to create a satellite event in Portland, Oregon (USA) for “Que des Femmes/Only Women,” the 6th biennial of non-objective art in Pont de Claix, France, I immediately hoped for the opportunity to showcase the work of Heather Watkins and Avantika Bawa. Neither are exclusively non-objective artists, but both make work that defies easy classification and often resists the ever present prospect of rendering an illusion on a flat surface. Their work embraces it’s own objectness, even when it is alluding to something else in the world. There’ll be more about Avantika Bawa’s work in an upcoming post, but today is all about Heather Watkins.
During a recent visit to Heather Watkins’ studio, the multi-disciplinary artist shared that finding titles for her works can often take a long time and be something of an arduous process. If one is not careful, she suggested, the title of a piece can limit a viewer’s interpretation of it. References to places and things other than what the object is can anchor a viewer’s response that might otherwise be free to explore limitless possibilities. It’s in the expanse- goes the thinking- that one can be guided to an emotional truth rather than be tied to a mere description. The title, then, has the opportunity - or maybe even the obligation - to function like a poetic map rather than a fixed set of coordinates. And this goes to the core of my interest in and adoration of Heather Watkins’ work and process. She has an ability to sit with and ultimately celebrate the unknown and the unnameable. Her work is an invitation to experience with her the beauty that exists in a lack of clarity; it is a reminder that we don’t always have answers and that answers aren’t always needed.
This month on The Semi-Finalist I’m pleased to present my interview with Heather Watkins. In it she talks about her formative years as an artist, her inspirations, and how waiting became a part of her creative process.
Heather Watkins in her SE Portland studio.
Tell me about your formative years as an artist. Were you drawn to abstraction early on, or did that develop over time?
I think of several starting points, each related to a different medium or practice. From the age of 10, I had a camera of one kind or another. In high school, I took all the darkroom classes available to me. I loved everything about it, the immediacy, the technical knowledge, the craft, the process—it felt like I had found a new language. My undergraduate studies were focused on the liberal arts (I majored in English and World Literature; and Classical Studies with emphasis in Art & Archaeology), and while I didn’t have access to a darkroom during those years, I always carried a camera. Photography has continued to be one of the ways I engage the world around me, even though I rarely show photographic work in my exhibitions. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately—how photography informs the other aspects of my work.
After graduating from college, my work-life led me to a position as Publications Coordinator at the then-named Oregon School of Arts & Crafts. I took full advantage of a benefit extended to staff members: one free class per term. I worked through most of the Photography curriculum—all darkroom-based at that time, a lot of alternative processes (Arboretum, below, was made during that time). I also took a lot of Book Arts courses as well as some printmaking and fibers classes and workshops.
1997, contact print from spliced medium-format film negatives on
silver gelatin paper, 5 x 8 in.
After three and a half years working at OCAC, I went to graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design to pursue an MFA in Graphic Design. I was attracted to this program in particular because of my interest in working with images and text. RISD’S MFA in GD offered a grounding in how we make meaning visually, how visual language operates. I also loved the fact that photography and book arts courses were embedded within the graphic design studio curriculum. For me, graphic design became an interdisciplinary field where I could both deepen my grounding in craft—book arts, typography, photography, printmaking—and expand my work in more conceptual ways that blurred or dismissed categorical distinctions as to whether something was "design," or "art," or "craft."
Desire Path (1-4)
2021 pigment print on archival rice paper, 10" x 7.5" each
Artists often see themselves as "painters," "photographers," etc. in relation to their creative identities, but I don't get that sense from you and your work. You seem to embrace process more than any one material, which is really interesting to me. Can you talk about how you see yourself as an artist?
You’re absolutely right. Process is key. My work is rooted in material investigation—looking at, say, how different inks flow on different surfaces, or working with the drape and twist of certain fibers. My studio practice involves a lot of experimentation to construct a situation that will lead to unforeseen results, which I can then participate in, observe, react to, transform. Often I begin working on something without realizing where it will go, without a plan, just working from a curiosity about a certain material, form, or technique. At other times, newness grows out of a desire for variation in the ritual of the studio—some shift or growth in the energy or gesture.
I sometimes describe drawing as the core of my art practice, but I think it’s more accurate to say it is driven by an interest in the process of drawing—both how I can make a line myself, and studying how lines appear and occur in the world: twisted tree branches; ruptured cracks in sidewalks; rippling reflections in the surface of water; tangled threads, etc.. I think of these as inadvertent drawings, and it’s that kind of aliveness, that raw energy that I want to access and generate in my work.
In the early 2000s I was working a lot with found materials that were all lines—snags from beaches, netting, twisted wire I’d pick up on the street, and all kinds of yarn, ribbon, cording, string, rope, thread. I made installations, sculptural wall drawings, and table-top scenarios that built on the inherent energies of these materials.
Arranging objects as a way of investigating material relationships has been a part of Watkins' studio practice since the early 2000's.
Around 2007 I began to make drawings by pouring fluid ink onto surfaces and bending and tilting them to make the ink flow across the page. This process opened up several things to me: first, it was physical, very embodied work. A way to short-circuit my brain, by limiting my absolute control. I was part of the formation of a line or a drawing in a way that felt different, more collaborative. A coherence would surface as I made drawing after drawing in this way. Things like whether and how lines would run off the page; how slow or fast different inks moved; whether the drawings would be presented horizontally or vertically; whether they would be presented as a grid, or in a more organic/erratic arrangement, or singly.
Above: Surfacing (no. 15)
2010, pigment and dye based ink on paper, 22" x 30"
Below: Surfacing (16)
2010, pigment and dye based ink on paper, 22" x 30"
photos by Dan Kvitka
The ink-flow drawings—although works on paper—also felt very three dimensional, especially how the paper absorbed the ink and began to warp and bend the surface. At the same time, I was working with a different drawing process, stitching thread loosely through translucent papers, and allowing the huge floppy stitches to accumulate into on both sides of the paper into amorphic shapes. I love this kind of restlessness between two- and three-dimensionality. I think I was basically trying to find ways to free the drawn line from the surface itself. This observation led me into more sculptural work with fibers: saturating soft materials, especially cotton cord—in kiddie pools full of ink in my studio, then arranging it to dry in tangled and twisted formations between sheets of paper and cloth. I used all the resulting materials in different ways: the cording became large-scale sculptural wall drawings and installations; the imprinted paper became suspended scroll-drawings.
A moment of process.
Photo by Abigail McNamara
A moment of product.
(my photo from a recent studio visit)
In 2019 I was invited to create an installation work at Front of House Gallery in Portland, an installation space and program founded by Jessica Helgerson, housed within the building where her interior design studio is located. The characteristics of the space were both exciting and daunting (18 foot ceilings!). I began to see a way to shift from creating an object to creating a space, working with the same materials I had been using to make sculptural wall drawings. I freed the line, finally! This was new territory and I am still thinking about the possibilities of working with space in a more intentional and immersive way.
2019, installation using cotton cord and india ink,
Front of House, Portland, OR (USA)
photo by Dan Cronin
In 2014 I was invited to work on an artist’s book with the Portland-based publisher Container Corps—an opportunity to extend my process-oriented working methods in exciting ways. After many conversations with Gary Robbins and Zoe Clark about possible, I began to focus on the color blue, and on a specific type of book: the medieval book of hours, one of the earliest books available to the laity in Europe. Books of hours are companion books, usually small, intimate, personal—and functional: a device to guide meditation, prayer, devotional acts. I created a series of twenty-four “images” on polymer offset printing plates, using substances that would adhere to the surface and hold the ink. We scanned images of book ribbon traversing each page or spread. The final book, Hours, was printed in twenty-four different shades of blue, had no words (other than the title and the colophon), and a dozen actual book ribbons.
2014, artist's book, printed offset in 24 colors, 384 pages,
sewn binding cased in cloth-covered boards with foil-stamped cover
4 1/2" x 6" edition of 150, published by Container Corps
photo by Heather Watkins
S-F: Tell me about the conversation that takes place between your studio work and your love of language. Is it tense? Tender? A bit of both?
HW: Definitely both! So much of my work feels like it comes from a silent, wordless, maybe pre-verbal place. And yet language surrounds it, and sometimes defines it. The task of titling artworks and exhibitions or writing artist’s statements—I would say that process can be extremely tense and tender. It’s a balancing act—trying to find language that offers entry points that feel true to me, without enclosing or trapping the work in a set of associations that are too specific. I try to leave room for what else might be lurking in the work—what else might it say? I am always interested in readings of the work that are hiding in my blind spots.
Then there is the work that is literally made with language: works on paper that feature hand-drawn or traced phrases that offer a layered, evolving reading, like a mantra. “this is the only one,” or “it just is,” “not like anything.” I’m interested in how language begins to operate as abstraction—how these words, infused with meaning, start to slip from their definitions, how language turns in the mind.
this is the one (verso)
2015, carbon tissue, 10 3/8" x 12 3/4"
photo by Evan La Londe
My newest work, Oracle, also employs language that hovers at the edge of comprehensibility. The video installation emerged from a simple studio ritual: drawing two or three words from a box of hand-written words and photographing them on an inked surface that I use to make drawings. The words were culled from two sources: past artist’s statements discussing my studio process; and the Prologue of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which describes creation - the world coming into being. Over time, these images began to feel incantatory—like a message with no singular interpretation, a meditation on the act of interpretation itself. Answers to unknown questions.
Above and below:
Video installation presented at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART as part of the
solo exhibition still—moving.
2021, digital video, no sound, 9-minute loop, projected onto a drawing.
photos by Mario Gallucci
S-F: I'm really intrigued by how your work slows down everything in its orbit and where that deliberateness comes from. Can you talk more about waiting rooms, your tumor, or just thoughts on marking time?
HW: In 2008 I was diagnosed with a brain tumor near my optic nerve. I have had numerous surgeries and treatments over the past thirteen years, and fortunately, my condition is currently stable. While this experience has never been an explicit subject in my work, the waiting, watching, and living with something I cannot control has no doubt informed my work in ways I continue to learn from.
In 2018, I presented an exhibition titled Waiting Room, a series of densely hand-stitched abstract forms that were “made in waiting rooms of one kind or another,” as I described in my artist statement. Shape, color, density, pattern, rhythm—these decisions were determined by an urge to distill and integrate a variety of influences, information, ideas: how textiles carry meaning; the growth patterns of organic forms, both in the body and in nature; the visual structure of a text; images generated for diagnostic testing; how our senses, emotions, and intellect intersect; the sensation of reading.
Two embroideries from Waiting Room, Watkins's 2018 show at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART.
Above: Recording, April/May, 2015, 2015, thread and linen, 14 1/4" x 16 1/2"
Below: Recording, March (no. 1), 2016, 2016, thread and linen, 14" x 16"
photos by Evan La Londe
The act of making small stitches repeatedly, following the regular yet imperfect structure of woven cloth, is at once meditative and obsessive—it requires and reveals different kinds of attention. This work activates waiting. It records the labor of being (a) patient. This work is made of time and representative of it.
My recent series, still—moving, charts a period of suspended time and stalled movement. Twenty embroidered orbs ring a room. Viewed close-up, variations between stitches become visible, tender, imperfect. Halos encircle their stilled/spinning forms. Propelled by a rotational energy, each seems to float or drift. Together, they echo the movements of planetary orbits. Their scale slips and shifts: near/far, macro/micro. Turning the embroidery hoop around and around over weeks and months, I begin to see them as portals out of this moment, opening into a yet unknown future.
Two embroideries from still - moving, Watkins's 2021 show at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART.
Above: still-humming, 2020, linen and silk thread, 15 3/4" x 15 3/4"
Below: still-shimmering, 2019, linen and silk thread, 16" x 16"
photos by Mario Gallucci
When I think about how my work might meet the crises that are affecting our world with such force and speed, I think part of my response has been to listen and watch for what needs care and attention—to make room for rumination, quietude, renewal. To make time, and also to make time feel different.
S-F: Who are you looking at (living or dead)?
HW: Always returning to: Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly, Sheila Hicks, Tantric painting, Ann Hamilton, Helen Frankenthaler. Roni Horn: especially how language and literature inhabit her work, like her sculptural retooling of Emily Dickinson’s lines in Earth Grows Thick, or the running footnotes in Another Water. Rachel Whiteread: drawings in particular. Cecilia Vicuña: especially her extraordinary exhibition About to Happen at The Henry in 2019)
Always reading. Recently: Eliot Weinberger, An Elemental Thing; Arthur Sze, Sight Lines; Terry Tempest Williams, Erosion; Anne Carson, Decreation; Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things; Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Allen Mandelbaum, translator); Nina MacLaughlin, Wake, Siren; Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer.
I’m a big fan of David Naimon’s podcast “Between the Covers.” His deeply-researched conversations with poets and writers are energizing.
S-F: What's next for you?
My solo exhibition still—moving just opened at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART (September 1 - October 2, 2021). It includes series of twenty embroidered works and a video projection/installation.
Top, middle and bottom: works on paper in the studio.
More Heather Watkins:
Photos by David Schell unless otherwise stated.