An Interview with Heather Watts

by Ken HarmanPosted on

“Wheel of Fortune” (Lowbrow Tarot Card Project)

Heather Watts is an artist that’s been our radar for a while now, her Lowbrow Tarot Card Project from last year was a smashing success (and one of our most read posts on the site) and we’ve been eagerly anticipating what her next move would be. On April 1st, the artist will be debuting a new body of paintings, “Small Heroes”, at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles. Longtime friend and collector Lee Joseph has sat down with the artist for a quick interview on her inspirations, her light, and breaking free of the Rat King.

“The Protector”

What artists from the past and present inspire your art the most?

It’s sort of a random assortment I guess, a few off the top of my head are Hieronymus Bosch, Henry Darger and Mark Ryden. I’m trying to figure out what it is about these three in particular that grabs me so much, and aside from their colors, I think it’s the fact that their paintings are like windows into another world—three fantastic, otherworldly yet totally cohesive realities. In each case, one gets the sense that behind the scenes, you could walk from one of the artists’ paintings into the next. This isn’t something I’ve thought about before, but actually it really does describe the way I feel about the characters in my work, a sense that they all inhabit the same place behind the art. It’s probably one of the things I most aspire to in my work without really having thought about it, the possibility of revealing this whole other world I know, with each painting being a separate window into it.

“New Gods”

You almost always include a light source, be it a candle or electric lamp, flames, the sun or the moon, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the foreground, giving a glow to the subjects of your paintings. What was your initial inspiration for the light source?

Initially I think there were two things that made light an important element in my work. First, it gave me a way to show the dimensionality of what I was painting. The way I visualize things in my head when I paint is very three dimensional. I actually find drawing difficult—I don’t really sketch my paintings ahead of time, I just start sketching in paint—I’m generally a lot better at sculpting than drawing. Light, is a way of making the painting into a sculpture, showing where the relief is, what pops out, what recedes, how it might look from another angle. It makes it come alive for me.

The second thing that drew me to using light was how it pulls an image together. It gives me an opportunity to limit my color palette, to make the colors in the painting harmonious because all the things in the painting are under the same light. For me that harmony is all important. When I’m painting I feel a resonance or dissonance in the colors the way I hear a correct or incorrect chord in music, so I think deciding on the light is maybe like setting a key for the painting to be played in. Only colors that have a certain relationship to that central note will resonate to form a symphonic finished piece.

“The Weary Shepherd”

Aside from the aesthetic quality of the various light sources you’ve painted, what meaning or meanings does painting light, and making that light an integral part of each piece, each story, have for you?

On a symbolic level, light—and by extension darkness—are very important themes in my work. I think I actually see the world as a very dark place overall, so these sources of light are like beacons to me. When I include light as emanating from a specific thing in a piece, particularly when it isn’t a natural light source—for example, from a crown, a goblet, a halo, an animal—I think the light for me can symbolize a lot of things. It can mean power, maybe something divine or sacred, a source of illumination, truth, guidance, and sometimes purity.

Some of the pieces for this show are quite dark thematically, but I’m not interested on focusing on the darkness for its own sake in my work, I’m interested on using it to show light, to paint darkness as something that reveals light, to see the darkness as a canvas for light, an opportunity for light to shine. A torch that seems useless on a sunny day might mean the difference between life and death in a place of endless darkness, but we don’t understand the power of that torch until darkness surrounds us. There are things we carry within us that are like a torch, powerful but unnoticeable in the daylight of ordinary existence. Those are the things I want to paint, and the language of light and darkness—both literal and symbolic—helps me make sense of them.

“The Rat King”

A “rat king” is a term describing a collection of rats whose tails get caught and knotted together when they are young, leaving them permanently joined at the tail. It could be seen as a reflection of how us humans are also knotted together yet struggle to break free. What’s your take on the theme?

In a larger sense, I think this painting is very much about the question of how we, as individuals, address the larger forces that bind us together when we don’t like what we see—how we deal with the systems and institutions that govern our world when we feel they’ve failed. It’s not a simple question, because as participants in these systems we’re complicit in them, but at the same time, they’re so big and daunting we feel powerless to escape or influence them. It puts us in a state of conflict with ourselves, well-intentioned individuals who are parts of an indifferent or even malignant whole. What do we do with that disparity, with that sense of inner turmoil? What do we do with the space between what we want for ourselves, for the world, and the reality we live? What is our responsibility, as individuals, when we realize the true nature of the larger thing to which our tails are attached?

The hero of this piece is the one who has the courage to stand alone and risk everything to cut himself free from the ghastly beast he is part of. For me, he’s exemplary of the special heroism of Small Heroes—a heroism without fanfare, without acknowledgment, without glory—a singular act of aligning of one’s actions with one’s ideals, with truth, despite external circumstances. In one sense it is the simplest thing in the world to imagine and in another it seems like the ultimate impossibility to achieve.

Aside from the larger thematic story I see reflected in the imagery of the rat king, this piece is also just about the characters in it, in their specific moment, dealing with this horrifying situation. A rat king is such a perfect image to set against a backdrop of the First World War, where you have these grand, deluded imperial overlords marching ordinary men off to die in muddy rat-ridden trenches. One of my favorite books is All Quiet on The Western Front, and I remember the protagonist talking about how the soldiers were reduced to an animal-like state in war, and also about how big the rats were. I think those sorts of descriptions, along with the larger history, conjured the rat king imagery for me as something I felt could touch on so many facets of what experiencing that war must have been like.

“Pearls of Wisdom”

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