Q&A with Esther Pearl Watson

Born in Germany but raised in Texas, Esther Pearl Watson holds an MA from the California Institute of the Arts and teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Her monumental canvas Pasture Cows Crossing Indian Creek is on view in the museum’s Atrium through May 30, 2016. Watson combines memory and imagination in her paintings to tell stories from her childhood. While in Fort Worth for the installation of Pasture Cows, she took time to sit down with us.

Your father spent his life building all manner of spacecraft in the many front yards of your youth, and much of your work includes flying saucers and rockets and other hovering space forms. What compels you to make this aspect of your past such an integral part of your work? Memory painters often paint their memories as ideal. I think it is interesting to disrupt that trope by showing less-than-perfect memories.

20141024_LA_012.JPG
The artist speaking with members of the museum inside her studio in L.A.; the painting behind her is Pasture Cows in process

Is your work partly a means for processing through your personal set of childhood memories? No. I’m a skilled painter imitating a de-skilled visual language. I’m more interested in what this painting is doing and not doing. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills resemble a range of photos from B movies but are completely fictitious. While Sherman is in every image, portraying female characters in film, the work is not about her but about the viewer and what we project onto her image. We never really get to know Cindy Sherman, but hopefully we better understand ourselves.

Pasture Cows may feel emotionally real, but it’s a careful construction. It’s true that elements of my biography are found in the painting; my granddad is from Comanche, for example, and my dad built half-finished flying saucers in his garage. But I have no memory of a pink flying saucer sighting, and I never hunted specifically for the Old Civilian Fort. So why does this painting feel real? Whose childhood memories are we processing when we look at Pasture Cows?

My work looks like outsider art, with its blobby figures and pencil smudges; but I’m not an outsider artist. I’m not trying to be mistaken for one, just as Cindy Sherman is not trying to pass as a Hollywood star. I’m more interested in the terms and definitions we use in the art world. What is this painting exactly? Insider art? Faux folk art?

In addition to painting you write and illustrate graphic novels. Where did the idea for your series Unlovable come from? It’s based on a diary I found in a gas station bathroom. I like that the main character makes the same mistakes we all do, but it’s in hindsight that we can laugh about it.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career? Becoming an artist!

Both your husband and daughter are artists. Do you collaborate? Yes. More often, we work side by side. Our home often feels like and artists’ residency.

You often use glitter in your work, including in Pasture Cows. Does it have significance other than an aesthetic one? When my daughter was young she wore a lot of glittery clothing. I use glitter as a reference to her.

20150518_028_s.jpg
Esther in front of her painting shortly after it was installed in the museum's Atrium

Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” Some visitors might look at your painting and think it appears raw or amateurish. What would you say to them? I agree with Picasso. I can paint realistic, but those paintings simply imitate. I’m not interested in reproducing imagery I can capture with my camera. Some people feel a sense of accomplishment when they can render realistic. Some people give up painting when they cannot paint realistic. What I’m doing is purposely making my work look like I can’t paint. It’s not easy to do because if it’s done wrong, then my work will feel insincere. I do leave hints that my work comes from an educated place. You can tell by the content and can see that I’m using balanced compositions and complex color harmonies.

There are several narratives occurring in Pasture Cows. Can you speak to the more significant ones? My granddad working with the fence taught me about the payoff of hard work. The saucer is based on my dad’s dreams of returning to Italy. The pink glitter is a reference to my daughter.

What is the one work of art that everyone should see in person? I’m too humble to assume everyone’s taste is similar to my own. For me, I was wondering around Turin, Italy, with my dad and husband. We walked into the Santuario Basilica La Consolata and found floor-to-ceiling ex-votos [a votive offering to a saint]. They were crudely drawn, life-changing moments in people’s lives: when a mother was hit by a train or a son was shot in war. These were moments when miracles happened. Moments when people felt blessed and watched over.

There’s a dollop of paint in the sky above the flying buzzard in Pasture Cows. It’s intentional, but why? I like what people project onto it. There are lots of blobs in the painting, but when they’re out of place we give them special meaning. That blob shows us that we’re all projecting stories in everything we see.