The work of artist James Watts intrigues and fascinates me. When I first came across it my first thought was ‘this is exactly the sort of art Wyrd Words & Effigies needs to be showcasing.’ The following interview presents an insight into the mind and creations of one mulch-talented individual, who looks far beyond the everyday.
Please can you talk about themes currently inspiring your art, and motivating you to create?
The main unifying theme is probably the sublime. I try to get to that via the idea of the ritual environment and the profound experience. I’m aiming for that primal awe that exists in those kind of situations – that connection with an unknown other that a lot of ritual situations attempt to achieve at their core.
To this end I look into a lot of ‘primitive’ religion and ceremony, as well as the more established religions, and try and locate unifying themes within that to inform what I’m making. A big draw for me at the moment is Bon, which is the religion present in Tibet before Bhuddism. It contains a lot of really interesting vocal techniques and chanting which have become a large part of my sound work, without directly aping the traditions.
I’ve begun to link these kind of atmospheres and environments with contemporary sound as well. Live performance environments can bring about that similar group experience, and can often run parallel in their effects, if not in their intended aims.
Astral Mould 2011
What is your background in fine art? Did formal education play an important role, and do you think you took the correct route? Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I came straight through to a bachelors degree at Northumbria university from A-levels. I do regret not having taken a foundation year in between and would recommend that to any budding artists looking to go down that route. The lack of development time between the A Level environment and the Degree, meant I struggled quite a bit conceptually to begin with as the set up was so radically different.
The degree however, was worthwhile. The advantage of these things is that it gives you three years in an environment of like minded people and with various new influences to firm up your ideas and broaden your view artistically before going out into the ‘real world’.
Within The Dolmen 2012
Which materials do you find yourself drawn to? Do you have a comfort zone where materials are concerned, or are you enthusiastic about regular experimentation?
I tend to sit somewhere between organic, natural material and hidden bits of electronics or sound. I try to get somewhere half way between grown and made – that kind of effigy based appearance, that suggests at a contained or imbued force. The electronics are often hidden, usually with a basis toward providing sound, though a few projects I have planned involve making more direct use of the components.
What are your ideal working conditions?
I work in a studio that I share with two other people currently, so I’ll work with other people about or own my own, depending on who else is in at the time. Both environments have their benefits. If I’m on my own I’ll tend to move toward the more meditative sound based stuff or focus in on planning or drawing. With others about, the sound based stuff becomes more difficult, but I think it’s worthwhile having a group of people in whilst working. Peer criticism and general discussion is pretty vital to staving off stagnation.
During my research, I noticed your work featured in an exhibition entitled ‘Terra Incognita,’ and I was fascinated by the piece you had included. I believe it was called ‘Guardian.’ Can you explain the meaning behind this work, and the intention of the exhibition itself?
‘Terra Incognita’ translates into ‘Unkown Land’ in latin, and was the overall theme for the show. I went down quite a literal route, looking into archaic maps and documentation, eventually stumbling across the fact that the ‘Here Be Dragons’ phrase for unmapped areas was actually only used once in preference of the standard ‘Here Be Lions’. This led to an avenue of research based around the idea of the lion as a symbol of the unexplored and savage – the archetypal primal force, which I then parred down to an effigy of a mane. The aim in doing so was to try and create a totem or fetish that distilled that idea of an earthy force. Again, it links back into that ethereal ‘other’ that’s associated more with concept than actuality. The title ‘Guardian’ refers primarily to the idea of a boundary to the wild, but also keys in to the use of heraldic lions as guards to monuments, often of knowledge – tying in that extra layer of meaning.
In your opinion, what is the purpose of art?
I don’t know if that’s something than can be defined in certain terms. Through looking at a lot of anthropological material, particularly in conjunction to the kind of work that I make; art seems to permeate into a lot of things and in a lot of cases the boundary between, art and artefact, art and craft or art and a multitude of other things is delineated by the significance placed on it within the culture it resides. I think to a large degree it’s based on creating an experience of one kind or another, and triggering thought. Arthur C. Danto (who I’m not going to poorly paraphrase) seems to have the best handle on these kind of things for me. There’s a great essay of his in Art/Artifact that was a huge influence on my practice.
Can you please talk about three individual art pieces that you feel have greatly inspired you throughout your journey as an artist so far?
I’m not sure if I can pin things down to three pieces, though there are a few major influences in what I’m doing currently.
I’m a huge fan of Alexei Tegin‘s Phurpa project, which seems to sit somewhere between art, historical study, and music. Phurpa perform ancient traditional Bon music, and make some of the most unearthly and eerie choral sounds I’ve heard. Finding these were the final piece in the puzzle that led me into the kind of work I am producing today, and I hugely recommend them and any of Tegin’s associated projects and solo work.
Douglas White is also a big influence. He works with found materials and processes, bringing in that kind of natural alchemy and imbuing what could otherwise be very mundane with an element of the esoteric, or just earthy force. A lot of his recent work has been based around recreating the forms and textures of an elephant carcass he saw whilst on a trip to Africa – Dance of the Roustabouts being the most recent. It’s this huge sculpture of what appears to be disembodied hide, that manages to embody something half way between the macabre architecture of a carcass and the essence of the beast it represents.
A big influence at the moment is Charles Freger’s Wildermann images. He documented a huge array of traditional ritual costumes of characters what fulfilled the ‘wildermann’ archetype of representing that wild or savage other – a connection with nature or with raising the yields, that still lingers. The images are very matter of fact, they are not glamorised or dramatised in any way, simply well set up in such a way as to let the costumes speak for themselves. They have this honesty in their form and are unashamedly what they are. Again they fit into that embodiment of concept rather than direct representation.
What would you say is the greatest challenge when creating art, and also, how do you know when a piece is finished?
I think motivation is probably the biggest challenge in a general sense. Trying to get work made, as well as getting it seen, and being able to support yourself financially is hard work, and a lot of people I know have pretty much given up. I would probably say determination to actually be an artist is a huge part of the process.
I’ve often got time constraints when I’m installing work, so this can help force me to bring it to a conclusion, but I’ll often be tweaking things right up until the deadline. It’s fairly organic for me – when something’s done it tends to present itself in that way, though a lot of the time something I’m installing may not get to that level, and may end up either being completed as part of something else, or informing another work.
Outside of creating fine art, what else do you do with your creative energy?
I’m involved vocals for a couple of bands – Blind Spite and Plague Rider, as well as my own solo work as Dolmen Dweller. I also do bits and bobs of merch design, as well as being involved in a couple more musical projects that have yet to reach fruition.
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