L.A. Watson is an interdisciplinary artist and writer working in the field of human-animal studies. Watson earned her B.A. in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Kentucky and is currently pursuing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Her work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, including the Mary H. Dana Women Artist Series at Rutgers University and she has received grants from the Culture and Animal Foundation and the Animal Welfare Trust among others.
Watson currently works in her home studio on Elk Hill farm in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Much of my interest lies in exploring the interlocking oppression of both women and non-human animals. In my photographic and video work I enjoy performativity and using my body as a tool to explore issues of agency, desire, vulnerability and the grotesque. Other overarching themes include: birth, reproductive anxieties, the ethics of eating and overpopulation, consumption (both literal and metaphorical), personal history, death and memorialization. I am continually inspired by activism and social justice movements especially feminism and animal rights and often my work interrogates positions of power and forms of social control from the position of the marginalized.
Could you first state your name, where you work and live, and also a bit about your artistic background?
My name is L.A. Watson. I’m originally from Lexington, KY but I recently relocated to Elk Hill Farm in Frankfort, KY. My husband (Matt Page) and I renovated an old stone house that has been in my family for generations and is listed on the historic registry. Thanks to the generous help of family and friends we were able to build an art/music studio on the property that we both work in. My background in the arts has been life-long. I attended S.C.A.P.A. for art in high school and then I fell in love with the art of glass bead-making, which culminated in opening a glassblowing studio in Lexington.
I notice that you work primarily in painting, photography, and sculpture. Could you elaborate on your preferred mediums and why?
At some point I began to feel confined by the medium specificity of glass and I was becoming more interested in art as a tool for activism. My practice is now much more conceptually based. I try to choose materials that will help support the content of the work, so I never know what materials I might be working with!
I really enjoy your series of female serial killers. Could you explain where your idea for this series originated from and what it represents if anything in particular?
Ah yes! This is an ongoing series of portraits of female serial killers painted onto vintage ceramic plates. The paint that I’m using is actually baked onto the plates, so it is durable and safe to use as dinnerware. This series came out of my lifelong fascination with the dark side of humanity—I’m a huge horror movie fan and watch Forensic Files relentlessly. I think this series also owes a lot to my B.A. in Gender and Women’s Studies as well.
Many people have the perception that most serial killers are men, although there are a surprising number of women serial killers. The hyper-masculine persona of male serial killers has been glorified in the media and through consumer goods, yet women who kill are for the most part overlooked. Do social constructions of gendered attributes account for this phenomenon? Are we afraid to acknowledge that not all women are naturally nurturing, passive, and life-giving? The act of taking someone’s life is a very active, unsentimental (i.e. “masculine”) way of asserting dominance and control. Could some of these women’s desire to kill (to assume so-called masculine traits) be linked to their own marginalized position in a pre-feminist patriarchal society where they had very little control over the direction or outcome of their own lives? I don’t know. But these are some of the questions I had as I was creating these plates. These hardened women who kill are juxtaposed with the fragile, dainty, dishes (i.e. “feminine”) materials they are painted upon in an attempt to disorient normative social constructions of gender.
You have several series and works on your site. Is there one series or a particular work that is your personal favorite? Could you elaborate on the ideas behind the work or works and maybe your process in creating it?
Until now, my favorite body of work has been the photographic series, “A bird at my table” whereby I posed my body in such a way as to resemble that of a chicken or a turkey. Behind my body you see black and white back-projected images that move from the beginning stages of a factory-farmed chicken/turkey’s life to the end—at the dinner table. My intention was to force a sense of connection between the human body (which most people interact with on an individual basis and are generally sympathetic toward) and that of the non-human animal, which most people can’t see because they have been fragmented, repackaged, and renamed as one anonymous “meat.” This work also comments upon the ways in which women and animals are compared to one another and objectified in a consumer culture that reduces them to bodily parts—“breasts,” “thighs,” and “legs.” Because no “meat” was actually used in the making of this artwork, the literal objectification of animal’s bodies is avoided.
Reading your artist statement gives me a better clarification behind your works. What made you want to personally explore these issues within your works? Did these issues become important to you at a later age during your studies or did it begin to originate through personal experiences at a young age?
My interest in feminism and animal rights converged after I read Carol Adam’s book, The Sexual Politics of Meat. I was in my early twenties and had decided to become vegetarian after reading a story about the incredibly cruel—but perfectly legal—treatment of a “downed” cow in KY (the industry term “downed” is used to describe an animal that is too sick to stand or walk). This story sparked my interest in animal advocacy, and Carol’s book allowed me to make crucial connections between the subjugation of women, and other marginalized human populations and that of non-human animals.
Have your works or has your artistic process changed a great deal since you first started creating art? If so, have you been surprised by this evolution?
Yes! My “artistic practice” is one that has shifted dramatically over the years. The conceptual idea and the media used to convey that idea will be forever fluid, but I am happy to say that I have been able to hybridize my studio practice towards a very directed engagement in both art and activism in the field of human-animal studies.
When I previously interviewed your husband, he often mentioned the many collaborative works that you both have worked on. I am especially interested in the glass blown sculptures on both of your sites that are inspired by John Berger’s essay “Why Look at Animals?”. Could you elaborate a bit on this series and the meaning behind it?
Sure, when Matt and I were running the glassblowing studio we were both beginning to move in a more conceptual direction with our work. We had both read John Berger’s essay “Why look at Animals?” which interrogates the politics of vision as it relates to the gaze between human and non-human animals. When a human encounters an animal in nature—in its natural environment—and when the animal stares back at us, to quote author Ron Broglio, “the hegemony of human vision becomes confounded.” During this encounter, the human sees his/herself as the animal sees him/her, and according to Berger the animal, “does not reserve a special look for man.” The central place of “the human” no longer exists as such and a “power is ascribed to the animal” in these moments. The modern zoo acts to displace the animal, and any power it may have had through a free field of vision by making the animal into a spectacle, and rendering it “absolutely marginal.” When we made the series of cast glass animal heads, we wanted to comment upon the ways in which the gaze of animals, and their ability to look back is “extinguished” when put behind the bars of zoos or the cages of laboratories. We used copper wire to construct cages, which were then melted around the edges of the animals eyes.
Are there any other collaborative projects that you would like to mention? Lastly, do you have any upcoming community projects, collaborative works, or individual pieces that you have currently been working on?
For the past year, I’ve been working with The National Museum of Animals & Society (NMAS), to co-curate the exhibit, “Uncooped: Deconstructing the Domesticated Chicken,” which debuted online in May (www.uncooped.org). The Museum is the first of its kind and addresses animal protection history, animal studies and humane education in its exhibitions, collections, programming and educational efforts. The Uncooped exhibit explores the origins of and the cultural attitudes towards one of the most common—yet most often overlooked—of all domesticated animals: the chicken. In addition to a wealth of information, the exhibit features sixteen artists who critically question the ways in which chickens are viewed and treated including the internationally known artist Sue Coe. NMAS now has a permanent exhibition space in Los Angeles, CA and I am excited to be traveling there to install the physical version of Uncooped this January 2014!
In addition to this, I have also been working on the Roadside Memorial Project, a roadside installation for animals that have been killed on the road. I have been using reflective sign material to create silhouettes of animals that are commonly killed on Kentucky roads, and installing them on the rural road that leads to our house. Over one million animals are killed on U.S. roadways each year alone, and this project is not only a testament to these animals, but also seeks to raise the awareness of drivers as well as to interrogate the ways in which the road functions as a hybridized space where human technology violently collides with non-human animal biology.