Esther Pearl Watson

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Exploring Field
2010
Acrylic with glitter on panel, 12″x 12″
Photo: courtesy Sandra Lee Gallery

Blue skies and star-filled nights, patchwork hillsides and neighborhoods filled with jostling children provide the rustic settings for Esther Pearl Watson’s paintings of glittery disc-shaped flying saucers. Watson grew up “dirt poor” in rural Texas, where her father built flying saucers in their yard. The artist recasts these memories of her childhood in a deliberately naïve style that simultaneously evokes American “primitive” folk art rooted in 17th-century New England and the camp of ’50s sci-fi space odysseys.

Watson has been painting her childhood memories, complete with saucers, for well over a decade. Her initial inspiration for these paintings was the letters she received from her father, who had then just returned to his native Italy. “After he moved in 1992, he started to send me letters,” Watson recalls. “In one, he drew each of the saucers, how he built it, why it didn’t work, and why we had to move.” What struck Watson as she read these letters was how different her father’s memories were from her own, and how varied they would be for each family member. “So I decided it would be nice to put down my version of each of these saucers,” she explains. Except in Watson’s version, the memories combine with fantasy-the artist fulfills her father’s vision as the homemade UFOs hover, float and sail across the sky. True to her own daydreams, however, her father’s flying discs are often re-imagined in sparkling shades of metallic silver, lavendar, or dusty pink-lovingly re-rendered in glitter, of course.

Watson received her BFA from Art Center in 1995. “When I went to Art Center, my work stood out because I didn’t follow the usual influences,” Watson remembers. Instead,
her artistic appetite was sustained by a steady diet of self-taught art, children’s art and the visionary artists she had first seen in the outsider art magazine, Raw Vision. The artist begins to describe her influences with a measured response, thoughtfully recalling Dubuffet, Horse Pippin and the quilts of Harriet Powers. Soon, however, the temperance gives way to an enthusiastic elaboration of her personal favorites: Megan Whitman, Amy Lockhart, Laura Leslie, Vanessa Hayes and Emiko Shimoda’s comic-book style drawings. Another major influence is undoubtedly her father. “I find it interesting… my work is valid because I have a degree but my Dad’s isn’t, because he isn’t trained.” Watson also recognizes the contradiction of her unschooled style and years of training; Art Center and Outsider Art aren’t exactly synonymous with one another. “I’ve been called lots of things,” Watson says, “faux-naïve, faux-grotesque, Insider/Outsider… the terms allude to as if I’m trying to pull something over, but I’m not.” From her bookcase, filled with the likes of “Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana,” Earl Cunningham, and Mingering Mike, she singles out Eddie Stimpson Jr.’s “My Remembers.” The paint-spattered cover is a sign of Watson’s affection. The artist flips through the pages, reading several excerpts before adding, almost to herself, “his stories are so honest, so good.”

In addition to paintings, Watson also creates comic-style books and produces zines with her husband, artist Mark Todd. Their studio reflects the convergence of these numerous activities. Her best-known book “Unlovable,” based on an abandoned diary found in the bathroom of a Las Vegas gas station, follows the awkward moments of adolescence through the character Tammy. “With both my comics and paintings, I like stories of being an outsider, being awkward, and trying to fit in but it’s just not going to happen.”

“Big Dreams,” an exhibition of works by Esther Pearl Watson and Mark Todd will be on view at Sandra Lee Gallery in San Francisco, from June 1-26, 2010.