Basil Watson talks influences, favourite creation and historic Windrush monument
T he Gleaner’s Janet Silvera had a sit-down interview with renowned Jamaican artist and sculptor Basil Watson at his studio in Lawrenceville, Georgia, in the United States. Watson was recently commissioned to produce the historic Windrush sculpture, which will be erected in Waterloo Square in the United Kingdom in 2022.
Janet Silvera: You are part of what is dubbed as the royal family of fine art in Jamaica. Why did you opt to become a sculptor instead of a painter, like your famous father?
Basil Watson: I am very strongly influenced by him, especially his drawing skills. That really impacted me most, drawing remains my favourite, my number one passion, and I was not that focused on colour. When I went to art school, I found that drawing translated into sculpture very well with dealing with light versus colour, and form and it came [naturally] to me, and also from very early I was influenced by seeing public sculptures around and was in awe of the ability to create these large public sculptures. So [that was] when I found sculpture. My tutor at art school was Christopher Gonzalez. He was very inspirational in talking about sculpture and teaching sculpture. So I decided that I would do sculpture.
Were you influenced by any Jamaican sculptors?
I was always influenced by Alvin Marriott, especially his runner at the National Stadium. As a sportsman going to the stadium, it was a very inspirational piece. On top of that, my parents knew some of the runners, knew Marriott. So I found it very inspirational, and I thought, wow, it would be fantastic to have at least one piece in a public space like this National Stadium. So that was the early inspiration from Jamaican sculptors, but I admired Edna Manley. I worked with her for a while, casting some of our later works, and so saw some of our public works, and those inspired me. As I said, Christopher Gonzalez as a teacher and sculptor were the main ones.
How did you approach the statue of Martin Luther King? What were some of the challenges that you faced?
There were physical challenges. Number one was developing a concept of who Martin Luther King is. How do I represent him? And I remember from childhood, shortly after he was killed. So I would be early teens, I would see films of him and the whole civil rights movement, and I developed a kind of understanding of that struggle, and the struggle he went through the civil rights [period] and so on. And I approached it with that sort of idea in mind, but also decided to listen to all of his speeches. I got a collection on CDs and [heard] the recurring message of love versus the angst of racism and civil rights. But the message of love that he keeps putting forward made me change my concept to one representing more love and hope. So that is how I dealt with the challenge of the concept and how I wanted to display [him] and then the challenge of introduction of the bird, because usually, my figures tend to stand alone without added props, but here I did, the bird. And it worked in terms of sending that message of hope and love and peace.
Then there was the challenge of the physical aspect of it. Doing it 12 feet tall just fits into my studio; the space was just able to accommodate. I was climbing ladders; I was lifting weights up and down. So it was a physical challenge. Viewing it on that scale is also very challenging because you don’t usually view the figure twice life-size. So I had to work out that sort of view of the scale and aesthetics to proportions.
How was it received, though?
It has been received very well. I have gotten very positive feedback. People have told me they have been moved to tears which is very touching. And people connect with the message of hope, the message of love and so on. And also, I think the bird is also a symbol of, how can I say, a tribute to all lives that were lost during the pandemic, which coincided with the installation of the work and so on. It was installed in January of ‘21.
It brings me to my next question of Windrush. How will you approach Windrush? I see this fantastic sculpture maquette behind you. And I want to find out a little bit more about how you will approach Windrush. Talk to us about that. What is Windrush for you?
Windrush is a personal journey, as well as representing the journey of immigrants throughout history, immigrants throughout the Windrush generation, [and] immigrants in general. I tried to see and create an understanding of what it feels like, and I’ve experienced it too, as I’m an immigrant here in the United States. I packed my suitcases and my belongings, and I came here looking for a better life, looking to extend myself, you know, so, this is what I tried to express. I used the family – the father, mother, a child and created that connection of the family being important. It’s a family movement [that] is not just an individual, but family and the suitcases that [they] stand on [represents] their culture, represents all that they have valued and their foundation that they will use as a springboard to move ahead in their new environment.
You are selected from a list of four renowned sculptors.
It was whittled down to four. It started much larger. Then there was a long list of 16. From that long list, there was a judging process that created the four finalists. And then, each one of us was required to develop a concept and present that concept to a judging panel. And that final process also involved public opinion; they did polls and questionnaires in terms of which concept and design resonated more with the various communities. Which one represented more the vision of people and their wholeness on universal experience. And finally, mine was chosen.
When will you begin work in the UK?
The work has already begun here in my studio. We are using the technology of digital scanning, and work in the UK has begun to enlarge this model to a 20-foot scale. So the figure, the male figure, will be eight feet tall. And that is being done as we speak in the UK. And within the next week, I expect to be in the UK for a few months working on it.
What’s the significance of Waterloo station?
Waterloo station is the transit hub for trains and probably buses in the UK. So to reach every area of the UK by train, you go through Waterloo station. It’s like a Grand Central here in New York. And it is a place where many arrivals from the Windrush went through before they dispersed to the various corners of the UK.
I understand that you’re a child of the Windrush generation. Can you tell me what that’s all about?
The Windrush generation is marked between 1948 and ‘71. The Empire Wind Rush was the first ship; it only [made] one voyage, but it was the first time on that ship that immigrants were carried from Jamaica, mainly, Trinidad and a couple of other countries, to England in 1948. It never sailed again. But my parents went on a ship to England. They actually met on a ship going to England in 1952. People were called to come to England to help rebuild the country after World War II. So they met on a ship, they got married, my brother was born in 1954 in England. I was conceived in England in 1957. My mother went back to Jamaica to have me in early ‘58. We went back to England and lived there until 1962, thereabout. My entire family went back to Jamaica after Independence,
I’m going to take you out of Windrush and go right back to Jamaica, where you did the seven busts of our national heroes. What challenges did you face making them?
The major challenges were the heroes that there was no photographic reference. So you had Nanny; Paul Bogle, there is only one picture of him; Sir William Gordon, very vague pictures of him and none of Sam Sharpe. So the images we have of mainly Nanny and Sam Sharpe are artist impressions. So I had to find a way to develop the character. That was a major challenge. The later ones, there was enough photographic reference and enough of my personal knowledge of them for me to grasp the personality, but with Nanny and Sam Sharpe, I had to dig deep to find a character that would represent a clear journey.
Would you say the process differed when you sculpted the statues for Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce?
The major difference is that I actually met each one of them. What is also interesting is that I asked each one before presenting my view of what they should look like for what pose they wanted to represent, how they wanted themselves to be represented.
And Bolt was obvious, he wanted ‘To the World’, but the other three all came back with photographs of themselves. That was exactly how I had envisaged depicting them. Veronica came back with a picture of her looking up with her hands out; Shelly-Ann, she liked the fist pump at the end of her first victory, and Asafa Powell, he liked that shirtless Adonis-type figure. So each one of them, their view of themselves, was very much in sync with how I saw them. And I guess how the public sees them.
What did you do differently for the statue of Louise Bennett-Coverley?
I have a very soft spot for that sculpture. Louise Bennett is an artist. Many of the other public sculptures are either thematic or of athletes. Louise Bennett is representing our culture, which I find is fantastic to get an opportunity to represent somebody who promotes the culture that I am working in. Also, it does not sit in a stadium or very sophisticated so to speak city centre. It becomes the centrepiece for a small, rural town and lifts the entire spirit of the town. So I found that very, very touching that I was able to make that type of contribution. And then Miss Lou is the mother of our culture. That was a great experience.
Of all the works you have done. Do you have a favourite and why?
Each one is like a child. I have no favourites of my children. They have different characteristics. The closest might be Miss Lou. For the reasons I just expressed – how it affects a community of our normal Jamaican people. The potential it has to lift the spirit of a small rural town would probably be my favourite.
If you had the opportunity, whose statue would you like to do before you retire, and why?
I have no plans to retire. So I move from one to the next to the next. There are many stories to be told. I am being called upon more and more to tell black stories, although my aim is to tell all stories. My focus in the smallest work, from a drawing to the biggest monument, is to speak truth. I don’t have any specific target right now. My vision is really [on] the next work. I tend not to look back too much. Not too far forward. Keep my eye on the next step.
Where is home for you? Is it Jamaica or the United States?
You are in my home, which is my studio. My studio is an island or a continent unto itself, a world unto itself. I have fashioned this little world here, so wherever it is, that’s home, but on the broader scale, and I know what you mean. Jamaica is where my navel string is buried. Jamaica is where my foundation is. Jamaica put me where I am today. Because I came to the States not empty-handed. I came with my suitcase full of my experiences in Jamaica. And that has given me the strength to move ahead. I embrace the United States. As a home away from home.
How long have you been living here?
Since 2002, so here 19 years.
If you were to have a conversation today with your legendary father, what would you say to him?
Uh. What would I say to him? That’s a difficult one.
Would you like us to pass on that one?
Well, I would like to hear what he has to say to me (chuckles). My mother, my father, what I want to say to them is that I love them both. I love them equally. And I thank them for the foundation that they have implanted in me, whether consciously or unconsciously. I am still learning about myself in terms of what my parents have implanted in me. I do things, I say things or think things, I say yeah, I remember where that came from? You know, my mother or my father. So you [see], I owe them so much. So I want to say thanks.
Finally, how close are you with your brother, sister, and nephew, all of whom are in fine arts?
My son is in fine arts; my sister and brother. My relationship with my brother is very close, and I shared a studio with my brother. We were at school together. I was at school with Jan, my sister. My son, he’s the third generation, and we have maintained a non-competitive relationship. We are different. Apples, oranges, mangoes, bananas, whatever. But we are fruits of my father. But we don’t compete. We are just different, and we respect and honour each other.