BARRINGTON WATSON is an artist living and working in Orange Park, St. Thomas. Here he discusses his work with Dr. Jonathan Greenland, executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica.
Jonathan Greenland: Can you tell us about your two works in the National Gallery, 'Conversation' and 'Mother and Child'?
Barrington Watson: 'Conversation' was the first painting of mine the National Gallery acquired. I think the 'Mother and Child' was on loan from Maurice Facey. All the others of mine in the gallery are donations from people like A.D. Scott and Aaron Matalon.
I painted 'Mother and Child' in, I believe, 1969 and 'Conversation' a little later in the 1970s. What I can tell you about those two works is that they represent different periods in my growth as an artist. 'Mother and Child' was painted while I was in England as part of my diploma at the Royal College of Art in London: it was my 'major task'. And as for 'Conversation', I always painted that kind of subject. I'm interested in the Jamaican female and how she stands and how she gossips and how she does things. At that time, too, there was always this fetching of water in buckets from standpipes and rivers for
washing. 'Conversation' represented some interesting aspects from my point of view: I find Jamaican women very sensual and attractive and beautiful, from the country girl right up to high society. The variety of flesh tones and colours was striking after having studied in England.
J.G.: You say 'Mother and Child' was painted in England, was it from memory?
B.W.: Yes. It was based on what I had experienced in Jamaica before I left for London.
J.G.: What was you time like in London?
B.W.: I had amazing energy: I would party, play cricket, football and then go to art school. I would be getting only four hours sleep. You see, I would catnap on the way to school. I would sleep for ten minutes on the underground train: I could sleep hanging on the strap and wake up at the exact stop.
A lot of people look at 'Mother and Child' and they see different stories in the painting. And every story fits.
J.G.: Are you aware your paintings generate this kind of storytelling?
B.W.: Yes. I know there is not just a straightforward reading and I don't tell people what to think. I know they generate a number of different stories from the one representation. Another similar example at the Gallery, I believe, is 'The Athlete's Nightmare'. The painting won an award in the Spanish biennale. It represents from my point of view the athlete's experience before the big event. He may win the race or he may lose, he doesn't know. It is either his dream or his nightmare. There are other competitors but he is really competing with himself.
J.G.: How did you understand this experience?
B.W.: I was an athlete myself - I played football for Jamaica. I nearly played cricket too but I wasn't interested in having a sports career.
The other thing that fascinates people is your treatment of the sheets in 'Mother and Child', and your treatment of drapery generally. Is that something you spent time working on?
I can't say I spent a long time working on it. I treat each texture, each surface as a challenge in itself, and so when I try to paint a dress or a sheet or clothing, I treat it as fabric with some aspect of transparency. It is the same with skin tones: the skin tones of black people are so subtle you have to treat it as a particular thing in its own right. I remember doing landscapes with Dennis Williams, my good friend from Guyana who is now dead; he would say to me: "Barry, how do you get the hills so far away?" And I'd say, "The mistake you're making is you're trying to paint the hills, and I'm painting the air between us and the hills."
J.G.: You are famous for your study of the female body.
B.W.: You know, in the days when I had just come back from England, Jamaican women didn't want to model nude. So I painted the Europeans. People said: "You only paint white people!" I replied, "No I don't. It's because you only want to take your clothes off in the bathroom."
J.G.: Would you say one of the most important things for you is observation of the subject?
B.W.: I'm thinking about the question? because sometimes your eye does not report as accurately as you would think. However, what I think is the most important thing is the understanding of what you are seeing. With observation, if you can understand what the object is or says or how it feels, then you can see it. Feeling is, incidentally, one of the most important things in art.
J.G.: You say that in the days of the 'Conversation' women were collecting water at stand pipes. Now that's gone, what is your modern equivalent?
B.W.: Well, it's trailing off. I don't think it's entirely gone. There aren't as many standpipes and the women don't collect around them in the same way in the morning or at night. So we're losing a bit of that. But, you know, there is there is a strong church-going crowd and they collect in groups before and after going to services. I'm working on some of these subjects. According to the Guinness Book of Records there are as many churches as rum bars in Jamaica. But, you know, I did paint a more up-to-date version of the 'Conversation' that belongs to Derick Lateaubidiere.
J.G.: What are your strongest influences?
B.W.: Many different things and artists. I think for all artists the strongest influence is their own environment. Artists like Goya, Velasquez and Rembrandt did open my eyes to a lot of technical things that I may never have discovered except by bungling. In the event they provided me with the only possible 'shortcuts' I could use. Looking back it seems to me I grasp things quickly. Goya influenced me because of his emotional approach - he was the forerunner of Expressionism. That influenced me because I needed to express myself.
I can see the link with Velasquez. When you were talking about understanding and feeling it reminded me of his work and I can see a connection with your nudes.
Velasquez certainly influenced me. His draughtmanship was superb. How easy it seemed to him. But it is often that way: Cezanne had trouble drawing, but not Degas. And Velasquez's composition! Take his painting La Meninas. Now there is a very serious consciousness of composition. There is a whole story about the Royal family: the King and Queen of Spain, the ladies in waiting, the dogs, the dwarf and even the prime minister - who was said to be having an affair with the Queen - and also Velazquez himself. It is very well composed.
J.G.: As you get older do you find yourself looking at other artists more?
B.W.: Well, I originally went to England to learn. I didn't go to break any records: I went to look at other artists from other centuries. I wanted to see how far and how little art has travelled. It was fascinating to see how long it took for art to reach from da Vinci and Rembrandt to the German Expressionists, from African masks to Picasso. There were so many steps to be made in art, and so much to be learnt.
J.G.: Would you say that there is an African element in your painting?
B.W.: I think it is undeniable. And I welcome the idea that there is an African element to my work. I gave a speech at Harvard in which I said I was the product of the marriage of Africa and Europe. First of all I went to Europe and then I travelled to Africa - to Nigeria and Ghana - to see what communication there is.
J.G.: What do you think of the Jamaican art scene?
B.W.: Very vibrant. And it has been vibrant for 30 years or more. But the establishment is not doing enough, they are not directed or directing enough. We have the influence of so many different cultures, and we are unsure of which way to go. We have been looking for 'Jamaican Art' since I was a boy! The most important thing is your environment: let it speak to you. But there is great hope for the Caribbean with the single market: we can get Caribbean people to work together. The multicultural influence and the multiracial situation gives the Caribbean a great advantage. We are right in the middle of the world. Plus, we have the energy of the sun.
J.G.: Do you have any advice for young Jamaican artists?
B.W.: Talent is not the most important ingredient. The most important ingredient is how much you put in. It is your effort and application.
J.G.: What is your favourite place in Jamaica?
B.W.: Right here, where I live. Orange Park. It was a coffee plantation many years ago. When I bought it was a ruin. It gives me enough peace and quiet but it is near enough to wherever I want to go.
Barrington Watson's paintings 'Mother and Child', 'Conversation' and 'Seated Woman' are on view at the National Gallery of Jamaica. Please call for more details at 922-1561 or email us at email@example.com.