ISSUE TWELVE | SPRING 2019
Esther and Teresa Watson are sisters. They are both fine artists who live and work in California (Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, respectively) by way of Texas. Tellingly, when I ask about their childhood, they tell me about their father’s instead.
He came of age in Texas during the Space Race: an era defined in equal parts by blind optimism and wild, unfettered neurosis. “This profoundly affected him,” said Esther, “and as an adult, he spent his time earnestly building large flying saucers in the front yards of our various Texas homes.”
And so Esther’s paintings are of small-town Texas life, but with flying saucers. Her work is primarily concerned with her past, her childhood. It just so happens that her childhood was dramatically wrapped up in her father’s concern for their future—his end goal was to ultimately sell his prototype to the United States government. The effect is powerfully dizzying, and that is intentional; her work never quite lands in the present.
In Teresa’s, you’ll find similar imagery: southern ladies with big, blonde hair; beer bottles and cigarettes; the scruffy characters that haunt empty, small town parking lots. But where you’ll find spaceships in Esther’s work, you’ll find aliens in Teresa’s. If Esther’s work draws out the context for their childhood, Teresa’s work holds a magnifying glass up to it. Her characters are classically southern gothic: wild, violent, tender, comic.
Her work, by necessity, is distinctly rooted in the present (although echoes of their childhood emerge now and then). Here too, her practice diverges from her sister’s. Where Esther makes work to make sense of their past, Teresa makes work to make sense of things in the here and now. It is primarily, according to her, “an outlet for her struggles with Schizophrenia and Depression.” It is the byproduct of a kind of cathartic grounding process.
Flannery O’Connor, in her seminal essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” writes:
The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque. . . .
Prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque.
Esther and Teresa make prophetic Southern work, and I think Flannery would have loved it, recognized it, ached over it. They’ve generously recorded a conversation for Nat. Brut, and it is transcribed below. We’ve imbedded audio of it above, and we recommend listening to it as you read.
—Laura Bullard, Nonfiction Co-Editor, Nat. Brut
Esther Pearl Watson, American Dreamer, 2018, Acrylic with glitter on panel
Teresa Watson, Help Me, 2019, Gouache and gloss varnish
Esther Pearl Watson: Alright. I’m Esther, and I’m sitting here with my sister—
Teresa Watson: Teresa Watson.
EPW: And we’re going to answer a couple questions. What is your inspiration when you’re making art . . . on boxes?
TW: On boxes? I like decorating. I make art for myself because I don’t have any other art. I put my own art on the wall because I like looking at it.
EPW: Your art’s kinda weird though.
TW: I know, but I like it.
EPW: It’s like, people washing their underwear. . .
TW: (laughs) No one really comes in my house, so I don’t care.
EPW: . . . A guy holding a box of Bud Light.
Teresa Watson, Ok, 2018, Gouache and gloss varnish
"YEAH, I DO PROCESS . . . I'LL BE LIKE 'WAIT A MINUTE, THAT REMINDS ME OF THIS OR THAT FROM THE PAST' . . . JUST THE OBNOXIOUSNESS OF . . . I DON'T KNOW THE RIGHT WAY TO PUT IT . . . A MESSED UP CHILDHOOD."
EPW: I know, we’re trying to be serious here. My inspiration is obviously my childhood stories.
TW: Oh yeah. It’s a processing, right?
EPW: Yeah, processing. But you kinda process too, I think.
TW: Yeah, I do process, because I look at something I do, and I’ll be like, “Wait a minute, that reminds me of this or that from the past.”
EPW: Yeah, like childhood food insecurity or …
TW: Just the obnoxiousness of … I don’t know the right way to put it … a messed up childhood.
EPW: A dysfunctional childhood.
EPW: But obviously, a dysfunctional childhood has worked out for me because I can make paintings about it and sell them.
TW: Yeah, and people can relate. They look at your art, and they’re like, “Oh, I remember this.” And your art has that kind of absurdity.
EPW: Like yours.
TW: Because you paint like, a Whataburger and like, kids running around with trash on the ground. There’s kind of that everyday absurdity.
EPW: We both use like, Americana commercial logos in our work to kind of talk about the absurdity of capitalism and buying stuff.
EPW: Where you can’t, like, actually afford to eat at a Whataburger, but you can be walking around outside of it, waving your junker car in the parking lot.
EPW: What mediums do you use, and why?
TW: Well, I have a little bit of art school. I went to one year at Pratt, and then I went to one year at FIT, and they had me buy a lot of gouache. And so now, I like using gouache because it’s very flat, and I like painting flat. And I never would’ve tried gouache if it wasn’t for FIT.
EPW: Yeah, that’s true. I use acrylic. I like that it’s a piece of plastic and you can just, like, spill stuff on it and easily wipe it off. (laughs)
TW: It makes sense, coming from a chaotic background.
In the Courtyard of Old House on May 4, 2017 (GIF of transit between front and back lighting)
Esther Pearl Watson, Head Lice, 2008, Acrylic on panel
EPW: You allow for mistakes. I also use a lot of glitter. I like the idea of lowbrow craft materials and craft supplies. But you get a lot of your materials from thrift stores and craft stores.
TW: Yeah, like old boxes. Sometimes, I go to Marshall’s and they sell those wood boxes that have like, inspirational quotes over them, and I just paint over them—
EPW: Like, a decapitated head, or… (both laugh) Or a Bud Light box—
TW: I like the material. I should just go to an art store and buy regular wood. (laughs) I think it’s cheaper because I get them in the clearance section.
EPW: Oh that’s good, yeah. That’s a good supply. I just paint on panels that I get from the art store. Are you self-taught, or would you consider yourself self-taught?
TW: I consider myself semi-taught. I had a couple years of art school, but I didn’t finish because of my mental illness.
EPW: What do you think about self-taught versus, like … you know, trained art?
TW: Well, I think a lot of self-taught artists are not commercial. They’re not, like, painting for Coca Cola, and they don’t have deadlines to meet. They have a lot of freedom that way.
EPW: Maybe that’s the difference between your art and my art, because I paint for deadlines and definitely to sell my paintings. It feels like work when I’m painting. It’s stressful. I like it. It’s fun—at least I’m not working in a cubicle—but it is very stressful to me to make art.
EPW: Especially right now, while I’m installing. The feelings aren’t there. I can’t wait til it’s done!
TW: You kind of thrive on stress too.
EPW: That’s true. I like it. Maybe because I grew up with so much chaos, like, I love that.
TW: You would be really bored and going crazy without stress.
EPW: That’s true.
EPW: And you work very differently.
TW: Yeah, I don’t thrive on stress at all. I have to take medications to manage it. Too much stress, and I just get scatterbrained. I can’t manage to do anything. I paint for me. Just for myself. For fun.
School Photo of Esther Pearl Watson, 6th Grade, 1986, Wylie Middle School, Wylie, Texas
EPW: You try to reduce anxiety and stress.
TW: It’s a way of me laughing at things because things can get really dark for me. So, if I paint a stupid picture of underwear, it cheers me up.
EPW: I think our family has always had a sense of humor. Like, even as kids, we laughed when our house was burning down in Garland, Texas. I think that was just one way to process things, but we kinda knew our family had what we called “bad luck.” Looking back now, I feel like they were just poor decisions.
"EVEN AS KIDS, WE LAUGHED WHEN OUR HOUSE WAS BURNING DOWN IN GARLAND, TEXAS. I THINK THAT WAS JUST ONE WAY TO PROCESS THINGS, BUT WE KINDA KNEW OUR FAMILY HAD WHAT WE CALLED 'BAD LUCK.' LOOKING BACK NOW, I FEEL LIKE THEY WERE JUST POOR DECISIONS."
-ESTHER PEARL WATSON
TW: Poor decisions! Yeah, our family’s just … complicated.
EPW: I think a lot of people have complicated families, but ours was, uh—
TW: A lot of poverty and mental illness.
EPW: Right, yeah. That’s a good combination for complication.
EPW: What are you trying to say with your work? You painted a lamp recently for a house you moved into. What did you paint on it? What were the images on that lamp?
TW: (laughs) It was a decapitated head, talking.
Teresa Watson, Yellow and Red Lamp, 2019, Gouache and gloss varnish
EPW: What did it say?
TW: I forgot what it says.
EPW: Something really important.
TW: What it was saying wasn’t important.
EPW: There was something else on the other side. Like, a dog? Was there a dog on there?
TW: I don’t remember it.
EPW: You’re just like, “I’m painting images, then I’m done, and this lamp is ready to sit in the room, and here we go!”
TW: (laughs) Yeah, I wasn’t too crazy about that lamp. That’s why I don’t remember it. If I like a painting, then I remember it.
EPW: What’s a favorite painting you have?
" . . . OUR FAMILY'S JUST . . . COMPLICATED . . . A LOT OF POVERTY AND MENTAL ILLNESS."
TW: A favorite painting I have is of a guy … it’s a small painting with just a character of a guy… almost like a silhouette, but it has a personality to it, so I like it.
EPW: Which one is that?
TW: It’s that small square painting with the guy going like this (gestures).
EPW: Okay. He’s kinda like, shaped like …
TW: Like a big guy.
EPW: Like spheres or something, like he’s made out of shapes. My favorite painting of yours is, “Eat your poo poo pee pee.”
TW: (laughs) Oh, you like that?
Teresa Watson, Big Guy, 2014, Gouache
EPW: (laughs) Yeah, it’s just like a tiger face roaring and then some shirtless long-haired dude with one arm.
EPW: Who was that dude?
TW: It was some rocker guy who was drunk. A picture of a rocker guy, drunk.
EPW: Tell me about the “Eat your poo poo pee pee.”
TW: My mom … so she would, um, when we were little kids, she would get mad when we would cuss, and she would grab us and take us to the bathroom and try to stick our head in the toilet.
Teresa Watson, Poo Pee Pee, 2015, Gouache on paper
TW: She’d say, “If you like this filth, why don’t you eat your poo poo pee pee?”
EPW: And now we never cuss or say bad words.
TW: I think I got that out of my system. I don’t need to.
EPW: That’s true. (laughs) I do, every once in awhile. What I’m trying to communicate with my work, actually, is kinda interesting because some people think flying saucers are about alien sightings, but to me they are about mental illness. Kinda like the failure of the American dream where we’re always told, “No matter who you are, you can dream something and become that.” And I feel like there’s a lot of fallacy in that. Like, our dad believed he could build flying saucers and sell them to a rich person. That obviously is not what’s going to happen (laughs). But I do think that, in a way, his dream came true because he built a spaceship to go home, back to Italy. And he stopped building giant spaceships.
TW: That makes sense. What do you think all the stars and clouds mean in your paintings? You have a lot of stars and clouds.
" PEOPLE THINK FLYING SAUCERS ARE ABOUT ALIEN SIGHTINGS, BUT TO ME THEY ARE ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS. . . OUR DAD BELIEVED HE COULD BUILD FLYING SAUCERS AND SELL THEM TO A RICH PERSON. THAT OBVIOUSLY IS NOT WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN."
-ESTHER PEARL WATSON
EPW: I know. Clouds are new for me, right now. I really love how magical the clouds look at night. I remember at our grandparents’ house—our grandparents were kinda like our surrogate parents, on our mother’s side—we’d sit on the porch at night and air out any problems we had during the day, or worries—
Esther Pearl Watson, Three Meals a Day, 2017, Acrylic and glitter on panel. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter LA Projects
EPW: And we’d look at the night sky, or the moon, and even when granddad was about to pass away—
TW: Ah, on the porch—
EPW: Yeah, on the porch we’d talk about all the problems, or worry about, “What’s going to happen to Christa? What’s going to happen to your mom? What’s going to happen?” They always aired out worries so everyone could have a good night’s sleep. I guess I liked that. Maybe that’s what a lot of these paintings are … just airing out worries or concerns. Like sitting on the porch.
TW: It’s kinda therapeutic.
EPW: It is! It is therapeutic, yeah. How does making your art and sharing it with other people make you feel?
TW: Well, I don’t share it a lot.
Esther Pearl Watson, Pasture Cows Crossing Indian Creek. Comanche, Texas, 2014, Acrylic and glitter on canvas. Courtesy of Webb Gallery
EPW: That’s true. You’re always surprised if someone’s seen it, and they like it.
TW: Yeah, I’m always surprised, because I’m just kinda tumbling around in life with my mental illness, making art on the side. I’ve lost a lot of art, just moving around so much, that I don’t care if I lose it.
EPW: That’s like our childhood, though. We moved often, and didn’t carry stuff with us.
TW: I paint really small paintings, and if somebody wants to take one, I’m like, “Take it, because it’s probably going to end up lost.” I don’t know. I don’t know what to think about people liking my art. It just surprises me. I don’t know. It’s weird to have a lot of people looking at you.
"I'M REALLY SURPRISED WHEN RICH ART COLLECTORS LIKE MY WORK BECAUSE IT'S JUST LIKE, PAINTINGS OF DYSFUNCTIONAL CHILDHOOD, OR PAINTINGS OF PICKING UP BEER CANS TO MAKE GAS MONEY . . ."
-ESTHER PEARL WATSON
EPW: I’m really surprised when rich art collectors like my work because it’s just like, paintings of dysfunctional childhood, or paintings of picking up beer cans to make gas money—
TW: Yeah, like, how do they relate? Maybe they had a difficult childhood? But—
EPW: That’s true.
TW: Maybe not, I don’t know.
EPW: Maybe they relate in some ways. I feel like we all have our problems, so maybe they kinda relate to some degree. I like that people relate, find some way to connect.
EPW: Where do you work? What does your workspace look like right now?
TW: Right now, it’s wherever. It’s on the kitchen table, the coffee table. I’m setting up the garage to be an art studio.
EPW: Right. One day, when we get a door put in.
TW: It’s cold in there right now.
EPW: It’ll get warm, pretty soon.
TW: That’ll be fun.
"I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO THINK ABOUT PEOPLE LIKING MY ART. IT JUST SURPRISES ME. I DON'T KNOW. IT'S WEIRD TO HAVE A LOT OF PEOPLE LOOKING AT YOU."
EPW: But you know, we kinda work in the same way, because we have a studio, but it’s too cold to work in there right now, so we work on the kitchen table and the living room—
TW: Yeah, whatever works.
EPW: Whatever works, that’s right. How much work do you do in a day? What does that look like?
TW: I actually don’t paint a lot.
EPW: You don’t paint everyday?
Elementary School Photo of Teresa Watson, date unknown
EPW: Hmm, I imagine that you paint all the time.
TW: You do?
TW: I paint maybe once a week.
TW: But I doodle a lot.
TW: I doodle everyday.
Teresa Watson, Tarot Card, 2019, Gouache on paper
EPW: In your sketchbook?
EPW: I make art in spurts. Like, I’ve been making so much art I have carpal tunnel right now. It hurts really bad. Even when I was teaching, I was having to hug my arm. Next week, I will take a break from making art, because the fair is over and I don’t have anything coming up.
TW: It’s hard.
EPW: What I do when I don’t make art is, I sit around. My favorite thing to do is go out by the swimming pool, and just lay down on the concrete, and I kinda look like a dead body. (laughs) While people are leaf-blowing and gardening in nearby yards … I always think they’re going to call 911 or something. (laughs) But I like to like, lay out with the dog in the sun on the concrete. We do have loungers. I could probably lay on that.
EPW: But yeah, I kinda just lay around and do nothing. Do you think there’s a reason we both ended up artists?
TW: Yeah, well, when we were poor, we had to entertain ourselves. We would draw on our school supplies. It was fun getting school supplies from our grandparents. It was something for us to do.
EPW: I know. I think we all made art, growing up.
TW: Granny and grandpa kinda encouraged it. They gave us paint. They’d give us classes.
EPW: Yeah, and that’s how we would entertain ourselves: by drawing stories, writing stories. Do you remember what some of your kid stories were about?
TW: Yeah, one was like Xena the Warrior Princess. I forgot what it was called. But it was like a warrior princess with fairies. Another was called “XMo.” It was like, a space pirate. It was obviously influenced by—I forgot what that cartoon was—
EPW: It was like, anime or something.
EPW: Yeah, I mimicked a lot of anime from Italy … we did that a lot. I just made stories a lot, like “Parris World.” We had thousands of paper dolls that we had made with like, ’80s fashions.
Esther Pearl Watson, Vey G Boss, Summer 1986, graphite drawing with marker and nail polish on found paper
Esther Pearl Watson, Fashion Girl, Summer 1986, Graphite drawing, with nail polish and marker on found paper
TW: (laughs) Yeah.
EPW: And do you remember … in “Parris World” there were gangs, fashion models, and rockstars.
TW: Of course.
EPW: I don’t know how they were related, but they all sailed around the universe. And their nemesis was a guy who wore just gray, really bland clothing and flew a spaceship: Vey G Boss.
TW: Vey G Boss!
EPW: And mamma always called him “Veggieboss,” you remember that! (laughs) She was like, “Veggieboss!” And then, she always said, “Why don’t you put some clothes on your people?”
TW: (laughs) Ohhh yeah!
EPW: I was like, “They’re wearing really loud ’80s clothes! Do you see the leopard print?”
". . . WHEN WE WERE POOR, WE HAD TO ENTERTAIN OURSELVES. WE WOULD DRAW ON OUR SCHOOL SUPPLIES FROM OR GRANDPARENTS. IT WAS SOMETHING FOR US TO DO."
EPW: She never saw it. She thought they were naked. (laughs) Let’s see. We talked about some of our early work. I think we all would’ve become artists—and Steven even makes music—like, I think we all would’ve become artists if life would’ve allowed that … if it was just easier to make a living as an artist. Like, in some countries they just give you a stipend so you can just have a studio and an income as an artist.
EPW: I think if our country was a little more conducive to that, we probably all would’ve been artists with studios. Can you talk a little bit about how your imagination morphs or changes with your art making? I notice, sometimes—it’s easier for me to see it in you—but sometimes, you go through these phases where you’re like, “I’m just making this art. It comes out really easy.” And then sometimes, you’ll paint stuff, and you’re like, “I don’t like it. I don’t like how it’s coming out.”
TW: Yeah, I get into funks.
Teresa Watson, Freddy, 2015, Gouache
EPW: You’re still making art, but you’re like, “Oh no.”
TW: Yeah, I either throw it away or paint over it.
EPW: I can’t tell what’s bad or good.
TW: Yeah. To me—well, to myself—it matters.
EPW: What does it look like if it’s bad?
TW: I just don’t like it.
EPW: You just know. You’re like, “No, this is not working.”
TW: Yeah, it’s just … I don’t know how to explain it. I just don’t like it, and if I don’t like it, then it’s not good.
EPW: That’s valid. That’s valid. I feel like now, I’m so on autopilot. But there are moments where I have to sit and think. I think creativity is part of like, sitting and having quiet time, and I’m so busy and stressed out all the time that it’s hard to have those moments where I’m quiet and calm and thinking and being creative that way. I’ll try to induce that, sometimes … where I just want to relax and daydream and be creative and think of things. And then, I’ll incorporate that into paintings. Road trips help me a lot.
TW: Oh yeah, you go on a lot of road trips.
EPW: I travel a lot and road trips help me a lot. I got a lot of good ideas from road trips.
TW: That’s good. You should do some more.
EPW: I know, I’d like to do another one. Its been a while. (cat meows) And that’s Lincoln’s words for the end!
Esther Pearl Watson has an MFA from CalArts and is the author of the comic Unlovable for Bust Magazine and Fantagraphics Books. Watson has lectured extensively including “Teaching Design Responsibility and the Millennium Dream Project,” UNESCO NGO/DPI CONFERENCE, Paris, France. She has taught at Oxbow Artist Residency, The Lexicon of Sexicana at Columbia College in Chicago, and attended Artist-in-Residence through Grafikiens Hus Mariefred, Sweden. Watson’s illustrations have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times and Lucky Peach. Watson currently lives in Los Angeles and is an Associate Professor and Designmatters Track Leader at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
Teresa Watson creates art as an outlet for her struggles with Schizophrenia and Depression. She took art courses at Pratt Institute in 1998, Kingsborough Community College in 2004, and The Fashion Institute of Technology in 2011. She grew up in the suburbs in Dallas, Texas, has lived in Brooklyn, New York, and currently resides in Joshua Tree, California.
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