The Watson Learning Curve

  • Tommy Watson


    The Watson | Art | Our Picks

    What goes into the process of developing an education program for Art Series staff and guests? In-house curator Jane O'Neill takes us through the process for The Watson, and her own process of discovery through research.

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4th December 2014

 A key component of the role for the curator at the Art Series Hotel Group is to develop the education program; a training course for all our hotel staff with an intensive focus on the representative artist of each hotel. 

The course includes things like: general care and maintenance of artwork; a brief background history about the Art Series Hotel Group project; how to participate confidently in a conversation about the artwork in the hotel; as well as biographical information about the artists. 

The experience of developing each education program is always different. Studying the work of Tommy Watson provided an insight into the varied and at times opposing perspectives of artists, academics, collectors and curators.   

Preparations included a trail of research that spanned the depths of piecemeal online biographies, (many which seem to mysteriously share the same wording). I quickly realised that an understanding of Tommy Watson’s artwork is not something that can simply be ‘Googled’. Instead, I gleaned much richer material from interviews with artists and curators; Gretchen Gordon, Seva Frangos, Ken McGregor and Troy Anthony-Baylis are all arts professionals who shared valuable perspectives on Watson’s work.  

I quickly realised that an understanding of Tommy Watson’s artwork is not something that can simply be ‘Googled’

The research soon broadened to encompass not just Tommy Watson’s work but the history of the Indigenous painting movement more generally, including early works done at Ernabella Mission in the 1950s. The postcards from Ernabella, (many of which are held in archives at Flinders University in Adelaide), were a rich find. These delicate small-scale works share the intuitive abstract tendencies I have for so long admired in the work of other abstract artists, especially Sydney artist Elizabeth Pulie

Crucial to understanding Watson’s work is the origin of dot painting at Papunya Tula in the 1970’s. Here I grasped the surprisingly recent history of dot painting. Although there is indication that the motif of the dot was evident in much earlier sand painting, the use of dot patterns first emerged in the early seventies as a precautionary measure. Artists were criticised for openly sharing secret stories in their works and so the dot, initially used as a kind of spiritual veil, soon became part of the vocabulary of contemporary Indigenous painting.

A Watson work, titled 'Kapi Pulka' demonstrates Watson's vivid use of colour.

A surprising perspective came from a reading of ‘Tracks’ by Robyn Davison. In the book, the author (who had learnt Pitjantjatjara) speaks of the experience of walking through the region accompanied by an elder. She describes a change in the perception of time, where reflective thought of past and future is subsumed by the cyclic conditions of the weather and one’s body. In this way, the author illuminates how we might apprehend a nomadic experience of the landscape.  

There is a discrepancy in the interpretations of Tommy Watson’s work. One school of thought continues to present his work as linked to a particular location or dreamtime, as though the work is a literal unfolding of a story. Other writers emphasise a more intuitive abstract reading of the works. I began to see the work somewhere between these two worlds – at once intuitive yet inextricably linked to the experience of the landscape.  

The research betrayed the glaring lack of preservation of Indigenous languages, or as Professor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann recently described it in an article in The Monthly, a kind of “linguistic genocide”.

In an attempt to translate the Pitjantjatjara titles, I have studied dictionaries (both online and otherwise), and spoken with people from the Pitjantjatjara region and linguistic experts. 

The dearth of ready information and the difficulty in translation indicates a language (and the cultural meaning attached to this language) on the verge of extinction.  

When the day came for the induction, I travelled to Adelaide and with the help of Troy Anthony-Baylis conducted the first induction with the new team. There were moments that were a bit shaky, to be sure, but the freshness of my own learning enabled me to meet the audience on equal terms and to speak of Watson without lapsing into the muffled world of art jargon.

There remains much more to learn and as visitors to the hotel share their perspectives, our collective knowledge about the artist will continue to grow: this is the beginning, a small thread in a much larger fabric.

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