Henry Watson favours the Cypress variety of softwood from which to fashion his unique artworks. He finds them in old slave houses, old barns, and other buildings that have been built over one hundred years ago.
Who is the man behind the universally acclaimed artworks, in wood, which so often reflect the Deep South countryside in which he was born, raised, and still lives today? Kreol Magazine caught up with him to find out.
Grandmother: A Key Counsel
“My parents lived in Valverde,” says Watson. “I learnt my history through my grandmother. She died at 91 but was blind for 25 years [before her death]. Those years were precious to me. I moved her in with me and learned everything I could from her: How to meet and greet people, respect others, how to evolve as a person. It reflects what I do as an artist.” Coming from a large hard-working family with six brothers and two sisters, it can be hard to carve out a niche for yourself – but that is exactly what Watson has managed to do, on his way to becoming an internationally recognised artist. But, Watson can never be accused of forgetting his roots – from the pieces of woods which he sources from the ramshackle ruins found in his locality, to the art which he applies to them, depicting buildings and scenes which could only represent his part of the country.
Source the Raw Material: The Wood
Henry Watson favours the Cypress variety of softwood from which to fashion his unique artworks. He finds them in old slave houses and barns, and other buildings that have been built over one hundred years ago. It can be a project in itself trying to locate a supply of this special type of wood, but the time spent is worth it for Watson – this material becomes the template for artworks which are sold all around the world. This resident of Livonia, Louisiana, and formerly of nearby Valverde, is just as likely to sell his pieces to a large corporation, for the purpose of decorating their board room, as he is to revellers at a jazz festival.
The Creative Process
So what about the art itself? What makes Watson’s pieces stand out from the crowd in the same way that he did as a youth, being the only artistically inclined child in his family? The depth of Watson’s pieces is certainly something which catches the eye immediately, and this is because his artworks are, literally, 3D, thanks to the carving involved. The creative steps? Watson talks Kreol through his process: “I draw the image on the board so I can see what it would look like. I try to indicate the foreground, the middle ground and background. I then take my chisel and work until something comes out. I must see everything in depth and layers. As I’m carving I see things coming alive. At that point, I get excited. I start having fun with it.” And it seems as though the fun is the central element in Watson’s chosen career. After all, don’t we all get a kick out of something which we enjoy? Watson’s pieces can fetch well over $1,000, but it appears as though the money is secondary, for Watson, it’s the passion he has for the work itself.
As he explained to Kreol, Watson doesn’t exactly churn out his pieces with the regularity of something mass produced, underlining the care which he puts into each piece: “It usually takes about two weeks. It may take a little longer if I am doing a particularly detailed [piece]. Most of the time I work from snapshot photographs and then I just create it from there. [Each piece is] one of a kind. Once you create one of these there is no two like it in the world. My clients know that. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to meet people that I do it for. I get a lot of [commissions] online. I create the pieces and then ship it off to the [client]. They send me back pictures [to show] how happy they are.” Louisiana is a state which inspires the arts – and not just woodwork. As Watson recalls that, he is sometimes asked to create props for movies for which filming takes place in his locality: “They had finished shooting Roots (2016) in New Orleans and the [actor playing] Chicken George asked me to carve…some chickens onto a walking cane for the movie. Sometimes I’ll help them locate things too, houses or plantains. If there is anything around Louisiana, I’ll know about it. Oprah Winfrey came and shot something about forty minutes away from here.”
Time: Essential for Art
Give the creative process the time it deserves Living in the age of the immediacy of social media and smartphones, it is important to have individuals like Watson who understand the value of spending two weeks creating something and then reaping the rewards when the work is done. As such, it is clear from speaking to the man that he too recognises the danger of losing touch with the importance of devoting time to a project, especially when there is a deep-lying passion involved. Watson says he has tried to pass on this sentiment to his children: “We live in a culture where we can send a picture to someone and get it back in a couple of seconds. In [his grandmother’s] day, it took a week just to get a response. It took a week to get to New Orleans. I want my kids and grandkids to know where they come from. Sometimes kids today take things for granted. They have a lot of wants and think it comes just like that (he says, clicking his fingers for emphasis). That’s a part of me, I cherish [my] history.”
Artworks: Linked with the Client
The artworks are linked to the customer And it isn’t only his own history which Watson is very much aware of. Many of the pieces he is commissioned to produce are intrinsically linked to the history of his customers one way or another. So much so, that one was even rescued from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and found its way back to Watson for repairs. He takes up the story: “She brought back a carving that had been underwater for over a month. She said it was the only thing her family had left; she wanted to save it. I didn’t have to do much to it other than clean up the gunk from the water. It didn’t even need re-polishing. I tell people that this carving is everlasting, that’s a testimony to it; under water for thirty days and [the carving] still survived it all. [We all] have a story. It may be like mine or it may be completely different.” And this might be the key to Watson’s passion – and what keeps him engrossed in its work: It is an enviable profession which allows you to make both yourself, and others happy.
For this reason, perhaps, it is rare that Watson is not working on some piece or another: “I try to carve every day,” he says. “When you get to the holiday season, I’m working [constantly] because it’s just me. I get motivated quickly to get the work done and shipped out.”
With an eye to the wider world So, what of the future for this creative spark from Valverde? According to Watson, the next objective is to take his work on the road to art capitals such as New York, Chicago and further afield into Europe. While there is a growing demand for contemporary art, it is heart-warming to know there is very much a place for the Louisiana-made and inspired works produced by Watson.