Olivia Watson

PHOTOS BY Danielle Perelman


Imagine yourself in a garden. Half of the plants are medicinal, half are poisonous. Would you know which is which? Would you know the difference between the delicate and the deadly?

Olivia Watson’s ‘Poison and Antidote’ piece puts aloe vera and death cap mushroom on to the same piece of paper. “It’s like, do you know your plants, do you know your Latin?” she says. It’s a play on the “tame botanical”, on the subversion of the visually pleasing, she says. And it’s about the female, she says.

When I ask Olivia how femininity affects her art, she pauses for a moment. It’s a break in her quiet, but confident, commentary on the themes she has already mulled over in the quiet of her studio.

“It’s inescapable.”

The motifs of Olivia’s work will be familiar to many of us. She puts the cultural detritus of the college female center stage: birth control, bobby pins, and bras. These modern staples are worked into the backdrop of a past era of womanhood. Sunglasses emerge from the botanical patterns of vine on Victorian-esque wallpaper. Blue hair and lipstick are pasted on clouds, like Warhol and Magritte merged together in a modern young lady.

The woman -- not a femme fatale, a Shakespearean damsel, or the society dame that have pervaded art history -- but the real woman, her that we meet everyday in ourselves and in others, is Olivia’s subject.

She comes to it with a profound understanding of the context. The majority of artists are female, but the vast majority of gallery space is male, she tells me. Male representation ranges from 50% to 90%, depending on the country, the city and the gallery.

“If you’re a straight white man you get to be the blank slate of art. If your identity differs outside of that, I don’t want to say it’s a duty, but it’s hard to escape.”

Olivia feels the tension of being defined as an artist and being defined as a female-artist. Her identity is all she knows, and yet like many minority groups in the art world, there is a push and pull between embracing it, and fighting off that ever-present box you are about to be placed in.

I am reminded of a Georgia O’Keefe snippet: “The men like to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.” (National Museum of Women in the Arts)

And now, an apology from me, because this is just the thing about Olivia: she is not only a female artist who makes art about females. She is a filmmaker, an illustrator, a printmaker, a painter.

Her studio is eclectic and bizarre. By way of demonstrating her multiplicity, pinned on to Olivia’s studio wall you will find: an illustration of a man heaving a utensil from the earth, based on the first book written by a robot; a postcard featuring all the fantastical creatures one sees in New York on an average day; and a group project currently being cut up and transformed into a hanging door screen.

Olivia’s work and interests are nothing if not wide.  She is smart, sharp and talented, a self-proclaimed “dabbler”.

When we talk about the Female Artist, we often don't see the powerful plants for the vast array of pretty flowers. Olivia, like all women, is a garden of variety, where both the delicate and the deadly meet.

You can view more of Olivia's work here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0qnFgkXq5o&feature=youtu.be