Amanda Watson Will is an Australian book artist who has a varied body of work, utilizing different techniques and materials for each work of art. This fresh approach to each book she produces, makes her body of work powerful and energetic.
That may seem like a contrast to her personal circumstances, as she has been diagnosed with ME/CFS, a condition that has many symptoms but which most powerfully impacts on her energy levels and ability to continue with any given activity over stretches of time.
Thanks to the wonders of video call technology, I am able to visit Amanda in her Brisbane home today, to chat about her work to date.
Hello Amanda, thank you very much for taking your time to speak with me today.
Let’s start with some biographical background. You studied Fine Art and Ceramics, is that correct?
Yes, but it wasn’t straight forward. My first career was in occupational therapy. I had to stop working, however, when I got really sick. I tried to go back into work in a graded fashion after my diagnosis of ME/CFS, but it just was too much.
I saw a potter throwing on a wheel during a demonstration, and I was immediately inspired, and I knew that this was something worth pursuing in my life.
I started with adult classes in pottery first, and through that found out there there was a program for a diploma which I then enlisted for. During that time, my interest in Fine Art awoke, and I became aware of this art/craft dilemma that hangs over ceramics. For a long time I didn’t really like the craft aspect to it. Even though I like throwing, I wouldn’t have wanted to make functional ware. I always wanted to make art.
The work I did in ceramics was mostly sculptures and installations. And when I had finished my diploma, I felt like I wanted to go on and study art in a university context. That chance came when I was accepted for a master’s program at the ceramics department at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University (RMIT). That’s were I started book art. I sort of stumbled across it.
Where do you see the difference between art and craft?
I think, craft is a way to follow an honoured pathway. The traditional idea is to not bring something original to it. I, on the other hand, am interested in exploring and understanding my personal experiences through my making.
My view on crafts has changed over the years. I remember visiting the V&A in London, where you can see the highest level of craft that you can imagine. I spent the whole day there, way past the energy I really should have, but I just couldn’t drag myself away. There’s so much beauty and skill, and there’s something to be said about the fact that all these amazing objects were made by we-don’t-know-who. There’s an amazing humility about that.
Now I value that. And I realise what a gift those people have given society. It’s possibly more relatable for many people than fine art.
You said you started a master’s in pottery, and you ended up making book art. How does that go together?
Working with clay is very physical, and your work has to be fired in the kiln for at least 8 hours, sometimes longer, and you can’t just leave and go home for a while, you have to monitor it. During my time in Melbourne I found I was lacking the energy to do that.
So I decided to work with unfired clay. I almost painted with it: I added a bit of water into it, so that it stuck to the wall. The first thing I did was a figure on the wall, and then I projected a blurred picture of myself walking onto that. As the clay dries over the time of an installation, it shrinks, and eventually pulls away from the wall and falls off, and I worked with that.
This made the work very ephemeral, though, and so it needed documenting. And that’s when the book art came in. I took photos of that process and made the book “Self (states of self)”. That is a ceramic book with pages that are not bound. That came about toward the end of my master’s.
So these first books you made were a cross-over, really, between ceramics and books. But you probably wouldn’t have seen yourself as a book artist then.
No. That came a little while later with Book Art Object in 2011. After the Masters I was pretty exhausted and I knew I had to find a way to express myself, to use my creative energy that was even less physically demanding.
Sarah Bowen invited 15 artists to join her for this project. The idea was to choose a text, and each of us made a book inspired by that text in an edition large enough so that each participant could have a copy.
For this first round of book arts object, I made the work “Judy & the Jacaranda”. The project coincided with my mother’s death and that book became about my mother.
Your parents dying, … I feel this is a whole other developmental stage in your life, like becoming a parent. There are these huge mile stones that happen and really change you.
I had only made one other paper book before. But I did a lot of reading about book art and I wrote about that, about my masters and my ideas on my blog. It was a time when bloggers were very active and blogs were an incredibly rich source of information, inspiration and connection. I think that’s how Sarah found me.
I am a natural born researcher. And if I have found something that interests me, I just dive right into it. I am just fearless that way, and that’s what happened with books. It’s very lucky that I am not afraid to experiment, because I have needed to keep exploring new media in order to be able to continue making art despite my diminishing energy.
That’s one of the things that initially made me follow your blog and keeps me following your work over the years. I think it’s fascinating how you keep starting new things, especially keeping in mind your energy and time you can invest in something is limited. There is risk involved in starting something new, without knowing whether you’d ever use it. I recall seeing some interesting experiments with embroidery and scrim. – Did you ever do anything with that?
I started exploring textiles when natural dyeing was really big on the internet, maybe 5 years ago. People got some beautiful results, collecting leaves that grew locally and using their natural pigment to transfer onto the textile. But for me it didn’t work that well because I live in a subtropical area, and the trees here don’t produce the pigment needed. So I started embroidery instead.
But at the same time, I was also looking into pastels and learned to use them.
Then the last book arts object came around with the poem “Overwintering by an Australian poet, John Bennet. It raises environmental issues and the importance of keeping the breeding, feeding, and resting spaces of migratory birds intact.
So, while learning to work with pastels and embroidery, I developed some ideas for “Curlew”, my latest book. I developed a technique where I shaved the pastel to get powder, press that through a stencil, and then burnish it to make it stay. I realised that, because I can work only so many hours at a time, pursuing both pastels and fibre art was too slow. So decided to focus on pastels. But I do have some ideas for the fibres.
Which do you consider your best work and what makes it the best, what’s the criteria?
I like it when my work fulfills and expresses successfully what I wanted to convey, and I am interested in expressing emotional things. “About M.E.” is quite an emotional work, and “Judy & the Jacaranda” is…
I would go back to “Self” if I had to choose one that I think is best. There are two continuing themes that I find important and try to explore and extend each time I make work. They’re the idea of change and exploring transparency/ translucency in ways that contribute to the mood of the work.
You are diagnosed M.E./CFS. Do you consider yourself as disabled?
While I wouldn’t really identify myself as a disabled artist, my condition has certainly handicapped my participation in the art world.
First I have been forced to change medium again and again, because my energy over the years has gradually got less and less. I changed from pottery to working with unfired clay to artist books, as a means of reducing the physical demands of my work. I used photography and explored printmaking for imagery. But the technique I felt most drawn to, intaglio, I found to be outside my physical possibilities. Which then led to exploring techniques with pastels.
The other thing I did was to take a decision after my masters to always do work first and then look for an outlet for it, rather than responding to a commission or call-out to a topic. In that way, book arts is a good field to be in. Because, at least before Covid, there used to be a quite reliable calendar of events, and I could prepare for that.
That might all have been for the better. But the thing that I miss most is the ability to go to conferences and workshops. When M.E. first set in, I used to go to shows more and even to workshops, but I can’t anymore. I rarely have the opportunity to speak about art and about my art with anyone these days.
Do you think that there is something that art galleries or other venues and organizers could do to make it easier for you to participate?
The challenge when accommodating people with ME/CFS is to allow a high degree of flexibility. This is needed because even for a single individual with ME/CFS, their energy levels can fluctuate from day to day.
With today’s interview, I trusted that you were the kind of person who would be o.k. with postponing on short notice. There was always a 50:50 chance of that happening. When you agree to do an artist talk for a gallery, postponing late could be difficult. So I can’t normally do that. Even as an audience member, I have booked to attend events in the past and then couldn’t go.
But I must say that Covid in this way really opened things up for me. Because quite a few art institutions have started to put talks and workshops online to watch at your own pace. Some are offered only as live events, for three or four days over zoom, and that really is no better than if I had to do it in person. That’s no option for me.
So one thing that would allow me better access, would be to keep a recording of such a class online and allow people to do them more slowly on their own afterwards.
I wonder whether just allowing for recordings is really enough. Maybe there’s a way to include disabled artists better. If they are excluded from live events, we are losing the connection.
Yes, and I do really miss it, this connection with other artists, the feedback you can get about your work. But I do think it can work online. We had this type of exchange with Book Art Object. There was a discussion going on, we got feedback. It was all online, it was through blogging about it.
On the other hand, in a way, if you have people away in their homes, connecting through the internet, it might be convenient for them and everyone. But it is very similar to having disabled people in care homes, in that they are away from the community. They are not seen. And understood. The understanding of what they can contribute is really lost and that they are valid valuable members of society as well.
Thank you very much, Amanda, for speaking with me today, that was an interesting insight into how intertwined your personal story and health story are with the books you make and media you use. Any final words?
I’d like to thank you, Hilke, for giving me the opportunity to talk with you about my work and my life as an artist. I hope it’s been of interest to your readers. If there’s anyone who has any questions or comments about the work, or about ME/CFS or combining the two, I would be more than happy to hear from them.
You can reach me via email: [email protected]
Here are a few links for you to follow up on Amanda, have a more detailed look at her work, follow her blog, and see her work in progress on instagram:
Images have been used with the kind permission from the artist.