Holly Elan Watson
Holly Elan Watson talks about her recent art residency in Japan, where she focused on the theme of discovery and the juxtaposition between the benefits and dangers of nature. The use of colour, texture, and symbolism in her pieces aims to evoke various senses and emotions, from sexuality and sensuality to joy and caution.
Kelly Foster – I saw on Instagram that you were recently at a residency in Japan?
Holly Elan Holly – Yes, I did that last month. That’s where I created the paintings for the open call. It was an opportunity to focus on art and painting in a beautiful, sea-side setting while surrounded by other artists.
KF – Was there a specific theme for this body of work, or was it more of an extension of your earlier pieces?
HEW – It was an extension, focused on the theme of discovery. It explores both the benefits and dangers of nature—like the poisonous snakes here. Discovery is exciting and necessary for personal growth, and this theme really blossomed while I was at the residency.
KF – What is your process for gathering inspiration from nature?
HEW – I usually start by going for walks or cycling. I take lots of pictures, and sometimes I’ll bring back small items to study. These observations then turn into sketches, and eventually into paintings.
KF – I was drawn to the bright colours and gestural qualities in your work. Can you tell me about the characters in your paintings? Are they self-referential?
HEW – I’m the one experiencing or imagining these scenarios, but the figures don’t necessarily have to be me. Some might resemble me because I’m an easy model; I can simply look in a mirror to draw what I want to convey. However, I really enjoy imagining the figures having their own stories.
When I paint, I wonder about who this person is, what they’re doing, and why they’re there. For instance, in the painting “Time to Go,” I like to imagine that the figure has just dropped some juicy gossip and is now watching it unfold. While it’s not my initial thought during the creative process, I do like constructing these little narratives afterwards, primarily for my own enjoyment.
KF – That’s intriguing, creating these snapshots of narratives. It’s a blend of observational skill and imaginative elements, both in your approach and the final artwork.
HEW – Exactly. While I enjoy adding these narratives for myself, I also like the idea that viewers can impose their own stories onto the figures.
KF – I noticed themes of sexuality and nature in your work, as well as elements of pleasure and sensuality. It reminded me of the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Could you elaborate on these themes?
HEW – Certainly, there’s an underlying theme of sexuality in many of my paintings. It ties back to the idea of discovery and exploration. I’m fascinated by depicting senses, such as touch, taste, and smell, in my works. The sense of touch, for example, is both the first to develop in humans and the last to fade. I find it compelling to evoke these sensations in my paintings, whether it’s the taste of a peach or the grip of a snake. As a bisexual woman, the idea of discovery resonates with me personally, and I try to celebrate that in my work while adding elements of joy and playfulness.
KF – One thing I admire about your work is the use of colour and texture. You’ve mentioned that these qualities are important to you and add a light, playful touch to serious topics like sexuality. Could you also talk about why you choose to work on paper and your approach to installations, such as the ones involving bamboo?
HEW – I initially started working on paper due to space limitations, but I’ve come to appreciate how paper allows paint to bleed and merge in unique ways. During my residency, I experimented with canvas but felt drawn to using bright green, young bamboo I found locally to hang my works. The bamboo fades over time, so there’s a sense of impermanence that I find beautiful. It’s as if I borrowed something from the environment, only to leave it behind later.
KF – How did you incorporate natural elements like bamboo and butterflies into your art?
HEW – The bamboo was abundant near my studio, so I incorporated it into my installations. As for the butterflies, I found them during a walk and decided to attach them to my piece ‘Making Friends’ . I love how they visually represent the feeling of anticipation and literally ‘having butterflies’. In this case not knowing what the snake in the painting is going to do next.
KF – I really appreciate the installation aspect of your work. I can visualise these pieces being larger. The idea of an installation resembling a tapestry or curtain that you can pierce through resonates with me.
HEW – I love that idea! I’m really keen to work on some larger pieces that maybe tell different parts of a story.
KF – It seems like the installation elements give your work a more domestic or personal feel.
HEW – Yes, that’s interesting. I’ve been painting for a while, but never on a stretched canvas. I’m looking to move away from this. Instead, I’m trying to focus on installations, which allow me to think of art as more of an immersive experience rather than a single image. I’ve been particularly enjoying how nature is coming into my work. Whether that’s through plants and trees or natural forces. For instance, a simple drawing of a match evolved into a larger piece with a backdrop of fire. I’m enjoying exploring powerful forces in nature that start off small.
KF – I love that your work incorporates dreamlike and surreal elements. It blends pieces of reality into something almost magical. One painting on your website, for instance, shows a hand holding a dragonfly against an abstract background.
HEW – Yes, my time in Japan has felt dreamlike and it’s encouraged me to make my work more surreal and magical. I want to move away from more realistic scenes to explore this further. Magical realism is one of my favourite literary genres so I’m drawing inspiration from the books I read too.
KF – Your work carries an element of fantasy; it depicts scenarios we don’t typically experience in our everyday lives, like holding a fish that’s slipping away or touching a dragonfly. It feels like an otherworldly, metaphorical, dream-like space, amplified by the colours and textures you use.
HEW – Yes, I found it fascinating to show actions or sensations in these works that couldn’t actually happen. What would it feel like if they did? There’s a juxtaposition between reality and fantasy. I love using vibrant and playful colours. Creating these fantasy narratives has become more enjoyable for me recently. Earlier, I found it difficult to create imaginary images without a reference. That has changed. Now I find it exciting, and I don’t think this shift would have occurred if I hadn’t opened myself up to new experiences.
KF – I noticed that your 2022 paintings seem to have a strong graphic element. Last year, there were more design elements and repeating motifs. Your current works feel more figurative, yet still carry a graphic, illustrative quality.
HEW – That’s true. My love for cartoons and animation, especially Japanese animation like Studio Ghibli films, has greatly influenced my work. I wasn’t consciously trying to change my painting style; it happened naturally. Spending the first six months of this year sketching allowed me to develop new ideas without the pressure to constantly produce final pieces.
KF – It adds a layer of imagination to your work. It’s almost like each painting is a film still, capturing a moment in a larger narrative.
HEW – Yes, focusing on smaller, intimate scenes is what I enjoy. I’ve tried painting landscapes but find them overwhelming. There’s beauty in focusing on the smaller details, much like film stills capture moments.
KF – I also appreciate the symbolism in your work, especially with hands interacting with objects. They seem to serve as metaphors or vessels for things like sexuality, desire, or lust.
HEW – That’s an interesting observation. Many of my works, perhaps unintentionally, showcase a sense of gentle or unsure touch. Hands are a compelling way to express so much.
KF – There’s a childlike quality to your work, a sense of playful exploration that also hints at unknown, possibly dangerous, elements.
HEW – I like the idea of interacting with the world in a wide-eyed, inquisitive manner. While this may not always be wise, it’s essential to take risks sometimes.
KF – Your work is alluring; it’s visually appealing but could also be deceptive, much like nature.
HEW – Yes, the themes of danger and caution are newer explorations for me. Previously, my work was more about joyfully encouraging discovery, and now it’s also about potential risks.
KF – What prompted this shift in focus?
HEW – You know, on a very surface level, the fear might be about the tangible things that can harm you in a new place, or getting used to how things work there. There’s also the uncertainty of the future. I’ll be in Japan until January, and then I have to come back to London. So what will I do then? I think that hesitation is what’s coming through in my work.
KF – It sounds like you’re in a phase of your life where you’re exploring new places, where everything is foreign yet exciting. The uncertainty of the future can indeed be overwhelming and frightening.
HEW – Yes, the thought of what comes next can be quite scary. I’m trying to find the right balance of living in the moment and preparing for the future.
KF – That certainly adds another layer to your work, depicting that feeling through objects or the tension you create. Can you tell me about your use of colour?
HEW – The colours I choose depend on the mood I want the painting to evoke. For example, if the subject matter is more about sexuality, I might use reds, darker colours, and pinks. If it’s playful, I’ll use oranges and almost always some shade of pink. Lately, I’ve started to incorporate greens, which I really enjoy.
KF – I love your use of colour; it’s one of the strongest aspects of your work. The addition of blues and greens seems to add new emotional depth. It’s like each painting is a still from a different movie, yet they all flow together.
HEW – I agree, and I’ve noticed that working on canvas gives the paintings more depth compared to when I’ve worked on paper. I’m not sure if it’s due to the accumulation of more colour or something else, but it’s an interesting observation