Words by Mercedes Smith
Artist Sue Watt explores a difficult subject in an extraordinary year.
In the future, art made during 2020 will be of special significance. The social history of an extraordinary year has been documented by artists everywhere, resulting in a unique record of our shared experience. Such is the importance of fine art. Artist Sue Watt’s experience, documented in a collection of revealing, sometimes challenging paintings made throughout last year, is both highly personal and common to many others. The work represents her experience as a mother and carer for her severely disabled son Tom, and explores the loneliness and isolation she experienced in lockdown, as well as the impact of the suspension of relief care for Tom, of cancelled operations, of a lack of respite, and conversely, the new and much valued kindness of strangers.
Left: ‘Death of Motherhood’ | Right: ‘Selection 2020’
Just days before lockdown in March 2020, Sue’s first solo exhibition opened at Penwith Gallery in St Ives. I attended the opening event myself and it was a strange moment, an evening when some were still hugging, still sceptical of the threat, and others, like me, were learning to elbow bump with a mix of embarrassment and growing concern. It was also the last time people met in public until the following July. I will always remember it, for that reason, but also for the quality of artwork on show. Sue’s talent, I saw that night, is in her uncensored expression of a very difficult subject – difficult for Sue, as a mother, to share, and difficult for the rest of us too, to fearlessly and directly engage with. That first collection was comprised of abstract paintings, collages and short films from her Spinning on Porthmeor series, created during a year of study at the St Ives School of Painting and inspired by interactions between herself and Tom, who is unable to communicate verbally, using a handmade spinner toy. “The spinner idea started with a length of string that I used to twirl on my finger when Tom was young,” Sue explains. “Later we upgraded from fingers to pencils and started to get fancy with the string. Me and [my husband] Rob are very good now at finding little weighted objects that spin round perfectly. Tom is never going to speak, he is never going to say ‘mum’, and I don’t even know if he understands I am his mum, so the spinner is a really significant thing, a special bond between us.”
‘Porthmeor Rock Spinners’
Having been encouraged by her tutors to share ideas inspired by her own life, Sue started to make work about the spinners, and about caring for Tom. She began with the construction of a representative spinner, which she filmed on St Ives’ Porthmeor beach, “and to me that was the real beginning of myself as an artist,” says Sue. These and subsequent works are framed against a backdrop of ‘time out’ in St Ives, which she visits regularly for short periods of recuperation from a very demanding home life in Cardiff. Her first exhibition was important, she says, not just as an expression of her relationship with Tom, but for her relationship with her other children. “When Tom was born, I had to stop working and care for him full time, so my children have only ever known me in that role. I wanted the kids to see me as a working mum, to see the result of all that time spent painting, all that hard work in the studio.”
‘Don’t Open the Window Pat’
As Sue’s work has developed over the past year, her experience of raising a child with complex disabilities has blurred on canvas with the grief of the pandemic, resulting in an emotional visual diary of 2020. “My work is typically abstract, but in lockdown it became more figurative, and not just about Tom: it began to have a more communal feel. Tom is always going to inform my paintings, but there was a definite change in my work, as well as our life. We normally get ten hours of support care for Tom each week, but in lockdown that all stopped, and we had to care for him by ourselves. Rob and I were doing four hours on and four hours off each, and our kids really stepped up, but it was still difficult. It felt so important to paint whenever I could, it was the only light for me, an escape from all the difficulties, even though I was painting about them.”
‘Porthmeor Rock Spinners’
Striking a balance between abstraction and stylized figuration, Sue expresses her thoughts on canvas with frankness and tangible emotion. The influence of her art training in St Ives, and her particular admiration for the work of Peter Lanyon are evident in the emotive forms and colour of her paintings. “I love the way Lanyon puts down paint,” Sue tells me. “I often stand in front of the painting ‘St Just’ at Tate St Ives and wonder how he could ever paint like that. It’s as if he painted with complete abandon, though I know it must have been much more thought-out than that, but there is so much emotion in the way he paints. When I am working, if I am cross, or even angry, I try to do the same.” Like many of us, Sue found her fears and emotions heightened during the pandemic, and that energy fuelled her work as the year progressed. “These were easy paintings to make. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. There was so much worry, and a seemingly blank future ahead. It was a dark time. Tom was due to have spine surgery, but all operations were cancelled. Without it, Tom will have to wear a back-brace all his life, and it’s cumbersome.
In lockdown I put all of my family into that brace and took photos of them. My aim was to show solidarity and empathy for Tom, and to show how strong his family are as a support group, but in reality everyone who wore the brace just looked vulnerable. The brace is in some of my paintings, but we aren’t sure now about Tom having the surgery,” she says thoughtfully. “The ‘great pause’ has made us see things differently,” she adds, echoing a sentiment so many of us seem to feel now. “You’ll also see in the collection that I painted a lot of disembodied heads: that comes from my daily lockdown walk with Tom in his wheelchair. We rarely saw anyone outside, but we walked past a lot of people stuck inside, and after twelve weeks of that I was waving at a lot of floating heads at windows, people we don’t even know, who waved back. Everyone was so friendly, and they responded to Tom so much more than before. I think people changed during the pandemic, and artwork made in that time will be so interesting to see. It will show what others thought, and what was important to them, and how they were uniquely affected, and as an artist, and a mother, it’s important to me to be part of that.”
Sue’s work will be on show throughout January at the Barbican Arts Group Trust, London.