Claire Watson stepped back from her kitchen table in Water Mill, surveying a panel of plywood covered in cookbooks and large cans of tomatoes.
“They were just handy,” she said nonchalantly. “I was gluing the wooden support structure to the back of the panel and I needed a weight to hold the glue in place.”
It was a perfectly reasonable explanation for the artist, whose workplace on this particular Tuesday morning was a stone’s throw from her stovetop and refrigerator. The next day, she may be working in her basement studio — a dramatic improvement from what was once just a table next to the washing machine — but she doesn’t like limiting herself.
Not when her work is bigger than ever.
“I have, for the first time, a real studio with real wall space,” she said, “but I still tend to drag things upstairs to the kitchen and work up here quite a bit. I’m up and down. That’s why the work has started really expanding in scale.”
Her newest solo show, “The Thing Is” — opening Saturday, April 14, at Ille Arts — will feature 12 drawings and gouaches on paper that helped shape some of her largest wall-mounted pieces to date, each constructed from found leather clothing that she deconstructs, rebuilds and affixes to the aforementioned mounts that will also hang in the Amagansett gallery.
“I’m interested in leather. It has to do with the layers of history and life that are in the material,” Watson said. “I’m, first of all, fascinated with the way things rotate out of fashion and end up so quickly in thrift stores and on Ebay, which is where I buy all the clothes. Everything is so consumable and then expendable.
“But we’re also talking about lives — the lives of the animals that were expended to create the material — and all the used garments retain an indelible impression of their owners,” she continued. “I’ve always been a thrift store shopper, but there can be a melancholy aspect about going. The racks and racks and racks of clothing, and you wonder what happened, where are these people. There’s always a little bit of a ghost, and that interests me.”
After collecting the clothing, the majority of which Watson describes as “incredible fashion mistakes” — “Who wears bright yellow leather pants?” she asked. “Somebody thought that was a good idea for about 15 minutes in 1984” — the sculptor takes them apart at the seams, flattens them out, and then boils them.
“I like the way that the boiling water alters the surface and adds a layer of distance from the original material. But it also shrinks the piece, sometimes by half,” she said. “I first figured that out by doing an experiment with a kid glove. And it instantly, poof, shriveled to half size.”
That happy accident led to her 2003 series “With Kid Gloves,” which evolved into “Conundrums” in 2012 — a fusion of her leather work with an earlier series of tobacco pipes called “Ceci N’est Pas” from 1991.
“A critic, or a reviewer, at an opening of these pieces said she was astonished they were made by a woman. She thought they were such masculine objects,” Watson said. “And I thought, ‘Well that’s interesting. If objects have a gender, what would be a feminine object that is similar to the tobacco pipe in that it’s intimate, it’s personal, it’s not shared but it’s collected? And it’s almost like an extension of the self, in a way. What would that be?’”
The leather gloves filled that void — and harked back to her childhood in the 1960s, growing up in Amarillo, Texas, where the stockyards were a constant presence and art came by way of sewing kits and paper dolls.
“It was always how I entertained myself. Sometimes I think about that as I’m making these pieces,” Watson said. “I spent a lot of time making paper dolls. Something about this reminds me of that activity. I was always making or building. It was how I spent all my time, so nothing’s really any different about that today.”
Her evolution did continue, though, and exponentially after a near 10-year hiatus from her studio practice. From working with a single pair of leather gloves to an aggregate — as seen in her mask-like “Now What” series — she considers “The Thing Is” a parallel, and a logical leap up.
“I didn’t know any of this would happen, but that’s one of the wonderful surprises about working with found objects and using them as they are,” she said. “I have a set of parameters. It’s like play, in a way, in that there’s a set of rules I like to work within. For example, I need to make the composition out of the original pattern shapes, and that’s the challenge — fitting it back together into a repeating motif that still honors the original shape of the garment. The sleeve shapes, the leg shapes, the back or bodice shapes stay the same, but I combine them in different ways, or upside down.”
She paused, feeling her words quickening as she steered away from what could have been a creative tangent.
“So then I sew the pieces together and I cut a thin plywood mount that is the shape of the finished leather piece, and on the back of the plywood is a wooden armature that allows it to stand off from the wall,” she continued. “So that’s what I was doing this morning: gluing the bones on the back of the wooden panel that this piece will then be sewn to.
“To me, I’m really interested in working with the formal properties — the colors, the shape, the shadows, the attention to craft in the way they’re put together. In terms of visual content, they’re not representational, but I think the content is in the process and in the materials themselves. That’s what fascinates me, and now I’m using them to create a formal language on this larger scale.”
“The Thing Is,” a solo exhibition by Claire Watson, will open with a reception on Saturday, April 14, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Ille Arts, located at 171 Main Street in Amagansett. The show will remain on view through May 14. For more information, please call (631) 905-9894 or visit illearts.com