Reminder: Like all these Age Inside interviews, this was done a few years ago. I am running them as snapshots of the subjects’ feelings at the time.
ALISON WATT, ARTIST
Age inside: Ageless
I find it difficult to pin down an age because I feel as if I’m still growing up. I feel as if the age when things will come together for me is somewhere down the line, in the distance.
I find it difficult to disconnect myself from work – work is me I am work. The way I think of my painting is that somewhere, sometime in the distance, it is possible that I may make the perfect painting. It’s like there’s a long tunnel, and perhaps there’s a pinprick of light at the end, and perhaps not. Sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t, but it’s always just out of reach. That’s what makes you strive to keep going, because the work you make is never good enough.
When I was around 13 or 14, during PE we had to sit facing each other on two benches in a changing room. I always dreaded it and hated it. All the girls around me, even at that age, were really well developed, quite womanly. They all had breasts, they all had hips, they all had bums, they all had thighs. I’d look up and down and then come to myself: I was this skinny little stick. I used to think, ‘I can’t wait for that to happen to me, to look like that and be curvy.’
I associated being curvy and voluptuous with being older and becoming more mature. And it never, ever happened. My body shape and weight has not changed since I was 14. I can eat whatever I like. It’s genetic. I’ve always been waiting for this thing to happen that will somehow make my body mature. I haven’t had children, so that probably means my body stayed more youthful, too. Friends who’ve had children tell me that it has an ageing effect.
In my twenties I went out with someone for a long time who was very, very critical about my body, and that really stuck with me. I used to wear very tomboyish clothes all the time. I thought I was too thin and didn’t look like a grown up, and my partner didn’t encourage me to feel sexy. It’s only really since my thirties. . . I remember being on holiday in San Francisco and going to a really great clothes shop run by two gay women. They came into the changing room with me and were saying, “Oh, what do you do, are you a dancer, you’ve got a dancer’s body?” I said no, I’m an artist. I actually had never thought: my body’s okay. It’s okay to be slim and not curvy.
So the grown up thing is a mental thing and a physical thing and it’s also tied up with work, because I see myself as immature in terms of making paintings. I want to make better work and it’s going to take a lifetime, so it’s something that’s going to happen in the future. Hopefully then I will make my best stuff!
The point in the distance is very far away. It will always be there, because that’s what gives you drive. The thing that I really feel is that the anxiety and fear attached to making work becomes greater the older you get, because you have less time in which to make it — and you don’t know how much time you have left to work. The fear is that you won’t say what you need to say in the time you’ve been given, so that means everything you do has to be better all the time.
I remember when I was at the National Gallery, I spent an afternoon with Leon Kossoff, who was having a show there for his 80th birthday. Such fear came from him about having a show — because it could’ve been his last. He was absolutely terrified, and this is someone with a reputation, someone who’s been painting his whole life. It really gave me a glimpse of the future and it made me afraid.
You have this assumption that as you get older, things might get easier because you maybe gain more knowledge and experience, but it actually feels like the more you know, the less you know. When I was in my 20s I thought I was great! When I think about that now, it feels so embarrassing. The best thing that ever happened to me at art school was when I was given an absolutely terrible tutorial, a real dressing down. It took me a few weeks to stop hating her and then I’ve always really respected her since, because she wanted to get the best out of me and not let me ride on what I was doing.
With painting, you go over and over the same things to try and do them better,. Maybe if you ever thought, yeah, that was great, you’d just stop. Because if you think you’re good at something then what’s the point, why do it? I had a teacher at art school who said you should always do things that you find difficult and it’s a really good life lesson, because you need to push yourself further.
Of course, sometimes when you make something it takes years to understand why you made it. Sometimes I look at things I did ten years ago and think, actually that was ok, but the main trouble is that all you can see are all the parts that went into making it. It’s a bit like looking at myself in the mirror: I look at myself the way I would look at an object, which is that I have to break it down and decide how I would paint it. I might also think, Oh, I look old, but I do this this strange mapping all the time, almost like imposing a drawing. That gives you a level of detachment, which I think all creative people have. There’s a separateness and you edit the world in a particular way, which is definitely going to have an effect on your perception of yourself.
As far as looking in the mirror, it is very mood dependent. Sometimes if I’m walking down the street on my own I feel about six feet tall, because there’s nothing to relate it to. I feel powerful. Size is a really interesting thing. When you’re small, you’re very interested in everyone else’s height, because everyone else is taller than you. But when you’re big you don’t notice it. I think people relate height more to presence than an actual physical height. With some people it’s very difficult to gauge what height they are because they exude something else.
When I was growing up I wanted to be a boy, and taller. As an artist, as in everything, being a woman is just harder. My father used to say, ‘Alison if you were taller, you’d be a different person. You’d behave differently.’
But I didn’t mind being a kid. I’m the youngest of four — two sisters and a brother — which has a massive effect on how you perceive the world. I remember various things that made me slightly separate. My two sisters had dark hair. They had little short haircuts but I was allowed to keep my hair long, because it was blonde. The fact that I even know that is interesting. Also I remember I was really jealous of my brother because he was allowed to go off camping and things, when he was like 14. You know, do boy things, all sorts of things that I couldn’t do. When you’re the youngest you’re sort of infantilised. My nickname at home, still, is Pet.
When I was 16 I left home, which is quite young. I had my first flat and was at art school. Think back on it now, that’s a big deal. And it was great.
I was given quite a lot of responsibility early on, so I didn’t wish I was older. The only thing was that my parents were quite strict about boyfriends and one of the reasons I left home was because I wanted to hang out more with boys.
For me, grown up equalled freedom, and I had quite a lot of freedom from 16 onwards. I have never had a job, never had anyone telling me what to do in the workplace, which is pretty amazing. And I’ve never been for a job interview. I don’t know what that’s like. I’ve never had work mates or anything like that. I’ve collaborated with people but that’s slightly different. So I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of decision making.
Rather than pick an inner age, then, I would say it’s not yet formed. It’s on the way to being formed. There are experiences that lift you, but whether that means you’re younger or older, I don’t know. Again, if you use the analogy of work, it’s hard to pin down meaning in a painting, so in the same way it’s difficult to pin down what’s going on in the inner life. It’s really hard, because most of the time it’s harder to describe something in words than it is to make it. My language is a bit like that quote — I can’t remember it precisely — from Schumann. He played this brilliant piano piece and someone asked, “What is it about?” And he played it again. That was his answer. That’s his language. Trying to describe one language in terms of another is so difficult.
Now, if you were to ask my family how old I am — well I don’t know what they’d say. Though I’m the youngest, all of my siblings come to me for advice. I’m the voice of reason of the four of us. Also my father is a painter, and has started asking my opinion about his work. That’s freaking me out because I have idolised him my entire life, and now he wants to know what I think. I find that really tricky to negotiate. I’m doing it in a very tentative way. But I have felt really strongly about my taste from an early age, and confident with it. At art school the kinds of things I liked were totally unfashionable. I always felt that I didn’t care. I have always hated things involving groups, hate anything communal. I don’t care what’s trending on Twitter.
The overriding feeling about ageing for me is having less time and I find that scary, in terms of work.