As we sit on the concrete bench outside the Allen to chat, Maya Howard-Watts picks up and meditates on a loose strip of grout.
Julia Friend: So tell me a little bit about how you got into art here.
Maya Howard-Watts: I declared [a studio art major] literally the last possible day. So I came into school thinking I was going to be a bio major on the pre-med track. Because I had a lot of conflicting feelings about going to college, especially at a private Liberal Arts school. So I thought, “OK, so you have the privilege to go here, so you need to be a doctor.” That’s just how it worked out in my mind, and I think that I saw that as a very tangible way to help people—literally healing, you know? And I took a bio class here and it just literally killed me, on top of the fact that all the intro classes are just designed to weed you out. […] And there was a guy in my bio class… we were just hanging out one night, and he asked, “Hey, do you want to look at some paintings by Basquiat?” And—it sounds so cliché now—and I replied “Sure, who’s that?” And he pulls out this book, this big book, beautiful glossy pages. And we were looking at it—Basquiat was the first black artist I was ever introduced to, and something just clicked for me. I was looking at these paintings and these drawings, and thought, “Oh my god, this is how it’s supposed to be; this is what art looks like; I have to do art.”
JF: That’s such a visceral response. What about it [was visceral]?
MHW: It was, it was; that’s the word. What about it—later on that night we were watching Basquiat interviews, and the way that he speaks is genius. We were watching clips from The Radiant Child, a documentary, and there was an interview where this guy—and I think this is common with Black artists, especially with white interviewers, where there’s this element of laughter that’s violent. People turn to tropes, and as [Basquiat] famously said, “I don’t want to be a museum mascot.” […] The way that he manipulated this interview, and the way that he spoke was amazing to me, and it comes through in his work… A lot of what he does, and you see it in his paintings and drawings, they’re just cluttered, they’re full, they’re packed with all of these symbols—copyright, trademark, quotation marks, words, all of these anatomical drawings, everyday items—and it became clear to me that [by] gathering these things in his pieces, you get a good sense of place and deep observation. There’s a rhythm in the way he repeats visual symbols.
JF: I definitely see a lot of those elements in your own work. How have those translated as you’ve become an artist yourself?
MHW: I think that looking at that work gave me a few things, and it wasn’t instant. I mean, it’s really been happening over four years here because like I said: [before Oberlin] I didn’t do art, I didn’t have any interest in art until I realized, “Oh, I have to, I have to.” After that point I stopped going to bio class, and I’d be sitting in Tappan for five hours a day, just drawing. I couldn’t stop. It became a way for me to heal—to draw the same tree over and over again for hours at a time. And of course it will never come out the same every time, because we’re not machines. That carried over in my wrapping, this binding motion—the repetitive action allows me to get in a rhythm that gives me headspace and muscle memory.
JF: Yeah, I was very struck by the video of you wrapping twine around your legs. Can you speak on that? What were you thinking about while you were doing that?
MHW: That was the second shoot I did of that. Initially I had this idea to have this triptych of photographs of me bound. But the photography was just too stagnant. I needed people to see the movement of my body. So I went back after lying in bed for days feeling depressed, and I told myself, “Get up, and go do it.” And that’s where it came from. I heard people ask [in critiques], “How did you get that way? We didn’t see you bound.” So I decided to swap [the photos] out for the process.
JF: And then you get more of the rhythm.
MHW: Right! And I think that is how I feel a lot of the time: I feel bound. On that day, I felt bound to my bed. Sometimes I walk outside and I feel bound to what I imagine what other people think about me, how they treat me. So binding other objects, doing it to myself, gave me this cunning agency that I was really attracted to.
JF: Material is also very important to you, right?
MHW: It is very important to me. Going back to Basquiat, something that he made me realize were things I already did, which helped me to become an artist. One of which is that I’m a collector, a hoarder. I mean walking over here I picked [up this piece of grout]…
JF: Yeah, I noticed that! So talk to me about scavenging.
MHW: So [Basquiat’s] collecting all of these observations; he’s making and collecting all of these pieces of the world, and twine was a material that I collected… It’s this tick that’s been with me since I was a kid. There’s some sort of power in finding these things that people don’t see—that they walk past or don’t consider—that are very real. This [referring to the grout piece] had a life; this looks like a binding substance. So what is that? What is it doing? This is now charged; this has lived a life. So the twine—I was in the Allen, and I saw this piece by Jackie Winsor called “Four Corners.” The piece is a sculpture made of wood and hemp, and I gravitated towards the wrapping and wrapping of the hemp. I thought it was so powerful. And I don’t know what it was, maybe I couldn’t get my hands on hemp and I found twine, but I was struck by the idea of fibers. And suddenly it was, “OK, now I have to read up on twine!” These things come to you, and it’s not accidental. There’s this history behind twine, which is maybe why I was so drawn to it.
JF: Beyond twine, now that you gather these things knowing that you’re trying to build something integrated, what makes you pick up a material? Has your focus in objects changed over time?
MHW: Absolutely. I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and I ride my bike a lot… and especially in the summertime you see people throwing stuff out in the street, and what I used to pick up—before I was an “artist”—was clothes and books…
JF: And now that you’ve had your senior show, what does the future hold?
MHW: Well, I’m guess I’m going to go out and be an artist… And I’ll just keep picking things up.