Judy Watson about experimental beds

Judy Watson

About experimental beds:

African Americans were extended none of the rights proclaimed in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence. Its primary author, Thomas Jefferson, stated in the historic document, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. That these Rights did not include the enslaved population of the United States of America remains a contradiction between Jefferson’s words and actions.

Judy Watson is an Indigenous Australian artist who grew up in suburban Brisbane. She is a Waanyi woman whose matrilineal family is from Country in north-west Queensland. “Country is the wellspring of creativity she explores with her Indigenous heritage, and Western the art-school training from a European model that informs her path and aesthetic sensibility. Its success is at least in part a result of its ability to transcend categorisation and be seen at the leading edge of contemporary art today.”[i]

In 2009 Watson visited the University of Virginia (UVa), where she saw Jefferson’s architectural drawings for the university in an exhibition, Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece curated by Richard Guy Wilson.

Margo Smith, Director of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at UVa, extended Watson an invitation to be an Artist-in-Residence in the program funded by UVa Arts Council. Watson felt that “having learnt something of Jefferson’s history, interwoven with relationships with his white family and African American enslaved women and children, also considered to be part of his blood family, I decided to use these architectural drawings as the bones for a series of works that investigated these relationships.”

In his early political career, Jefferson was an opponent of slavery describing it as an “abominable crime”.[ii] In the mid-1770s he advocated for granting emancipation to those born into slavery and drafted the Virginia law prohibiting the importation of slaves in 1778. He put forward a proposal to ban slavery in the new Northwest Territories in 1784 but maintained a deafening silence in his public statements on the subject after being elected the third President of the United States of America (1801-1809). Of the hundreds of slaves owned by Jefferson, he freed only two during his lifetime.

In 1769 overlooking the future site on which he was to plan and oversee the building of the University of Virginia, Jefferson set out to build his mansion, Monticello. The inherited plantation was a commercial venture built, maintained and made profitable to a large extent by the labour of his slaves.

Jefferson kept meticulous records over many years covering activities on his properties.  His ‘Farm Book’ includes detailed inventories of both livestock and slaves. Columns in his ‘Garden Book’ list when vegetables were sown and when they were ready for picking. Jefferson’s plans of Mulberry Row, named for the mulberry trees growing along it, show the various industries established as market opportunities presented. Archaeological digs indicate that slave dwellings were also located here. One industry was the lucrative nailery staffed mainly by ten to 16-year-old slave boys. Some of the slave boys went on to be trained as blacksmiths, carpenters and joiners and would work on the construction of the university.

James (Jame, Jamey) Hubbard was typical of boys sent to the nailery. Starting his working life at age eleven in 1794 as a Nailer. In 1802 his occupation in Jefferson’s ‘Farm Book’ is registered as Charcoalburner, and Jefferson paid him a small premium for his efficiency in producing charcoal and for his round-the-clock monitoring of the kilns. When he was twenty, Hubbard used his premium to obtain forged free papers and clothing distinguishing him as a freeman. The papers written by an illiterate did not pass scrutiny and Hubbard was returned to Monticello.

Six years later in 1811, armed with genuine papers, he escaped and managed to remain free for over a year, during which Jefferson sold “his rebellious slave”.[iii] The new owner placed a ‘Ran away’[iv] advertisement in the Richmond Enquirer offering forty dollars in addition to what the law allowed for his apprehension. When Hubbard’s whereabouts was discovered, Jefferson paid seventy dollars for his returned to Monticello. He then had him “severely flogged in the presence of his old companions, and committed to jail.”[v] No record of Jame Hubbard exists after 1812.

Jefferson considered the founding of the University of Virginia (UVa) in 1817 to be one of his major achievements. With no formal training as an architect he conceived, planned and oversaw its construction. He read extensively on European architecture and studied structures during his sojourn in France, firstly as Trade Commissioner and then as the United States Minister to France. He relied heavily on European architectural styles in his endeavour to develop an American architectural identity. Monticello’s trained slaves worked alongside craftsmen and labourers hired by contractors to construct the university, but it would take more than a century for African Americans to take their place alongside white students at UVa.

Smith obtained permission from the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVa for Watson to use Jefferson’s architectural drawings in a proposed series of etchings. She also introduced Watson to key people at Monticello and UVa during her residency.

Leni Sorensen, an African American Research Historian at Monticello, showed Watson around the gardens and inadvertently gave her the title for her suite of etchings. Sorensen explained Jefferson’s practice of experimentation with seeds and plants he sourced from Europe to China. From the American continent, seeds were planted from those collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition, a project instigated by Jefferson early in his presidency, to seek the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. Seeds from plants that had originally arrived with slaves from the Congo were also planted in Monticello’s vegetable gardens. Jefferson assessed the crops for their usefulness and for their adaptability to Virginia’s climactic conditions and Sorensen described the gardens as Jefferson’s “experimental beds”.

For Watson this was the perfect title for her body of work. It also encompassed “Jefferson’s pursuits across the cultural divide ‘between the sheets’ with the enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, whose descendants are considered by many to be both Jefferson’s and Sally Hemings’ family.” This union between a white man and a black woman, resulting in children of mixed descent, is reflected in Watson’s own family in Australia, where the matrilineal line of her family is Australian Aboriginal, and the patrilineal line is white European males.

At Monticello, Watson also met an archaeologist working at the Mulberry Row dig and photographed some of the artefacts unearthed that day. In her etchings, Watson incorporates drawings from these photographs and others taken of artefacts in Monticello’s collection and of vegetables grown in Jefferson’s “experimental beds”.

Watson commenced the initial transfer of her selection of Jefferson’s architectural drawings and other visual material onto etching plates in September 2011 with Basil Hall Editions (BHE) in Darwin. Plates and proofs were sent to UVa for Watson’s residency in October 2011, where she worked with faculty, particularly Dean Dass, and students from UVa Art Department on fleshing out the proofs. The plates were returned to Watson in Brisbane for further work and then sent to BHE in Darwin for proofing and editioning.

Working with Judy Watson on her project of six original etchings experimental beds is Kluge-Ruhe’s first venture as a publisher of fine art.

Noreen Grahame
March 2012

[i] Watson, J and Martin-Chew, L 2009, Judy Watson blood language, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing Limited, Carlton Vic. p. 14.
[ii] Monticello 2012, viewed 15 March, 2012, <http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-slavery>
[iii] Stanton, L 2000, Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello Monograph Series, Monticello. p. 81.
[iv] ibid p. 82.
[v] Monticello 2012, viewed 15 March, 2012, <http://plantationdb.monticello.org/>