Prizewinning Elam student finds comfort in creativity

A drawing produced as a tribute to his late mother has garnered James S. Watson a major art prize.

A quiet place to rest artwork
James. S. Watson's prizewinning artwork, 'A Quiet Place to Rest'.

Elam School of Fine Arts student James S. Watson’s touching tribute to his late mother, A Quiet Place to Rest, captured the hearts of judges at the NZ Painting and Printmaking Awards in April, earning him first place in the print category and a $15,000 prize.

The drawing, which took a year to create, depicts the view from his mother’s final resting place at Eden Gardens in Auckland, where her ashes were buried.

“I was struck by how quiet the place is, and wanted to try and capture its essence,” says James.

“It was more of a marathon than I thought it would be, but the work was a final chapter and a chance to say goodbye properly to Mum in the only way I knew how.”

James’s mother passed away unexpectedly in 2022 following a stent operation that led to a fatal blood clot.

“She was always so supportive of my art practice and was never shy in giving me her honest opinion. She would constantly share the latest artwork I would create with her friends and neighbours.”

Art has become a refuge for James and a means for him to navigate the complexities of life. He has battled with chronic depression, and turned to drawing after his therapist suggested he try something to distract himself.

As his skills improved and his confidence grew, James began to view art not just as a distraction, but as a potential career path.

“Drawing always gives me a sense of peace. I can relax and everything else drifts away. Everything that happens, every hurdle I have overcome, I have processed it through drawing or illustration.”

James says he was so overwhelmed with grief and frustration when his mother passed away that he drew a portrait of American chef and documentarian Anthony Bourdain titled Fuck you, Anthony Bourdain.

“His suicide deprived a daughter of more time with her father, and all I wanted was more time with my mum.”

Everything that happens, every hurdle I have overcome, I have processed it through drawing or illustration.

James S. Watson Elam School of Fine Arts student

James would often turn to his mum for support during challenging times.

“I felt lost when she died because if I was struggling with something, I would talk to Mum about it. It’s quite a comfort sitting in the spot where I took the photograph that was the basis of my print and having a chat with her.”

The recognition for A Quiet Place to Rest surprised James. Unable to attend the award ceremony in person, he watched the livestream and was overcome with emotion on hearing his name called as the winner.

“I had to rewatch it in the morning, just to make sure I didn’t dream the whole thing. I cried; I was overwhelmed, to be honest. Even now, it’s still hard to believe. I still find it surreal.”

To bring his vision to life, he used the intaglio printmaking method Drypoint.

“The rest is just time, patience and more patience,” he says.

James is studying towards a Master of Fine Arts at Elam and considers the award as validation of his decade-long career.

“Calling yourself an artist is one thing. But it’s another thing entirely to say you’re an artist and have won an award.”

Hussein Moses

This article first appeared in the June 2024 edition of UniNews