Valeria Watson addresses a dark past and bright future with her new installation

SPIRIT OF INVENTION: In addition to work with Asheville institutions such as URTV and the YMI Cultural Center, artist Valeria Watson has founded Sacred Space Craft Library inside the Refinery Creator Space. The installation currently includes contributions from other local artists of color and Watson’s black doll collection.
SPIRIT OF INVENTION: In addition to work with Asheville institutions such as URTV and the YMI Cultural Center, artist Valeria Watson has founded Sacred Space Craft Library inside the Refinery Creator Space. The installation currently includes contributions from other local artists of color and Watson’s black doll collection. Photo by Alli Marshall

“We decided to stop having our garbage taken away,” says local artist Valeria Watson, who divides her time between her studio in the Refinery Creator Space in Asheville and her 7-acre Zamani Refuge African Culture Center in Leicester. “As long as somebody’s taking it away, you don’t have to face it. … It makes us have to figure out what to do with our plastic, what to do with all this stuff.” Part of Watson’s answer: Make art.

There’s a bed in the yard that Watson’s goats climb on. There’s a red tea kettle, a handbag and a string of pearls hanging from a tree. And there’s the sense that everything is potential inspiration for a project. Indeed, many of the pieces of Watson’s new installation, Perhaps She Has a Pink Vest, recycle ideas and pieces from the artist’s past collections. “I’m finding a place to bring my whole self,” she says.

Perhaps She Has a Pink Vest opens Friday, Dec. 1, in the Asheville Area Arts Council’s Host Gallery.

The title of the exhibition comes from a short story by the late German author Wolfgang Borchert. In the tale, two men — Timm and Other — recently returned from war, comment on the women who pass on the street. “The story is an insight into misogyny with all of its innocence and institutional support,” Watson writes in the exhibit description. Pieces in the installation, which are organized to represent the five parts of the story, include a series of new, posterlike drawings with positive affirmations for the artist’s granddaughter along with figurative sculptures, made from repurposed material, to stand in for the characters in Borchert’s vignette.

Except for Timm and Other, who are gray, the show’s figures are rendered in shades of white and pink — the latter a color Watson returns to, over and over, throughout her installation.

HERSTORY: “I’m really interested in focusing on women, children and [the spirit of] the mother,” says Watson of the characters in her installation. “I’m attempting to put love into this … but also a deeper story.” Photo by Alli Marshall
HERSTORY: “I’m really interested in focusing on women, children and [the spirit of] the mother,” says Watson of the characters in her installation. “I’m attempting to put love into this … but also a deeper story.” Photo by Alli Marshall
There’s a Virgin of Guadalupe-type figure, arrayed in magenta tulle and red feathers, that will take up the back wall of Perhaps She Has a Pink Vest. Other parts of the story will be constructed on hinged pieces that sit out on the floor. Artwork covers both sides of the standing elements and represent, says Watson, the journey from the city into the woods.

“I have all these tiny little things I’ve collected over the years and I’ve pulled them together to tell a story of now,” she says. “It’s a physical transformation for me, taking those old ideas and making the future I want for myself and my granddaughter.”

A garage workshop on the Zamani Refuge African Culture Center property is a colorful riot of found objects, art supplies and stored keepsakes. Creativity permeates every inch of the center. Above the workshop, a long room houses theatrical props and racks of apparel left over from Watson’s previous career as a costumer in Hollywood. When she moved to Western North Carolina in 2005, she brought everything with her — including industrial sewing machines — because, “I just didn’t know what I was going to be here,” she says.

In the past dozen years, Watson has worn many proverbial hats (and, no doubt, a few literal hats of her own design). Soon after her move to Leicester, she began coordination efforts that led to Osogbo, Nigeria, becoming Asheville’s eighth sister city. The African locale is important to Watson, who was inducted into a Nigerian spiritual tradition. She shared that experience in her 2009 film Priestess of Osun — My Nigerian Initiation.

Watson hopes to further incorporate the connection with Osogbo into her work and community by bringing native indigo from that region back to WNC so that local African-American artists can make crafts with the natural dye. The initiative, Watson hopes, will lead to an Affrilachian Art and Craft Trail . The effort takes its name from the term, coined by Kentucky-based poet and activist Frank X Walker, in reference to the 13-state Appalachian Mountain region and the multicultural influence of its often-overlooked populations.

Watson also practices Butoh dance and, with Asheville Butoh Festival artistic director Julie Becton Gillum, led “Ghosts of the South” — a workshop and procession from Green’s Mini Mart down Depot Street to Pink Dog Creative, effectively connecting a predominantly black neighborhood to a predominantly white one.

She also produced the installation Reparations for Nina, in honor of Tryon-born singer Nina Simone, in Tryon’s Upstairs [Artspace]. Simone’s story must resonate with Watson: The two artists both grew up in the segregated South (Watson in Texas) and, through their work, sought to both express and transcend racial and other oppressions. “We have to realize we live in the South,” says Watson. “Everybody’s been repressed.”

All of these ideas inform Perhaps She Has a Pink Vest. Talking about her vast range of experiences and creations, Watson muses, “We need to cry a lot, we need to weep a lot, but I want to show the happy side. We so seldom get to see, what’s the victory like? What does that feel like? … We make the world through what we think.”

With pink paint, recycled artwork and cast off plastics, Watson is making her world anew. “This idea of installations excites me,” she says, “because I can really bring everything together.”

WHAT: Perhaps She Has a Pink Vest, an installation by Valeria Watson
WHERE: Asheville Area Arts Council’s Host Gallery, Refinery Creator Space, 207 Coxe Ave. ashevillearts.com
WHEN: Opening reception Friday, Dec. 1, 5-8 p.m. Installation on view through Friday, Jan. 26

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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