Scott Waters is definitely one of our favourite artists and you are about to get obsessed with “war art” and “homosocialism”-the most gay of straight sub-cultures.
Born in Preston, England, Scott Waters received his BFA from The University of Victoria, his MFA from York University (Toronto) and served as an Infantry soldier in the Canadian Forces.
Represented by LE Gallery in Toronto, Waters’ solo exhibitions include The Vernon Public Art Gallery, Rodman Hall, The Art Gallery of South Western Manitoba, The Alternator Gallery and YYZ Artist’s Outlet. Publications include the illustrated military memoir, The Hero Book (Conundrum Press), the anthology, Embedded on the Homefront (Heritage House), features in Border Crossings, Public and Legion Magazine.
A two-time participant in the Canadian Forces Artist Program, Waters has received funding from The Toronto Arts Council The Ontario Arts Council and The Canada Council for the Arts. A volunteer speaker for Historica Canada, he was awarded The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work as a war artist. In 2014 the Royal Canadian Mint released a WW1 Centenary coin of his design.
Scott Waters lives in Toronto.
Is making art something that has always been there? Or how did you start painting?
While I can look back and say that I’ve drawn for as long as I can recall, I didn’t actually make a commitment to a full-time professional practice until I was in my early thirties. A few careers came beforehand, some close to the orbit of visual art, but some very far away indeed.
The point at which I decided that perhaps art-making could actually work as a career came via attrition: I’d found myself unhappy in my more “legitimate” previous career options and art was what remained. Of course, to even frame my response in this manner will upset the art purists — the ones who see art as a magical calling. I’ll call bullshit on such magical thinking though. It’s not that I don’t see art as being a wonderful career, free of much of the baggage of the wage-slave life, but at the same time, we’re all human and we all make our way with whatever skills, savvy and luck are assigned on the assembly line.
Also, I’ve always been a restless creature and so the idea – or even the possibility – of having a life defined by one career or practice, is simply not applicable to me. And if one was to look at the arc of my practice, many changes are apparent over the period where I’ve been able to legitimately assign the title of “artist” to myself
This is quite different than waking up one morning and saying “fuck it, I’m an artist!!”. I’m not a believer in the self-assigning of that title, and I do believe that making art is art-therapy, while the dissemination/exhibition/response/critique that happens after creation is what makes one an artist.
“Homosocial” is a big theme in your work. What are people’s attitudes and how are they changing?
Firstly, I owe a debt to the artist Stephen Andrews. While in my masters, and searching for a research entry point into the culture of soldiering that I was painting about, I was finding that most online queries would lead me towards porn (gay+soldier+philosophy just wasn’t getting me the hoped for Google results). Stephen was the person who introduced me “homosocial”, to the term that defined a good portion of my early practice.
The crux of my early work was built around the tension of a “gay” culture that was exceedingly straight, masculine and violent. That culture is The Infantry, and while I’m a painter/drawer and have done much work around the sexualized male form, I’m not gay. One could certainly infer that I am from the early work, but that’s the point: to shed a light on the seemingly inherent contradictions of this most gay of straight sub-cultures.
Maybe this question is asking how I feel, as a gay man, about responses to queer culture within broader western society. If so, I’m in no position to say.
What seems interesting to me, and has more relevance with my older work, is western society’s seeming entry into a post-gender age. This certainly took an early hold within visual art culture, but inertia is now also presenting a genderless realm within military culture. And so I wonder about a not too-distant future where my paintings of seemingly gay soldiers will act as ethnographic remnants of a time gone by.
How has the military changed your views on the world and your views on art?
My relationship to the military and art can be understood by using a space travel narrative: At one point in my life I was on a ship that orbited a military planet. That ship left orbit and hurtled away towards other, more tolerant worlds where the citizens engaged in group bike rides, community activism, philosophical musings and general conditions of empathy. But as it turns out, the gravity of that first planet slowly started to pull me back, and as it has done so, the world of art has come to seem more like one of tautology, self-congratulations and narcissism.
This nostalgia for the old, intolerant planet of soldiers has contributed to my concerns for this tautological nature of art culture: one that finds relevance only in itself, and that actually benefits larger society very little. This is, of course, the exact problem with military culture as well. The problem – on a personal level – is that I’m drawn to outlier cultures but I have inherent mistrust of the things I desire to be taken in by.
Alternate answer to this question: There’s the axiomatic description of soldiers: Everything looks like a nail when you’re a hammer. But applying the same logic to artists: Everything looks like a picnic when you’re a gingham blanket (I just made the second half up)
Is there a work of art you would like to have at home next to your own work?
Trans-Am Apocalypse #2, by John Scott
Ludivine, by Edwin Holgate
Craft, and an examination of what it means to be human are two of the more important qualities of any artwork that I find important. Both these pieces fit this bill magnificently (though the Scott piece won’t fit in my apartment)
How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?
I think success for me might simply be defined as being able to live a life on your own terms.
However, if one chooses art production to achieve the above goal, then some combination of reviews, shows, sales, grants and residencies is required (and in that regard I’ve been lucky).
But I still find real pleasure in having a stranger tell me they like my work. Considering I’m as much of a loner as I am, those small acknowledgements mean much.
Another definition of success might be the ability to consistently get out of bed in the morning when the crushing reality is that everything is pointless and the grand human experiment is a mistake.
What are you working on at the moment?
Much of my work is, and probably always has been, about notions of transformation and disappearance. Enlisting in the infantry at the age of 19 was an act of disappearance; spending weeks on cycling trips, talking only to the people who sell me food is a continuation of the same. Almost every piece of art I’ve made, am making, or will make is about the tipping point between being and not-being. I’m also a contrarian by nature, and so I take much pleasure in making work about Nothingness. As Eugene Thacker wrote, “nothing is more frowned upon than nothing”
More prosaically, I seem to have abandoned both colour and large-scale. I’ve grown increasingly interested in a pared-down practice that allows to me make many small images as a sort of evidentiary approach to thinking about the world: “What do all these accumulated images say about the human condition?” Also though, the evidence in the content is paralleled with the evidence of the object and the maker: small monochrome drawings (I don’t consider myself a painter anymore) on paper hopefully evoke the idea of someone sitting at a small table, with limited tools, perhaps with a lamp overhead and a coffee or bourbon near by.