experimental beds in the Rotunda
Art has the power to connect threads of human experience that stretch around the globe. Noted Aboriginal Australian artist Judy Watson recently proved this yet again with a special exhibition that brings together her own heritage and history with the history, architectural design, and agricultural legacy of Thomas Jefferson – presented in a special exhibition in the Rotunda through September 2018. Watson’s experimental beds was inspired by her 2009 visit to UVA, where she saw the exhibition Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece at The Fralin Museum of Art. She was particularly taken with Jefferson’s architectural drawings, which inspired her to create a new body of work. Watson returned to Kluge-Ruhe as a resident artist in 2011, and toured the grounds and Monticello with historian Leni Sorenson, who showed her Jefferson’s gardens, known as “experimental beds.” Watson saw an ironic dual meaning in the term, referring to Sally Hemings’ relationship with Jefferson, and felt a connection to the story based on her own family history back home in Australia. After receiving permission to use Jefferson’s drawings from the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, and having them made into etching plates, she worked with Dean Dass and his UVA printmaking students to experiment with various images, ink colors and print processes. Prints from the resulting suite of etchings have been acquired by the Library of Congress, among other institutions globally. “I often deal with concealed histories, revealing them and removing the whitewash. Having learned 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 [Jefferson’s] architectural drawings as the bones for a series of works that investigated these relationships.” The etchings pair the architectural drawing with a number of artistic elements such as silhouettes of fellow Aboriginal artist Richard Bell and Lindsey T. Jackson, an African American woman Watson knows from Brisbane; images of vegetables from the experimental beds; and archaeological finds from Monticello. In some cases, hair-like threads serve as connecting lines, just as hair carries DNA and is often seen as evidence of somebody’s presence or absence.