Lisa D. Watson

Balance in Art and Activism

“I love nature, I love animals, I love flowers,” Lisa D. Watson explains to the AIMEE LACALLE team. “But I’m very concerned about the environment; that’s why I use reclaimed materials in my art.” We are in her studio–a converted garage in the backyard of the Savannah home she shares with her husband and two cats–to learn about Lisa’s art, process, and environmentalism.

To enter the world of Lisa’s art is to enter an entirely new landscape, whether in her studio, at the Jepson Center for the Arts, where she exhibited her show “Avanguardia,” or at Sulphur Studios, where she was artist-in-residence last year. Lisa creates mixed media paintings on reclaimed materials, such as large wood boards or road signs, and uses her meticulously catalogued resources, like the patterned interiors of return envelopes you receive in the mail with your bills, to add dimension and texture to her pieces. “By using reclaimed material, I feel like I’m not taking away from what I’m trying to protect,” she reflects.

Lisa is also a garden designer, a native plant enthusiast, a muralist, a film production art director, and, perhaps above all else, a storyteller. “Each new collection turns into a narrative exhibit,” she says. “It tells a story about the area to which I am referring to and how roadways, bridges, and urban sprawl will affect the natural habitat. I try not to be negative about it because I do think there is definitely a balance, and I strive for that in my garden practice as well.”

“Each new collection tells a story about the area which I am referring to and how roadways, bridges, and urban sprawl will affect the natural habitat. I try not to be negative about it because I do think there is definitely balance.”

This theme of balance is one Lisa returns to often in our afternoon spent at her home. For example, if you look at one piece, titled “Subvertising, Space Available” from her show at the Jepson, you will see two cut wood panels dissected by the shape of a highway. On one side of the empty space between the panels, a startled-looking deer makes direct eye contact with the viewer. On the other side, a road sign advertises “Space Available.” But to whom, and for what purpose, is space available? The deer’s presence on the side of the highway is a provocative nod to the space that is not, in fact, available.

Lisa’s art expresses her empathy for these animals and, simultaneously, her awe for architectural feats. “I really admire bridges and the engineering behind it. That said, they always seem to slice through the environment. My work shows the intersection of roadways and natural wildlife. Every time there’s sprawl, we’re invading the natural world. I admire deer, but I think they are very bummed out. Especially on this piece,” she says, gesturing toward “Subvertising, Space Available.”

The mixture of empathy, awe, and the determination to find a practical solution is what makes Lisa’s art so unique. Not only is she conveying her message through images, but through her actions and her practice, as well. “I’m trying to create a 100% sustainable art practice,” she says with a smile. “Sometimes I have to purchase the wire on the back.” In her garden designs, she emphasizes the use of native plants. “The azaleas that adorn the streets of downtown Savannah,” she explains, “are mostly from china, but including more natives will help the bees and butterflies.” A community organizer and activist, Lisa works to replenish native plants, and is currently proposing a piece of murals and native plants under Savannah’s MLK crossover bridge.

Lisa spent eleven years working in film production design in Los Angeles, utilizing her background in fine arts and interior design. After a decade in the concrete sprawl of LA, Lisa moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, and began adapting her design and art work to gardens. “It’s very similar,” she tells us, “it’s a lot of layering.”

She shows us this layering now, as we crowd around her work space. She snips tiny leaf shapes from recycled paper, arranging them on the foreground of her newest piece. She then uses paint, sometimes mixed with reclaimed concrete to create the right texture for a building or bridge, to blend and collage the various mediums.

“When I was a teenager,” she says as she works, “we lived in an old neighborhood and would play in the woods all the time. But then they started mowing down a large area and I was really angry. One day, I was in the back where a little bit of wood line was, and I see this gal my age come to the fence and wave to me. And I realized, okay, there can be a balance. I was still angry, but here ended up being one of my best friends. I think we all can strive for a balance.”

This balance manifests in all aspects of her life and work–and, lucky for us, in the vegan sweet potato pie she treats us to in her kitchen. Here, her care for animals and the environment come together in the subtly spicy, health-conscious homemade treat, a nod to her years in California and her years in the South. Balance has never tasted so good.