In Conversation With Donald Watt

Q: When did you know that art was going to be a major focus in your life?

A: Pretty early on. I always drew. In elementary school, I had to write a paragraph about what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said graphic artist. I didn’t really know what it was, but I understood that it was the one area where artists could make money. It was either that or a veterinarian, but being a vet required lots of schooling, and I hated school.

Dad was a draftsperson, and he often got me to do drafting for him, so I learned that skill. Then in Grade 10 I moved to a school that had a really good art program. By the time I graduated, I was taking nothing but art courses, and math.

After high school I went to the University of Manitoba’s Fine Arts program. I thought I was going to be a painter, but shortly into the year the instructors told me I would never be a painter, and suggested I go down in the basement where they built things. So from then on I majored in sculptural ceramic, and sculpture itself, with a minor in printmaking.

After I graduated, I went into theatre where I designed and built sets. But money was tight, and to make ends meet I did everything from being a short order cook in an ice-cream parlour/billiard hall, to working for a short time as a Pinkerton guard.

I then trained and started working in the Whitehorse weather office for Environment Canada. This was in the 1980s. I had a bit of spare time, so I offered my services as a set designer at the Guild Hall. I have been designing sets for one or two shows a year since then, in between my sculptural work in snow, clay and – most recently – bronze.

Q: What inspires you when you are making art?

A: My initial inspiration comes from stories that I’ve heard or read. They paint images in my head, and it intrigues me to think about what that would look like three-dimensionally in various different materials, whether that is snow, clay or some other medium. My work tends to be figurative, or partially figurative, and in some sort of interesting form or shape.

Once I have decided on the material I want to use, that material then inspires me in that it tells me more about how that form is going to happen. For instance, snow behaves differently than clay. I had to learn to let the material tell me what I can and cannot do and how far I can push it.

Q: How has COVID impacted you as an artist?

A: In a way it has been beneficial. I am not an overly social person anyway, so hunkering down in my house is not a hardship. Actually I don’t have to hunker down in my house because I have my studio space. I can come here and produce stuff. I have probably been in this shop more than usual over the last year, and definitely I have been here more over the winter because normally I spend winters in Mexico.

Q: Is there something you would like people to know about you as an artist or a person?

A: One question I am often asked is, “How do you feel about the fact that you’ve put all these hours into creating a snow sculpture, only to have the weather destroy it?” For most of my art, nothing is permanent. It’s built, done, shown, and gone. My theatre sets and props are built and then trashed. My clay figures are slightly more permanent, but time will take those out too. Working in bronze is interesting because that is the most permanent stuff I have ever done. But I’m OK with impermanence.