The Art of Shelley Watters
Surveillance, Sustainability and Safe Spaces
It was in the eerie depths of winter 2021 that artist Shelley Watters conceived of Surveillance, a series of photographs taken in and around Marrickville during lockdown (“the Delta variant,” she prompts). Walking around the empty streets late at night, Watters mulled over the concept of privilege, art and the nature of confinement.
The Marrickville local was then employed at the Sydney Opera House and drew a salary, a very comfortable position compared to other artists whose incomes had dried up. While walking along the Cooks River, the border between Marrickville in the Inner West Council area and Earlwood in the Canterbury-Bankstown LGA, she realised that the neighbouring suburbs had very different experiences of the pandemic. “We were in lockdown but they were in ultra-lockdown. I was very aware of the position of privilege I had,” she notes.
The fruits of that time became images of buildings overlaid with coloured acrylic. “I was voyeuristically looking and wondering, thinking about these homes, imagining the lives [within]. How were they experiencing this lockdown? And there are no figures at all in those images either. So they really do feel quite lonely and alien,” Watters explains.
The different colours change the mood of the image, helping viewers engage with “how our perception changes when we look at something time and time again, when we see it afresh with new eyes,” she adds.
It certainly shifted her view of Marrickville. “Surveillance was very much about place,” she states. “Place has a big influence on my work as an alternative way of connecting time and place with the bigger issues that we are experiencing.”
It’s fitting that Surveillance, her first solo show, ran at Marrickville’s Scratch Art Space earlier this year in the neighbourhood it depicts and where she still lives. Much has changed since the project began, Watters is now a full-time artist, having given up her ‘day job’ in arts marketing and communication. It’s the culmination of almost 10 years of deepening her artistic pursuits, one that began in 2015 after the birth of her second child when she embarked upon a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Visual Culture at Curtin University via Open Universities.
Now, she’s transferred from online to an in-person program at the Sydney College of the Arts where she intends to finish her degree in 2024, and then consider honours. “I have the opportunity to work with Joyce Hinterding and Vicky Browne and Julie Rrap – some really incredible artists in their own right who continue with their own practice in addition to fostering the kind of creativity and rigour to develop art practices of students,” says Watters. “It's really wonderful to be in person and to feel much more connected to the Sydney art world.”
That art world is now expanding beyond her house, which is a new challenge. While there’ll be fewer interruptions (“I was playing around with ideas in my backyard and in the video you can hear my kids asking, ‘What are you doing, mummy?’”) and more space (“There was the time I filled our toilet with light blue balloons to create an installation in the smallest space we had”), there’s also the reality that art materials are now dearer. Watters intends to focus on procuring found objects – hat tip to the Marrickville Pay it Forward group – and other sustainable matters she can work with conceptually.
As for her next move, she has secured an exhibition at Redfern’s 107 Projects for her new show, Safe Space, which explores gendered violence (50 per cent of the profits will go to the nearby Women's & Girls' Emergency Centre). She’s also currently looking at the council food and organic waste program for inspiration. “Something else that is really close to my heart is compost, so keep an eye out next year for the compost project.”
Find out more about Shelley Watters at www.shelleywatters.com
Her new exhibition Safe Space will be shown at 107 Projects in Redfern from 30 November to 10 December 2023.
Artist Shelley Watters on her favourite parts of the suburb: “We're so blessed to have this amazing library. It's such a great meeting hub for Marrickville. I also really love Gelato Franco, and Gasoline Pony would be another place that I would definitely call out, plus the galleries Scratch, AIRspace Projects and Sydenham International.”