Allie X and Janna Watson have known each other for more than 15 years. Both Canadian artists, Allie X and Watson met and lived together while they were both just starting out with their careers — Allie X as a musician, Watson as a painter.
Over time, the two reconnected as they both began to take their art to the U.S. markets. Now, Watson is exploring a new medium with rug-making. Her latest show, Fruit of the Loom, which runs through May 29, combines her separate painting and rug practices, exploring interactions of art and design through feminism.
Both being creatives, Allie X and Watson have been a fan of each other's work over the years. "I've ended up in this U.S. market and sometimes I feel a bit more disconnected from my good friends in Toronto, but it feels like Janna's in this world as well and we've connected over that," Allie X tells PAPER.
Below, Allie X and Janna Watson talk about how long they've known each other and the meaning behind her show, Fruit of the Loom, now on display at Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto.
Janna Watson: So Allie and I — have we known each other for 15 years?
Allie X: Wow, it might be, though.
Janna: Allie and I have known each other for a while. We were roommates at this place — I called the place "Hotel Beatrice." I had this great apartment close to 20 Bellwoods Park, and it had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, two floors and a little patio. It was so great because back in the day, I had the upper floor and a studio downstairs. There were always people there, always people drinking, always like a party. It was a lot of fun. So I guess we met at POP Montreal and then we lived together for a bit.
Allie: We reconnected in the last couple of years because as adult professionals all of our friends are artists. I've ended up in this U.S. market and sometimes I feel a bit more disconnected from my good friends in Toronto, but it feels like Janna's in this world as well and we've connected over that. I was so young and messed up when we met. I was still very much auditioning for musicals at that point. I was just starting to write and starting to really understand what music was. Anyway, I don't think I've ever even asked you how you became an artist to begin with? I know your grandfather had an influence, but at what age and when did it actually happen?
Janna: That is a tricky question because when do you accept that you're an artist? I guess it'd be when I decided to pursue it full-time. That was probably about 13 years ago, I was working in a hotel. I was in the food industry and I cannot multitask. I was serving a bunch of businessmen in white shirts and I didn't know the difference between any of them. I was serving the wrong things and I've always been really shy, but especially back then. It was just so not me.
Actually when I was at the hotel, a property manager that I served coffee to every day asked me if I wanted to do an art show in the lobby of the hotel. He hadn't even seen my work, so I don't know if he felt bad for me. Of course I was like, "Oh my God, yes" So I created six paintings and I had this show in the lobby. I somehow threw it together in six weeks and it went really well. I sold a couple pieces and the hotel ended up commissioning me to make a piece for each floor of the residence.
Allie: I think I was actually living with you when that happened.
Janna: Yeah, and I was at OCAD [University] at the time. I was dabbling between sculpture and painting, and it was that moment I was given the confidence to be like, "I can do this; I can put myself out there."
Allie: Before that, did you consider it? Obviously if you went to OCAD, you were considering it as a profession.
Janna: I've always been creative, but I grew up in a really religious family. I actually was very hardcore Christian after high school, and I did this Christian program and I was gonna be a missionary.
Allie: I didn't know that.
Janna: I went to this Christian program right after high school that was called "Masters Commission" and you dedicate your life to God. I got up at six every morning to pray and worship. There was no dating allowed, but I fell in love with my best friend. That's when I was like, "Oh my god I'm gay." Then I decided to go to OCAD because I was like, "This is crazy." I had an existential crisis because I did everything I could, according to the Bible, to get rid of my gayness. I fasted for 40 days, I did not eat, and I'd go to the altar and pray to be delivered from my homosexual demons, but nothing worked. I started doing a lot of research in the Bible and realized that things weren't necessarily matching up. So that's when I was like, "I'm going to go to art school because I don't think there's any gay missionaries out there."
Allie: What a transition to make, that stuff goes so deep. I imagine to this day you still have conflicted feelings about it all. When you went to OCAD, did you feel liberated? Did you feel like this was the right move? Did you have conflicted feelings?
Janna: My first year of OCAD was terrifying because I was also a small town girl. I came from a town of 700 people and now I'm in downtown Toronto in the queerest environment ever. So my first year I did a lot of observing. I also didn't drink at that point and I was still kind of going to church. I was questioning everything and getting to know normal people outside of the church for the first time, which was great. I hadn't done that before — all of my friends, family and everything were all of the church. It was great to slowly have my perspective open. So I guess it was a slow progression of finding myself.
Allie: Wow, I never knew that about you. I read that you consider your painting style automatic and I didn't know what that meant. Then I read a little further and I started to feel as if it was to do with intuition or being guided by some sort of force. Can you unpack that for me?
Janna: I've always been an abstract painter, my grandfather taught me. My grandfather was an artist, as well. He went to Pratt Institute in New York and he gave me art lessons when I was a kid. I actually didn't realize that he was giving me artist grade materials until I was at OCAD because I couldn't afford any of the materials that I was using.
Allie: Was he still around at that point?
Janna: He wasn't around at that point.
Allie: That must have been such a touching thing to realize.
Janna: He lived on a farm and would send me out into the backfield and tell me to draw the essence of a tree. He was the first person who taught me how to create abstractions about things. His critique to me about the tree, I remember really clearly, was, "Okay, but it needed to be wilder." He really taught me that being a painter and being particularly an abstract painter is about finding the wildness in things. When I first started exploring an abstraction, it was really hard for me to talk about it because people would be like, "What is this? What are you doing? What are you feeling?" I didn't know how to answer it because I didn't know what I was doing and I didn't know why I was making certain choices.
But over the years, just becoming more confident in myself as an artist and being able to articulate, I realized that I feel like an equal player to my materials. I found that it's actually about my materials and how my materials want to act with each other. My work is really colorful. I use a lot of negative space in my compositions and I really love how colors interact. It's almost like a psychological thing, how there's certain colors that really vibrate together. The intuitive part is me letting things do what they want to do. I work with water. It's almost like going for a walk and not really knowing where you're going. You kind of have an idea, but you just go with it.
Allie: I relate to that somewhat on a musical level. When we lived together, I saw so many of your works up in the studio and you've always had a very distinct style. Did that style appear while you were at OCAD or before that? The reason it really fascinates me is because when we lived together I was nowhere near having found my sound. Finding my sound became the real challenge of becoming who I wanted to be as an artist. It took me so many years. So when I meet an artist, whether they be a musician, visual artist, dancer or whatever, when they have that distinct style that seems to have been with them for so long I'm envious and curious about how that came to be.
Janna: It's an interesting question because if you put a painting of mine from 15 years ago against a painting of mine today, you might think it's different artists.
Allie: I do notice the evolution. I actually feel like there's key elements that have always been there, like the use of color and the thin lines. I don't have the vocabulary to really describe what I even see, but do you know what I mean?
Janna: I am really bad at copying other people and actually some of the best advice I was ever given was from a curator who was interested in showing my work at her gallery. In the beginning, I did a lot of block coloring. She told me that I need to learn how to mix and so I asked her, "How do we learn how to mix?," and she said, "Just go to New York, go to Montreal, look at as many paintings as you can, and bring that back to your studio and just experiment with what you remember seeing." So I did that and because I'm not a realistic painter, I can't draw a tree... you don't want to be my partner in Pictionary, it's awful. The fact that I can't draw and I can't actually pick up what it's like, my whole world vision is a little skewed. I don't know what it is, but I can't bring it back in real form.
Allie: Maybe it's the limitations that you were working with.
Janna: I would agree. It's sometimes what is the hardest that actually is what makes you brilliant, right?
Allie: Yeah, and those qualities that I, an amateur at this, pointed out. I've always been curious about the lines. There's always been thin lines in your paintings from the time I met you til now.
Janna: Bringing in the architecture has been important to me, because my paintings tend to be really organic and floating. Once you bring that structure in, it grounds things. It's not just this weird thing floating around, but there's structure to it. I actually think a lot of people, without knowing me, they've thought that I'm a man because that structure I bring into it is more of a masculine thing.
Allie: Yeah, and juxtaposition and contrast. I always feel that way about making productions, as well. I'm so drawn to soaring melodies, almost like Disney style, where it just lifts so much. Then I always like to counteract that with something a bit out of tune or something that's a bit harsh.
Janna: Something that's not expected.
Allie: So you began making rugs. Had you even considered that when I lived with you?
Janna: I don't think so, no.
Allie: I remember noticing when you started doing that and being really impressed and fascinated. What pushed you to branch into that? Also, your show Fruit of the Loom is the first time you've actually done paintings, and what's the technical term for making a rug?
Janna: I've always just called them rugs because that's what I have been trying to do: bring education around the whole rug making process. My grandfather also made rugs and he hand-hooked them. He would make these massive 12 feet by 14 feet rugs. I was inspired by that, so I tried hand-hooking. I made one square inch in two hours and I was like, "This is insane. I don't have that kind of patience." I started doing some research and I found this hand tufting gun, which is like an automated sewing machine. I got really into that and found a manufacturer in India. It was an interesting side gig to my painting, kind of using a different brain.
Rugs are really hard to sell. In order to make a rug sale, you also have to educate people. This brought me to the show, so I've always had this "people need to be educated on the value of a rug," because they see it on the ground, they see it in IKEA, they're like, "Why are you charging this much money?" I call the show, Fruit of the Loom, and it's the first time I have had paintings and rugs, both on the wall, in the same space. I thought it was important to elevate them to the same level. Because people view rugs as a craft and therefore lesser in value. I've been questioning why someone would spend thousands and thousands of dollars without thinking about it on a painting. There's actually so much more that goes into a rug. It's not just the design of the rug, but every thread is hand dyed and the knotting that goes into it — the amount of time is astronomical.
I made this piece, and it references Bauhaus. There's also a snake in it with an apple, which is referencing the Garden of Eden and where domesticity started. Bauhaus house was the first time that women were allowed to go to art school.
Allie: Right, but only for weaving?
Janna: Right, but they were only allowed to be in weaving and ceramics, which were considered domestic crafts. This show, I really want to bring things to the same level and especially through the pandemic. It's so obvious so many women have had to stay home and leave their job because they're taking care of children. The man is still working because he's still the breadwinner. I felt like it was an important time to recognize women in the art world.
Allie: I've always known about Bauhaus, but I've become very interested in it in researching your work and trying to understand how Bauhaus influenced this. Is there a greater Bauhaus influence in the use of color, space and the whole industry side of it? Is it specific to feminism?
Janna: I would say it's more specific to feminism. In 2021, is there still a difference between men and women? What do you find in the music industry?
Allie: It's subtle. As I get older, I feel the sexism more than I did when I was younger, for some reason. I don't hear people say that often, but that's been my experience. In the music industry, people, especially in Los Angeles, love to talk in these very forward-thinking terms. The word "queer" has become hot. Men love to say that they're feminists. Everyone loves to talk, but when it comes to what's actually happening on paper, which has been my whole focus in the last year, there's a big difference. When it comes to the amount of female producers and engineers who are actually being played on the radio, or actually being nominated for Grammys. I mean, the statistics are horrible. I think it's 95% men in those two categories that I just mentioned, so obviously something isn't being done correctly to remedy that. It's just a matter of how do you change it?
Janna: I guess bringing awareness to those things.
Allie: Bringing awareness is good, but often that just creates more of that same liberal talk. I think what I want to see is some sort of actionable thing, especially with female producers. Maybe a list is provided to all the major labels of young, up-and-coming female producers who need to be given a shot. I should also say female identifying producers who need to be given a shot, because there's a lot of artists who want to empower those folks, but they don't actually have the resources to understand. That's one idea that I've had. The older I get, the more sexism I feel and the more rage I feel about it.
Janna: Ten years ago I was at an art auction; it was a Canadian auction and my work was involved in it, but it was so blatantly clear — there was a Kim Dorland that went like five times overvalue, Steve Driscoll, and these are all by the way amazing painters, I really respect them. They all went astronomically over value, whereas like a Wanda Koop, a Shary Boyle, a Janna Watson and, of course, my ego was hurt a little bit. People are getting deals and it was all out in the open and it was like, "Am I the only one watching this?" It was so infuriating. It also brings me back to the question of how men represent themselves versus women and it's really interesting watching artists on Instagram. I've seen the difference between how a man might represent himself, as opposed to a woman. The past year with the pandemic, there's a lot more self-representation over curating on Instagram as opposed to being inside of a gallery and letting the gallery curate, so it's been really interesting to observe.
Allie: You're definitely an observer, aren't you? I admire that about you. I think people that are able to stand back, observe, take it all in, tend to be the smarter people. I'm a bit more brash. You and I are both artists, but we have very different trajectories in terms of how we interact with our audiences. Mine is very extroverted. Most of your work takes place in an isolated sort of way. How do you feel about your audience?
Janna: When I was younger, I did a lot of outdoor art shows. That really exposed me to people's reactions to my work, and it was during that time that I really built up a skin because you have to dissociate from it.
Allie: Especially meeting with an A&R and I'm playing a song for them and watching them listen, it's such a weird feeling.
Janna: Then are you thinking, "Do you like this?" Or do you just shut it off? Do you just disassociate?
Allie: I'm so used to it now that I tried to just be like, "I like this song, I don't care what they think." A lot of the time they're listening with commercial ears, so that's maybe a whole other thing. Do you just turn it off?
Janna: I turn it off. It's interesting because I get that interaction on an opening day, but it's been interesting now that I'm interacting with more clients through Instagram where I'm seeing people's comments on my work. I was wondering, do you feel like you're creating for your audience or is it a process in yourself?
Allie: The longer I do it, the more I feel like I've met so many people who support me and listen to my music. I have them in mind when I'm creating. But ultimately, it's always been about me, how I fit into my perceived world and how I'm able to get my feelings out. It's always been more of a selfish process really and I think it still remains that ultimately. But I do now consider, what will this be like to play on tour, how will my little cuties react to this?
Janna: How can you speak to them ultimately, right? That empathy that you have because you know your audience and you interact with them. You also want to inspire them, and I've noticed even watching you over Instagram, which is a great platform to have especially when you don't have stages, you're creating more. I've noticed you don't have a problem being vulnerable, talking about your life and what you're going through. That is so helpful, especially as someone who has the power to influence people.
Allie: It's taken me this long to get comfortable with that, but now I just want to be truthful in all instances of my life. It feels so good and I think one nice thing about modern times is that it's becoming normal for public figures and artists to show a more personal side of their lives on social media. That's one of the positives of social media, I think.
Allie: Last question: in three words, what inspires you?
Janna: Definitely color, weirdness... cookies.
Allie: Cookies? [laughs]
Janna: Yes, I have to have a cookie when I start having the afternoon slump. Cookie and it brings me back to life.
Allie: Oh, that's nice. I love that.
Photos courtesy of Janna Watson
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