Robert Watson is putting the finishing touches to a gigantic, profile-raising showcase of his work at Manchester Central Library – describing it as the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’.
Get a Proper Job!
The 54-year-old has had a passion for photography since he was a child but only went professional in 2018 as his dad insisted he should have a ‘proper job’.
So that’s what he did and he became a podiatrist. It was only when he won the Open Exhibition at Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival in 2017 that Robert finally gained the confidence to fulfil his lifelong ambition – selling his surgery and leaving behind a 20-year career.
Surprisingly, he describes it as an ‘easy decision’.
The Courteeners – Mapping The Rendezvous
“It was absolutely a calling,” said Robert, who is also the photographer behind The Courteeners album cover, Mapping The Rendezvous.
“There was no doubt in my mind that I had to be an artist and wasn’t under any illusions that it would be easy. “
“It still isn’t but to be a successful artist, you have to enjoy all the other challenges involved as well as the highs of exhibiting work.”
Robert’s leap of faith was rewarded when he gained representation with galleries in Manchester and London and had his work exhibited at the prestigious Photo London Fair and internationally at Unseen Amsterdam where the Dutch press used his seascape ‘Blackpool 0630’ to advertise the photography fair.
Now Robert is keeping the momentum going as he prepares for his biggest exhibition by far.
The Sky Above Her
Opening on October 14, The Sky Above Her will feature 70 of his pieces of various sizes from an enormous 150cm x 127cm image of cranes over Manchester’s Circle Square development to a 22cm x 22cm picture of a couple kissing in London’s South Bank.
The exhibition actually came about after Robert asked if he could photograph a ballerina in Manchester Central Library’s Wolfson reading room.
The venue’s team were so impressed with the results that when he proposed an exhibition, he was offered their vast gallery space all to himself.
This was in 2020 and the nearly four-month exhibition has been delayed until now due to the pandemic – but that huge validation and endorsement in his skill has stayed with him.
Robert added: “It feels fabulous and humbling that others like my work enough to want to continue looking at it on their own walls. That’s what makes all the hard work worthwhile.
“In any day or age, if you want something badly enough, you have to put the effort in and ask for the chance.
If you don’t put yourself out there, no one will know about you or your work.”
In Memory of Mum
While The Sky Above Her is a celebration of Robert’s new life as an artist and the successful pursuit of a dream, it is also bittersweet because the exhibition is in memory of his mum, Lucy, and is named after her.
Robert said: “My mum died during the Covid era in a care home so, after visiting her pretty much daily for 10 years, I couldn’t sit with her in her final days.
“She is buried at a cemetery that is on the side of a hill and while up there, I noticed how beautiful the sky looked so I started shooting it.
“Of course, I would love for her to be able to see what I have achieved but I’m not sad. I know she would want me to be happy and to get on with enjoying what I do rather than spend time wishing she was there. Keeping busy has been my therapy.”
The genre-spanning collection will also include soothing seascapes, and documentary photography – with a particular focus on Pride 2022 and Robert’s ‘Lovers’ series – inner city urban shots and dancers, including world-famous company Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures.
The overarching theme of the solo exhibition is Robert’s perceived role as an ‘observer’ and his desire to capture a feeling.
“In pretty much all my work, I’m an observer,” he added.
“I tell my dancers that I need to see strength, grace, beauty, vulnerability, fragility, joy, and passion in a single still image.
“I know it’s a big ask but I don’t pose them. Once they have that single note from me, they do as they wish.
“With the seascapes, I’m completely at the behest of nature. Nature paints its canvas in front of me and I do my best to do it justice. I don’t edit them apart from to make sure the horizon is completely level.
“No changing of colours or anything. That surprises many people when they hear a picture so calming, serene and colourful has come from Blackpool.
“A lot of my joy comes from the saying that ‘art is not what you see but what you make others see’ (Edgar Degas). Also, to me, art without emotion is useless. It needs to make you feel something.”
Despite this big turning point in Robert’s life, he’s still not sure his late dad Ralph, a mechanical engineer, would have approved.
In childhood days, Robert and his dad always loved photography. It was in fact Ralph’s old Leica that inspired him to get a Kodak Instamatic and start snapping cars at Oulton Park at the age of just five.
Even then, Robert liked the idea of capturing a moment in time and has kept almost every photograph he’s ever taken.
He said: “I think my dad would like the photographs but still not be sure of the uncertainty of a life as an artist. My father only felt secure with a solid job providing a regular income.
“That’s not an artist’s life.
“I was very lucky that I had two parents with good jobs and a variety of outlooks on life.
“My mum was a nursing sister and an artistic, people person and my dad was an engineer and disciplinarian. I learned a great deal from them both and discipline is a major factor in where I am now combined with my mum’s artistic nurturing.”
Robert Watson: The Sky Above Her is at Manchester Central Library from Saturday, October 14, to Friday, January 5.
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