It’s the beginning of May and an ideal time to visit Central Australia. As I step off the aeroplane and onto the runway, the dry air fills my lungs. After completing all the required paperwork, I load my bags into the rented four-wheel drive and proceed towards the majestic MacDonnell Ranges. I stop to take photos of the splendid ghost gums that line the road towards Heavitree Gap, the southern entrance to the town of Alice Springs. When I arrive at Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson’s house, I’m greeted by the squeals and laughter of several children. They have been waiting for my arrival. As I pull into the driveway they scatter and run through a side gate that has been left open for me and it closes and locks behind them.
‘Nyuntu Palya Mr Watson?’ I say as I kneel down on the paint-splattered carpet covering the large converted garage, which has become his new studio. There’s a single bed in the corner, a washbasin on one wall, a large heater and air conditioner in the ceiling. This is also where family member Jorna Newberry, paints her own work while Watson’s long time carer Fabian Conti carefully mixes all the paints in small plastic containers and places them near the canvas on a long narrow table. Watson uses special imported acrylic paint and adds a touch of gloss medium to some of the colours. Every painting he completes is documented with many working photographs and when finished is accompanied with a certificate of authenticity from Chris Simon at Yanda Art.
Watson sits cross-legged on a half-finished painting laid out on the floor. The unstoppable octogenarian speaks very little English but smiles, extends his firm hand and continues to dot the canvas. I watch the master colourist work for another hour. He completes a section of canvas almost as big as himself; he looks up occasionally, grinds his teeth and says something in a language I don’t understand. I smile knowing he is happy for me to sit, watch and discreetly take photographs. Several years ago he would not have been so kind; he is a shy and wary man and has every reason to be. Early last year he lost quite a few paintings as well as his home; it has taken many visits over the years for me to be awarded his trust.
“I paint because I have to, I paint to help family.” Last year because of previous bad management, Watson and his family were evicted from the house they thought they owned and had lived in for many years; sadly the title deeds were not in the family’s name. Watson said at the time he had painted all his stories, but was well aware the only way to purchase another house was to keep painting. Encouraged by his family, he accepted his fate and has actively taken his work a step further by painting larger versions of older paintings. “I am old one now and can’t walk too far, but I don’t want to be lost in old fella home, I want to stay with family.”
One only has to think of Edvard Munch who over a 17-year period created four versions of his most famous work The Scream, or Vincent van Gogh’s seven Sunflower paintings with their different coloured backgrounds. These precedents have helped canonise these iconic works and help them become synonymous with the artists. The art world is nevertheless fortunate and collectors have greatly benefited from Watson’s exceptional work in this late creative period. Painting bigger works is now possible because he has a much larger studio to work in.
Watson was born about 75 kilometres west of the small community of Irrunytju also known as Wingellina. Throughout his youth, Watson and his family fulfilled their role as custodians of the Pitjantjatjara nation. While growing up Watson learned to understand the significance of social organisation and learned the law from his elders. As an older man, Watson has only now passed the ordeals of initiation, shown wisdom and maturity and proven himself as great hunter and leader. He has also fulfilled his role as a living archive of the knowledge of his country while travelling across the Pitjantjatjara lands to fulfil his role as an elder.