Studio Visit: Jessica Lewis Watson
Studio Visit is a Q&A with a local artist. Here, a chat with Jessica Lewis Watson. The writer/photographer's digital photographs are being shown through Tuesday in the exhibition "Refreshingly Fifty" at the Indi Go Artist Co-Op, 9 E. University Ave., C.
Q: Aren't you having your 50th birthday party at Indi Go on Monday?
A: Yes, the night of the party, I will turn 50 at 7:30 p.m., when I popped out into the world. The reception will be from 6 to 9 p.m. John Coppess, Suzanne Warner and Ed Hawkes and his wife, Laura Sleade, will perform live music.
Q: What are you showing in the exhibition?
A: I have more than 100 digital photographs in the two-story gallery. I have various nooks. One is the dog nook. One is the contemplation nook. One is the country nook. One is the Japanese gardens nook, with pictures I took at the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford. There's also a children's corner, and upstairs there's a farm corner and then two big walls are highlighted with a variety of subjects. I had five friends who helped design and mount the exhibit: Rose Sisco, Alison Meanor, Tanta Johnson, Catherine Veltze and Karinna Veltze, who's 13.
Q: Did you get into photography by illustrating articles you'd written?
A: Indeed. I did magazine writing some time ago. I first took portraits of people to be with the articles. Then I got a Canon point-and-shoot three years ago, and for fun, I took pictures of a friend's dogs. People loved the photographs so much that I branched out. I want to emphasize that I do happy, joyful pictures. My aim with my photographs is to highlight people like myself who suffer from a mental illness, who can put good into the world. I like to show beauty and not the troubles that some media concentrate on with people with mental illness.
Q: What is yours?
A: Schizo-affective disorder. When I was 31, it came out of the blue. I've been hospitalized twice. A year ago in June, I had a birthday at The Pavilion. Now I will have my 50th birthday exactly a year later and be well because of the medications I take and the help I receive from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Fifty percent of the proceeds from the sales of my photographs at Indi Go will go to NAMI Champaign County because I would not be functioning this well without members of NAMI helping me.
Q: What were your initial symptoms?
A: I heard voices when I was ill. I'd get psychotic, and people in colored clothes symbolized different things to me. People in blue were good and kind. People wearing brown were scary. I take an anti-psychotic, a mood stabilizer and an anti-depressant. The side-effect is weight gain. Because of that, I just started needing blood pressure medication.
Q: Don't you lecture on mental illness?
A: Often. I represent NAMI. I help with the Champaign County Crisis Intervention Training for police officers to help them respond to situations involving people with mental illness. I also lecture to Parkland College nursing students every semester and to women's church groups, philanthropic groups and at conferences.
Q: It seems you would be a natural for taking photographs related to mental illness. Why don't you?
A: That's a good question. Mental illness is frightening for me and I prefer to take pictures that cheer up myself and others.
Q: What do you do for a living?
A: I am on disability from the University of Illinois retirement system. I was a secretary for three years, full time, at the UI.
Q: Are you still writing?
A: Yes, I write for smilepolitely.com about once a month, with photos. I recently wrote an article for NAMI Voice, a national publication. I also write for Stepping Stones, a national children's magazine. My master's thesis was published by an academic press in New York state in 1996 in a medieval literature series. My thesis was "Bastardy as a Gifted Status in Chaucer and Malory." I also wrote "Illegitimacy Empowered," a book that was published in 1994 by a press in Texas.