experimental beds

Published:November 16, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Because we’re slow, we missed the work of Australian artist Judy Watson that until earlier this year was on display at the University of Virginia. [See update.]

This set of six color etchings features Thomas Jefferson’s architectural drawings of the University of Virginia overlaid with images collected and produced by the artist. The work deals with issues of slavery that resonate with Watson’s personal family history.

Watson visited U.Va. in 2009 and saw the exhibition Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village at the University of Virginia Art Museum [now the Fralin Museum of Art]. Inspired by Jefferson’s architectural drawings, she read a number of books about the slave families at Monticello, Jefferson’s home near Charlottesville. Some of Jefferson’s slaves are believed to be his own children with Sally Hemings.

A native of suburban Brisbane, Watson created a series of etchings she calls experimental beds. Why that title? Because Jefferson collected seeds from around the world—beginning with those brought back from the Lewis and Clark Expedition—and planted them in garden plots at Monticello that the scholar Leni Sorenson has dubbed “experimental beds.”

For Watson this was the perfect title for her body of work. It also encompassed “Jefferson’s pursuits across the cultural divide ‘between the sheets’ with the enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, whose descendants are considered by many to be both Jefferson’s and Sally Hemings’ family.” This union between a white man and a black woman, resulting in children of mixed descent, is reflected in Watson’s own family in Australia, where the matrilineal line of her family is Australian Aboriginal, and the patrilineal line is white European males.

UPDATE: Watson’s work can still be seen at the University of Virginia at the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library, through May 11, 2013.

IMAGES: Experimental Beds 1–6 by Judy Watson (2012)