If you threw the styles Pablo Picasso, Gustav Klimt and Marc Chagall into a bowl and stirred them together, Tarmo Watia would come out of the mix, ready to paint. An artist who works with extreme commitment and dedicated routine, Watia has been honored many times over. But Watia isn't a man content to rest on his laurels. He is a hard-working artist, and the art world is so much the better for it.
Watia's studio is organized beyond belief, every inch of available space fully utilized. The amount of finished work Watia has is impressive enough on its own, but even more remarkable is the beauty of his pieces. His love for his work clearly shows, as does his keen intelligence, creativity and imagination. And from the first step over the threshold into his domain, it's obvious that he's a master storyteller, in both visual and conversational art.
It is nearly impossible to guide the direction of the interview with Watia. It flows; it becomes unfettered. The questions are forgotten for the moment, and Watia's comments on life and art are more interesting without the influence of an interviewer.
On being an artist
Kind of the synopsis of what I do in art is, you're born with this talent and when you get in, you get educated, you use this pool to get you going. And a lot of artists get to the end of that pool, and you've kind of got a style and an established way of working. And then, instead of breaking loose and going into all these new territories, they reiterate that same thing, over and over again. It becomes their trademark, and so they're niched in that type of thing and reproduce the same thing endlessly with not a lot of change in it. But in my case, because I work so much, I can't. My mind has to be played with. I'm really always exploring. And artists tend to use more of their brain than anything else. So consequently, when I got to the end of that couple-of-degree training and started on my own, I started fingering out into other things.
This work is so monastic, so alone. And you work a lot. People think artists go to coffee shops and have paint on their pants and they sit around and BS all day long. You know, working artists don't do that. They get up, have a cup of coffee. I turn on classical music. So I start with something, one of the piles, going through a few things, and I find out what I'm in the mood to work on so I don't wreck it, because I work on five or six things from that pile. Then I know what kind of day I'm going to have, and I get started out working. When you get the really rotten, tough days, those are the days you have to stay alert. Because you learn more, you learn a lot of things. It's easy to work on good days. Bad days, it's a real grind. It's easy to put it down and go do something else. But in the art field, it's better to stay with it, pound it out.
So the life of an artist is like a Florence Nightingale pie chart, where you slice your life into all these pieces. How much do you give to your kids, how much do you give to your job, whatever you're into. So I do a one-, five-, 10-year plan, try to look at it each year, and look at what I want to do the next five years and project it. It's like a Ping-Pong game, you bounce back and forth. But I'm probably more aware of it. As you get a little older, time gets a little more precious, and you realize it does not tunnel. It goes the other way, it funnels out. So you don't have a perspective, like a highway going down it. Instead, you've got the universal world that's going more like 360 around you both ways.
Looking back on his career teaching art in higher education
When you're out on your own this long, and you look back on what you were teaching in your curriculum, I would totally change it now. Because now I know what it takes to work in the studio. Higher-ed fields should do that in all the fields. They should make people every fifth year go out and do their job, and if they don't do it for a year, they can't come back and teach. Make 'em go out and do it, get in touch with what's going on and how to survive in that field. Because how can you be in touch [if you don't]? A lot of teachers never did anything but teach. How can you teach art when you never did art full-time? There's a huge difference. It really is a huge step. It's kind of like running a marathon and reading a bible and all the encyclopedias in the world at once. When you try to give fully to the studio, you're afraid of it. You don't know if you can do it or not. It's a very big question, can you go into the studio and work all day?
This interviewer was able to slip a few questions in:
Boise Weekly: What strikes you as beautiful?
Tarmo Watia: In terms of what? Alaska. Go to Alaska and then that's the end of the question. It's God's visual gift, and it was extremely important in my artistic development because of the rotting salmon. It just blew me away how aesthetically textured, beautiful and colorful—all the things they were, because they were in so many different states. And then, of course, when you get there, you get the aspen in the fall changing colors and the peaks have snow on them already and it just boggles your mind.
With some renowned artists, you can look at various stages of their life's work and see that, in the beginning, they might have been more careful. But later, they throw caution to the wind and paint what they wanted, like they don't care anymore. Are you there now?
It's not that they don't care, it's that they have a freedom. They're like an eagle soaring, they can play with the wind the rest of their life. You can't think about art and do it. You have to be doing it and then, the next day it happens, you can find the next step, the next level through working. When you get to the higher level, you get free. You've got all this freedom. Then it's not work, per se, then it's fun.
To bust through—that's the first thing I ask any ex-student I run into is, are you working. That's the first question. And right away, they know me well enough to answer me honestly. And so the next question is, well, why not? And then the next question is, what are you going to do about it?
Tarmo Watia's work can be seen on display through July at The Basement Gallery, 928 W. Main Street, below the Idanha Hotel. Artist reception 5-9 p.m. Thursday. For more information, visit www.watiagallery.com or www.yessy.com/tarmowatia.