They are few but passionate, and Jhenn Watts is one of them: artists who create fine art photographic images, ironically, using good old Polaroid film.
Because of its simplicity and ease of use, the basic Polaroid process was an instant success in the mid 20th century, recording America’s birthdays, graduations and cookouts. Point, click and 60 seconds later, the graduate or birthday girl emerged on a slick four-inch by five-inch image, to be admired, then stored in a shoebox.
Ms. Watts, however, discovered in college there was a different use for the Polaroid process that would allow her to create extraordinary pieces of art. Called emulsion lifting, the complex process allows the artist to remove the image from its paper backing and apply it to other surfaces, such as glass, creating art in three dimensions. Until then, the emulsion lift process had typically been applied to paper.
Sitting outside the Field Gallery, the West Tisbury gallery where she is director and where her latest works will open in a group show this weekend, Ms. Watts recounted how she found this way to combine her twin passions for photography and glass blowing in a single medium.
“Glass adds luminosity and depth as well as texture and volume to my work,” she said. “It enables me to achieve that feeling of dimensionality I strive for.”
“I’d always been interested in glass blowing and in black and white landscape photography. But I developed an allergy to dark room chemicals as a senior at the Massachusetts College of Art, then I learned about the emulsion lift process. I worked with the technician who operated a large Polaroid camera which produced a 20-inch by 24-inch image,” she recalled.
“There are only five of these cameras in the world, four are working, and Mass College of Art has one of them,” she said, adding that notables such as fellow alumnus William Wegman, famous for photographing his own Weimaraner dogs, as well as the modern artist Robert Rauschenberg had experimented with emulsion lifting before her.
“The course cost me an extra $200 in 1996, including 10 shots,” she recalled, adding: “Today, it costs $3,500 a day to rent the 20x24 camera in New York plus $1,000 a shot.”
The discovery that a seemingly pedestrian method could produce mesmerizing forms and images captivated Ms. Watts and has defined her work over the past 13 years. She uses four-by-five images for glass surfaces but can produce much larger paper prints through a transfer process called iris giclée.
Early this year, however, Polaroid film became a casualty of the digital photography age. Polaroid announced it would no longer produce the film.
“First, of course, I freaked out,” she said of her reaction to the film company’s decision. “Then I produced more work in five and one half weeks than I had in the prior three years.”
Her film stash includes enough for 60 more shots, then a change in her work. “There is a possibility that Fuji may provide the film,” she said, “but it isn’t as good as Polaroid. Polaroid film is silky. Fuji has a more plastic feel to me.
“I’m looking forward to working on a new form this winter. I’ve been through this before. In college I had a whole set of rules to work in black and white, then I had to change,” she said.
The next incarnation of artist Watts may include combining images in montages and collages .
Meanwhile, the Field Gallery will feature Ms. Watts’ work beginning Sunday, June 15 along with artist Jeff Hoerle and jewelry by her husband Kenneth Pillsworth.
Her pieces — mostly featuring Vineyard beaches — have a powerful and startling clarity and offer a three-dimensional perspective to the viewer. “Part of it is that the image is the actual photo, not a transfer of dyes that are only similar to the original,” she said. Over the years, Ms. Watts has refined her work, particularly in the use of overlapping images and wrapping landscape photos on sculpted glass objects, such as vases and carafes, a process that enhances the three dimensional effect.
Ms. Watts is aware of the importance of an Island community that supports its artists. “I moved here as a sophomore in high school and people in and out of the arts community supported me,” she said, noting that Mark Weiner, founder of Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks, has been a primary supporter, hiring and training her as a glass blower, then appointing her as the Glassworks’ gallery director for eight years after her college graduation in 1996.
Working in a nurturing environment, as well as her past experiences with change forced upon her, allow Ms. Watts to view the future positively.
“For example, I am not a digital person now. But in college I had a whole set of boundaries and rules that I had to change. This newest change will push my boundaries away, get me out my artistic comfort zone,” she said.
An artists’ reception for the group exhibition featuring works by Jhenn Watts, Jeff Hoerle and Kenneth Pillsworth, is free from 5 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, June 15, at the Field Gallery across from Alleys on State Road in West Tisbury.