Stephen Watson is a fantastic artist who’s doing something very unusual.  He’s using spices as art installations. His work is amazing and multi-layered  I’m glad that his colleague, artist Craig Hawkins connected us because Stephen gave a fantastic interview.

“… One of the powers of art is its ability to disrupt and shake lose the human mind ... I prefer to harness art's disruptive powers and make objects that people cannot easily categorize or comprehend, because it demands an elevated level of mental exertion and meaningful engagement with the object ...”

MICHAEL: Hello Stephen, Your work is fascinating and original. You call it, "temporary, site-responsive floor installations using fragrant herbs and spices."  Let's break this down ... Why temporary?  What is site responsive? Why herbs and spices?  Do they have to be fragrant?  My guess is that art is also about our sense of smell and not just sight?  No?  

STEPHEN: Hey, Michael. Thanks for taking an interest in my work. I create temporary art because it feels truer to life than a static or permanent object. And I should mention that the work is not only temporal; it is also vulnerable. The preservation of my work is at the mercy of its audience. Gallery visitors inevitably damage the spice designs, usually by careless walking or curious touching. I am frequently asked how it makes me feel when my art is accidentally or intentionally destroyed and my response is always the same; It feels true. Art that withers and fades like the grass is far more akin to life than a bronze sculpture that lasts a thousand years.

MICHAEL: Very interesting.  I would imagine that could get expensive.  What about “site responsive”?

STEPHEN: Site-responsive means that the art adapts to any space it inhabits. Unlike an unchanging painting that could hang on any nail on any wall in any room (and remain the same), I tailor the size and shape of my installations to fit each new environment. This ensures that each installation is uniquely designed and self-conscious of the space it occupies. If the room is big, the spice designs are big (or many). If the room is complex, the spice designs can round a corner. This adaptive quality of the work - once again -is akin to life. The artworks are not passive, dead things hanging here or there. They are living things that know where they are and have responded accordingly.

MICHAEL: Cool.  I also love the fact that you’re also referencing smell.

STEPHEN: You're right, my decision to use spices and herbs is rooted in fragrance. I select spices based on smell, color and texture. I originally chose spices because I wanted a medium that could create a multi-sensory experience for the gallery visitor. As visual artists, we certainly prioritize the sense of sight, but we need not exclude the other senses. The more of the visitor's senses you can engage, the more powerful the work of art becomes.

MICHAEL: Where do you actually get your spice supply?  I take it that these are spices than have been processed, correct? And are certain spices better for certain types of installations?  Also, what about color?  Do spices have specific colors?

STEPHEN: I buy the spices in bulk, usually from Restaurant Depot and sometimes from Sam's Club. Yes, the spices have been factory-processed, and I dispense them straight from their original bottle and onto sheets of acrylic glass (Plexiglass). I choose spices based on both their visual and physical properties; for example, even if I like the color of one, I can only use it if it flows evenly from the bottle without clumping. But I'm afraid that's the extent of my spice selection process; there's nothing deeply symbolic to uncover about the particular colors or fragrances. I mean, I have certainly thought of the phrase “Salt of the Earth” when using salt and I am aware that myrrh is a burial spice and I have thought of my missionary father when I use Central American spices, but all of those are minor - often unintentional - themes in the work. 

MICHAEL: And colors?

STEPHEN: Yes, spices do have particular colors. For example, turmeric is a super-saturated yellow, cayenne is a bright red-orange, and cinnamon is a pale brown. There are some minor variations in color depending on the manufacturer, but in general, I can count on the color of turmeric yellow like painters can count on the color of dioxazine purple.

MICHAEL: And what about …

STEPHEN: Oh, as for choosing spices for a particular installation, that comes down to the type of flooring in the gallery. If it is carpeted, I limit my palette to spices that will not stain the carpets or ones that will be easy to vacuum up at the close of the exhibition. But if the floor is hardwood, tile or cement, my palette is uninhibited.

MICHAEL: When, where and how did you get the idea to use spices as art? Can you recycle any of what remains following an exhibition?

STEPHEN: No, I don't recycle the spices after each exhibition. I wish each installation came to a more noble end, but the truth is, at the end of each show, the designs are knocked into trashcans or sucked up with a vacuum. Have you seen the Tibetan Monk sand mandalas? After the monks sweep them up, they take the sand to a river and ceremonially cast it into the water. I wish I did something like that at the end of each show, but I don't. I can't get such an act to fit the conceptual parameters of the work.

MICHAEL: Hmm.  I do like that idea though.

STEPHEN: I made my first spice artwork in February of 2013, almost three years ago. Back then, I would make art out of any material I considered conceptually-fitting, whether it was paint, paper, balloons, or tape measures; that is, I strategically chose materials that would best serve whatever concept I was wrestling with. At the time, I was creating a series of liturgical artworks for a church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I designed each installation with the intention of complementing or expounding on the content of the Sunday sermons. 

One Sunday, I needed an artwork that could relate to the idea of a “sweet aroma” and after some trial-and-error experiments, I settled on spices. While the congregation was gathered inside the church Sunday morning, I dispensed a fragrant checkered pattern of cinnamon, mint and myrrh on the steps outside. At the close of the service, the congregation was invited to walk upon the spices as they were leaving the building. This was a conceptually-rich act; it served as an anointing of feet, it served as a threshold for the congregation to break and it created footprints mapping the way a singular church body divided back into individuals and disseminated into the world. 

MICHAEL: Aren't you Christian?  Is there a connection between Christianity and the spice installations?  Are the installations uniquely Christian?

STEPHEN: Yes, I am a Christian. I'm not sure what you mean when you ask if my work is uniquely Christian, though. If you mean, “Are the installations only for Christians?” I would say no. I belong to two communities: the Christian community and the contemporary art community. I strive to create work that can flourish in both communities and create bridges between them. 

If by your question you mean, “Are the installations unique within the Christian community?” I would say yes. Visual art and the Protestant Church have been at odds since the Reformation. It is rare to find art of any kind -contemporary or otherwise - in a Presbyterian or Baptist Church. For example, because art is scary. Art is scary because art is dangerous. Art is dangerous because art is powerful. And unfortunately, some Protestant Christians take it a step farther and say art is scary, dangerous, and powerful because art is evil - but that is simply untrue. Powerful tools can be wielded well or wielded poorly; they can be used for good or used for evil. Regardless, a fear of art persists in the Protestant Church, so work like mine is unique in that many church-goers wouldn't expect to see it in the church building.

MICHAEL: Ignorance remains one of mankind's most unfortunate afflictions. Ooh, I'm going to have to use that line in a future essay.  You heard it here first Stephen!  As an artist who is also a Christian, do you feel compelled to express Christ-centered themes and messages in your work?

STEPHEN: My faith and my work are inseparable. I remember one of the first critiques I had in grad school where the professor said, “I like your art, but you should leave all that Christian stuff out of it.” But it's not that simple. Christianity is an all-invasive faith and believers are new, reincarnate creatures. What I'm trying to say is that Christianity isn't some moral code to follow and true faith is not something that can be put on and taken off at will. When a person becomes a Christian, they die and become something new. And that new, re-animated, re-oriented creature is fully, permanently inhabited by the Spirit of God.

MICHAEL: Yes, indeed.

STEPHEN: So, no, I don't make art with Christ-centered themes by choice. I make the art that I do because I must. I make art with Christ-centered themes because I am a Christ-permeated creature. To not do so would be to go against the very core of my reborn being.

MICHAEL: Most people likely think of spices in terms of flavoring their foods, but not as flavor of life.  Variety is the spice of life?  What do you think about this?  Is this one of your goals?

STEPHEN: Variety or contrast is one of the most important principles of design for me. Though I find some comfort in routine, without any variety, life grows boring and weary. One of the powers of art is its ability to disrupt and shake lose the human mind. This is why so many artists criticize the art collector who is simply looking for something that will match their couch. That is, they criticize those collectors who are only looking for an art of seamless assimilation, not disruption. I prefer to harness art's disruptive powers and make objects that people cannot easily categorize or comprehend, because it demands an elevated level of mental exertion and meaningful engagement with the object.

MICHAEL: Wow, I love that.

STEPHEN: And making spicy art – literally - is one way I make artworks that contrast some viewers' assumptions about art. The art is spicy and strange for other reasons, too, such as its ephemerality and its display on the floor.

MICHAEL: Disruptive powers. What I'm hearing you say is that art really shouldn't be a homogenous, monolithic thing that has a single message for everyone.  Yet so many people believe that Stephen.  What do you think we can do to change that?  Wouldn't this totally expand the audience for contemporary art if we could convince more people of this?

STEPHEN: I have a talk that I give in all of my Art Appreciation classes at Samford University. There probably isn't sufficient space to give the full talk here, but I'll summarize: 

“What is art? Art is nine things. That's right: all of art history will fit into just nine categories: Realism, Idealism, Surrealism, Formalism, Expressionism, Conceptual Art, Artisanal Art, Instrumental Art, and Self-Referential Art. And you ask, What about Impressionism? Impressionism is a form of Realism. And you ask, What about Greek Classicism? Greek Classicism is a combination of Realism, Idealism, Formalism, and Instrumental Art.”

Now, I've mentioned the power of art before in this interview, and this is another of art's powers. Art is a shape-shifter. Art can be any combination of those nine categories and still be fully art. A mathematical way of saying this is that art can be any 1/9th of itself and still be 100% art. It is critical for art audiences to understand these nine categories, because if you decide that art that looks like a photograph (a form of Realism) and is the only kind of art, you have eliminated 8/9ths of the history of art. Now don't misunderstand me, Realism is 100% art, but it is not the only art.

MICHAEL: Correct.

STEPHEN: Art audiences also need to understand these nine categories because you must engage works of art with appropriate criteria in order to evaluate them justly. A Jackson Pollock painting is a horrible work of Realism. But it's not trying to be a work of Realism. Here's a simpler example: judge dogs by appropriate dog criteria and goldfish with appropriate goldfish criteria. The questions “What makes for a good dog?” and “What makes for a good goldfish?” are too entirely different questions. But if you unjustly confuse the categories, you will find yourself trying to hold a goldfish to the standards of a dog and you will be disappointed. The fact is, even the best goldfish in the world would be a terrible dog. The same goes for a Pollock unjustly evaluated through a lens of Realism.

MICHAEL: Totally. When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?  Do you also paint?

STEPHEN: For as long as I can remember, I have had creative impulses. My mom is artistically inclined and my dad is musically inclined. I inherited both of those inclinations. At some point, though, I had to decide whether to keep dividing my time, energy and creativity between two endeavors or to give them whole-heartedly to one. In the end, I decided to be a visual artist.

Yes, I can paint. I was a serious drawer in high school, a serious painter in college, and I became a sculptor or installation artist during grad school, which I remain today. My preference for art categories also changed over time. In high school, I was most interested in Realism (life-like) and Artisanal Art (masterful craftsmanship). In college, I delighted in Expressionism (emotional) and Instrumental Art (in service of religion). In grad school, I leaned most toward Conceptual Art (philosophical) and Self-Referential Art (challenging the definition and institution of Fine Art). I'm not entirely sure how to categorize my current work, but it is some combination of Formalism (beauty and design), Artisanal, Conceptual, Instrumental, and Self-Referential.

MICHAEL: Finally Stephen, What do you think is the point of art?  I mean, most people in the world will probably never even visit an art gallery or museum.  So what's the point?  Why should everyday people care?  Art isn't curing cancer or ending homelessness.

STEPHEN: The definition of art is difficult to nail down because of its shape-shifting, nine-fold personality. However, if you forced me to give you a singular definition of art or its purposes, I would say visual meaningfulness. And even though most dictionaries don't distinguish between the words meaning and meaningfulness, I have to. A stop sign or a newspaper has visual meaning. Art has visual meaningfulness. It's that fullness of meaning that I think is so distinctive about art.

Lots of human occupations, such as being a cabinet-maker or an office worker, don't cure cancer or end homelessness. But I understand what you are asking: Why should someone care about art, since it is apparently so useless to human survival? Art is less about human survival and more about human flourishing. Art has powers to influence and nourish the human spirit in ways no other medium can. The challenging thing is that that nourishment isn't always simple to digest. Like I said earlier, many people don't care about art because they don't have time to care about art. They want art to be fast-food and instead it's a three-course meal.

MICHAEL: Indeed it is.  Thanks Stephen.  I’ve really enjoyed our chat.

STEPHEN: Thanks for bearing with my delayed replies! I enjoyed it.

Check out Stephen Watson at