Through the Lense of Art: LARC Professor Dr. James Westwater talks art beyond aesthetics, and keeping it at the forefront.

July 14, 2020 Marcina Garner

Can art help heal humanity? According to new PSLA faculty member Dr. James Westwater, yes it can. James takes time to discuss his upbringing in Lavenham, England and answers questions about his career, inspirations as an artist, and his commitment to raising awareness of art's interdisciplinary value within PSLA, AGNR, and beyond. 

1. How long have you been working in PSLA?

Since Fall 2019

2. Tell me about your career motivations.  How did you get started in your field?

I’ve always been interested in art and design. I was one of those kids who sits and draws on the floor in front of the TV, only occasionally glancing up at the screen. Drawing, reading, model-making and motorcycles took priority over pretty much everything else during my childhood and adolescence. I went to college for film and television and also graphic design and worked in those intersecting fields for about 10 years in London and Los Angeles.

3. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the English village of Lavenham (population 1200 for about the last 500 years), famous for its half-timbered Elizabethan buildings and the various films that have featured them. Lavenham was the location for Godrick’s Hollow in the Harry Potter film series, for example. The house where the Harry Potter character was born is about 50 yards from my family's first house in Lavenham. Yoko Ono and John Lennon also shot their art film Apotheosis in Lavenham, and if you watch the TV documentary about the making of Apotheosis, I’m one of the little boys you can see in a couple of shots of onlookers.

4. What/who inspires you personally/professionally, and why?

I’m inspired by artists and by people who succeed against the odds. These are really two separate categories and they each inspire me in different ways. Sometimes they are one and the same, like James Baldwin.

5. Do you teach courses? If so, what do you teach?

I teach two landscape architecture drawing courses, one graduate, one undergraduate, and a new advanced graduate course about land art. I designed this course to appeal to graduate students both inside and outside of the College. The course is about issues, ideas and exemplars of art and landscape. Our discussions often enter or exit via philosophy, psychology or art practice.

6. Tell me about your research.  How does your research/teaching philosophy fit within the scope of the land grant mission?

My research is really more of an art practice, a daily investigation of matters aesthetic, critical and theoretical. My teaching philosophy takes what I have learned from several decades of mostly solitary art making and art thinking and turns the practice outwards, much the same way an artist collaborates with other artists or exhibits work publicly. But with pedagogical intent.

7. With whom do you collaborate in research, teaching, and extension? Historically, I have collaborated with fellow artists and other members of the international art community, including residency programs in Ireland, Iceland and Portugal and museums and galleries elsewhere in Europe and the United States. More recently, and closer to home (we are married), I have collaborated with fellow faculty member Naomi Sachs. Our shared interests include art, landscape and cognition.

8. What is a major problem that you hope to solve through research and scholarship?

At Cornell, I taught a course that sought to give art and science equal weight. The challenge for me is always to keep art at the forefront of a field such as landscape architecture. Or architecture, in which I have a doctoral degree that investigates the importance of built space and place to artistic creativity, the two way street of influence and inspiration between artist and place.

9. As a new faculty member, what growth and development would you like to see in PSLA, UMD, and globally?

I don’t think the arts or visual art and good design, alone, can save the world, but I do think they can save our souls, our sanity, even some lives. Art is a refuge, salve or guiding light when the world is in pain or turmoil (which is always). I would like PSLA, UMD and the world to pay more attention to the healing power of art. The best art and most beautiful designs transcend.

10. What are you passionate about (personal; professional; social)?

I see everything through the lens of art, but for me art does not end with aesthetics. The limitless quality of art inspires compassion and freedom of thought. Study of art or immersing oneself in art helps foster an awareness that hierarchical thinking does not serve humanity well. Neither when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, nor how we treat our fellow species and the environment.

11. What drew you to the University of Maryland?

Naomi and I were attracted by the diversity, internationalism and oddly relaxed and ramshackle energy of greater DC, the warmth and receptivity of PSLA faculty, and the potential for positive change and our part in that change.

12. What qualities do you bring to PSLA that encourage diversity?

I make no great claims to qualities in me that encourage diversity, beyond those of any relatively progressive straight white male. I am undeniably privileged, insulated and hypnotized by centuries of white supremacy. Technically, I am Latinx because I was born in Brazil, but I am not Latinx by race. Given that I moved to England at the age of four, my Brazilian origin does align me somewhat with those outside the system, mainstream or majority. Artists are also outsiders of a kind. I strive not to be insensitive or complacent or take anything for granted, but I acknowledge there is much work to be done. My high school report cards often said, “Could do better,” and that’s for sure!

13. Tell me about some of the career innovations you have made or would like to make in your field. How do those innovations reflect our College’s strategic initiatives?

I hope to continue to make novel and inspiring connections between and within my fields (plural). Whether reading aloud the writings of gay artists to cloistered undergraduates at Texas A&M University, or writing a dissertation that explored art and rock-and-roll under the aegis of a PhD in architecture, or guest lecturing about body, dance and landscape in the Fashion Department at Cornell University, or teaching a course at Cornell about the transdisciplinarity of art and science, or my new Land Art course at UMD, perhaps the first of its kind at the University, and almost certainly in the Department. I hope that art and design literacy and the global awareness, and advantage such literacy fosters, are strategic initiatives for the College. And if they aren’t yet, perhaps I can help us get there.

14. Describe a failure you’ve experienced. How did you overcome it?

I’ve been fired exactly once in my life. I was young, it was London in the 1980s and I was working at the prestigious design company Imagination. But I was also pursuing my art practice and moonlighting as the film jockey at the nightclub Legends (David Bowie's preferred London club at the time). One night, the owner of Imagination and his top architect came to the club. They seemed happy to see me, but surprised. Generally, Imagination kept us working late, bought us a meal at a good restaurant and then sent us home in a taxi. Somehow, I also had time to show/make/be my art, by way of a Super 8mm film projector I carried around the dance floor with me. My movements (and imagination) as a film jockey were tethered only by a long extension cord. Next thing you know, I’m fired from Imagination for not being a team player. I promptly went back to work for Logica, the company Imagination had headhunted me from, earned more money for fewer hours work as a freelancer, bought myself an apartment which was also my art studio, fixed it up, sold it for a good profit and moved to Hollywood to work in the film industry and pursue my art career.

15. Describe an accomplishment that you have made of which you are most proud?

Attaining a Doctor of Philosophy in Architecture from a tier one research university and then going on to teach at Cornell and UMD. I really am the most unlikely, least academic person to have done any of these things. (Remember those high school reports I mentioned earlier?)

16. These past months have been extremely challenging in light of Covid-19 and social justice protests in our nation. How are you navigating through these trying times?

Naomi and I had just bought a house here in DC when the pandemic and lockdown hit. It needs some work, so I’ve thrown myself into that. One of the ways I supported myself over the years as an artist was to work in construction, so I’ve learned some skills, have some tools. Manual labor and problem solving turn out to be a good combination for keeping mind and body healthy and occupied. And perhaps healing a house goes some small way to healing an entire country.

17. What advice would you want to give to someone entering into your field?

For the field of art, I would say learn how to support yourself by other means. Not by design which is too close to fine art, yet distractingly commercial. Find something that complements your art practice but doesn’t compete with it. For example, construction or selling antiques and collectibles on eBay (something else I did for several years). For architecture, I would say don’t forget the landscape design or leave it until last, and don’t forget that there is such a thing as a landscape architect. For landscape architecture, I would say learn about art and learn about architecture and the philosophy, psychology and history of place and space. Architects and others are more inclined to respect you if you pay as much attention to aesthetics and art as they do.

18. What are you most looking forward to in your new role?

Opening minds, showing possibilities, fostering creative change and witnessing inspiration.


19. Tell me about outside businesses/organizations you have initiated.  What motivated you to start them?

Born out of financial and creative need in the early 1990s, James Westwater Recycled Materials became a successful company that made home accessories, furniture and jewelry before recycled became fashionable. Art Pod was a group of four artists in Northern New Mexico that made conceptually driven work, both individually and collaboratively and exhibited several times together to rave reviews. We sold stock in ourselves and built our own prefab gallery space from scratch next to a major museum. We received the attention of our peers, the press and the art establishment, which was our intention, along with a healthy amount of nose thumbing. The Artists Resistance Movement and Peace Show were responses to the second Gulf War. Naomi and I, who came up with the ideas, along with our fellow organizers and well over a hundred artists, did our bit for the anti-war cause in dozens of art venues. We made news on front pages and art sections in several newspapers. The Vs is a Beacon, NY culture club, still going strong a decade since I left, and boasting a couple of international art luminaries and many an evening of cultural enrichment with friends.

To learn more about James, visit his website: jameswestwater.com.