In 2009 Judy Watson, an Australian contemporary artist, visited the UVA Art Museum and viewed Thomas Jefferson's architectural plans for the University in an exhibition, Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village, curated by architecture professor Richard Guy Wilson.
In the fall of 2011, Watson became an artist in residence through the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. She worked with historians and archaeologists to learn about the slave experience at Monticello as well as Jefferson's gardens. Leni Sorensen, who specializes in African-American research at Monticello, called the gardens Jefferson's "experimental beds," which Watson found to be the perfect title for her series, as it can refer to both Jefferson's gardens as well as his alleged relationship with Sally Hemings.
Each of the six etchings that make up experimental beds was composed with multiple plates, incorporating images of archeological finds from the digs at Monticello—nails, rings, shells and coins—as well as vegetables from Jefferson's gardens, the elk antlers that hang in Monticello's entrance hall and silhouettes representing Jefferson's slaves, all overlaying architectural drawings of the Academical Village.
The antlers appear in experimental beds #5, along with artifacts, images of hair, and silhouettes. "When I went to Monticello, I saw the cut-out black silhouettes of various family members framed on the walls," Watson says. "I chose living people for the silhouettes [in my etchings] because I didn't find any suitable silhouettes of Jefferson's slaves." Peeking out from behind the silhouettes is Jefferson's drawing, Pavilion No. III W. Corinthian Palladio.
Watson worked closely with art professor Dean Dass and his students in experimenting with color on various proofs. Watson even took samples of hair from students and staff for one of the plates. "This hair element is connecting threads, a scatter of DNA and culture imbedding itself within the work," she says.
The suite of six prints is on exhibition in the South Gallery of the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library through May 11, 2013.