In the brief two years since Versia Harris graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Division of Fine Arts at the Barbados Community College (BCC), she has participated in no less than four different artists’ residencies. (Prior to finishing her studies, she also participated in a local Projects and Space Residency in 2011, organized by fellow BCC graduate Sheena Rose.) In a transitional period when many young graduates struggle with the realities of their new-found independence and autonomy, Versia has harnessed the ambition and work ethic that earned her the Lesley’s Legacy Foundation award for the top graduating student and has moved forward to develop the impressive range and scope of her magical animated videos. Here she talks with her former tutor, Allison Thompson about her recent projects and experiences.
Allison Thompson: Since graduating in 2012 you applied to and were accepted into no less than four artists’ residencies: The Fresh Milk “My Time” Residency here in Barbados (February 2013); the Vermont Studio Center in New Hampshire (March 2013); the Instituto Buena Bista (IBB) in Curaçao (October 2013) and Alice Yard in Trinidad (November 2013). Can you describe what that experience has been like for you?
Verisa Harris: After I graduated I just tried to continue work. Talking to Ewan [Atkinson, BFA coordinator at BCC] and other people, I was encouraged to apply for the Vermont Residency. After I applied, the Fresh milk residency came up which I did a month before leaving for Vermont.
AT: What was that like?
VH: I kept wondering if Fresh Milk was too comfortable a place for me to do a residency because I am always up there for events. I was wondering if maybe I was not getting out of my comfort zone enough but at the same time I like the cozy feeling of it and being up there by myself most of the time. But other than that, it was a nice quiet time away from my house to explore. Because when you go up there you don’t really go anywhere else than the studio….
Other artists would come and visit me. And during the last week or two Mark [King] had to start his residency because there were four of us [who were awarded residencies]. As part of the residency programme we had to do a community outreach programme so I went to two primary schools and I showed them my animation and then I gave them a short exercise in animation.
AT: How was that transition moving from college to working more independently in a residency?
VH: Before I graduated I thought there was going to be that big black hole and I would not be doing anything or making anything but I just continued and it became easy. I kept making work and things just followed. So it wasn’t as challenging as I thought it was going to be.
AT: Tell me about the experience in Vermont.
VH: It was the same kind of quiet environment but with a lot more people there because there were about 50 people including writers so even though it was a lot busier it was still this very quiet atmosphere. And this is where I really went to do lino block printing using the printing press there. My studio was really great. The fellow printers were helping me as well because I didn’t know that much going into it. They were very helpful and everyone was giving feedback and that was the first time I realized how much I missed the feedback from people when I was at school. Their feedback helped me to do things. I loved Vermont. And the food was amazing…. I probably was the youngest there but I didn’t really notice it. They try to accept people across a wide age range and mixture. There were people from all over.
AT: Tell me about the work you did while you were there.
VH: I started off using some advice I had gotten from Mr. Werth [former tutor Adam Werth] which was to just start off with images I already had to get the flow moving so I started with just images to make prints, drypoint. And then it started to evolve into mainly lino block printing. Then based on something I had done at the Fresh Milk residency before, I did this large abstract thing. I would print it just doing random printing and then I cut it up and made a book so I have a book of prints.
AT: How was the residency structured?
VH: Everybody had keys to their own space so it was totally up to you how you worked and when you worked. You could work all night. The town is so small there isn’t anything else. Every two weeks on Thursday we had an open studio so everybody would walk around after dinner to everybody else’s studio. And then every Wednesday we had visiting artists. Oliver Herring [German-born artist based in Brooklyn] was one of them. They would give us feedback.
AT: Tell me about your experiences in Curaçao at the IBB.
VH: I went to Curaçao during September to October. It was supposed to be four weeks but turned into five. A part of the Curaçao programme was that they were giving me a stipend and I was supposed to teach for two weeks. The first week was spent just getting a feel for the place. The first real week of the residency was when I had to start the teaching and I didn’t do any work for those two weeks because teaching is a lot of energy….I ended up teaching almost 25 kids. Nicholas Whittle [another artist from Barbados on the same residency] was supposed to take half but he had an emergency and had to fly to England so I had to take the whole group. And I was teaching them animation. I used to see teaching as this horrible thing. Me as a student, I see what students do and the foolishness they say. And I am not going to be a teacher; that is not for me. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be but at the same time it’s not something I want to do now – maybe when I’m older. It’s too much energy.
AT: How old were the students?
VH: 18 to 25. Some of them were actually really nice and did what I asked them to do and then there were others that were “Oh I don’t know what to do it or I can’t do that” and just giving the stupidest excuses. All in all I’m glad that I did it and not just have an opinion of it without ever having done it. I’m glad that I actually had that experience and can say yes I taught but I am not that person right now.
I would do little drawings here and there but nothing really good but after the two weeks the girl staying in the house with me, an artist from Holland, took me to this very desert place in Curaçao because most of it is hot and dry but this is strict desert and that is what set me in motion. It was beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like that. It was just stunning. From then on I just went.
I had taken some video and photos of the place but before I had gone there I had built this gold wall …….made out of vinyl cards from an art store. I built this gold wall and I was trying to figure out what to do with it because I had just gone in this store and was immediately attracted to them so I just started to buy them and then I started to construct this wall. [Versia later spoke about the impact of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui whose work she saw in his solo exhibition, “Gravity and Grace” at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013, as well as the influence of Turkish carpets she saw at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – “Those things have not left my mind,” Versia said.]
VH: And then from there I was dressing up in this dress and putting this thing over my head. I was kind of fooling around so I just decided that I wanted to put myself in a fantasy world and see what type of thoughts would pop up. Instead of having a character and putting it in this fantasy world which is altogether fantasy, I wanted to see if I could put a version of myself in there. I had laid down this dress and I thought it would be nice to have this head-piece. It wasn’t necessarily supposed to be me. It just happened.
AT: Is it related to the earlier character of Swan Girl?
VH: No…. I think I’m interested now in fantasy as a subject and not necessarily just portraying ideas through fantasy and suppression of fantasy and how a person sees or deals with their fantasy. I guess that is why I would put myself in there to see how I felt about my own fantasy.
AT: How did that change in terms of that idea of fantasy happen? Through a discussion or evolution of making the work?
VH: I’m drawn to fantasy. And that is why I was drawn to the desert landscape in the first place. When I’m thinking of drawing something, it looks like that. That is like a perfect setting for me. The idea of fantasy just kept ringing in my head all the time so I wanted to do something with it as a subject.
AT: Why is that idea attractive for you?
VH: I think I’m still trying to figure that out.
AT: Is it a kind of escapism? Is it a safe space?
VH: A safe space from what though? People ask me if I am escaping but what am i escaping from? That’s why I can’t say it is escapism.
AT: Is it a space where you can have a kind of alter-ego? Is Swan Girl an alter-ego for you?
VH: I didn’t think of her as that at first but as she goes through whatever she goes through, I start seeing pieces of myself. But then sometimes she does things and I think that is not really me. I think it’s a mixture….
Fantasy is a place where even in movies, I feel not necessarily that I would want to be there but I want to create that space versus reality where reality seems really bland.
AT: I often think of when we took that College student trip to New York  and I remember you talking about New York being a space where you felt free from those restrictions you experienced back home in Barbados on who you could be. Is that at all related to this idea of creating a space that is more open to different kinds of possibilities?
VH: I think so because lately I’ve been trying to re-programme my mind to be more comfortable with my own skin despite the world I live in.
AT: After Curaçao you went immediately to Trinidad.
VH: Christopher Cozier [Trinidadian artist and co-director of Alice Yard] was the external examiner [for the BFA graduating students at BCC in 2012]. From then on we were talking about me coming to Alice Yard. With Curaçao coming up I had to pass through Trinidad to get to Curaçao and then again on my way home so I thought I might as well stay. It was the perfect time. Chris had been in Barbados a couple of weeks before I went to Curaçao so we had a discussion about my work so I had a kind of a plan for Trinidad which was to do a video installation.
AT: Tell me about the time at Alice Yard.
VH: I was there for a month again. Trinidad was amazing because of this mix-match of cultures kind of all on top of one another, kind of clumsy but it is beautiful. I went to a Hindi festival, a Muslim festival and an African festival. And what are you going to see here [in Barbados]? Nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s crazy. And I’ve never seen so many trees in my life. It just seemed very people-oriented, very human.
AT: Is Trinidad a place you could live?
VH: I think that is the first place I visited that I thought if I had to stay here, I could. The others before were places I felt I could go back to visit but Trinidad felt really homey in a way and everyone was really helpful and friendly and encompassing. It was really good. When I wasn’t getting distracted by all the other things I could do, I was just making little drawings and having discussions with Sean Leonard [co-director of Alice Yard] about how I was going to set up the screens and have the projections. A lot of it was spent with me just experiencing Trinidad.
AT: Did you know before you went to Trinidad that you would have access to those large screens and projectors so that you could do that kind of ambitious installation?
VH: I had a sense that the screens would have to be built. I didn’t exactly know how because the space is kind of small. I kind of liked the idea that you would have to manoeuvre around the space, and also transform the space to suit me but I didn’t exactly know where we could get the projectors from. ARC [Magazine] was supposed to do a launch but that was cancelled. But the company they were going to use, North 11, this big technology company, they just put me on to them. Their projectors are so big, it’s crazy and they could stand close and fill the whole screen…..The images were crystal clear and the colours were great.
I had three screens and a white wall and a projection on a building behind so there were 5 projections. It was supposed to be six or seven but we couldn’t get it. These projections are revisiting my two earlier animations, trying to see how I could get it shown to the viewer other than using one projector and one wall; to see if I could encompass the viewer.
The screens are about 10 feet across, and one is almost 15. I divided them into multiple panels and the projections are interacting with each other. The title is “They say you can dream a thing more than once.” It was a one-night event. It started to rain but the reflection that it cast on the water was really nice. And then the rain drops on the cloth, that was also fairly good too. And then there was some nice reflections coming off of the glass from the door.
AT: What did you think of the whole installation when you saw it?
VH: I was really satisfied to see that the whole thing came off. Actually this main character [in the animation] started to scare me because she was so large and having her right there in my face, she was never so big before. [At a subsequent Artist’s Talk at Fresh Milk, Versia explained that the focus of her time at Alice Yard focus was not on producing new work but revisiting previous work and finding more dynamic ways of presenting it, moving away from linear narrative sequencing.]
AT: Looking back now, you’ve had a few months since you returned to Barbados. In terms of your development, what did you take away from those experiences?
VH: The one thing that stands out to me is how I think about my work. I know that at school you all try to drill it into us about presentation, how you present the work matters, but especially after Alice Yard now, that comes up. Before I would just make the work and think about the presentation afterwards. But now it is part of the work because it is going to feed into how I make the work and what the work is about.
And just keep working. If I had stopped working then I would not be going to all these residencies.
AT: And what are your future plans now?
VH: I’m thinking about going back to school and get a Master’s degree.
And yes I’ve started making new work. I think with this new one I want to get purposefully confused, just to challenge myself. I feel differently about where I want this animation to go. The narrative is not so clear cut. I think there are lots of different ideas running around my head that I want to express all at once. It doesn’t really both me that one may not have anything to do with the other in an obvious way. I want to let go of some of the control that I usually have and see what happens.