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Art: Life in a box with Nicky Watts

Nicky Watts
Nicky Watts

As we head out to face the world, our invisible force field slips into place, steeling our nerves and prepping us for the conflict of the challenging social interactions we will face. How thick the force field is depends on how comfortable we are with socializing. For performance artist Nicky Watts, her shield was so thick she found it had become debilitating -- so she opted to manifest it into the physical world, constructing a clear acrylic box and wearing it on her head.

“The box is about my refusal to connect with people on a meaningful level,” she explained to the audience assembled for her artist talk Thursday night at Brett Wesley Gallery.

Going out in public with a box-head creates a visible layer of social isolation, which may seem antithetical to working through isolation issues. Wanting to connect with others, why emphasize the disconnect? However, the spectacle of a person walking around wearing a box naturally draws a lot of attention, and people want to know why. Interaction is forced rather than avoided.

Watts credits a rough childhood with initiating her social anxieties. “My family is a brawl!” she said, recounting the tale of a family birthday party ending in fisticuffs between an uncle and stepfather, a broken knee, jaw and the police. The troubled youth lead to increasing distrust of others, substance abuse and antisocial tendencies, all pushing Watts to hide from social situations rather than face negative interactions.

“I could keep being violent and mean and on drugs and drink way too much that I don’t know anything anymore, or I could hide,” Watts said. Hearing these words tumbling from the petite strawberry blonde wearing cheery red spectacles beneath her box, smiling and cracking jokes in front of us, made the cascading dark phrases all the more strange and unreal. “And that’s what I did. I hid,” she continued. “That’s what I’ve fallen into. That’s what I did when I moved to LA, I hid. That’s what I’ve done when I had conflict here in Las Vegas, I hid. That’s exactly what I don’t want to do. I have to wear a box on my head to not do what I don’t want to do.”

Watts has committed herself to doing her thing -- part self-therapy, part performance art -- in 30 cities; she'll work out which cities and the length of her journey as she goes along. Her tour began last month with a 14-day performance in Los Angeles. Friday, she planned on a Greyhound for Florida, vowing not to remove the box for the entire bus ride.