By Patrick Markey
When New York’s Irish Arts Center invited Raymond Watson to showcase his wooden sculptures, the Newry, Co. Down, artist jumped at the chance to exhibit his work overseas.
A former blanket protester who had been imprisoned in the Maze until 1989, Watson was also looking forward to his first visit to the United States.
But standing in line at Shannon, duty-free tucked under his arm, Watson was met last Friday by immigration officials who informed him he would not be able to board his flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Citing a 15-year-old block on his entering the United States, immigration officials told Watson to call the U.S. Consulate and packed him onto a bus back home.
"To be honest, I felt like crying at that point. I couldn’t believe I was on a bus back to Dublin to get another bus back to Belfast," the artist said by telephone from Northern Ireland. "This is something I’ve been working toward for six months to get enough stuff to send over."
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Imprisoned on charges of attempted murder, weapons possession and membership of an illegal organization in 1978, Watson spent a year on blanket protest — when prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms and were naked except for prison blankets — before being released in 1985. Because of that record, immigration officials told Watson he would require a special visa waiver from U.S. authorities in Belfast.
Immigration officials did not return calls seeking comment on Watson’s case. In 1994, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams bypassed a block on his entry to visit the United States on a special waiver.
Watson talked with U.S. officials on Monday and he will meet again with consular officials, possibly as early as Thursday. Meanwhile, Watson’s relatives in the U.S. were busy contacting their local representatives for help getting him into the country.
Exhibition organizers at the arts center said despite the difficulties, the show would go on even if Watson is denied entry.
For the former prisoner, the New York show was to have been be a new chapter in his artistic career. After completing a degree and a master’s degree in media studies, Watson said he recently returned to woodwork as a full-time occupation.
The New York exhibition contains about 23 pieces that range from busts to weighty bog oak sculptures and a five-foot mythical mermaid. Watson managed to secure grants from arts councils to assist in the expense of putting on the show, he said.
Much of his work is inspired by Irish and Greek mythology and poetry. One of his projects took inspiration from the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate, who sent Watson a phrase from Yeats he thought matched the artist’s work — "Those images that yet/Fresh images beget."
"I’m hoping that I can get this. I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t give me the waiver," Watson said.
The Irish Arts Center is at 553 West 51st St., between 10th and 11th Avenues, in New York City. For details, call (212) 581-4125. Watson’s exhibition will run for six weeks and an opening party will be held on Thursday, July 27, at 6 p.m. at the center.