In search of the real Tom Watson

Art professor's spooky retrospective exhibit runs through Oct. 31 in Larson Gallery.

Tom Watson
Columbia College opened its latest art exhibit, “In Search of the Real Tom Watson,” in early October. The show runs through the end of the month and showcases the body of work of this remarkable artist and instructor. Watson has been creating and teaching art for nearly half a century in ceramics, water colors, oil paintings, jewelry and digital works.

What is the wellspring of this artistic flow? The tall, angular Watson is quite candid:

"I think we, as humans, spend our whole life trying to figure out how we are going to cheat death," says Watson. He has long, expressive hands and uses them to gesture as he speaks in his Brown Hall office littered with paintings, prints and ceramics for the show. "But death is coming. And I'm okay with that. I have gone down that road, and it is not traumatic."

Watson's early childhood was in no way traumatic. Born in Willow Springs, Mo., about 20 miles north of West Plains, Watson's mother was a schoolteacher; the family moved to Fort Leonard Wood so his father, then a carpenter, could construct Army barracks. The family moved to Columbia in 1945 where his mother taught in a county one-room schoolhouse and eventually became head housekeeper at the University of Missouri Medical Center. Columbia has been home to Watson ever since.

Glimpses of mortality

His first experience with mortality occurred in 1945. He says he and a cousin had gone to the neighborhood grocery store "to get baloney or something." They were on the way back from the store when Watson noticed his beloved dog, Whitey, lying in the street. "I remember saying to my cousin, 'That dog had better get out of the street or she is going to get hit by a car.'

"When I got closer I saw she was lying funny. Then I saw the blood trail going down to the gutter." Whitey had been hit by a car.

This was more than ordinary childhood trauma. Most people would not describe a pet's death in such visual terms, or be so influenced by it. Dead and suffering animals underlie Watson's work. One of his prints shows a limp monkey dangling from a hangman's noose with an American flag tied to its tail. Another shows a figure in an old fashioned smoking jacket. The figure has a boar's head and electrodes implanted in its skull.

The second incident occurred one summer not long afterward. His extended family had gone down to a swift, deep local creek so the adults could drink beer and the kids drink soda pop (then a rare treat) and swim. Watson's brothers swam to the opposite side of the creek. Watson couldn't swim, but edged out into the creek anyway.

He stepped into a spot over his head. The next thing he knew, he was going under.

"I didn't know which way was up," he says, "where the shore was or anything. I panicked, took my first breath of creek water. Then the gag response kicked in. I coughed and water rushed into my lungs. Then I was breathing water.

"But all this time my mind was awake. As the oxygen levels in my body diminished, I began separating from my body. Then I noticed a bright light. It moved from my right to directly in front of me, then started moving towards me. It then stopped and moved away from me, like in Star Wars. [The visual effect of a spacecraft jumping into hyperspace]. I became more aware of the water now, I saw its yellowish, greenish tinge. I felt calm, peaceful. I was becoming one with the universe."

The next thing Watson knew he was waking up on the creek's bank, puking and coughing. His beloved older brother Robert Lee, or Bobby, had jumped in, hauled him out and emptied his lungs. If Watson had looked up to Bobby before, he now idolized him.

The third time Watson came close to death was when he and his family were driving back to Columbia from his aunt's house in Willow Springs. His dad, who had a taste for Detroit muscle, was driving too fast. Watson's parents were in front, the brothers in the rear: Watson on the far right, Bobby and his other brother to the left.

This car had "suicide doors": its front doors opened as front doors do on cars today, but the rear ones opened in the opposite direction. Normally, this was not a problem; suicide doors were more than a little cool.

During the drive, Bobby asked Watson to roll the window down. Watson complied, but his hand didn't land on the window opener. It hit the door opener.

The door flew open backward and the sudden resulting drag sucked Watson out of the car.

"I remember bouncing on the pavement, and my mom yelling. I knew my body kicked up as it hit the pavement. Looking down, I could see individual rocks going by, could see their color and texture." This time Watson didn’t have an out-of-body experience. He saw his life flash before his eyes.

"You think it’s not real, that that doesn't happen, but it happened to me. I wasn't that old, but scenes of my life flashed through my mind."

Watson ended up unconscious in the middle of the road. Luckily, there wasn't much traffic and no other cars hit him. Again, he recovered, but this time with scars he still bears. "In a lot of ways they never fully healed," he says, and he's not just talking about bodily injury.

His fourth and worst experience with death occurred in March 1950. Bobby wasn't just a little-brother-saver and a good swimmer, he was a Golden Gloves boxer, and he was on his way to Jefferson City with three other young men for a boxing tournament. Watson, his mother and father were at home.

Then the phone rang.

"In those days, you had different rings for the phone [on a party line]," he says. "It rang the ring meaning it was for us. My mom answered the phone and her countenance just fell. She started crying uncontrollably. She said something to my dad, and he started crying uncontrollably, too." They then went over to his grandmother's house and she too started to cry inconsolably.

A drunk driver had caused a horrific accident. The drunk, driving a pickup truck, was in the wrong lane. An oncoming tractor trailer swerved to avoid the pickup and hit the car containing the four boys head-on.

Three of them, including Bobby, died on the scene; the fourth was taken to a Jefferson City hospital and died there. Watson's parents were so upset, he says, that they couldn't even tell him. He didn't find out Bobby was dead until the funeral.


Watson's world collapsed. In his grief and guilt, Watson made what psychologists call a transference and became Bobby: talking like him, acting like him, even dressing like him. Watson says his mother could not bring herself to hug him after 1950.

Like Bobby, Watson was an outstanding athlete, and accepted a basketball scholarship to attend Harding College in Searcy, Ark. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in painting.

After graduation, Watson returned to Columbia where he entered the master's program at the University of Missouri in art, emphasis on design and crafts. Harding College, however, wanted him back, so he returned to Arkansas and taught art there for five years.

In 1970, the University of Missouri started an MFA program, one of the first in the Midwest. "I figured I might as well do that," Watson says. "So I quit my job and moved back to Columbia."

The program was eliminated soon afterward. "So there I was, with no job, not even a program," he says. "I had no idea what I was going to do next."

Watson's father was then working in maintenance at Christian College, and Sid Larson taught art. "Now Sid was very approachable, and my dad told Sid, 'My son is an artist, a real artist --You should talk to him!' Sid said, 'Have him come over to talk to me.' So I did. I talked to Sid, and he hired me." Watson began teaching part time in 1970 and full time in 1971. In 1979, he finally got his MFA in metals from a revived University of Missouri program, the first person to graduate with an MFA from that institution.

Shakedown, 1979

Watson now had all the trappings of middle-class normality: a good education, a steady job, the esteem of his peers and students, a marriage. But all the while he was haunted by guilt and inexplicable explosions of rage.

While preparing for his MFA show with decades of work in multiple media spread out before him, Watson says he started seeing the imagery that sprang from his subconscious and their placement on canvas for the first time. "Things started making sense. I started seeing patterns where I hadn’t before."

He now saw much of his art was a reaction to death and a struggle to free himself from his transference to Bobby. He had once believed he had chosen objects at random. After 1979, he saw things were exactly what and where they should be: the hot rods, dead animals, astronauts, wavery lonely figures. For the viewer, the right side is his brother's side, the death side, the left is life. And objects to the viewer's right are almost all larger than those to the left. If, like Watson, you are in the painting, that's the death side.

"I think of my paintings as communications from my subconscious to my conscious mind," says Watson. It was a form of communication he never fully understood before.

And the viewer's right side is larger in almost all his works. An almost painfully bright photorealistic painting of a shiny, chrome-valved hot rod engine slants in from the right of the canvas. A leaping tiger appears to be centered but on closer examination is skewed to the right, giant right paws and claws fully extended. A thin, solitary boy in yellow pants stands to the right, apart from the mob crowding onto a bus.

Teaching and learning

Teaching has largely been a joy for Watson. Like many teachers at the college when it turned coed, Watson remembers the 1970s as an explosion of talent and energy. "The students in the 1970s were fantastic!" he says. "Teaching them was like feeding piranha, they were so eager. Sometimes they would hide in the bathroom while the building was being shut down so they could stay longer, sometimes all night, to work. They just had an unbelievable creative energy."
Tom's ceramic art
And he keeps learning. Today, after almost a half century of teaching drawing, metals, ceramics, printmaking and painting, including a stint as Columbia College art chair, he says he's drawn to the possibilities of digital media such as 3-D and animation.

He's embedded in the Columbia College family, too, married to stalwart college supporter and photographer Kimberly ('Kim') Nowak Watson ’91. One daughter, Lee, graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from Columbia College in 2007. She is now enrolled in the graduate architectural program at Kansas State University. A younger daughter, Nike, 17, also is an artist, filmmaker and actor.

Two children from a former marriage are doing very well in their respective careers: Thomas is a radiologist at Washington University, St. Louis and Tina J. Watson Wheeler is a speech pathologist in Columbia.

How has he kept teaching all these years? "The summer vacations are wonderful," he says. "I am able to invigorate myself over the summers."


Anonymous said...

Tom was one with his students during the 70's. He spent a good deal of time with us, after hours, toasting the day's creative processes with suds and table shuffleboard. Over dart and foosball games, we all bonded and managed to decipher the trappings of esthetic value and life's mysteries. At no time since have I experienced the level of artistic awareness. May God continue to bless you and your family Tom.

Stephen Moore

Velvet Norton said...

Tom was one of the toughest teachers I had, he and Sid kept us on our toes! Tough classes, brutal critiques at times. Thank you! You pushed me to be the best that I can be and because of that, I make a living as an artist. I owe you big time! Punch the lights and darks, people respond to texture, you know your stuff ;)