Some may think that artistic abilities are a result of the connection an individual has with their medium. For a visual artist, perhaps it is assumed that their gift rests in how they manipulate paint, charcoal, graphite, and other materials and coerce them to interact with a surface. When you meet Roosevelt Watson III you realize that this assumption is at least partially incorrect. Yes, it is important for an artist to have an understanding of their materials and how to best utilize them. But true artistry begins with how an individual interacts with the world around them. It starts with perception.
Watson's work is a visual representation of how he perceives present times, past history, and the Spiritual Plane. His work is both celebratory as well as cautionary as he examines humanity's social, cultural, and racial diversity through saturated surreal and abstract imagery. There is something special that can be seen in Watson's eyes as he is either at work or discussing his work. A light beams from inside him and radiates outward to those around him. This light, which should not be under-appreciated in modern times that can sometimes appear dark, is a result of Watson's genuine interest in the subject material that influences his work, as well as inherent passion for the arts as a whole.
As a child, Watson lived in a section of Jacksonville where a shared culture was present but access to the arts were limited. Watson exhibited a creative propensity and an interest in the arts at a young age, which he partially credits to comic books. Watson's first public exhibition of his work came when he was nine years old and participated in a group show displaying students' work at May-Cohens department store, which is now Jacksonville City Hall in downtown's Hemming Park.
This exhibition was a defining moment in Watson's development as both a student and an artist. "We came from church and went to the opening. All the diverse people were there with their families looking at the art. It made me feel so happy that everyone was coming to look at my work, even though it was everyone else's work too... I was like, "this is what I want to do." And it is exactly what he has done as he's made a career for himself as a working artist in a City where individuals will tell you it isn't an ambition easily accomplished.
10 Questions with Roosevelt Watson III
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
I’m in flux right now as I get ready to begin work on the third piece in my series Tabono’s Tempo. I am also working on a commission that was requested by a merchant marine to commemorate his fallen brothers from the sinking of the El Faro cargo ship. The research I did to find all the names and information on what happened was humbling. I’m still looking over articles.
Commissions can be challenging because you want to make the best work of your style. If you are an abstract painter you don’t want to be commissioned for figurative work. This time I’m able to create with few boundaries so the work still feels like and RW3 original.
I do have a few rituals. First I must clean my studio space when beginning a new project. I recently finished a work of art for a group show at The Space Gallery. The piece focuses on Eartha White. Books, pictures, sketches are all over my studio. Now I’m rearranging things to begin research on my newest subject, Stetson Kennedy. After I’m done next comes prayer. It clears my mind and I’m ready to receive new ideas. I like to give thanks to the creator for blessing me with this talent.
What have you learned about yourself through your career in the arts?
No struggle, No story. The struggle is real; thus making this road I walk that much more important to me. I have some fears and a big ego. I’m working on both.
I used to wonder as a young man and artist why my art wasn’t reaching the heights I felt it should reach. I see that I needed time to develop my voice and my story. The art needs to make a statement but I as an artist also have to make a statement. I have become better at understanding how I can most effectively leverage my strengths and reach my audience. I use my artist statement in a more direct manner to uplift consciousness.
I now know that you have to focus on what’s right for you and keep pushing yourself forward. I know a lot of incredible artists in our city and around the world. Instead of being jealous of their opportunities, I use my peers as continued motivation.
You also need to ask for help when you need it.
How do you define success in what you do?
I’ve known the joy of being a creative individual since I was a boy. I think defining success on your own terms will help you be a happier person and artist. At its basic form, success is the feeling I receive from process to completion. Another value is the power that is felt by the viewer and then given back in an emotional expression or verbal response. Most days it’s being able to live, work, and support myself through my creations. I have been a working artist all my life and in the last 10 years I have fully devoted myself to developing my craft and working solely as an artist. Jacksonville is a hard market to do this, but it's not impossible.
Where on the spectrum between literal and abstract do you identify and is there a common theme demonstrated throughout your body of work?
I do have an iconography that continues through my work. If you are a collector of my work you can see the trajectory and the consistency. The spectrum is constantly blurred with abstract expressionism and sometimes surrealism. I walk a tightrope. Even when things are a known figure it doesn’t represent that in actuality. I am highly interested in metaphysics and history so the common theme is usually a connection to the spiritual.
What initially attracted you to using found and every-day objects as materials in your work?
Honestly, lack of resources in the beginning. While in art school at The Atlanta College of Art I had an abundance of materials. Once I considered myself a professional, I had to become creative about what I was painting on. I started looking around and found rocks and wood on the side of the road. Many older homes were being remolded and old doors were being thrown out. Perfect and Beautiful. Some with windows, old door knobs, barely a scratch. Laid to rest and ready for me to revitalize them.
Years later I was living with my wife Shawana in Savannah, GA. I convinced her to go out in the wee-hours of the night and collect doors. I had over 50! Most have sold or been used in other works of art. Being a Jacksonville native I love the beach and American Beach was my annual summer playground. I decided that the sand from that beach will always be used in my work. No matter where I go or where my art displays, Jacksonville is always represented.
For 8 months your work was on exhibit at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens as part
of "Lift: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience." What did being a part of that exhibit and having your work on display in one of Jacksonville's major art institutions mean to you?
Being a part of LIFT meant completing a next level goal in my art journey, to be in a historic exhibition in a major arts and culture institution. The icing on the cake was that it was in my backyard. It meant a lot as an artist, but it also meant a lot as a black male that was born here. Being an artist wasn’t a common occupation in the part of town I grew up.
A lot of my elders remember a time when they were not welcome in the Cummer. It is a part of their history. To know that LIFT was one of the Cummer's most viewed and a successful exhibit is tremendous. My soul was opened anytime I was in a program to support the exhibit or in the gallery.
The reception from those who attended the exhibit was incredible. Tears came from me a few times and the patrons most times when I would talk about Tabono’s Tempo: American Slaughter (allegro de negro), my big assemblage piece. The work will eventually be shown outside of here but I’ll never get that kind of interaction from being in the museum with people on a weekly/monthly basis.
Career wise, it is a game changer for my resume. It was time for art of this topic to be more than a novelty. This exhibit allowed my stream of conscience to be heard on a platform that it deserves. There are other museums in this community that desire that same kind of attention and resources. When the National Museum of African American History and Culture recognized the show it made me feel like the world was ours. It was time for the nation to see our art community at large.
In addition to "Lift," you contributed work to the exhibit "A More Perfect Union: Explorations of Human Rights," a show curated by Hope McMath at the Space Gallery. Both of these shows have garnished considerable attention and encouraged discussions around topics such as inclusion, diversity, equality, and cultural equity. How do you continue forward with the momentum gained from these exhibits? Additionally, do you feel a sense of responsibility to continue promoting these topics even after the exhibits close?
I'm on a journey right now to complete this work. At the start of February my art was in three different shows. Hope McMath asked for a piece from my waymakers of history, Tabono’s Tempo, to be included. Contributing to the show and being a part of this conversation was a no brainer. Hope has been an incredible supporter of my art since day one. I appreciate her eye and her voice. Her declaration of the mastery of my last piece of art has continued to push my skills.
I won on Art Ventures Grant that is allowing me to continue work on three pieces. The piece in the show was one. Lately I’m being considered for more opportunities and people have been reaching out for me to be on display. I’m searching for the right museum or gallery to showcase the work once the series is halfway completed and then again when it is completed. The pieces are quite large. Most of them will be 8 ft, or higher, and about that wide. There aren’t many places here with that amount of space that leave room for the work to breathe.
Shows of late here have related to these themes, but I create the work that feels most consistent with my lived experiences. This is my everyday life. Fighting for relevance. For acceptance as an artist. To not let my blackness be disassociated from my art, but also not limited by it either. I am using what the world has offered me to create. The movement forward is the continued fight for the rights of the people. By keeping the human identity in my mind, which will keep it in my art, is one of the ways I continued to move the conversation forward. Once the show closes it does not close the topic that was conjured. I have to keep creating.
What does community mean to you and how has being a resident of CoRK impacted your career in the arts?
Community is everything; my wife commonly says no one can do it by themselves. Of course she is right. I found a sense of self and place at CoRK. I share a studio with some of the most creative people in Jacksonville. I appreciate everything Dolf James does to keep us all stable.
I generally feel supported, though I know my art has its critics. I’ve been a resident at CoRK for over a year now. I used to create at home mostly for convenience but also because of affordability. I feel successful being able to pay my rent every month, though sometimes it is still a struggle because I don’t have a patron to foot all the bills. But at the start of every month I feel a sense of pride.
The minute people knew I had a studio at CoRK their eyes brightened. This art studio, and the people who come in, keep this art community buzzing. It turned my world upside down. It's a place to create, congregate, and converse. You get critiques in real time, sometimes too real, and have the help of 60+ artists if you get stuck or have a question. Everywhere there is a specialist.
My studio is a shared space with six other artists. We can’t close our energy off. Collaborating and co-working with others has opened my eyes to see what I do differently. It’s a great place space to display your work and bring potential clients to view it. If you are interested in buying art go to CoRK's website to view the roster of artists who take residence there. We're always open to give a tour.
Jacksonville needs more places for artists to create. The only free one I know of is The Jax Makerspace.
What does it mean to you to be a native of Jacksonville and do any elements of the City's history influence your artistic narrative?
Your question is literally my artistic expression and influence. They are bound to each other. I am one of the few artists actually born here and making a living creating art. Jacksonville isn’t my adopted city, it’s my city.
My daily experience of living here is what fuels my creativity. My daughter was born here. Most of my immediate family lives here. My parents are here. I met my wife in Jacksonville. I love this city so much and appreciate how hard it has made me fight to work and live creatively as an artists.
I went to high school at William H. Raines. Once I left for college I learned so much about the rich history of Jacksonville's black community. It seemed incredulous that these historic individuals were not celebrated in the bigger span of our greater heritage. LIFT was the 8th time in my career that I was asked to create work about James Weldon Johnson, and something happened as a result of this show. I met civil rights activist and historian, Mr. Rodney Hurst. His brilliance and conviction inspired me. He says that unless we tell our history it doesn’t get told. I noticed there were stories of A. Phillip Randolph, Eartha White, A.L. Lewis, and more, but no artistic monuments or contemporary works celebrating them. I wanted to tell my story by looking back and forward from their perspectives.
What do you feel is the artist’s role in society?
I’ve heard it is to reflect the times in which we are inherently lucky to be living. I do personally subscribe to that. A little more than that though, I think it’s to embrace empathy and illicit a response. I want to be seen and I think most artists create from that basic need. Visibility.
To me, the role of the artists is to shine light on an otherwise unseen situation. I’m trying to be a watchtower. At the age of 43 they are only now starting to see me. The best is yet to be seen.
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