Richard Jesse Watson Gallery Walk

Transcribed by Kristin Tollefson, Education Director

The following is a transcription of two gallery walks narrated by Richard at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art on October 10 & 11, 2013.  The text generally follows a path starting in the Orientation Gallery and moving counterclockwise through the exhibit.

Artist’s Background

Richard Jesse Watson grew up in the Mojave desert, playing outside in what must have been 130 degree sun.  The sun made a huge impression on him. He’s also color blind, and yellow is one of the most demanding colors for him as an outgrowth of this fact.  He leans on it heavily in his work.  This is also a factor in his choice of strong lighting, and the exploration of light in his work.  Light helps him see color.

His mother was a bohemian feminist, full of energy, and his father -- a physicist and inventor -- had been her chemistry teacher.  They were early and primary influences.  Richard’s parents were atheists, and he rebelled through his inquiry into religion.  Richard read John Steinbeck and was drawn to a life of doing things with his hands -- he has had jobs welding, milking cows, laying carpet – he wanted to experience the world through manual work.

Richard says he gets lost in patterns and the texture in the background of paintings – this abstract quality of artwork is something he mines for his own pleasure, tries to incorporate into his work along with his more realistic style.   His mother had been a friend of Robert Motherwell, another influence.

He sees artists as influences for himself and for others: each is a universe with joy, sorrow, etc.  Their unique chemistry and vision beget creativity in other artists.  Artists “document the journey” in ways that help others who may take the journey but who may not have the ability to chronicle in the same way. 

RJW HeavenlyAroma

Richard Jesse Watson, Heavenly Aroma, Egg tempera, mixed media, gold leaf on board |
Photo: Paul M. Bowers

Orientation Gallery

South Wall
Heavenly Aroma

The work on the right of this wall is a study and the one on the left is the final painting.

He asked the question: “How do you paint angels?” and set out to explore it.  He did research, looking for the spectrum of beauty and opinions about angels as he prepared to illustrate The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake book written by Nancy Willard.  He observed a windstorm with leaves swirling, imagined they were angels.  He tried to capture that feeling as he rendered the magic smell coming from the oven, the angelic attributes of the main character.  Plein air painting, a technique of working outdoors that involves close observation of nature, explorations of color and pattern, and playing with a variety of medium (including an x-acto knife, used to scrape and incise lines into the paper’s surface) also impacted this work.  His alternative-minded artist son, experimenting with bleaching his close-cropped hair, served as the model. 

Richard blends abstraction with realism in many of his works of art, and often starts a project with an abstract study or a free painting, or sometimes a sculpture assembled from found objects.  His work is a process of thinking: an attempt at bringing two oppositions into play, efforts to balance and nod to the extremes on either end of an idea.

North (Back) Wall
Lord’s Prayer series

Richard has himself explored many questions surrounding the existence of God/no God.  When he came to this project, decided he wanted to portray this age-old writing of the Lord’s Prayer through a multicultural lens.  Each child in the illustration series comes from a different culture: the girl, displaying empathy by feeing the birds in Daily Bread is Bengali, On Earth features an Ethiopian child surrounded by his drawings.  These doodles were inspired by letters and drawings Richard has received from kids, as well as from folk art cultures that exist outside of the genre of Western art training. That said, Our Father nods to Michelangelo’s iconic Sistine Chapel image of God and Adam nearly touching hands: these hands are an amalgamation of his own, his son’s, and his grandson’s.

Richard sees art as a form of problem solving: through art, one can express the past, and envision the future, work through many different ways of orienting oneself to the world. 

West Wall
Quilted Angel

Richard spoke of his propensity for thriftiness.  He attributes the conservation of materials to his mother, who was Scottish, and an industrious saver of things.  He sees reusing thrown away things as a “challenge” in his work, one that pushes him to discover new ways of working.

For this piece, he utilized torn up used paint palettes, both as small abstract paintings and as the foundation for this work of art.  Some of the tiles were from the process of retiling their bathroom, and he used his daughter as a model for this work.  He worked “from the bottom up” as with many other works: he began with an abstract base and rendered a naturalistic portrait on the surface.  Layers of his process are evident in this piece.

He remarked on the fresh way that children look at the world, and how his granddaughter remarked that a particular piece of his was “a rotten egg.”  When pressed into explanation, she said, “The last one is always a rotten egg.” 

He also tries to maintain regular access to his inner child, which he self-corrects and calls his “inner zoo”: the process of exploration he engages and lets unfold in his work.

Shapes come to him as he works:  the process of exploration makes the art.  Generating abstract forms with paint on paper or assembling impromptu sculptures out of found objects are prompts he sets up for himself and that use a different part of his brain.


RJW StarGazer

Richard Jesse Watson, Star Gazer, Oil on board |
Photo: Frank Ross

MESA Gallery

South Walls
Magic Rabbit series

First he envisioned a hat out of which a rabbit might come, and built a sculpture that served as a model and muse for his painting. The hat and its texture were inspired by a vintage top hat he found; the compound curve of the brim fascinated him, and drew him back to his travels in Europe and the Soviet Union: the impact of seeing works of classic art and experiencing Stendhal’s Syndrome, a complete emotional overwhelm in the face of beauty.  He refers to the artists’ process as “reaching for a truth beyond the tangible.”  This series involved a particular investigation into medium, and what would accurately depict the rabbit’s earthly softness and its connection to things beyond our world, in the stars.

Elements of his work are autobiographical: he paints what he knows, what he sees around him.  The Morris Minor belonged to a homeless friend who parked it in their yard, and it became the “rabbit car,” the airstream trailer in A Friend, The Best Magic was the place he worked in as a studio for a time (the easel in the corner of the gallery was created as his workspace to fit in the trailer), and his past as an avid surfer is reflected in the surfboard on top of the car. 

East Wall
Wizard of Oz

This illustration was commissioned for a book published to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the original work by Frank Baum.  Richard painted the Wizard in the form of his father, who he imagined was the real Wizard of Oz when he was a child, surrounded by his inventions, the smoke and the drama.

Drawing Table

This was built for the Airstream trailer that he used as a studio, specifically for a corner where he could stand and work.  Each item attached has significance: 

  • The goggles encourage creativity and act as a color filter for him to “see” differently due to color blindness.
  • The driftwood was found on the beach, and was exactly the color of a baby seal he saw nearby, and which is rendered on the wood.
  • There are skulls, feathers for nature studies. 
  • Marks on the surface are evidence of play with materials: oil, tempera, and more.

Artists search: they have mood swings, are drawn to diverse questions, explorations.  He is reminded of a statement made by a friend who encouraged him to “throw [his] hat over the fence.”  This image suggests that once you make a choice that takes you out of a comfortable zone, you need to follow through, either going to fetch the hat or leaving it.


Take a look at the Garden of Eden on the opposite wall to see where this little creature came from in the border.

Center Portable Wall (Red)
Dark Knight

This work for the Legend of St. Christopheris an example of Richard’s pairing of abstraction and realism:  the paint, rendered as two dimensional Rorschach images, also reveals a knight’s garment portrayed in three dimensions.  Wrestling with new media allows things to be discovered, both by the artist at work and by the viewers of the finished work.

Night Before Christmas series

When asked to do this project, Richard had doubts, as the story had been done so many times before as a commercial venture.  When he did further research and learned of the rich tradition of illustration that the story had encompassed, he changed his mind and chose to do it his way, portraying characters and places as people and surroundings from Port Townsend:

  • Santa became an aviator, referencing Richard’s father’s invented aircraft using motorcycle parts and hand-carved propellers.
  • The elves were painted from life from Port Townsend characters, including Richard’s son with dreadlocks this time, and Max Grover as the Head Elf.
  • The dashboard of Santa’s plane was drawn from the chalkboard dashboard Richard drew for himself as a child, the Morris Minor in his yard, jet planes and a GPS system.
  • The roofs of the houses were rendered after Richard rented a small plane to fly over Port Townsend and see the top of the Courthouse building for himself from above.
  • The espresso machine (with borscht!) is a play on many of Richard’s friend’s food loves.

Santa’s sleigh was composed as a sculpture-model (using gelatin mold, lampshade, other materials) that he could light and render in his two-dimensional images.  Richard speaks of light as a quality that he is focused on bringing to his work as a children’s book illustrator, no matter of the medium he chooses.  This marks a different approach from many contemporary illustrators who use a pen-and-color-wash technique.

North Wall
Moon Poetry Machine

This sculpture reflects Richard’s thoughts about his dad as a scientist, his brothers and nephews, through this Galileo-character.  The telescope is his Skype with the Moon, a way to communicate.  Look for the materials he uses: Baby chew toy, cup warmer, turbocharger, bike horn.

Other Sculptures

Other sculptures in this area make use of found objects: mop head, a section of bowling alley flooring, whip cream lid, seashell, Fimo modeling clay. 

  • Knight: steamer, tongs, dishwasher vent, vacuum cleaner parts
  • Santa sled: inspired by declassified photos from his dad’s work of a rocket sled
  • Red plane:  Hazelnut coffee creamer, mixer parts

His childhood was full of materials explorations: when he was a boy, he used to melt his toy soldiers.  In spite of this curiosity and drive to reuse, he has some guilt over repurposing/using brilliantly engineered/designed items in his collage sculptures. 

West Wall
Pergy & North Woods series

The roly poly bug/pill bug became an icon in many of Richard’s works; Pergy was started nearly 40 years ago, put aside repeatedly, and taken out, finally finished.  Look on the lower wall near his worktable for the pill bug that was cut out of the surrounding mat on the Garden of Eden piece. Pergy and other recurrent images (including the artist’s signature) are hidden in this series of egg tempera pieces he created for the North Woods book for the Sierra Club reveals these images.

Medium is important here:  he hand mixed the egg tempera, which was a material that had been given to him in quantity.  Pigment is mixed with a yolk of an egg and painstakingly painted in glazed layers.  Every few years it “blooms” with the iridescence visible under the glass now.  In order to preserve it, the work needs to be periodically removed from its frame, cleaned of the bloom, and reframed.

The images for the North Woods illustrations are taken from a variety of sources: a stay at the Naniboujou Lodge in the North Woods in Grand Marais, Minnesota, the forests of the Olympic peninsula, North Beach in Port Townsend, his love of the High Sierras… they are a composite of ideas, both observed and imagined.

Richard has a great respect for the notion of flow, the connection between the known and unknown, and the planned and serendipitous.  His artwork is a living document of this ongoing search that is inextricably woven into his engagement with life and living.