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Master artist still draws interest

By Robert L. Roach Journal Staff Writer/Reporter

OSWEGO, Kan. -- "I could draw before I could write", Ted Watts said. "And I loved sports, participated in it, I understand it. And sports gives me a bully pulpit."

And perhaps no one has had greater impact in sports art than this native Kansan.

JBJ: How did you get started drawing?
Watts: "I have an older brother who obviously went off to school ahead of me. I had been around him ever since I had been born, and I was just not used to being the only kid in the house, so I was always doodling on stuff. Mom said I would go and get the funny papers and I would mimic what I would see.

"My mom introduced me to her artist friend Gladys one year before I started school. Gladys could do water colors. I loved dogs and I said can you do a dog? And she sat down there with her paints and went 'shwooo-woo' (Watts's hand zigzags through the air). I was thrilled about the process: she wasn't even looking at a dog, she was just thinking about it, and she could do that with a couple of strokes."

JBJ: When did you realize that you had a rare talent?
Watts: "I don't remember it now but my mom tells me that I was really excited the first couple of days in first grade, then I came home really down in the dumps. I told her 'There’s something the matter with those other kids in school. They can’t draw: they just draw little circles, and they’re drawing sticks for arms.

"And mama says 'Ah, Ted, I need to have a little talk with you. Have you seen your older brother's drawings?' Well, they were just like the ones by the kids at school and I hadn’t really noticed, because I was always in awe and admiring him.

JBJ: What were your big influences in art as a kid?
Watts: "I was reading comic books all the time. A lot of people will visualize themselves as Superman or Dick Tracy, but when I would read a comic book I always enjoyed the stories and I was intrigued by the storytelling, but I never envisioned myself as the superhero. I envisioned myself as the guy that drew the superhero, wondering how they came up with the stories, because the art was nice. "I was intrigued as much by the storytelling, what is there about this that I like? Why do I feel this way when I see it?

JBJ: How did you start your career?
Watts: "When I went after it, I went after it like I was killing snakes, man. When I started this, I was working for the weekly newspaper, had been selling some sports cartoons here and there, had talked with some people who said 'Hey you’re really good.'

"You know, I was making righteous money and there was no assurances that I would be successful. And I went home one day and I said to my wife, 'Faye, I’d like to start my own studio and do sports art for colleges and universities.' And bless her heart, she said 'Go for it.' She said 'You know, if you try and you flop, you’re a whole lot better than if you’d never tried at all.' What are you gonna do with a wife like that behind you?

"So, I was 29-years old when I went to the bank and said: 'Jerry, I need to borrow some money, I'm going to start an art studio and sell sports pictures to colleges and universities.' Jerry said, 'That's the craziest... how much money do you need?' I said '$5,000.' He said "That's the craziest idea I've ever heard. It just might work!' He had me go home and figure out a budget.

"With part of that money, I had an old Ford Fairlane, I jumped into it and I took a swing: I said 'Ok, I'm going to go out to Lawrence, KU, over to Manhattan, down to Wichita State, down to Stillwater to see Okie State, down to Tulsa to see Oral Roberts University and the University of Tulsa, down to Norman Oklahoma to see OU and maybe to see Steve Owens' sporting goods store there, and then over to the University of Arkansas, then back up to Joplin, and drive back into Oswego." All but one became clients the first year; but the second year" they became a client and I hit 100 percent."

JBJ: What’s your theory about painting?
Watts: "I do all my paintings kind of like building a house: you have to start with a good foundation. For me, that is a good drawing, a strong drawing, a black and white sketch. Just do it real quick and very, very loose and you try to get a nice sketch, with not very much detail at that point. I don't care how skilled or what your dexterity is, if you don't have a good drawing base, you’re not going to have a good painting, no matter what.

JBJ: Why do you paint?
Watts: "I try to uplift the spirit; I think there's enough negativity around. I like to tell stories, some of them are painful, and some of them are nice, and some of them are victorious and glorious, but at the end of the day, I'd like when people look at my art, they’d say 'You know what? I feel better that that guy was around making pictures for a while.'

JBJ: Is there something you would like to do for Oswego?
Watts: "Where the highways intersect, there’s this building with this great big grey wall right behind a caboose. I would like to get a Kansas Arts Commission grant, and have that wall painted. I would do a design for that entire wall. It would be about the community and about Oswego, a little bit of the culture, a little bit of the history.

"And then to get the community involved, the actual painting would be done by the art students of say of Pittsburg State and Labette Community College. And it could be a kind of a project, you know, you get to work with a nationally known artist, work off of the design, concept it out. Obviously it would bring some dollars to the economy because the paint has to come from somewhere, and the scaffolding, things like that. And it's something that would stay there for a while."

JBJ: Have you done something similar?
Watts: "I've already done the "Welcome to Oswego" signs at each entrance to Oswego, around 1985. I designed it, but I said 'It’s everybody's town.' So, I had a competition (for others to do part of the project). I didn't want to say, 'That's Ted Watts' deal' because it's community and they all wanted to be involved in it."

JBJ: What’s coming up for your retirement?
Watts: "For retirement, I've got three books planned; it may be I end up doing more. One of them is Ted Watt's Heisman Trophy Winner's Art Gallery, which just has those paintings on the one page; on the facing page a brief bio of the guy, what were his college statistics, and the voting when he won.

"The second book: I will pick my top 50 paintings. It doesn't matter if the project was a media guide cover or Greensburg or a Division II school, or whether it's some of my favorites like George Brett or this Kansas City Chiefs composite - it's my pick of the best of Ted Watts. And I'm going to write a little story about when I did the painting, or if I thought it was a breakthrough piece, or the emotion I felt – you know, some of them I get more emotionally attached to than others, it just happens.

JBJ: What's your third book about?
Watts: It would be more biographical, an autobiography. Somewhere in all these boxes around my studio I got a chronology of every event from 1972 up through like two years ago and then my computer crashed. I had it all stored on the hard drive and I didn't have a backup, but I had printed it out and it's somewhere in a box around here. I gotta find it!

JBJ: Looking back, what do you see?
Watts: "I've had the life. I mean who with artistic talent wouldn't want to wake up in the morning and say 'Gosh, I'm going to go up to that studio and I get to do all day what I love best in the world?'

"I pity people who get up and maybe they make a ton of bucks, but they’ve got to choke down and gotta beat down their business so they can make it work for them. Hey, if you don’t enjoy your work, get out and do something else.

"There's a lot of other things that I could have done, but I don't look back on it. I'm tickled to death that God gave me some talent and brains enough to realize it at a young age."