February 14, 2017
As a young boy James Watkins laid on the floor of his grandparents’ Athens, Alabama farmhouse looking at portraits of his great-grandmother. They were old black-and-white prints that had been touched up with watercolors to look three-dimensional.
It was then that Watkins’ interest in art was born.
He spent days drawing on the backs of farmers’ calendars, but moved up to Big Chief tablets when he started school.
Kids in his school used the newsprint tablets for their lessons, but Watkins would fill up one in a day with drawings of cowboys, westerns scenes, guns and other parts of western culture.
“My mother would be very upset with me when I would come home and my pad was filled up in just one day,” Watkins said. “I was 6 years old at the time and my mother was scolding me, so my grandmother, said, ‘He’s going to be an artist someday, don’t scold him. I’ll buy his Big Chief pads.’ I felt empowered, so that’s it; I was on my way then.”
Watkins’ mother starting collecting magazines with “Draw Me” advertisements. The magazines had a contest with a photo for contestants to draw and send in. Watkins drew all of them.
“Every month there would be a new picture to draw and I would draw them and my mother would critique them. She didn’t know anything about drawing, but she would say, ‘Oh the eyes look too close together’ or ‘It needs to be a little neater; you need to do it again,’ so I would do it again,” Watkins said. “And she would mail it off to the little contest.”
This happened from the time Watkins was in first grade until the 10th grade. It was a way to bond with his mother.
Then one day, Watkins came home to a strange man with a briefcase and portfolio in the living room. Watkins thought he was in trouble and assumed the man was there to take him away.
Little did he know the opportunity the man had for him.
He pulled out Watkins’ drawings from all of those contests in the magazine – the contests he won.
“I was allowed to take a correspondence course; I was in the 10th grade at the time, so they would send me a booklet like a magazine, and it had lessons and exercises in it and they would also send me art supplies,” Watkins said. “I would read the little booklet, do the exercises and then mail it to the instructor. I did this for two years. I never saw the instructor but they would take tracing paper and lay it on top of my drawings and give me a critique and a grade.”
This meant Watkins had an impressive portfolio by the time he graduated high school and started college. A professor noticed his talent and asked to take Watkins to the Kansas City Art Institute.
“At that time, KCAI was one of the top art schools in the nation and still is,” Watkins said. “So I went there and I got a scholarship and got my bachelor’s degree and then went to Indiana University to get my Masters of Fine Arts, and I’ve been teaching here for 34 years in the College of Architecture.”
Watkins is a Paul Whitfield Horn professor and teaches free-hand drawing and architectural ceramics.
Just like his parents, Watkins has a passion for creating anything new. His mother made quilts and all kinds of food, like hog’s head cheese. His father fashioned farm tools from scratch to use on his machines.
When Watkins creates art, it is the same feeling of accomplishment. He learned to have a strong work ethic from his family and working on a farm, because just like working in fields, being an artist is not a 9-to-5 job.
“When you’re in your studio, if you’re fortunate to have a studio, you don’t even think in terms of hours, you just go work,” Watkins said. “Sometimes you’re working late into the night and early into the morning.”
During his time as a professor, Watkins has taught not only at Texas Tech University, but also overseas. In 2004, Watkins received the Fulbright/Hays Fellowship. He traveled in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with 11 other Texas Tech faculty members.
In 2005, Watkins received a Senior Fulbright Fellowship and taught free hand drawing and architectural ceramics at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Architecture in Vietnam.
While there, Watkins gave copies of the books “A Meditation of Fire: The Art of James C. Watkins” by Kippra D. Hopper, “Alternative Kilns & Firing Techniques” by Watkins and Paul Andrew Wandless and “Architectural Delineation Presentation Techniques and Projects” by Watkins and James T. Davis to the library for students and faculty to use.
The university then asked him if he was interested in teaching a drawing and ceramics class for the students to get a course outside the box of their usual subject matter.
His work in Vietnam inspired Lynn Whitfield, university archivist for the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, to include Watkins in the library’s diversity exhibit. The exhibit highlights diverse people who work at or attended Texas Tech and their efforts to increase diversity.
“He’s working with students in a foreign country in a foreign language, but we can understand art,” Whitfield said. “He can show them the way to throw a pot and glaze it. Art’s a wonderful thing because anyone can personalize it. Someone can show you how to make a piece of art and you can make it your own. He’s doing it in a foreign country; he’s here teaching architectural free-hand drawing and architectural ceramics to Texas Tech students.”
Watkins was in Vietnam for about six months teaching architectural drawing from his book and setting up a ceramics program. The students were eager and motivated to learn, causing him to go back at least eight times between 2005 and 2014.
“You get to see how other people live, and it makes me really appreciative of my country and the university,” Watkins said. “We are really blessed with abundance compared to developing countries, and it just makes me not take anything for granted. It just makes me really proud to be an American and a professor at Texas Tech University. I realized what I have to offer, and it’s rewarding to see people be receptive to that and watch them grow and excel.”
This story is part two of a three-part series of profiles highlighting some of those featured in the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library Diversity Exhibit.
The Division of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Community Engagement is dedicated to create and support an environment that allows all members of the university community to be academically and professionally successful.
The Board of Regents of then-Texas Technological College formally established the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library in 1955, but the librarys collection dates to the early years of Texas Tech.
The largest rare-book library in 130,000 square miles, the major historical repository and research center spans a 78,000-square-foot facility with climate-controlled stacks and pulls tens of thousands of individual items to answer research requests from all over the world. In total, the SWC/SCL houses 22 million historical items, including the master Coronelli globe, constructed in 1688 and once owned by William Randolph Hearst.
The SWC/SCL offers:
Students can pursue career paths in design, construction, real estate development, construction product development and sales.