Jerry Watson represented a rare species of artist.
He sterilized the containers for his acrylic paints. He organized his brushes by size at his studio in what is now the Chamber of Commerce building on Third Street. He wore creases even in his blue jeans, and kept himself as neat as the "hard-edge" paintings for which he was known in Paducah.
But colleagues of Watson, who died Sunday at 77, say there was nothing hard-edged about his character. When he happened to visit one of the many fellow artists who considered him a friend - such as Juanita Gilliam, a local ceramics artist who knew him for 35 years - he'd politely refer to their messy studios as "interesting" in his Southern drawl.
"I don't know anybody that didn't like Jerry for lots of different reasons," she said. "He had his opinions, he would speak his mind about how he felt, and how he felt about art. ... But he was also so helpful to other artists."
Sometimes, that meant loading up one of his well-kept cars to transport art to a regional show. Often, it entailed hours of work hanging shows, taking them back down, patching holes and repainting walls at the Yeiser Art Center, where he was a fixture from the 1960s on.
"He was one of the ground-breakers. He was faithful, he was there, he was a supporter. He was always dependable," Gilliam said, adding that if it weren't for volunteers like Watson, the arts center likely wouldn't exist.
Watson, a 1954 graduate of Paducah Tilghman High School, built a friendship with local artists Mary Yeiser and Bob Evans, both of whom helped found the Paducah Arts Guild - the early incarnation of the Yeiser. He was also a member of the Paducah Area Painters' Alliance and the Paducah Wastelanders. Even in later years, while he was fighting off cancer, he made a habit of stopping by the Yeiser to check on its progress.
"Jerry was a good friend to me. He was very interested in what was going on here, and he was glad to see that things were moving forward," said Josh White, the Yeiser's executive director. "We definitely miss him."
A senior technical illustrator by the time he retired from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in 1998, Watson boasted hands as steady as his temperament. Friends say he never used a ruler or taped off his paintings - that would leave ridges in the paint, which he considered unacceptable - but instead built a rotating easel that allowed him to paint the lines freehand.
Watson's work has been included in permanent collections locally, as well as in Evansville, Indiana, and Owensboro. Meticulous composition and a wealth of strong geometric shapes characterize Watson's later work, much of which features a single object - often a broom or fire extinguisher - presented in color against blacks and grays. Critics called the style sterilized. Gilliam prefers to think of it as purified and says it draws in viewers' eyes "like a magnet."
Despite his strict, neutral color palate, Watson "was always very excited about art. He would be very encouraging and very open-minded about all different styles," fellow artist and friend Kristi Hanson recalled.
Watson is survived by son Dwain Eric Watson and wife Jill of Paducah, as well as Mayna Craggs, his companion of 25 years, and several cousins.
The Yeiser will host a commemorative potluck dinner for Watson from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. Family, friends, patrons and fans are welcome to attend.
"I think he wants to be recognized and remembered for his really professional work," Gilliam said. "We've got him hanging on our walls. We won't ever forget him."
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.
Want to go?
What: Jerry Watson Commemoration Dinner.
When: 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: The Yeiser Art Center, 200 Broadway.
All are welcome to bring a dish to the potluck dinner. For more information, email Josh White at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 270-442-2453.
Mayna Craggs posted on: Sunday, August 10, 2014 1:38 PM
Ms. Laurel Black - your article is very well done and appropriately reflects the Jerry Watson I knew for 25 years.