A well-put together retrospective is always a pleasure. It is a chance to see not only the fruits of the artist’s labors, but also the journey through their process — how they think and evolve.
“Reflection Made of Memories,” on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through March 19, is a sumptuous exploration of James C. Watkins’ career in ceramics.
A native of Athens, Alabama, Watkins is the oldest of six children in a family of farmers. As a child, he would draw on anything that was available, including newsprint. During a lecture on Jan. 4, Watkins said he would get into trouble for filling his Big Chief tablets, which were supposed to be used for schoolwork, with drawings.
Rather than punish him for filling up his schoolbooks, his mother encouraged him to do assignments in teach-yourself-to-draw ads in magazines, which she would then critique. Watkins ended up taking a correspondence course on scholarship from the Kansas City Art Institute.
Watkins enrolled at Indiana University to study painting and drawings but soon found himself drawn to the clay studio. It was the communal nature of the clay space, rather than the cubicle-sectioned drawing studio, that attracted him, he said.
In 1983, Watkins took a position at Texas Tech University where he stayed until he retired in 2018. The blue sky and orange dust of west Texas inspired his colors. When he arrived in Lubbock, following a dust storm, Watkins sifted through the dust and decided to use it to make Terra Sigillata slip, which can be used to give a glossy texture to ceramics. Watkins also experiments with clay from canyons and deserts.
It is this intimate connection to the earth that gives Watkins’ ceramics a gravitas that is palpable. There is a grounding effect that signifies history and place, but also a lively sense of wonder and play.
The earliest pieces in the show are inspired by pictographs found in Rattlesnake Canyon near Langtry, Texas. These platters are earth toned with shapes that suggest the prehistoric. One could believe they were lifted straight from the walls of some hidden cave.
Wherever he goes, Watkins draws inspiration from the surrounding environment. Some pots are inspired by bamboo scaffolding found on buildings in Hong Kong. Others echo Cotton Gin Cyclone Dust Collectors that filter dust in large facilities that dot the countryside.
Watkins said his mother would use large cauldrons to make cracklins or soap (as a child it was his job to keep the fire going). Watkins’s cauldrons delve into that memory and are wonderful. He brings out the beauty from the mundane, with the memories infusing the work with feeling that goes beyond the visual.
The cauldrons are large and have heft, but they also have a lightness. Watkins said he had a problem with the walls collapsing, but the solution came to him in a dream. They are double walled, meaning there is space between the inner and outer walls, which paradoxically allow for greater strength and size. The tops of the cauldrons are adorned with organic shapes — many of which resemble cranes with sinewy necks.
The double wall system also allows Watkins to create ceramic baskets (the handles are also double walled).
Watkins is clearly a master craftsman, which stems not just from his obvious technique, but also his willingness to experiment. The range of finishes is breathtaking from matte browns and tans to high gloss metallic colors that remind one of stain-glass. There is also a feeling of Byzantine art with the seductive golds and blues.
Another standout in the exhibition is a series of laser cut porcelain tiles on which Watkins’ drawings, inspired by looking through the kiln’s peephole, mix with a variety of glazes to create the impression of being inside the firing process. The pieces are vibrant and exciting (a series of silkscreens that follow the same theme are also in the show).
From his earliest days in west Texas with the blue skies and orange dust to his blue and gold iridescent pots, Watkins has gathered a wealth of experiences and memories. His works reflects (sometimes literally) the vast breadth of artistic exploration. “Reflections Made of Memories” is an excellent show and well worth joining Watkins on his journey.
A reception featuring a gallery talk by the artist is set for Jan. 13 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
AMSET is located at 500 Main St. in downtown Beaumont. For more, visit amset.org.
This story first ran in the Jan. 13, 2023 Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.