Morning Sun
  • Brush with history: Ted Watts has a long history in art

  • “I tell stories with pictures,” artist Ted Watts said Friday in his downtown Oswego studio. “You have to be sure to tell it right. If you find a nice story, you make it good for the people that want to know.”

    For decades, Watts has been telling stories with his pictures.

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  • “I tell stories with pictures,” artist Ted Watts said Friday in his downtown Oswego studio. “You have to be sure to tell it right. If you find a nice story, you make it good for the people that want to know.”
    For decades, Watts has been telling stories with his pictures.
    His portraits of Heisman Trophy winners are on exhibit loan to the College Football Hall of Fame. His murals hold places of honor in locations across the country. His work has been on gameday programs, on posters, and on display.
    While Watts tells his story with pictures, his story will require plenty of ink. It’s a story that started in Miami, Okla., took a turn in Coffeyville, ended up in Oswego, and made its way into frames, posters, programs, walls, athletic facilities and galleries across the country.
    “I just want to go in there,” Watts said, pointing to his workspace in the studio, and sit at my drawing table, and draw and paint. I want to do what God told me to do, and that’s draw and paint.”
    Starting Point
    Watts wasn’t always a painter. In fact, he started off as a sportswriter for the Coffeyville Journal.
    “I always happened to be a bit better at drawing things,” he remarked with a smile.
    At some point, he began drawing cartoons for the Journal, “then it just mushroomed.”
    Universities began seeing his work, and it wasn’t long before he got his first call, setting up a meeting in Manhattan, Kan., with officials from Kansas State University. But K-State wasn’t his only client for very long.
    “I took that trip and saw K-State, and I signed a contract to do their press guide cover,” Watts said. “I thought, ‘I have gas in my car.’ So I drove straight to Lawrence. Then, I thought this is going pretty well, so I drove to Tulsa. The University of Tulsa and Oral Roberts [University] became clients. I drove to Stillwater, then on to OU.”
    At the University of Oklahoma, he ran into old friend Steve Owens, who also came from Watts’ hometown of Miami, Okla. More on that later. Owens put Watts in touch with the OU officials.
    “They all bought in,” Watts said. “But I wasn’t done. I thought, ‘Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas.’ So I drove to Fayetteville, where I sat down with [then-Arkansas head coach] Frank Broyles. I said, ‘I’m Ted Watts, here’s what I can do.’ That’s how it all started.”
    Miami roots
    Although Watts said it all started with that first road trip, he’s not exactly right.
    He grew up in Miami, Okla., and played track and football for the Wardogs. But he was a few years older than another kid in the neighborhood.
    Page 2 of 5 - “Steve [Owens] was just a grubby little kid when I was going there,” Watts said. “I would have treated him better if I’d known he was going to win the Heisman.”
    Watts and Owens remained good friends, and in 1969, Owens did win the Heisman and was named an All-American.
    “I told him, ‘Steve, for Christ’s sakes, you won the Heisman. Now, I’m going to have do do something nice for you,’” Watts recalled. “He said, ‘Well, paint me.’ And I did.”
    It wouldn’t be the last time. Watts has several paintings and sketches of Owens in his studio. The stories about Owens flow out of Watts like paint from a brush.
    “We were at a couple of luncheons, and he told the crowd that he and I grew up in the same house. So afterward, people came up to me and asked if we were brothers,” Watts said. “I told them that we never lived together. His parents bought the house from my parents. He grew up in the house after I did.”
    Even later in life, Watts said he and Owens were sharing a few beers in their hometown and overheard a group of 20-somethings at a nearby table looking their way.
    “They said to each other, ‘Isn’t that Steve Owens, the Heisman winner?’ And Steve puffed his chest up a little and was feeling pretty good. And then another said, ‘Isn’t that Ted Watts, the painter?’ And suddenly I’m feeling pretty good. I’m puffing my chest up, too. Then the other kid says, ‘I thought they were both dead,’” Watt said, dropping his head.
    Heisman Collection
    Owens would later be one of Watts’ pride and joy, the Ted Watts Heisman Trophy Winners Art Gallery.
    “We’ve got a very nice presentation that this is probably the most unique sports collection in America,” Watts said. “Who knows who all the pro football players of the year are? Is there a gallery somewhere?”
    Watts’ gallery is located — for now — in South Bend, Indiana, t the current home of the College Football Hall of Fame. The College Football Hall of Fame itself is moving to Atlanta, and Watts said he’s considering whether his gallery, which is on exhibit loan, will move with the hall.
    But it wasn’t that conversation with Owens that started the Heisman gallery.
    “The Heisman thing began with a friend who asked me what my dream was,” Watts said. “I said my dream was to paint all those guys.”
    A trip to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, where the trophies are awarded, further spurred Watts to paint.
    “I was disappointed in what they did. They had oil retouched photographs. But they were cheesy to me. I wanted to show their face and an action element of every guy. I wanted to present a consistent form as art, not as a retouched photograph.”
    Page 3 of 5 - In October 2012, Watts unveiled the portrait of former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford. He’s also completed the portrait of Mark Ingram, former Alabama running back. He’s a little behind, as portraits of former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III and the most recent Heisman winner, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, have yet to be completed.
    “They have value [as a collection],” Watts remarked. “I don’t even know what it is. Somebody needs to protect these.”
    “The secret of my success is I live in Oswego, Kan. It’s not a go-to place. It’s a place that you will not have people swarming in. You don’t have people looking over my shoulder. I did get publicity, but you really have to be going to Oswego to get here,” Watts said.
    The small office-turned studio that keeps him busy is, well, cluttered would be one way to put it. His walls are covered, not only with his work, but with cover stories about his work, and relics from thankful clients past. His actual workspace is covered in documents and past paintings.
    But it’s understandable if it isn’t quite in tip-top shape yet. It’s not his original studio.
    Across the street lies a building with a sign saying Ted Watts art studio. During the day, the sunlight shines through the window, and one can see rubble and dust in the spot where easel and desk once were.
    “For 35 years, that was my studio,” Watts said. “The building started crumbling up because people didn’t take care of it like they should. It started falling down. It almost fell on my head one day. Me and another guy, we moved 35 years of crap over. I’m still trying to get it looking like it did over there, because it was beautiful.”
    Watts’ new studio is right around the corner from an apartment that he has also taken over. That apartment is his “treasure trove.” As much as the studio is full of history and mementos, so is the apartment. Stacks of old programs and prints lie piled on top of each other. One day, Watts would like to turn this area into a gallery. Right now, it’s a little closer to warehouse or even dusty attic than the gallery it deserves.
    Watts points out the Kentucky basketball poster from “the year they won the title.” The year was 1978. Under that is a Louisiana State football poster with Charlie McClendon. The poster is from 1973.
    “We need to go up here and label it, because I’m going to die some time,” Watts said, in a matter-of-fact tone. “I’ll never make a ton off it. [My family] can sell it when I die. They can get rich off it.”
    Page 4 of 5 - Once he moved to Oswego, he never left, and Watts said there’s a clear reason.
    “The people here have been so nice to me. I was always Ted,” Watts said, choking up momentarily before catching himself. “They knew I was an artist. But I was a friend. I could go up and down the streets, and into the convenience stores, but I was always Ted. There are some really nice people here who like me because of who I am, not because of what I do.”
    Other Stories
    Plenty of coaches, athletic directors and more have liked Watts for what he does.
    “[Former Alabama head coach] Bear Bryant called, and said, ‘I think we’d like to do a football cover.’ You get real tight when that happens,” Watts said. “I’m 30-35 years old at the time, and to get a call from Bear Bryant is like getting a call from God.”
    Watts’ work now hangs in five halls of fame across the country. He’s received national awards and graced the cover of books, magazines, game programs and media guides.
    But there’s one team that ranks above all others for Watts — Pittsburg State.
    “I’ve always been faithful to my alma mater, Pittsburg State,” he said. “They’ve been so nice to me over the years. I’ve been nice to them, too. I’ve created images for PSU, sometimes at no cost, that will live a long time.”
    It’s easy to see how much PSU means to Watts. The only jersey in his office is a Pittsburg State jersey. And Watts wore a Pitt State hat for his photograph.
    “I love OU, because I’m from Miami, and I love all of them. But in the end, I’m a Pittsburg State Gorilla. That’s the way I feel,” Watts said. “People ask me who I really love. I say No. 1 is Pitt State. That’s my alma mater. No. 2 is whoever has paid me my last check. If it’s Notre Dame, I say Notre Dame. If it’s K-State, I say K-State."
    There’s lots of love to go around for Watts. He’s had more than 160 clients. And the list continues to grow.
    “If you told me as a kid I could have done all this, I would have thought you were crazy,” Watts remarked. “But I had the belief I could do it. And I have.”
    Perhaps the only portrait that would never be for sale is the “triple self-portrait” he did of himself in the style of a Norman Rockwell painting. It includes family touches, like his dad’s leather helmet, and his son’s Miami Wardogs football helmet.
    Page 5 of 5 - Cancer of the bladder and colon slowed Watts down a few years back, and the scans that doctors performed showed wear and tear on his knees and right shoulder. Those injuries are likely from his days as a track and football athlete in Miami. Watts said he doesn’t plan on getting those injuries fixed.
    “All I need is one eye, my right hand, and my brain,” Watts said.
    Until those go, Watts will keep on telling stories with his art.
    “I just regret that I don’t have all the days to do all the drawings in my head,” Watts said. “God’s got more stories for me to tell.”
    Andrew Nash can be reached at andrew.nash@morningsun.net or by calling 231-2600 ext. 140.

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