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Renowned Artist James C. Watkins and the Trinity Museum Project.

by guest writer Diane Lehr

On Friday July 17,2009, I spent the late afternoon in Athens, Alabama, with artists Carole Foret, Gail Bergeron,and Alissa Rose-Clark. We were preparing a space for an art world icon--ceramicist James C. Watkins. It was a weekend I will never forget.

As I walked intoThe Club House Cafe, I did not expect the visceral reaction I would have in the face of such a task. First I said "I'm not believing this. I cannot believe this!"

I walked into a room filled with treasures beyond my wildest imagination sitting atop plain dining tables and amidst a hodgepodge of nicely appointed wall accessories and children's art. I looked into the faces of my "make-this-into-a- gallery-space-comrades" and said, "We need all this other stuff out. We need all the tables covered in white linens.Then I need to touch this art."

I watched in a sort of dazed terror as Carole Foret manhandled a drill, and Alissa and I hung monumental platters layered in 24 karat gold on hooks we women had said "Hail Mary's" over. I caressed a double walled raku fired piece representative of grandma's cauldron that was used to "boil" the laundry on the black side of town in the sixties. I watched Alissa sweat and toil and move furniture and all but take down walls while I helped find parts and tables and more linens as the space and art required. We all fretted about how we could move pieces and light to best accentuate the patterns and glazes that begged one to look intently into their glassy surfaces.  (Above photo of Watkins at work)

I almost wept over the Fragility Series that paid homage to the Cambodian killing fields, and as I worked and worked, I began to feel part of the work I was helping to display. As the evening progressed and we all grew numb with weariness, we were high-fiving one another because this space was truly a gallery space.
That was Friday.

On Saturday July 18, 2009, there was an all day benefit for the Trinity School Project at the same location. The morning began with breakfast and a come and go gathering in the gallery. I assisted Carole and Alissa as docent during the morning, and I was thrilled to meet Professor James C. Watkins in the flesh. He approached me and immediately asked, " Are you an artist?" I said, "Yes.I am." He said," Good. Do you have a studio?"

"No. Not beyond the limitations of my house," I responded.

"You need to get your city, this city, to help develop an artists' cooperative here. It will keep this place alive." And so, a door of consciousness was opened to me, there, in that moment, by this teacher of art and repository of wisdom. (photo of Lehr and Watkins shows the "Cauldron" in the foreground.)

Now some of you may not know who James C. Watkins is. He is an African-American artist born 58 years ago in Athens, Alabama. He started out by drawing everything he saw, even his friends, as they played and rough-housed at the Trinity School where he was a student before segregation closed in1968. He then attended Calhoun Community College and he used to sneak into the ceramics lab after hours to make pots until his art professor caught him and said,"James, here is a key to the lab. I don't want a young black man arrested for breaking into an art lab.There is no telling how much trouble you'll get in around here if that happens."

This same bell-bottom-wearing, VW-bus-driving art professor took an interest in the young Watkins and saw the amazing talent in his student. He ultimately helped James obtain scholarships to the prestigious Kansas City Art Institute.

Here is a brief synopsis of Watkins impressive resume:

"James C. Watkins is a world renowned ceramic artist with such accomplishments as Resident Scholar Status at the Japan Center in Hikone Japan. His work is shown internationally and is included in the first permanent collection of The White House Superior Fine Craft Collection. His works are also in the permanent collection at Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in Shigaraki, Japan. In 1995 his work was shown in two museums of The Smithsonian Institute including The National Museum of American Art. The White House Collection has traveled throughout the United States. He has received two distinguished Fulbright Scholarships to teach his ceramic arts in Vietnam in 2004 and again in 2005. "

Professor Watkins currently teaches at Texas Tech in Lubbock Texas. He was in Athens on this occasion to help his classmates bring to life the dream of a permanent museum honoring the Trinity School and it's rich history. While he was in Athens, Watkins received the Key to the City of Athens from Mayor Dan Williams and a Proclamation was delivered in his honor by County Commissioner David Seibert.

For more information on The Trinity School Project, contact Carolyn Williams at 256-232-8347.


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