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Six Decades of Painting Black History

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Painter Ira Watkins at his studio in the Hunters Point Shipyard.
Painter Ira Watkins at his studio in the Hunters Point Shipyard. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

View the full episode transcript.

Ira Watkins paints Black history while living it.

He’s a self-taught visual artist who has been using dazzling colors, expressive images and hidden messages to document Black history for decades.

Originally from Waco, Texas, Ira left the south in 1957 on the heels of a street racing accident that knocked a house off of its foundation. Ira says he feared what his punishment might be, so after the accident he just kept going.

Painter Ira Watkins shows one of his many pieces that adorn the walls of his studio in Hunters Point Shipyard.
Painter Ira Watkins shows one of his many pieces that adorn the walls of his studio in Hunters Point Shipyard. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

He arrived in the Bay Area, stopping first in Richmond before moving to San Francisco, where he fell in love with the bustling, big city. He hung out in the Tenderloin where the extravagant nightlife kept him entertained, and he’d frequent pool halls in the Dogpatch neighborhood– as he was a self-proclaimed pool shark.

His life took on a new chapter when he stumbled into Hospitality House, a community-based organization. There he was given the necessary resources and guidance to launch his career as a painter; and he hasn’t stop painting since.

His work has graced walls in his Bayview neighborhood and has been shown at the Tenderloin Museum. He’s also painted a huge mural in his hometown of Waco, Texas, where the city dedicated a day in his honor– now every January 17 is “Ira Watkins Day.”

This week we talk about Black history with someone who has seen it firsthand, and used his hands to make sure the stories are passed on.

"Thanks to this little bitty brush, man, I done had all kinds of doors and opportunity to open for me!"- Ira Watkins
“Thanks to this little bitty brush, man, I done had all kinds of doors and opportunity to open for me!”- Ira Watkins (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Ira’s work can be seen in the  Black on Point exhibit at Cafe Alma in the Bayview. The exhibit runs February 5, 2024 – March 2, 2024.


Episode Transcript

[Music playing]

Pendarvis Harshaw, host: Hey what’s up y’all? Welcome to Rightnowish. I’m your host, Pendarvis Harshaw. 

I recently talked to a brother who is a longtime visual artist, a former pool shark and a living example of the impact of the Great Migration. His name is Ira Watkins. 

He’s a well-renowned artist who’s been painting for decades. And since leaving the south and arriving in the Bay Area in the mid 1900s, Ira has been constantly contributing to the culture of this region.

His work can be found on walls in the Bayview, in a studio in the Hunter’s Point Shipyard, and at the Tenderloin Museum. 

His paintings are filled with Black faces with pronounced features, wide smiles and rosy cheeks. And in just about every painting there are these little details referring to historical facts or figures– almost like easter eggs for those who are paying attention. 

One of his most famous paintings led to the creation of Ira Watkins day in his hometown of Waco, Texas. It’s a long expansive mural depicting major historical events and local landmarks from the Waco area. 

A small version of it was the first thing that caught my attention when Rightnowish’s Marisol Medina-Cadena and I pulled up to his studio in Hunter’s Point. We talked about that image, as well as the importance of preserving history through art, and the thriving culture of the Tenderloin back in the day.  

More from Ira Watkins after this!

We’re in your studio, in the Hunters Point shipyard. As soon as I walked in, I felt like I was in a museum as well as, like, it’s familial. It’s Black faces. There’s Harriet Tubman, there’s Frederick Douglass, as well as people I could identify looking like community members or people from history books. And it’s artistic. It’s flavorful. There’s so much to pull from. I’m like, there’s stories behind every piece. And the first piece you introduced me to was this one up top. What’s the story behind this piece right here?

Ira Watkins: I had did the, uh, Martin Luther King mural project in Waco, Texas, which they named a day after me for doing that project. Then Doreen Ravenscroft got in touch with me and asked me would I be interested in doing a mural pertaining to South Waco. I told her “yeah”, she said, “well do me a design.”


So I got a book pertaining to the history of McLennan County, which is Waco is in.  It’s the biggest city in McLennan County. Then from there, I got an idea. That bridge is represent the oldest, uh, one of the oldest suspension bridges in the USA. It’s a tourist attraction where they just have events on it. No traffic has been on it for years. 

Over here on the left is, uh, in 1953, the tornado came through Waco and wiped it out, downtown section. This on this end over here represent the, uh, tornado and the destruction and everything. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: It still tells an amazing story. There’s a lot of history depicted in it, and the fact that it’s the blueprint for a larger piece that still stands today is really impressive. 

What is a day in the life like for you?

Ira Watkins: This is my life right here. I come here every day! The lady that works in the office, she say, “Do you, uh, paint every day?” I say ‘Yeah. I like to create.’

Some people just like to paint flowers. I don’t knock them, that’s  their approach to art. But my approach to art is I try to tell a story with what I knew about or read about, a vision from me is to try to get it out there, to give you a different opinion to history. You know, that’s, that’s all it is to me.  

I’m a self-taught artist, and I just do stuff and hope that it tells a story. Take that big picture. Not that..the big one. The first picture up here.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Mhm.

Ira Watkins: I done had all kind of comments on that.

Pendarvis Harshaw: The depiction is… um, or the thing that pops out is on the left side there’s a big green book which says “his story.” And the other one, it’s an upside down King James Holy Bible. And in between the two books are the words-

Ira Watkins: Well you see what it says in the middle?

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah, “two big lies” right in the middle of it. Yeah. And then behind them are, uh, the community of Black folks. Even further beyond them, it looks like there’s some people.

Ira Watkins: Yeah.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Picking cotton.

Ira Watkins: Where you see the field, labor and all that stuff, the horses and mules and cotton and stuff like that? But the history, Columbus. They taught that shit in school. Columbus discovered America. Well what about all the people there waving at his ass when he come ashore? You know, what about their history? Then, the Bible, King James version, anytime you say “version,” you’re copying. And anytime you copy something, you’re going to interpret something different.

Marisol Medina-Cadena, host:  You were born in Waco, Texas, but you live here and you’ve been doing so for a while, a couple decades. So what brought you to San Francisco?

[Music playing]

Ira Watkins: I wrecked my mom’s car, and I didn’t want to get my butt whooped, so I just took off.

My oldest brother could get the car and when he had it, All I had to do was find him because he hung at the pool hall and stuff like this here. “Hey, man let me use the car for a minute.” “All right. Just don’t go down this way.”

And one day, one of my oldest friends who’s still alive today. He pull…“Who you got in the car with you, man?”  “Man, don’t let him see it.” That started the race. [laughs] Next thing you know, we didn’t run into no car. We bumped each other and went up and believe it or not, hit a house and knocked the house off the foundation,one block, no, two blocks up the street from where my parents lived.

So when my father came down and, you know, like spectators and everything. My father told me, said, “I don’t know what kind of lie you tellin’ them, but I could look at them tire tracks and tell you was racing. I’ll see you when you get home.” [laughs] I kept going.  I didn’t go home. I wasn’t going to be able to stand that part. Not that my father was no cruel person, but his word was law.

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  So you picked the Bay area because you had an uncle in Richmond?

Ira Watkins: My oldest brother lived in Los Angeles. I stayed in Los Angeles. My uncle came through. My uncle… one of those guys that had his government contracts all over the world. Got in a car, came to Richmond, California. Got relatives over there.

And my uncle told me “Anywhere in the USA you want to go, I’ll get you a one way ticket.”  I came to San Francisco, and I ain’t never regret it.

And plus, during that time, I was a real good pool player. I shot pool good enough, I couldn’t make no living where I’d be having big time money. But I could keep the cheat off me. I could eat, and get me- see, when I came to San Francisco. You could get a room, man, cheap. I mean, real cheap. You can’t do that no more. Hell, they want $100, $200 for fleabag now in San Francisco you know. 

[Music playing]

Ira Watkins: The tenderloin district when I came here was lit up like Vegas and everything. All kind of neon lights and everything was down there, man.


Pendarvis Harshaw: So would you consider yourself like a pool shark back in the day?

[Billiards SFX]

Ira Watkins: I would say that. I used to hitchhike around a lot and I guess go to place- I don’t carry no pool cue with me, but I go to a place where they had these little mini pool tables and stuff and just stand around and watch people. ‘Aww, hell, I can beat him.’ [laughs]  ‘I could beat this one.’ You know, you let them win some, you win some. But the whole thing is when you leave, you just want to have enough money to survive on. And then you come back tomorrow and beat 2 or 3 people then move on. You know, that’s how that went, man. And Dogpatch here, used to have a pool hall right down Tennessee and was a 22nd I think it is, but it used to be a pool hall there. I used to go there every day and win some money every day.

[Music playing]

Pendarvis Harshaw: You started to paint the picture of what San Francisco looked like when you first got here and I wanted to kind of put it in context. You coming up here in the mid 50s, the, uh, mid 1900s in general was known for this massive influx of Black folks from the south coming up in what’s deemed the Great Migration. And I’m wondering from your perspective, did you see San Francisco get Blacker? 

Ira Watkins: See when I came, if you was on Hayes and Fillmore and you looking towards Geary, man all you seen was Cadillacs and Buicks and things, Black people. Now they had other races, but it was predominantly Black people. They had a hotel called the Booker T. Washington. This place here was about nine stories high. It was owned by a Black dude out of New Orleans called Red Duvene. 

All I could say is San Francisco back during that time was thriving. They had a theater on Market street, see Market used to have about four or five theaters on it. They had one called the Emerson. Everybody and any and everyone that was down and out or anything, that’s where you can meet them at, at the Emerson. All you have to do is go in and get your $1 per ticket. I think it opened at 9:30 to 11:00 at night. 

They had Fosters restaurants all over San Francisco. You could go and sit in and get your cup of coffee and get your newspaper and sit there and just pretend that you’re drinking your coffee or whatever, ‘cause some more people that you know, that’s in the street, they’re gon’ come in and sit somewhere around here, have a few minutes conversation and boom. 

When you really looked at the reality part, it was hell. But on the other hand, it was cool. I done been to most of the states in the USA, and this is the best city that I’ve been to, San Francisco. Los Angeles is all right, but then it can’t compare to San Francisco.

Pendarivs Harshaw:I love the way you talk about personal survival as well as community survival, and also how you eventually gravitated toward the arts. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  You got your start making art at this place called Hospitality House?

Ira Watkins: It was later on in life, when I got to the part where I started, uh, I got involved in house painting with one of my relatives and that is how I learned the five basic colors of paint and through that, over the years, I guess developed from there. And then when I went to the Central City Hospitality House, a friend of mine who had told me, say, “You always talk about how good you can draw and paint. I know this place, man that if you can draw, they’ll give you all the supplies and sell your paintings if it’s worth anything.” I couldn’t believe that shit. And I had passed by this place hundreds of times and never even thought about going on inside!

[Music playing]

And I stepped through the door and the guy say, uh, “Can I help you?” 

I say, “Yeah, I want to see about, uh, joining an art program here.” 

“Can you paint?” 

I said, “Yeah.”

 “Can you give me a demonstration?” And I started going. After about a month. They asked me would I be interested in volunteering. I stayed there, volunteering for about five years in that program.

I never got involved in, uh, you know, welfare and stuff like it. I never had anything to do with them until I got to the Hospitality House, and they made it possible for me to get food stamps, a check and all of this stuff. So that’s how come I stayed there volunteering for five years but at the same time, I had kind of got away from hustling the pool in the streets and things for the simple reason, you know, I would, not every day, but I sell a picture, $150, $200. Well, that was cool to me because hell, I had never been selling nothing. If you wanted something painted, I’d paint you a picture. if you gave me something, cool, if you didn’t, you know, if you was just my friend I was doing something for.

So then, uh, my work started selling. Then a little bit more. Then next thing, I start getting interviews. I just, all kind of things started happening for me. And I just, like today, I just tell everybody, thanks to this little bitty brush, man, I done had all kinds of doors and opportunity to open for me.


Marisol Medina-Cadena:  Yeah, you currently live on Third Street in the George Davis Senior Center? 

Ira Watkins: Yup. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  What’s that like?

Ira Watkins: It’s great for the simple reason: I got a roof over my head. I got an apartment that I can afford.

You know, like I shoot pool cause they have a pool table there. I play dominoes, but it’s been maybe about a month since I went did that because, you know, you just get burned out hearing death stories.

I don’t want to sit around and be around, I’m 82, I don’t want to hang around no 82 year old peoples all the time. Hell [laughs] For what? What are we going to talk about? “Are you going here?” I hear enough of them. They talk about doctors. Hell, I don’t want to hear about your sickness. No, I’m just telling you like it is.

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  Do you ever teach art to them?

Ira Watkins: I started the art class there, and, for about three years, and then, uh, I just moved on. I’m involved enough with my personal art thing. That’s the reason I stopped because it made me be obligated on Tuesdays to go and open up the studio, the art room there. I got enough on my plate, I might say, for me to do. How many more years I’m gon’ to be around here on the planet? And I want to enjoy the rest of my time for me.  

Pendarvis Harshaw: Love it. You’re so active. You’re so focused. You know what you want to do. You know why you here. And I’m like… I’m wondering, is there any advice that you can give to younger artists who want to walk a similar path and have a long, luxurious career as an artist?

Ira Watkins: You gotta be your own self. You can’t be tripping off of what other people think of you. They always gon’ have that negative view. Even people that, when I say negative view, people that you socialize with, that you consider your friend and everything, that you went to elementary school with and all of that. You’re not going to be tight with them all the time. Ya’ll gon’ have friction, you know? So you have to stay focused on you, you’re first, before you can reach out to other people.

[Music playing]

Ira Watkins: Best thing I could tell a young person, If you go get a job, that don’t mean that you’re going to be, uh, financially successful. That don’t mean that you’re going to have all the shit that you want. But if you go get a job, if it’s flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s or Burger King or something like this here, in the long run, you’ll come out better than standing on that corner down there.

But it’s the older you get, the less energy that you have to do any-damn-thing. Well, when you get up to about 60, whole lot of energy is gone. But the guy that’s been flipping the hamburger can count on a Social Security check. You can’t count on nobody because you didn’t plot!

Pendarvis Harshaw: It makes sense. What it boils all down to is investing in yourself. Yeah. Investing in yourself and being aware of the benefits, the long term benefits of what it looks like to invest in yourself, consistently. 

[Music playing]

Pendarvis Harshaw: A lifetime dedicated to art, shooting pool and staying on the move. Ira Watkins, thank you. Thank you for sharing a bit of your story with us. 

For all of my folks out there listening, Ira isn’t online– he doesn’t do the social media thing. But his work is readily on display at his space in the  Hunter’s Point Shipyard Arts Studios

And, I’d add that there are so many other artists out there just like Ira– self taught, doing their work to preserve history, and making art every single day, so I ask that you stop by a local museum or attend an art show. Not only do the artists benefit from this, you will as well. 

This episode was hosted by me, Pendarvis Harshaw and Marisol Medina Cadena. It was produced by Sheree Bishop. Chris Hambrick is our editor. Christopher Beale is our engineer. Additional support provided by Jen Chien, Katie Sprenger, Cesar Saldaña, Ugur Dursun and Holly Kernan.

Rightnowish is a KQED Production.

Happy Black History Month, ya’ll. 

Until next time, peace.

 

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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