If you made paintings inspired by your old diary entries, what would they look like? It's unlikely they'd bear any resemblance to Esther Pearl Watson's, which prominently feature her father Gene Watson's flying saucer projects, built in the '80s in Texas. In Esther Pearl's paintings, the saucer looms over landscapes sprinkled with children, sneakers, and old Pepsi cans, which the artist explained to me weren't recyclable for cash like beer cans were when she was a kid, so she and her siblings would always be disappointed to find them. They collected cans to help pay for gas for the family car, which often broke down.
In her new show at Sandra Lee Gallery, Big Dreams, there's a painting of Gene abandoning the smoking car on the side of the road, heading home on foot and thinking about his inventions. In another painting, a beautifully multi-colored flying saucer illustrates one of Watson's diary's tiny quotes in the upper left corner, "One day there will be a saucer that will have lights of many colors and all my friends will think it's cool. Wylie, TX 1988." Underneath it's signed by Esther Pearl Watson, 2010.
Diaries play a major role in the artist's work. On a trip from Vegas to San Francisco, she once found a 5th grade girl's diary in a gas station bathroom. She and husband Mark Todd (also a renowned artist showing work in the gallery's back room) were stuck in a hot car with no radio, reading the diary aloud and getting wrapped in the preteen saga. And that's how Watson's Unlovable zine was born, which has recently been released in glorious pink/purple/glitter book form, just how the original diary's owner Tammy Pierce would have wanted it (her name was reinvented by Watson for the unknown author's protection). Watson found that her own teenage self had a lot in common with Tammy, and their stories sometimes cross over. The book and zines, along with some sweet neon prints that glow in black light, are available at the gallery.
Childhood memories can be foggy but Watson's seem more vivid than normal. Dead cats with flies swarming around them, Dairy Queen cups littered by the side of the road, piñatas in a storefront -- these tiny details are tied to the words in the artist's diary, and she remembers them and renders them in a way that is so candid and wonderful. Her paintings have the power to bring up your own reveries and flashbacks. People I know who have seen her work, along with others who have approached the artist, have been moved by her art and found themselves in it, even if they didn't have a dad with a flying saucer or a diary.
The saucer hovers over many of the scenes in Watson's paintings and though it's depicted in glittered glory, she told me it also represents her maternal grandparents' burden of having a son-in-law with a passion for futuristic travel and a night job at Domino's Pizza. But the artist admired her father's perseverance despite the embarrassment of having the kooky dad in town (he sometimes wore all white and once borrowed her cherished heart necklace as you'll see in one of the paintings). I love seeing how her oddly fond memories are channeled into such magical paintings. When I asked what her family thinks of her work, she told me that her siblings have said, "Please don't paint me," while her dad hung one of her paintings next to his prized Donald Duck poster.
The paintings are so true to the artist's life, so genuine in nature and narrative that, in my opinion, it's impossible not to love them. Esther Pearl Watson is a gem, and Sandra Lee was wise to present Watson and Todd's work for the first time together in a show in San Francisco. Sandra Lee and I both discovered Watson's work at 2008's L.A. Paint exhibition at the Oakland Museum. Clearly neither of us ever forgot it. And once you see it, neither will you.
Big Dreams is on view through June 26, 2010.