John Watt performs magic, though not in the typical sense. The sleight of hand and optical illusions are there, but the tools are different: The stroke of a paintbrush creates his illusions.
"With lots of practice, and if you get good at it, you can touch someone's soul," he says. "It's the same with magic."
Watt believes his work has the ability to cut through to a person's core. He describes the first instance of watching this happen as "one of the most rewarding things." One of his early paintings--depicting a Navajo tending to sheep in a vast landscape--brought a woman to tears and led to an immediate purchase, he says.
The Southwestern subject matter is typical for Watt, who believes that "as an artist, one should paint from experience and reality." For his research, he spends his time at the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, where he snaps photographs of landscapes that inspire him.
"His work harkens back to earlier times, but some have that timeless quality," says Vicki Donkersley.
As the curator for Watt's new exhibition at Tohono Chul Park, Donkersley says that Watt's paintings act as a counterpoint and a complement to the Navajo textiles that will be on display there as well.
"They help put some of the weaving show in context because of the landscapes like those of the Monument Valley," she says.
Growing up in Tucson, Watt began exploring his artistic side at 4 years old under the guidance of his father, also an artist. The enjoyment and satisfaction of creating something and earning praise for it spurred Watt to take art classes as he progressed through school.
"I never thought of it in terms of, 'This is what I want to do with my life,'" Watt says.
He left home after high school and moved to San Francisco to learn a new skill: welding. After a year of odd jobs, Watt returned to Tucson and took a job with Hughes Aircraft, putting his welding to use.
But when Howard Hughes died in 1976, "everything went up in the air," Watt says. "I realized there wasn't any such thing as job security."
He picked up and eventually made his way to New Orleans, where he worked at a shipyard. While there, he heard that a "crazy artist" was looking for a welder. On a whim, he decided to take the job with Lin Emery, a local sculptor.
"It was a pretty awesome experience working with her," he says. For four years, Watt did a multitude of tasks for Emery, and he began thinking art could become a permanent profession. The income wasn't enough, however, and he decided to move again.
Watt settled in Little Rock, Ark., and worked for an insurance company for 12 years. His ambitions had changed, and his home in Tucson was a faded memory, in part because his relationship with his father had deteriorated.
But then things changed. Following a messy divorce, Watt and his new wife moved to Tucson, and he began building a new relationship with his dad. "It was absolutely wonderful," Watt says.
He transitioned back to the arts and asked his dad to teach him how to paint.
"He gave me vague directions, such as, 'You get this thing ... a ... brush and dip it in some ... um paint.'"
His dad was in the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Malcolm "Sparky" Watt died in 2002.
John Watt had the task of going through his father's belongings, and that's when Watt found a few canvases that were drawn on but had never been filled in with paint.
"I felt like he had left them for me to find," Watt says. "It's like any father who wants to pave a way for his child. All these subject matters, he'd given me to learn for Western painting."
Watt used old photographs his dad took of Monument Valley during family trips as references and finished the paintings. He continued to pursue painting by taking classes and getting in touch with other local artists.
Along the way, he never forgot the last bit of direction his father gave him after the vague tool discussion: "And the rest is magic."
Portraits of Navajo Land is on display at Tohono Chul Park, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte, through Tuesday, April 22. A free opening reception will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 13. Call 742-6455 or visit the Tohono Chul Web site for more information.