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ArtPrize Artist Profile: Looking back in time with Robert Watkins

Robert Watkins discusses his 2012 ArtPrize entry and what Grand Rapids means to him.
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Since the year 2009, autumn in Grand Rapids has boomed with an extravaganza showcasing the arts: the colorful, exciting rendezvous termed ArtPrize. In many ways, ArtPrize has become a movement, displaying the uniqueness and individuality the city possesses by illuminating the creativity of its occupants. Robert Watkins is one of the many Grand Rapids natives who participate in this wide-reaching event.

The look of esteem as he states that he grew up in Grand Rapids is proof of his pride in the city. The Grand Rapids native graduated from Kenowa Hills and now attends Grand Rapids Community College where he is working his way to a degree in Art and Design. He plans to transfer to Kendall College to transform that degree into Graphic Design, solidifying an occupation in the field of art.

“Art is the one and only thing I am committed to. I want to do something I love for the rest of my life," says Watkins. Again, sincerity illuminates his gaze. When asked what inspired him to become an artist, he thinks seriously about the question and then smiles, stating in a sure manner that it was his sister that introduced him to art. At the young and impressionable age of 8, he began watching her create things. At this time he was a "Daddy’s boy" participating in sports, but something drew him into the world of creativity. It was not until high school, however, that Watkins felt confident in his ability to draw. He chuckles as he articulates that his high school art teacher mentored his newly found skills, but then he progressed so well that the other students would often come to him for questions and advice, rather than asking the art teacher.

Watkins’ ArtPrize entry for the year 2012 is a charcoal drawing on a blank canvas. When asked where his inspiration stems from he quietly states, “It's honestly all from my mind, wherever I go, I am always thinking.” Nine months ago there was a thoughtful Robert Watkins brewing ideas for this year's entry. Today he believes that he made the correct decision in choosing this piece to enter.

“It was a long process, but well worth it,” he says. Over one hundred hours of planning, drawing, shading and perfecting went into the fashioning of this meticulous piece, but the details, he says, are evidence of the enduring effort. During those long months, Watkins was not only drawing; he holds a job as Family Fare’s customer service manager while attending GRCC as a full time student. 

Of his first year participating in ArtPrize, Watkins says he is full of excitement and anticipation. His main desire in participating in the event is to move people and provoke old memories to cognition, so that people may appreciate the delightful city that is Grand Rapids. He hopes the people of Grand Rapids are grateful, but all the same, he desires that people who are not from Grand Rapids will embrace the city.

“It’s the little things that are great," he says. Watkins' drawing of the eye, reflecting his favorite place in Grand Rapids, was meant to express his love for the city. He clearly states, however, that he desires everyone who witnesses the art to perceive it differently.

Though ArtPrize has its critics who have stated that the event is more of a popularity contest than a competition of technique and style, Watkins maintains an upright attitude. One of his prime challenges are critical people, he says, "along with remaining focused and finishing projects," but he is "so tremendously grateful" for the opportunity to share his work that he doesn’t pay critics much attention. He adds, however, that he wishes there were seperate contests for each medium. When asked what was unique about his piece of art he utters confidently that his art possesses meaning, and that its meaning is Grand Rapids based. Since ArtPrize is a hyperlocal event he is proud that (rather than merely aesthetic pleasure) his piece is meant to provoke thought about the city.

Robert Watkins’ “Looking Back in Time” is on display in the front window at J Gardella’s Tavern (11 Ionia Avenue).

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