By Seth Stratton
Eddie Watts doesn’t return to his native southwestern Virginia as much as he would like. But by the look of his oil paintings, one would think he was painting landscapes on site rather than drawing from his own memory.
Watts, 85, a retired illustrator for Piedmont Label Co. – now owned by Smyth Companies – in
Bedford, Va., moved to the Sapona neighborhood with his daughter, Kim East, a Rowan
County teacher, six years ago. He spends much of his time now painting oil landscapes on
mostly canvas surfaces but also on bricks, cheese container lids and rocks he finds on walks.
The painter’s latest creation is an oil on canvas landscape of a barn at an old tomato farm
near Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. The painting isn’t commissioned, but Watts is hopeful
the property’s owner may be interested in the artwork. He’s been commissioned for a few
pieces, but he prefers landscapes.
“Everyone wants to look a certain way in a portrait,” Watts said. “Grandma, mom, they all want to look a certain way.”
After Watts finished serving two years in the U.S. Navy, he enrolled at an art school in Chicago to study design. Over the next couple of decades, he married – his late wife, Ann Keiffer Watts, passed away about 20 years ago – had a family (three daughters, Kim, Karen and Kathy) and jumped around from job to job trying to find the right one to harness his design prowess.
He moved back to Virginia, working for an electrical power company as an engineer, and in a sign shop until finally a position opened at Piedmont for a label designer. He spent nearly 20 years at the company designing dozens of labels – everything from pickle jars to honey containers, dog food tins and soda bottle labels. What may take 30 minutes to do on a computer now took two to three days by hand back when Watts was drawing label designs from scratch.
“It’s amazing how it’s all done by computer now,” he said.
His drawing inevitably lead him to start painting, and he enrolled in the Famous Artists School as part of his training for his label designing job. He had to send in his pieces to be judged, and one, a portrait of daughter Kim, caught the eye of the school’s staff. They offered him $100 for it, which Watts gladly accepted, a lot of money in 1964. His daughter called the school recently to see if they still had the painting and if there was any way she could possibly purchase it back. The school said it wasn’t for sale, but she could purchase a print of the painting instead.
“Can you imagine that? They liked it so much they wouldn’t sell it and decided to keep it,” Watts said while proudly grinning.
But painting isn’t his only skill. Watts also has created a handful of models strictly from his memory including a famous humpback covered bridge near White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and three homes he spent time in growing up. Drawing from his childhood, Watts has been able to use pieces of scrap wood to create small scales of the homes of his parents, uncle and grandparents near his hometown of Glasgow, Va.
He remembers vivid details about the time a creek flooded his uncle’s homestead up to the second level, and he was temporarily displaced to sleep in a barn. Or the time a town boy streamed down the street shouting that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor while Watts sat on his grandparents’ porch. He even painted a beautiful black-and-white piece showing his grandmother harvesting items in her Victory Garden, vegetables grown and donated for the World War II effort.
During a trip back to his grandparents’ home, which burned down in the 1940s, he found a brick and was able to paint a scene on it, which he plans to give to one of his daughters.
“You’ve just got to use your imagination,” Watts said.
In addition to his paintings, Watts enjoys listening to bluegrass music – the local Snyder Family Band is a favorite – and learning new crafts. He’s also had his artwork don the bottle of a white wine made by Hickory Hill Vineyards in Virginia. He said artwork is a great hobby because it really can’t be mastered.
“There’s always something new to learn or try,” Watts said.
Seth Stratton can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 226, or firstname.lastname@example.org.