His illustrations have been featured in magazines, journals, art publications, CD covers and children’s books,
including the NY Times Bestselling Hank Zipzer series by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver, American Library Association’s Notable Chess Rumble by G. Neri, the Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs series by Sharon Draper and These Things I Wish by Lee Pitts. Jesse’s latest book is I and I – Bob Marley, written by Tony Medina. You can find more of Jesse’s art at his website, http://jessewatson.com/
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
Born in an Ohio farmhouse used in the Underground Railroad, I fell into a long legacy of racial warfare. My grandmother was an active United Nations member who took many trips to Africa when I was young. She laid the groundwork for my perception of other races. My parents were very influential with their views on race and politics. Their actions taught me about standing up for what is right, regardless of the consequences.
As a little white boy in Pasadena, California, my school was predominantly black and latino. I still remember my shock and confusion when a group of black boys surrounded me in the jungle gym during recess one day, fully intending to beat me up just because I was white. Luckily my best friend ran up and chased them all away. As they ran away they called him a traitor. I did not understand this then, though I figured it was because he was black and was defending his white friend. It was not until much later that I started to understand how I may have been seen as a symbol of oppression, even though I shared none of the characteristics of the wealthy, oppressive white stereotype.
In high school, race began to really burn. I was living in a very small community up in the mountains of northern California where there were only several black students in the county and a handful of latinos or other races. My friendship with the black students, along with my growing political interests in places like South Africa led to many unpleasant encounters. By my junior year I was called "Nigger Lover" more than I was called by my own name. The more blatant the racism got, the more vicious I became against it. One of the last publicly active Klan groups in California was only a thirty-minute drive away.
When a friend and I heard of a black reporter from the Sacramento Bee newspaper who had been refused a room in an empty hotel in our town, we protested in front with signs. It turned out the hotel was owned by the family of the sheriff; my friend and I were arrested for littering and causing a disturbance. In the police station a deputy showed us pictures of local skinhead and Aryan Nation groups and their weapons caches and told us that since we were such annoying "Nigger Lovers," if they ever had any trouble from us again they would drop us off in the skinhead camps and leave us for dead. Never one to be ruled by reason, the next day I littered the school and the town with flyers against police brutality and racism.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work?
My experiences with racism have grown deep into my core and like bulbs, they have sent shoots up through my creative life to bloom for the world. When I decided to quit my day job and paint full time, I chose to focus on one single subject matter for five years, both as a way to watch myself grow as an artist but also to allow my art to really honor that subject matter. I chose something I loved. I did not set out to be a pirate of black culture and sell it to white folks for a profit like so many musicians have done over the decades. I just painted what I love. I don’t paint Black Art. I don’t paint White Art. I paint Jesse Art. And through those many art exhibits I have seen many people have to deal with race. Some deal with their immediate reactions and prejudices. Some deal with why this white boy is painting so many pictures of black folks. It is always so interesting to see the reactions from both black and white viewers. And this is my way of combating racism with my art. Not by painting pictures of lynchings or of skinheads, or any of the ugliness. But instead, I focus on the beauty of humanity and I share it with all people. And as passive as this sounds, I have seen people change simply by being around my art for long periods of time. If I can cause people to let their guard down, even if it is just with some paint on a canvas, maybe they will go one step further with an actual human being next time they have the opportunity.
In what way can literature/art be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
As I get older, I have begun to see people in a more compassionate light. I see how so many older people have ruts worn into their minds and that it would take a miracle to level them. That said, I do believe in miracles. One of the tools that can level those ruts is literature. When someone reads a story with a black character and begins to empathize with them and crawl into their skin and their problems, major construction has been done in the heart of the reader. It may not undo the years of society’s doctrine, but perhaps that little bit of ground gained will lead to a little bit more. Maybe baby steps aren’t going to solve the problems of race in our society today, but it is better than writing an entire generation off and waiting until they die to proceed. I am not that much of a nihilist. With enough personal exposure and interaction, we can break through. Books are a non-threatening way of making the first contact not with the outer shell of the racist (and even the ones on the fence), but with the soft inside that can be penetrated.
Jesse Joshua Watson lives with his wife, Mariah, and their boys in Port Townsend, Washington. In addition to writing and illustrating books, exhibiting fine art, and teaching art to kids, Jesse is infatuated with growing bamboo, plays soccer religiously, and surfs the chilly NW waters as often as he can.
Artwork by Jesse Joshua Watson – I and I Jacket