"What you have to understand about Oswego," says Ted Watts, a resident of the village (pop. 2,390) of that name in southeastern Kansas, "is that it's a ghost town—only people live here." Yet, remarkably—especially to snooty souls who think all creativity must burst forth in New York, Hollywood or Paris—Watts, 37, is thriving in Oswego as a sports artist specializing in college athletics. While the world doesn't beat a path to his door (Oswego is far too isolated for that), it does know his phone number.
And the world calls regularly. Indeed, since Watts started his quixotic venture in 1972, he has painted or drawn 2,500 works—most of them football or basketball action or personalities—for 110 colleges from Yale in the East to Stanford in the West.
Watts got started by painting covers for football and basketball programs and press guides; these days he mostly does large paintings of individual athletes—usually All-Americas—and critical moments in games. On college campuses, Watts is easily the best-known sports artist in the land; he has become so popular, in fact, that after years of struggling, he now must occasionally turn down commissions. That's a great relief to his mother, who, Watts reports, "was always afraid that left to my own devices, I'd gravitate toward dirty pictures."
At the University of Arkansas, there are 56 Watts originals of coaches and All-America football players. The University of Kansas has 83 Watts portraits, for which it paid a total of $20,000, in its Hall of Fame. Kansas State soon will have 28 of his paintings of Wildcat football players who have made it to the pros; Oklahoma State has 56 Wattses of notable Aggie athletes; Texas Tech parted with $10,000 to get Watts to do 28 paintings of its best players. He has rendered 75 paintings for the University of Kentucky. And he is now working on his most lucrative project—a $23,975 deal with LSU for 175 pictures.
"I try to keep a naive quality about me," says Watts, "which is easy because I am naive." Then the telephone rings and he answers, saying, "Hello, this is Rembrandt of the Prairies." Somewhere, the Dutch master is clearing his throat. But Watts has struck a responsive chord among college sports people with his no-nonsense representational work. If a college wants Watts to do a painting of one of its running backs scoring a touchdown, that's what they'll get. His wife, Faye, says, "Love is pretending you understand his art." But that's a little joke, because there's nothing to understand.
In 1979 Watts made $51,000. He thinks he'll be able to earn more in the years ahead, primarily because he has no competition. There are a few artists who do work mainly for the schools in their hometowns, but nothing more.
And there's that wealthy master of sports schlock, Leroy Neiman. But he wouldn't be expected to jump at the chance to do a football program cover for East Stroudsburg State. Watts, on the other hand, would. And such truly distinguished sports artists as Bernard Fuchs and Bob Peak do works on subjects other than sports, while Watts confines himself not only to sports but also—with rare exceptions—to college sports.
Clearly evident in Watts' work is his ability to capture the excitement, enthusiasm and basic feel of collegiate sport. "How do you do it, Ted?" Frank Broyles once asked. Replied Watts, "I work my butt off." That is the kind of language football people understand. And that is why Ted is able to paint their language.
Watts' first published work appeared in 1959 in The Broadcaster, the newspaper at the high school Watts attended in Miami, Okla. It was dreadful. He didn't publish much more until 1972, when The Coffeyville (Kans.) Journal paid him $5 for a drawing of a football coach. In the meantime he graduated from Pittsburgh (Kans.) State and settled in Oswego, where he worked first for a company that makes campers and later for a steel-building manufacturer. Watts' career break came when then-Kansas State Football Coach Vince Gibson was in the Oswego area recruiting. He saw some paintings Watts had done in his spare time and told him K-State needed a press-guide cover and whom he should contact. Watts said he was Gibson's man, and that was all the encouragement he needed to quit his job, borrow $3,000 and become a full-time artist. About five months later. Watts was flat broke.
As a last gasp, he went down to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa in search of a miracle. He talked with the Titans' basketball coach, then Ken Trickey, who said he was getting ready to spend $150 apiece for photographs of his players. "I can do paintings for a pittance more and then you'll really have something," said Watts. That pittance turned out to be almost double the photo price, but Trickey went for the idea and Watts went for his paints. Then came the Arkansas deal and Watts was launched.
Watts studied under Charles Banks Wilson, an Oklahoma muralist and portrait painter. Wilson says he doesn't remember much about Ted "but at least he tried. I just dumped it all on him in the hopes that some of it might stick. I'm still more impressed with him as a person than as an artist."
Wilson is critical of Watts' standard procedure of painting from photographs. Watts has rarely visited the campus of a patron; instead he works from photos and, sometimes, written information that, he says, helps him get a feel for the subject. "That makes it hard for him to go beyond the photographic in his interpretation," says Wilson. And some photographers are not thrilled when Watts, in effect, copies their pictures.
Watts brushes off such criticism by waving toward a hallway wall adorned with his works and saying, "This is a graphic example of my presence on earth that will live after me." But he is sensitive to jibes that great artists don't paint from photographs. "What I do is faithful portraiture," he says, "and maybe that's not pure, fine art. But I really don't dig artists who have to explain their work. If it needs an explanation, it doesn't deserve one. The greatest pleasure I get is when someone says, 'By golly, that picture looks just like Utah football feels.' In a photograph, you freeze one second; in art, it's more the essence of the subject's personality. I'm making a comment. I'm rewarded when somebody says yes to the question, 'Did this guy capture that special spark in Frank Broyles?' "
Watts sees Broyles as a solid Mount Rush-more figure; Colorado Coach Chuck Fairbanks as "the penetrating type, like Rodin's The Thinker—he's very mental about the game"; Bear Bryant as someone who exists only from the eyeballs down, because his checkered hat dominates; Joe Paterno as the "gee-whiz type, the little kid whose legs grew too long. You know, you sit in Oswego, working along at a camper manufacturer, and you don't even dream of getting to talk to a Broyles or a Fairbanks. Just thinking about it blows me away. And when you consider it, what is there to painting football players? All you have to remember is they don't have necks."
Indeed, success may have come Watts' way because he seems so ordinary. His home is 3½ blocks from his office; one of the Watts' two children was born in the hospital across the street from the house; the grocery store is around the corner; the church is a block away; a lot of relatives, including Faye's parents, live nearby.
Every football Saturday, Watts reclines in front of his television set, watching the day's college game—with the sound turned down. That enables him to listen to other games on his matching Zenith Circle of Sound radios. "Maybe I'm not absolutely great," says Watts, "but I'm having fun, getting swamped with work and earning enough money to buy me some Coors beer and Winston cigarettes."
But how good are you, Ted? "Usually my work is better than I expect it to be." But how good is that? "On a scale of one to 10, I'd be an eight or nine. Is that cocky?"
Watts' best friend, Phil Blair, rates his buddy's artistic ability by saying, "I'd put him in the Top 3—in Oswego."