The Art of
story and photos by Paige Langenderfer
MK Watkins has loved art for as long as she can remember. Even the smell of crayons makes her smile.
In October, she displayed more than 100 of her own paintings in her Brown County home for her first year participating in the Back Roads of Brown County Studio Tour. While she has been a professional artist most of her life, Watkins didn’t always imagine a career in art.
“I loved everything about art. It was love at first sight,” she said. “I loved the way it looked, I loved the way it felt, I loved the way it smelled, but I just didn’t think you could make a career out of doing what you loved. I thought art was going to be my life’s hobby, not my life’s work.”
Watkins took her very first art class at the John Herron School of Art when she was in eighth grade. She had won the opportunity to take the class by participating in an art contest. Students met weekly and used charcoal to recreate famous works of art.
“I looked forward to that class all week,” Watkins said. “I loved learning the techniques and it left me wanting to learn so much more.”
At Holy Cross School in Indianapolis, Watkins and her fellow students did not have art class. The only thing that resembled art was a short time of drawing with crayons if there happened to be extra time at the end of the day on Fridays.
“All I wanted to do was art, so every Friday I would anxiously wait to see if we were going to be allowed to color,” Watkins said. “It didn’t happen very many Fridays.”
While she continued to create in her free time, Watkins was focused on a career in business by the time she entered high school. After graduating from college, she took a job with the Chicago White Sox. During the first year of her career, Watkins took a class in oil painting.
“It was a whole new world. I was just amazed that you could take a brush full of goo and create something so beautiful,” she said. “I realized that paint doesn’t go on with technical skill, it goes on with emotion. I’ve been painting ever since.”
Even after the painting class, Watkins only imagined art as a hobby. She continued with her job with the White Sox until a friend called asking if she could fill in for a fellow teacher’s maternity leave while Watkins had time in the White Sox off season.
“I never imagined I would have loved it as much as I did. I loved seeing the students when they finally figured something out,” she said. “I loved it so much that I quit my job and went back to school to become a teacher.”
While teaching her class of 47 first graders, Watkins met her husband, who taught eighth grade at the same school. The two married and three years later, Watkins quit teaching to raise their first child.
“When the fourth child arrived, I set up a studio in our two-car garage,” she said. “I painted every day with the goal of entering my work in competitions.”
In 1997, when all of her children were grown, Watkins began accepting work from Indianapolis area school. She painted murals on school walls for the next 14 years, painting everything from waterfalls, parks, endangered animals, and more, on walls up to 100-feet long and 10-feet high.
“I had every kid in the school helping me. I would ask the kids to draw what they wanted to see in the murals and then I would tweak them,” she said. “It was a great way to combine my love for painting and my love for working with kids.”
Her murals are featured at numerous schools and public buildings including Anderson High School, First Presbyterian Church in Anderson, the Alexandria Public Library and many more. During that time, she also taught art classes to children at the Anderson Center for the Arts.
“I love working with kids,” Watkins said. “They are just so anxious to learn.”
Watkins and her husband Jim moved to Nashville three years ago where she began working in her studio full time.
“I still sometimes feel guilty because I get paid to do what I love,” she said. “I don’t even care if people don’t buy the paintings because I’m painting what I want and I like them. Usually my favorite painting is the one I just finished.”
Watkins is a member of the Art Alliance of Brown County; a resident artist for Arthrogyposis Multiples Congenital Support Inc.; a resident artist and board member for Gateway Association, Inc. in Anderson; a teaching artist at the Madison County Detention Center; and a volunteer and instructor at the Anderson Center for the Arts.
“I just love how art is a universal language,” she said. “You can paint a picture and everybody in the world can explain what the picture means to them in their own words.”
Watkins said she will never stop learning.
“I always tell the kids, you don’t have to be born with talent, you have to develop it,” she said. “And you keep working at it your whole life. You grow with your art.”
You can follow MK on Facebook at MK Watkins Artist or call her at (812) 988-4923. Her studio is open year round by appointment.