Willard “The Texas Kid” Watson, African-American folk artist, was born on June 17, 1921, on a plantation in Caddo Parish, Louisiana. He was the son of L. T. and Mary Liza (Frazier) Watson and grew up in a large family. His paternal grandparents were once slaves in Louisiana, while his maternal relations came to Louisiana via Mississippi after their emancipation from slavery in Virginia. Watson’s ancestry is a blend of African, Choctaw, French, and Cajun. The Watson family were sharecroppers. The sharecropping system immediately replaced agricultural slavery and far too often trapped workers in a cycle of debt and hard labor. Watson once stated that slavery had ended only in name. His older brothers previously had escaped the sharecropping plantation. The oldest brother moved to Dallas, and by 1928 the rest of the family joined him.
In Dallas, Watson attended the B. F. Darrell School until he was fourteen, when he began to contribute to the family income. As he became a young man, he frequented Elm Street’s east end, an area coined “Deep Ellum,” a major center of African American activity where blues musicians busked on street corners and played late into the night in the clubs. The atmosphere was experimental and quite dangerous. Watson was nearly shot and stabbed multiple times, but he was no stranger to rowdy behavior himself and engaged in drinking and fighting. He was married seven times and once said, “When your wife starts shooting at you, turn sideways and you’ll cut her target in half.”
In 1942, during World War II, Watson served in the United States Army and was stationed in the southwestern Pacific. He was discharged as a disabled veteran (with severe headaches) in 1944. He worked a number of jobs including positions as carpenter, plumber, mechanic, and tailor. On April 1, 1967, he married his last wife, Elnora, and they remained married for nearly twenty-eight years (until his death) and operated small businesses like a fix-it shop and upholstery. Out of this union he became more settled in his behavior and took a commitment to the Baptist Church. His persona as the “Texas Kid” developed about 1968. While visiting relatives in Louisiana and Oklahoma, the couple went on camping and fishing trips. They regularly attended Frontier Days, an annual event in Oklahoma that required all guests to wear traditional Western gear. Watson stated of the event, “I would make a new outfit every year for us to wear; I’d sew them myself. They would be really showy and attention-getting; when I’d walk up, Elnora’s people would shout: ‘Here comes the Kid from Texas.’”
Watson was a folk artist whose memory, dreams, spirituality, and life circumstances provided the inspiration for his crafting, collecting, and art making. He was not formally trained and used objects and materials sourced directly from his daily life. As a small child, he carved figures from pieces of wood that he collected, and he began to create art in his teens. He continued exploring that creative impulse as time passed. He learned to sew from his mother and had a history of customizing clothing and domestic textiles into one-of-a-kind fashions. He produced pencil and marker drawings and paintings on paper, and the vivid tableaus with accompanying text became his form of storytelling. He also reimagined natural forms like wood pieces and rocks into sculpture.
Beginning in 1975 the lawn of his home became artfully cluttered with such sculptures, which took the shape of animals. His 1968 Ford truck was an art object itself with pairs of horns jutting out and photographs adhered to the side. The truck grabbed the attention of a local art dealer who set the ball in motion for wider acclaim. However, self-expression, not widespread accolades and profit, motivated Watson’s original intent for art creation. He became locally known for his yard art as people passed by and often offered to buy pieces from him. Complaints from a neighbor about the “junk” in his yard led to a charge of “illegal open storage” by the City of Dallas Department of Housing and Urban Rehabilitation, but Watson garnered the support of most of his neighbors and was found not guilty of the charge. He gave tours of his home, accepted donations of bones or wood, and hosted a well-attended annual cookout. Watson was featured in Time, Texas Monthly, and D magazines as well as the PM Magazine television program for his yard art and customized cars.
In his lifetime he was included in Texas and national exhibitions or permanent museum collections. His art was shown in numerous exhibits, including Texas Native Artists, Witte Museum in San Antonio, 1978; The Eyes of Texas: An Exhibition of Living Texas Folk Artists, University of Houston, 1980; and Rambling on My Mind: Black Folk Art of the Southwest, Museum of African-American Life and Culture, Dallas, 1987. Some of his definitive works on paper are represented in institutions such as the Museum of African-American Life and Culture of Dallas and the Dallas Museum of Art, which includes some dozen of his self-portraits that are part of his Life Cycle series. The Friends of the Texas Kid, a group of longtime supporters, purchased artwork to donate or safe guard.
Willard Watson, who suffered from emphysema in his later years, died at age seventy-three in Dallas on June 12, 1995. His funeral was held at Missionary Park Baptist Church, and he was buried in Lincoln Memorial Park in Dallas. He was survived by a daughter, Carol. A children’s fund at Dallas Museum of Art was established in his honor, and the museum held an exhibit—Willard Watson: In Memorium, 1921–1995—as a tribute.