Bob Watt with telephone

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2002 Gelatin Silver Print

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Bob Watt with telephone

Bob Watt’s porch in Milwaukee’s River West neighborhood is crowded with curiosities scrounged from rummage sales. Room after room of his two-story house is stuffed with his paintings, sculptures and art books. He presides over his cramped HQ from a well-worn naugahyde easy chair. There is a din from a blaring TV, ringing telephone and box fans. He maintains an atmosphere he calls “craziness” which is elevated by frequent, colorful visitors throughout the night. Craziness reminds him of his childhood in rural Manitowoc County, Wisconsin where he and his twin brother, Raymond, were among nine children. Born in 1925, the brothers left home at age 16 before being drafted into World War II. He was stationed in Japan, which he describes as being completely “wild.” After the war, he went to University of Wisconsin Madison and got a Bachelor’s degree in Economics. He came to Milwaukee in 1951 where he worked 30 years as an exterminator and the proprietor of Rid-O-Pest. He became a poet and a local cult hero in the process.

His formative childhood years in Maple Grove were shaped by an atmosphere of pre rural-electrification and pre reservation-ghettoization of Native Americans. His father drank with the “indians” according to Bob and they exhibited a freedom and lifestyle that appealed to him. His earliest paintings, dating back to before 1960, were inspired by “indians” and were painted in what her called a “southwest style.” He tried selling them through newspaper classified ads.

Now he mostly makes photographs to use in collages which he binds into color copied “art books.” The books are a conglomeration of things he says he wants to remember. He has hundreds of them stacked in his kitchen. His photographs are color-point-and-shoot-drugstore-prints of amateur female models he recruits by passing out his United Artists of Wisconsin business cards and advertising in newspapers. He has to hand out 150 cards to get one call back, whereas in the 1960s he got a call back for every 20. He promises immediate employment which entails posing nude with his paintings wearing a floppy hat and sun glasses. He pays $20 an hour. The constant inquiry calls and the process of auditioning models adds to the chaotic ambiance about his “pad”. This aspect of his art has branded him as too unsavory for most art world types and a “dirty old man” to overly self-righteous types. Bob is unfazed, calling these people stiff.

He ran for Mayor of Milwaukee in 2000, announcing his candidacy in front of the Hooters on Wisconsin Avenue. He makes it to every art opening in Milwaukee and he and his pals meet for breakfast every day at McDonald’s. All the hip cafes in Milwaukee have kicked them out for loitering.

When his house burned down in 1993, he lost more than 25 years worth of art, poetry, collages and his collection of vintage Playboys. He took the losses in his stride and began working feverishly to make new work. His approach to painting evolved into Duchampian alterations of found art. He amasses discarded fine art reproductions and original paintings from rummage sales which he turns into “indians.” Using house paint in white, black, blue or red, he adds headdresses, cloaks, face-paint and birds to the found florals, landscapes and figural studies. It is a form of cultural and material recycling.

© J. Shimon & J. Lindemann 2002