Memories Are Made of This: Painting the Stories of Texas

By Esther Pearl Watson

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I first realized that the flying saucers my dad built during my childhood were an art form when I came across Douglas Curran’s book In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space, which exposed me to a wide range of individuals from the United States and Canada who built spaceships that looked like my father’s constructions. Curran’s photographs documented all shapes and sizes of the metal ships and their builders. My father saw his flying saucers as working prototypes for the future of transportation, but to me they were a creative vision. Folk art has always felt like the language of my heritage.

I began working in the vernacular of memory paintings in 2003. My family kept few photos of the saucers my dad built, as we moved often. Painting from memory is challenging because memory is fallible. I would paint the same house in Sachse, Texas, over and over again, using different tints of pink or depicting different arrangements of windows. There was no reference to correct my own distorted memory because that house was torn down to make room for tract homes. My own painting practice helped me understand how the childhood farm paintings by Velox Ward, for example, became idealized versions of a less-than-ideal upbringing.

My paintings are often the opposite of idealistic childhoods found in the memory paintings of artists like Fannie Lou Spelce. Spelce was a retired cardiovascular nurse. Her themes included country fairs, children playing games, and local harvest festivals. Like the demands of her job, her paintings required her to pay careful attention to the smallest details—objects are laid out in an organized fashion at the farm stand, and the viewer can see each figure engaged in specific activities at the country fair.

Not long after I became interested in Spelce’s work, I learned about Texas memory painters through the Webb Gallery in Waxahatchie. I loved looking at the melted taffy Texas landscapes of Reverend Jonnie Swearingen’s oil paintings of farm work. Eddie Arning's oil pastels remind me of quilt appliques. His blocky figures stand on a street corner or work with animals on the farm. Someone once told me my paintings looked like they could be quilted. My great-grandmother and namesake, Pearl, was an accomplished quilter. Inspired by her handiwork, I enlarged a drawing and quilted a scene of my dad’s flying saucer on fire in the cow pasture. When I was done, I didn’t know what to do with the quilt. It felt odd to sit on the couch covered with a quilted memory.

My grandparents and I drove through Blanket, Texas, many times on our way to the roller-skating rink in Brownwood. I recognized the land and the people in H. O. Kelly’s painting of the area. Years later, I would see similar stories in folk art found in Cecilia Steinfeldt’s book, Texas Folk Art: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Southwestern Tradition. There is something electrifying in learning about memory painters from my home state who captured the gray bark of pecan trees and the dried summer grass that is so rooted in my own memory.

My work has always been about telling stories, transporting the viewer through the patchwork fields and neglected small towns of my Texas childhood. Growing up with an eccentric father, whose obsession with building spaceships out of scrap metal in the backyard often led to disastrous results, forced our family to move again and again. We were always one step ahead of trouble—setting the field on fire with the careless use of an acetylene torch or finding that our TV had been pawned for a sheet of aluminum were not uncommon experiences for us. I paint these difficult memories because life is not ideal. The Texas memory painters didn’t always have simple or easy lives, which can be seen if you pay careful attention to the details of their dusty farm scenes and simple gatherings. Memory painters capture more than personal memories—together their work becomes a shared history, a story of Texas and its people.