Portrait of an artist
July 3, 2001
Hall of Famer: Ted Watts' sports artwork is famous far beyond the walls of KU's Allen Fieldhouse
Oswego -- Look closely at Don Pierce's portrait in Allen Fieldhouse, and you'll see an envelope sticking out of the former Kansas sports information director's back pocket.
You'll notice that Pierce is pecking away at an old typewriter using only his index fingers. He's got an eight-ounce glass bottle of Coca-Cola within arm's reach, a cigar tucked in the right corner of his mouth.
Maybe you've never heard of Don Pierce, one of 152 individuals honored with portraits in the KU Athletics Hall of Fame.
But his daughter said that if you've seen the painting, you know him.
"I cried when I saw it," Ann Pierce said. "I did cry. I couldn't even say anything. That's exactly the way dad looked every day. What I thought was he captured the originality of my father, and I think that's because he added those little things."
"He" is Ted Watts, a 58-year-old grandfather who just happens to be one of the nation's most prolific artists in the niche field of sports illustration.
From his studio in Oswego, a southeast Kansas town of about 2,000 people, Watts has recorded decades of sports history on canvas. Name a sports figure, and there's a good chance Watts has done a painting of him or her.
And if everything goes right, somebody in that sports figure's family looks at the finished product and reacts just like Ann Pierce.
"I don't paint for the athletes," Watts said. "I paint for the mommas. I say mommas but I mean a wife, a girlfriend, a child -- somebody who cares about the person. The athlete might look at it and think, 'Well, that's OK,' but I'll guarantee you one thing. When their momma sees it, she's going to start crying."
Welcome to downtown Oswego. If you'd like, parallel park down the middle of the main drag. Everybody else does.
Stroll west on Fourth Street, and you'll run into the studio where Watts built his unique career.
Come in. Take a look around. Never you mind the clutter.
"This is a one-man operation, so there's crap all over the place," said Watts, his eyes twinkling. "But I know where everything is. Besides, this isn't a retail shop, it's an art production studio."
Everywhere you look, your eye meets pictures and paintings. Here's a photo of Watts and George Brett. Here's a print of a Roberto Clemente montage. Here's a condensed version of the 33- by 9 1/2-foot mural that hangs in the Barry Switzer Center at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
The mementos are reproductions of more than 5,000 paintings Watts has produced in a career that spans just shy of 30 years. Watts originals hang in the baseball, basketball, pro and college football halls of fame as well as 11 universities.
He's painted sports figures from James Naismith to Michael Jordan, Knute Rockne to 2000 Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, and has been profiled in Sports Illustrated.
Bear Bryant didn't call many people in Oswego. He called Watts.
"This was like in 1976, and I was doing the cover of Alabama's football media guide," Watts recalled. "I'd sent down three or four pieces, and they all had Bear Bryant in them. I picked up the phone one day and heard, 'Ted, this is coach Bryant. I want you to feature the kids, not me.'
"Scariest call I ever got. I talked to the sports information director and said, 'Alabama football is Bear Bryant, and he doesn't want to be shown."'
Watts' solution? He put Bryant's signature hat in the foreground, surrounded by players.
Catching a break
Watts was 27 when he sold his first piece of art. He'd long graduated from Pittsburg State and was working for an advertising firm.
On the side, he wrote sports and drew illustrations for the local paper. In that capacity, he met a KU assistant football coach who was in town on a recruiting trip and saw his work.
KU officials had been thinking about honoring their Hall of Fame athletes by hanging photos of them in the fieldhouse. Watts offered to do paintings instead, and KU bought the concept.
"That was my first major contract," he said. "I was scared to death. I didn't have an agent or anything. I really didn't know anything about that side of the business."
The first order, which came in 1975, was for 65 paintings. Watts spent three years getting them done. He's been doing them ever since, making some changes along the way but sticking to a couple of constants.
All of KU's portraits are the same size, and all feature the subject's name in standardized, easy-to-read lettering.
"The last thing you want in a crowd of 10,000 people is people stopping every two feet and going, 'Who the hell is that?"' Watts said, laughing.
The KU project led to other college work, then to commissions from professional teams, the U.S. Olympic Committee and other clients. More than three decades after he sold his first work, Watts remains busy. He suspects he's one of only a few artists taking a "Norman Rockwell approach" to sports illustration, for which demand remains steady.
Co-opting Watts' style for a moment, here's a portrait of the artist. He's bent over a drawing table, a brush in his right hand and a Mickey Mouse watch on his left wrist. Peek beneath the table, and you can see his sandaled feet.
His tanned face has broken into a smile, his eyes are bright beneath a shock of silvery gray hair.
"In my art, I want everybody to look like a hero," he said.
To reach that goal, Watts takes certain license. Men's jaws become squarer. Flabby stomachs are flattened. "Character lines," also known as wrinkles, are softened.
Most often, athletes like the finished product. Some don't. One KU coach sent back a portrait two times, demanding a more youthful appearance. Not everybody, it seems, appreciates character lines.
"With coaches, I'm notorious for taking out one of the two chins," Watts said. "Or one of the three chins."
Every now and then, revisions are necessary for reasons other than cosmetics. Watts once had to redo a painting of a football player carrying a ball in his left hand, with his right hand stretched behind him to protect his flank. Nice painting, except for one little detail. Watts had given the player six fingers on his right hand.
Watts can chuckle about such miscues, having long ago proved his capabilities.
Which, Ann Pierce said, are substantial. When Watts painted the image of her father, who died in 1962, he was working from a series of black and white photographs.
He didn't know Don Pierce; didn't know that Pierce hunted and pecked at the keyboard; didn't know that Pierce always seemed to be carrying around unsent mail; didn't know how much he enjoyed a cold Coke during a hard day.
Or maybe, by the end of the portrait project, Watts did know Don Pierce.
"He's amazing," Ann Pierce said of the artist. "He just captured dad. And I think that's what you do a portrait for. It's not the way it's supposed to look to everybody else, it's supposed to show how that person looked."
Ric Anderson can be reached at (913) 796-6352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.