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Oral history interview conducted by Jonathan Tarleton
May 18, 2014
Call number: 2011.019.091
JONATHAN TARLETON: All right. So it is May 18th. We’re here in Bushwick,Brooklyn, with -- this is Jonathan Tarleton, an interviewer, and --
WHITLEY WATSON: Whitley Watson.
JONATHAN TARLETON: Great. So just to start, I guess can you just tell a littlebit about when and where you were born, and your childhood?
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. I was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And then prettyshortly after that, when I was, like, four or so, we moved to Atlanta for my mom’s job. And I lived in sort of a suburb of Atlanta for most of my life. So it’s kind of a bit north of Atlanta in a place called Alpharetta. And when we moved there, it was pretty, like, uninhabited. Not very populous, you know? And over time, like, as -- until I left for college, it really kind of blew up with a lot of immigrants from all over the place. Like, a lot of -- like, Chicago, and New York, but also a lot of Korean and Indian people moved in. So 1:00it was pretty multicultural. So that was pretty nice. Yeah, and I lived there until I was 18, and then I went to the University of Georgia in Athens, which is about an hour away. And then after I finished college, I went back to Alpharetta for like a year, and just worked some -- I worked at a Hobby Lobby, like, an art supply store. And then last year, I moved to New York, and I lived for a while in Queens in Flushing. And then I moved last October to Bushwick in Brooklyn. And so that’s where I live now. (laughter)
JONATHAN TARLETON: Great. So, I’m sorry, when were you born? Just --
WHITLEY WATSON: [date redacted for privacy]
JONATHAN TARLETON: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) Great. And so youmentioned moving to Atlanta for your mom’s job.
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And so could you talk a little bit about just your parents?And --
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. So do you want me to talk about them, like, their ethnicbackground? Yeah. Or --
JONATHAN TARLETON: Sure. Yeah, their names, where they grew up, their background.2:00
WHITLEY WATSON: My mom -- yeah. My mom’s name is Suzanne, and she was born inNew York, in Rockville Center. Her parents -- my grandpa, her dad -- is, like, German and English, and sort of just general, like, European mix. And then her mom’s family was Czechoslovakian and Scottish, and they were pretty recent immigrants. Like, so my grandmother grew up speaking Czech, and they found out that she couldn’t speak English when she went to school because she had just been at home with her grandma, and she didn’t speak English. And anyway, so my mom grew up in Rockville Center in New York. And then when she was, like, 14, she moved to Memphis, which was, like, horrifying to her, because it was, like, really different culturally. But living in Memphis is where she met my dad. And my dad is from Arkansas, and he is black, and he has, like, a great-grandmother that’s Cherokee. Which was verified, it’s not just, like, a rumor, because his -- his -- his grandmother put together this really nice 3:00book about, like, our family heritage, and, like, tracing back as far as she could. And, like, had it published and bound and stuff. It was really nice. So he I guess was going to college, and then dropped out and was working at this bar, and he met my mom. And they were just together for, like, seven years or something, and then she got pregnant, so they decided to get married, and then they were together. And then they moved up to Pennsylvania, because, like, my grandma was living there, and her sister, and then they moved down to Atlanta. She worked in hotels, and she still does. So I guess it was something with hotels, and she moved down there. And then my parents got divorced when I was like -- they didn’t get divorced, but my dad, like, moved out and went back to Arkansas, and, like, was all over Atlanta for a while, and I think they finally got divorced when I was, like, 11. But yeah, so that was that. That was pretty 4:00-- I don’t know, they’re a pretty interesting couple. My mom still works in hotels, and she’s kind of very impressive person to me, because she sort of raised me a lot on her own, and then her parents -- her family was kind of kooky. Like, just volatile. And she didn’t get to finish college because they just, like, were, like, “No, we’re not going to pay for you to do that.” But later, she, like, worked her way up in her company by saying, like, “Oh, I’ll take these night shifts,” because it’s international, and they were having these problems that people would call in from Asia or something and not be able to talk to anyone about the computer system. So she was working in, like, the data center. And so she said, “Oh, I’ll do that.” So she would take me to her office at, like, you know, 4:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., or something, and I would sleep under her desk, and then she would work, and then she would take me to, like, a daycare or something, like, in the morning, or go to school. And then she was -- started working so early, that by 5:00the time I was out of school, she was off, and so we’d go home. But, like, doing that, she took a lot of initiative, and now she’s, like, pretty high up. And then she went back to college, like, while I was in high school. And so now she has, like, a master’s and stuff, so it’s pretty awesome. And then my dad, like -- my dad had, like, alcohol abuse problems. It was all over the place, and he went back to Arkansas. But eventually, he got into AA, and he’s, like, very active in it. So he’s, like, become very Zen about everything, which is really funny, because he’s always -- he’s got this really big personality, but he also gets, like, real serious. Like, he’ll go, like, you know, he’ll tell you something and then there’s just like, “A-ha-ha-ha-ha,” laugh. But right now, he and -- like, over that time, he invented this plant watering system. It’s really cool, because it’s not battery powered, and you basically fill it up, and you leave it for a few months, and it’s this drip system. But, like, no moving parts, no computers, 6:00but just the level of water. It’s like, air bubbles and pressure. It will only water when the plant is dry, so it’s not, like, root rot and all this stuff. But he developed it, and he said, like, he was the one to -- or not the one to develop it, but it just came from, like, watching how the chicken feeders, because he lived on, like, a farm in Arkansas. Like, how the chicken feeder works is the same sort of thing. And so now, he -- so he was in Arkansas. And when I was in high school, like, the last year I was in high school, he moved to Atlanta. And so now he’s working with some guys there, and they’re, like, about to launch it. And it’s been, like, years and years and years of, like, going through development, and trying to get it done. So I don’t know. It’s really nice that he, like, has this thing. It’s really cool.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And his living in Atlanta is -- wasn’t connected with youand your mom living there? Or --
WHITLEY WATSON: Well, I think -- well, he -- I mean, he wanted to be around us,7:00I think.
JONATHAN TARLETON: Sure.
WHITLEY WATSON: But it was just a matter of getting, sort of, stuff together sohe could leave and live on his own. Or not live on his own, but get to Atlanta. And so he did, and yeah, I think he just wanted to be near us. And so he was selling cars at first, because that’s what he did in Arkansas. And so he was selling the cars and stuff, and eventually, he put more energy into this, like, pet project, and he met up with some guys who were doing, like -- I guess they do industrial design. And so now he’s working for them on, like -- they have, like, a pallet business. So they take pallets and dismantle them, and then turn them into furniture that you can self-assemble or something. So he’s working with them, and then they’re helping him work on the pot. Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And what age did you move from Allentown down to Atlanta?
WHITLEY WATSON: Like, when I was, like, four, or two, or three or something.Yeah. So I don’t really remember it.
JONATHAN TARLETON: So still early on?
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: So you say you don’t remember Allentown very much?8:00
WHITLEY WATSON: Mm-mm. Not at all. The, like, furthest back I remember is welived in an apartment, Champions Green in Atlanta. That’s it. And then we lived there for a couple years, and then we moved to the house that I lived in for, like, the rest of my -- until I was 18, when I was, like, first grade. So--
JONATHAN TARLETON: And so tell me a little bit about -- you said from when youmoved to Alpharetta to over the course of your time there, that it really became sort of an immigrant center. So what do you sort of --
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: -- remember about growing up, and that change, and how thatinteracted with your family.
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. Well, I just remember when I was growing up, drivingthrough Alpharetta is, like, all forest, or mostly forest. And then the high school I went to was just sort of like -- I guess, or originally, it was just a high school for, like, people living around this sort of farm area, and it was an unincorporated city, just -- right, OK. So I’m from Alpharetta, and I say that, but right now, the place where I actually live is called John’s Creek, because they finally incorporated as a city, like, the last two years I lived 9:00there or something and became John’s Creek. And it’s kind of this weird town. It’s just, like -- it’s in North Atlanta, which is very affluent. But, I mean, we didn’t live really in that part of it, so there’s, like, country club of the South is in that area, and that’s, like, where all the baseball guys live, and Usher lives, and, like, Whitney Houston lives. And I worked at this movie theater, and, like, Usher would come in, and Whitney Houston’s daughter would come in. And, like, they -- Whitney Houston got arrested, I think, with Bobby Brown at, like, this seafood place that we had been to. But, like, it’s a very -- so it’s like, we didn’t -- we didn’t -- we weren’t part of that, like, affluent part of it. But we’re in this part that existed before, which is just kind of like some houses, and horse farms and stuff. But I just remember, like, as I got older, more and more of it gets, like, developed. So, like, they’re [like, demolishing a lot of the forests and wooded areas that were around, and it’s a lot more, like, strip -- 10:00like, I don’t know, strip malls --
JONATHAN TARLETON: Yeah.
WHITLEY WATSON: -- and grocery stores, and developments. And it’s really sad,because a lot of them get put up. And then I don’t know if it’s recession-related, but get put up, and then are empty, or get half-built, so they’re just, like, demolish all the forests, and it’s just, like, these empty shopping centers. But yeah, I remember going to school, always having a lot of people from different places around. Like, Greek people, Russian people, a lot of -- a lot of Korean people, because there’s a town called Duluth, which is a little farther to the east. And it’s, like, a Koreatown, but it’s different than here, because, I don’t know, in here, it’s, like, a city, and it’s a pocket of the city. But here, it’s just, like, a neighborhood, like a suburban thing. And there’s a certain point, like, 11:00you’re driving, I think there’s a train track. And there used to be a big billboard of this Korean, like, real estate agent lady, and that was kind of where it was, like, the beginning of it. But then suddenly, like, all the stores are in Korean, and just there’s a giant Super H Mart, that’s a Korean grocery store. And so that was really cool. And then a lot of, like, Indian kids and stuff. But it was very, like, all from the time I was growing up. So it was very natural to me to have people with different names, or people from different places. And then when I went to Athens, it was kind of, like, jarring for me, because Athens is a lot more just, like, black and white. And I don’t know, it’s weird. They have, like, those -- the fraternity sorority system, which I wasn’t a part of, but that’s very, like, black and white. So it’s a lot different. And I didn’t really enjoy it as much. In Alpharetta, too, they have, like, in the area, there’s, like, Korean H Mart, there’s a, like, Middle Eastern grocery. You can get a lo-- and, like, Asian -- other Asian food 12:00stores, so you can get a lot of different things. And then being in Athens, it was kind of like they just didn’t have that. Because they didn’t have the, like, population types of people to support it. I don’t know.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And you said -- I mean, you were very used to having a lot ofpeople with lots of different names and backgrounds.
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: Did you -- were a lot of your friends from a lot of variedbackgrounds as well? Or --
WHITLEY WATSON: I mean, yeah. Like, I don’t know, I -- I didn’t have, like,a lot of friends. But I did have, like, you know, Indian friends, Korean friends, you know? Chinese. And that was really nice. I always enjoyed, like -- I remember when I was in Girl Scouts, and we would do stuff about different countries and stuff, and it was nice to have their parents come in and talk to us, you know, very authentically about different cultures.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And so you said when your mom moved to Memphis --13:00
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: -- when she met your dad, she found it very jarring?
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: Could you talk a little bit about what you’ve heard aboutthat transition?
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. Well, it’s like, it was in the ‘70s, so I think evenmore so, they’re a little bit behind, like, with the styles and stuff. So she comes down, and it seems kind of backwards. And I guess people -- you know, they’re from New York City. I think one time -- they went to the grocery store, and they put all their stuff, and it gets bagged, and then this guy, like, walks off with it. And they’re like, “He’s -- he’s stealing our groceries.” And so they don’t realize he’s, like, taking it to their car. So they’re following him, he’s trying to follow them, and, like, they don’t understand. And too, something was like, they asked him, like, “Do you want it in a sack?” And they’re like, “No, they just -- just put it in a bag, that’ll be fine. (laughter) Like, we don’t need it in a sack.” And I guess she got in some trouble in school or something. Just not a big deal. And the principal was like, “OK, what do you have to say for yourself?” 14:00And she’s like, “I’ll never do it again.” He’s like, “‘I’ll never do it again’ what?” And she’s like, “I’ll never do it again--ever?” And like, “‘I’ll never do it again ever’ what?” “Ever-ever?” And so she -- the principal got really pissed off and called her mom, and the whole thing was that she wasn’t saying, like, “Yes sir,” like, that part of it. And so he called her mom, was all upset, and then my grandma was just like, “You’re -- that’s ridiculous. Like, you’re being stupid. She doesn’t -- she’s not being disrespectful, it’s just not as much of a thing.” So I think that was -- and too, you know, being -- I think she’s maybe 14 or something, and all your friends are gone, and you have to go to a new place. So I think there’s that.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And what was -- you said that your grandparents on that sidewere Czech and, like, Scottish-German?
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: So what -- what were your interactions with your grandparentslike? And did you know them very well? Or --
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. So when I was growing up, my mom’s grandpa, he --15:00trying to think. He ended up having another family. And so my gra-- him and my grandmother were not together. And he went and lived in Kansas with his new wife, my step-grandmother, and he has a son. So my uncle. And so we used to go -- a few summers in a row, we went to like Camp Kansas. And all my cousins would go, and it was really nice, and just spend time with them, and hang out. And I don’t -- like, I think it’s partially because it’s something I’m used to, but I don’t -- there wasn’t any, like, cultural things so much as just, you know, normal, hanging out stuff. And then my grandmother, I guess after they got divorced, she lived with herself for wha-- by hers-- like, you know, alone for a while. And she met this guy named Carl, and he was really great. And they deci-- they’re both from Pennsylvania, but they decided what 16:00they wanted to do was move to the South and be pig farmers. And so they did. They moved to Loris, South Carolina, and they had a trailer. Which they ended up, like, souping out. So it was, like, beautiful inside. But -- and, like, bricked the bottom. So it’s, like, just a little house, but it was a trailer. And they had this pig farm, but the pigs ended up being really smelly, so they got rid of them. And they ended up doing goats and kiwi, and then one, like, cow for a little while. But yeah, so that was really cool. I’d go and see them, and be on this farm, and feed the goats, and, like, eventually she would, like, sell goats to these Brazilian guys, and they would eat them. But that was really -- it was, like, a really nice place, and really cool to do that. And she never -- I think when they started teaching her English, they wouldn’t let her speak Czech so that she would learn, and so I think she lost a lot of the Czech so she couldn’t really do it. And so he didn’t -- I mean, I think a 17:00few times, they did, like, this pierogi. Like, they made pierogies and stuff. But kind of sadly, like, lost a lot of that.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And do you find any of that sort of filtering down into yourmom’s customs, or yours? Or --
WHITLEY WATSON: No, I don’t know if it’s really -- like -- like, I don’t-- we don’t have as many, like, traditions or stuff from any of, like, her heritage background stuff. But maybe. I rem-- maybe it’s where we lived in Georgia, too, but I always remember, like, or talking to people about, like, what they ate as kids and stuff. I feel like my mom always made a lot more, like, international food, or very healthy food, or light food. Not, like -- like, typical American, like, meatloaf, mashed potato food. So I don’t know if that’s, like, coming from New York and being exposed to a lot of foods and then going somewhere where there’s a lot of people or something. But it was, I guess, that kind of difference, that sort of, like, Americana thing, like, I didn’t really grow up with. So I don’t know. 18:00
JONATHAN TARLETON: And you said your dad grew up on a farm?
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. On a farm. And he says, like, “I have two styles:country and western.” And he, like, wears the boots and stuff. And so I think people are surprised by that, you know? Because it’s like, “Oh, your dad’s black,” and I think they imagine, like -- you know, he’s from a city or whatever, listened to, you know, R&B. But he’s not. He’s, like -- he really loves the Cars, that was, like, his favorite band as a kid. And, like, Western boots and country stuff. And yeah, they have, like, this -- so it’s in Arkansas outside of Little Rock, which he hates. (laughter) But yeah, they just have this big plot of land. And I think they used to have, like, cows when I was a baby. They have this picture of me with, like, this big, black, like, steer or something. And yeah, they lived on this big land. And I guess their dad worked as a hospital administrator. And, like, never missed a day of work ever. And then their mom, I think, was a teacher for a little while. But yeah, 19:00they had this farm, and they built, like, a big baseball complex on it. And, like, basketball that he said, like, all these other kids would come and play, and they would have to be, like, working on stuff, and he’d get really frustrated. But it’s in a place where, like, a lot of my family live. So there’s, like, a Watson cemetery there, which was really cool, and, like, a lot of cousins live all around. It was really neat.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And you said that side of the family is really interested insort of their heritage, so --
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. She -- yeah. She wrote that book. And I guess justbecause it’s called Shug, Tashi, and Me, so her and her two siblings, and it starts off with their, like, great-grandfather. And it has pictures, too, which his really cool to see everybody, and then it does, like -- it has, like, a picture family web sort of thing. And -- and, like, a tree, and so I’m in there. And it’s really neat. But I don’t -- I haven’t, like, spent as 20:00much time with them, which is really a shame, because my dad was, like, away, I think. So I’ve been there. You know, like, I know my cousins and stuff, and I -- I spent, like, sometimes a couple summers there, but I don’t -- I’m not -- I don’t know them as well. So I don’t -- like, I went one time and looked at some really cool photos of my grandpa. And he was in World War II, and they sent him, like, to France, I think. So that was really neat. But --
JONATHAN TARLETON: And did you know your grandparents on that side?
WHITLEY WATSON: My dad’s grandparents?
JONATHAN TARLETON: Mm-hmm.
WHITLEY WATSON: No. I mean, yeah, I met them; I spent some time with them, butjust not as much as, like, my mom’s family, who I see, like, a lot.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And you know -- you mentioned having Cherokee ancestry.
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: Is that -- is that a point of sort of pride in the family?Or --
WHITLEY WATSON: No. I don’t -- I think it’s just -- yeah, it’s not like a21:00“Oh, whatever.” It’s just sort of a thing, because they know, like, who it was, and they have a picture of her. And so it’s just, like, an interesting thing. And I think when you look at my dad and stuff, you can see a little bit too. It’s only, like, one eighth, so it’s not a lot, but I don’t know. And my grandmother, too. You can kind of -- the way she looks a little bit. So --
JONATHAN TARLETON: And so you mentioned going to Athens being sort of thisbreak, going from, like, a community that was --
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: -- fairly diverse to one that was more --
WHITLEY WATSON: Pretty sectioned off.
JONATHAN TARLETON: Sectioned off. So could you talk a little bit about that?
WHITLEY WATSON: So, like, I -- I don’t know, like, what I was doing in highschool, but I think I was just very dreamy, or just not thinking about stuff. But I -- I had never heard of the University of Georgia, which is crazy in Georgia, because it’s like -- like, people who have never gone to UGA are, 22:00like, diehard bulldog fans, and everyone knows -- and, like, I guess because we had just moved there, and we’re not really Georgian, like, no idea what it was. But I applied, because it was in-state early. And I got in early, so I was like, that’s all I’m going to do. Like, I don’t want to bother doing other college stuff. And I don’t know why. I was, like, not interested at all, because I was a really good student. And so I got in, and I just went there, and I just really didn’t enjoy it very much. Like, I met some really nice people, and I enjoyed learning and all that. But it’s a very kind of -- I don’t know how else to say, but, like, bro culture. Like, very kind of -- a lot of drinking, a lot of, like, major sports, and I think kind of, like, gender-wise, it’s kind of very stereotypical, like, stuff. And also, like, very predominately white. Which is fine, because that was -- I mean, that was still what Alpharetta was like. But -- and then the minorities that were there, 23:00it seems like they would get into, like, minority-focused school groups, which was OK. But I remember I got into a huge fight, because you have to take diversity awareness courses at the college. Like, you have to take -- like, they designate certain courses as, like, diversity oriented. And so I took, like, an English class. And there was this girl Asanta, and she was black, and she was in a black sorority. And I got into this huge fight with her because I basically said, like, I think that’s kind of like a racially segregating institution, and that you’re not helping diversity by being a part of it. And, like, I don’t -- it’s just difficult. Because, like, I understand that it’s, like, historic, and a tradition and stuff, but to me, like, because she was saying that she felt that UGA was so segregated. And, like, I agree that it was, like, portioned off, but she felt that people looked at her funny on buses, 24:00and didn’t want to sit next to her on the bus. Which, I mean, I can’t say what her experience was, but I think -- I did not believe that, because most students at UGA are not, like -- like, die-hard racist, won’t sit next to people on the bus thing. Like, I don’t know. And so she -- I just told her, like, “You probably feel segregated because you’re in a group that segregates you.” You know? Like, “You -- you’re in an all-black sorority. No wonder you feel like you only see black people, and when you go to sorority events, it feels segregated, because your groups are segregated. And I feel like outside of that, I don’t think people are, like, staying away from each other as much. You know, like, I know I said that was kind of, like, broken off, but more in the sense of, like, the university versus the rest of the city. And the city kind of runs on the university, and then there’s a lot of, like, poor -- there’s not as many, like, different minorities. It’s, like, white people and black people, and a lot of the black community works for 25:00the university, and they don’t pay them very well. And it’s -- I don’t know. It’s just like a very weird setup. I think that’s part -- like, I don’t know. It was just frustrating that a lot of the school seemed to self-segregate itself. But I think there was definitely -- there wasn’t -- like, people didn’t want to be together in other areas. So -- but it was very different. Like, not as many minority people, or people from other countries and stuff. Very much more, like -- I don’t know, like, the words to describe it besides, like, bro. Which I think is a very silly way, but very, like, fratty kind of environment. And then the other half is very hip, but that’s still kind of very, like, white and not diverse. I don’t know.
JONATHAN TARLETON: So what sort of things outside of academics were you involved26:00in? Or --
WHITLEY WATSON: I mean, I was in the art school at UGA. So I did a lot of,like, art by myself. I, like, wasn’t really involved with the school that much, because I think I just didn’t -- I wasn’t really interested in it. And, like, I wasn’t really interested in college, the college life experience. Like, I was never really into, like, clubs or, like, football, or that kind of stuff. So I mean, I had friends, and we would go in -- you know, go just do stuff, hang out, do activities. I had a really good friend Stevie, and we used to throw, like, a lot of parties. But not, like, rager parties. Like, themed parties. So it was, like, we threw an alter ego party that was really cool. And, like, a ‘50s Christmas party. So I worked at the Georgia Museum of Art, so that was a really good experience, something I did outside of school. And 27:00basically, you just go. And I worked with this guy Larry and this guy Todd, and they were really nice, and you just install exhibitions, and move artwork. And so that was really great. That was pretty much it.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And was -- so was art something that you, you know, had asubstantial interest in going into school? Or did you go specifically for art? Or --
WHITLEY WATSON: I -- I was, like, into art as a kid, and my dad -- my dad was areally good artist. And then my mom’s mother is a really good artist. And then my mom’s sister’s husband is a really good artist. So a very artsy family, and all my cousins too, now, are kind of involved in arts -- arts-related things. And so I was really into that. And then somewhere in middle school, I kind of, like, was less interested in it. I just really wanted to do political science, and I was reading, like, a lot of, like, political stuff and philosophy stuff. But I took -- and then I did this project, and, like, one of my language art classes where we had to do, like, a visual, and I 28:00did, like, this painting. And it turned out pretty good. And I was like, “Oh, that was really enjoyable, and so maybe I’ll do a class.” And so my mom let me do this class at SCAD which is, like, a local arts school in Atlanta. And I really enjoyed that. And so I decided, like, oh, I want to do art now. But I hadn’t done any art in high school, because I was in band and you can’t do both. And so somehow, I found out and decided -- and I don’t, like, know -- like, looking back on it is very weird, but I figured out that, “Oh, I CAN-- I can take high school PE and some other class in the summer online, and that way I can take art my senior year.” And then I gave a portfolio to my art teacher, and I was like, “I know I haven’t taken any art classes, but I want to be in AP, like, college prep art.” And so she let me go in it, and I did my whole, like, summer thing. And so I got to do it, and then I went to UGA, and like, wanted to do graphic design, which I didn’t end up doing. But --
JONATHAN TARLETON: Could you talk a little bit about your art and what you --29:00what you do?
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. So I ended up becoming a science illustrator. Like, thatwas my major, science illustration, which was pretty cool because it was very detail oriented and communication oriented. So artistically, I think that’s what I’m most interested in, is the idea of art as a communication. I think as a side, I’m really interested in making more people art literate, because I think they -- there’s a lot of people who don’t understand what -- why art is important, or why it’s necessary. And, like, you hear a lot of things about, like, you know, you’ve wasted your time that you’re not scientist or an engineer. So a lot of it is just making people aware that the biggest thing that I think art is about is, like, communicating. So a lot of the art that I’ve been making right now is -- I can show it -- I’ll show it to you later, but it’s -- it’s very figurative, and I’ll start with a figure, but usually you don’t see their face, or it’s a little bit collapsed on itself 30:00or another figure. And then, but, like, a wide, colored geometric space that’s sort of flat. So it’s really -- I’m inspired by, like, suprematism, and, like, El Lissitzky, and these kind of compositions of shapes and that kind of thing, but also figurative stuff. So kind of mixing, like, very flat spaces with volumetric things. So it’s pretty much it. And usually pretty -- very colorful. A lot -- very drawing-based. Because I really enjoy just -- I don’t know. I took a class in college, and they were talking about how drawing kind of became preparatory work. So a finished piece of art is a painting, whereas a drawing is just, like, something you do to begin with. And so I had a really good teacher, Jessica Wohl, and she was talking about the resurgence of just drawings being drawing -- like, a finished work. So I really liked that. And I like to work with, like, mechanical pencil, and, like, inexpensive things, because just the idea that you -- it’s not about having 31:00all of your products or stuff. It’s -- I don’t know. Some -- it’s something that anyone can do, and that’s why I think too, is a part of, like, making people art literate is they think that art is just, like, this innate talent that people have, and, like, you know, “Oh, I can’t draw a straight line.” It’s like, well, you could if you, like, sat down and, you know, practiced. And -- or, like, I really don’t like the books that are, like, step-by-step how to draw a face. Because it’s, like, ultimately, the only way to draw a face is to sit down and look at somebody, and really use, like, your observational skills and some, like, drawing techniques, and, you know, like, it’s not a format, it’s just -- it’s skills that anyone can kind of pick up and get better at. So I guess that’s -- that’s, like, the material thing, it’s just like -- it’s not -- it shouldn’t be inaccessible to people.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And what are some of the subjects of your work or--?
WHITLEY WATSON: It’s -- it’s a lot -- it’s very figurative, and I think32:00it’s a lot of, like, ambiguous kind of gesture, or glances and things that can be taken multiple -- multiple ways, I guess. So I did a lot of also hu-- the last series I did had a lot of, like, male bodies. And I think I was looking at them, like, multiple ways, I guess. An object of desire, also as, like, an object of jealously, that they’re just ve-- like, innately powerful, more powerful than I can be. And then as an object of, like, just being a little bit foreign. And then I did a different set of bodies that were, like, female bodies. And one of them is, like, this big painting, and it’s someone kind of leaning over, and they have, like, this sweater pulled over their head. And then there’s, like, a big color fill, and then there’s all these flowers. And that one was kind of about somebody -- like, there’s somebody who, in my life, who did something, and it was kind of like a betrayal, and they behaved badly, and it really upset me. And it’ll -- they’re, like, in my family, 33:00and so it also made me think, like, am I inevitably going to be like this person because we share kind of, like, a genetic code? Or am I inevitably going to be like them because we share a human body? And, you know, you have these temptations, and are you more than an animal? And can you be more than just, you know, a bunch of drives? So that was another one. (laughter)
JONATHAN TARLETON: So you mentioned the one teacher you had, Jennifer Wohh--
WHITLEY WATSON: Or Jessica.
JONATHAN TARLETON: Jessica, sorry.
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And I’m just curious if, like, through childhood andschool, who were some of your favorite teachers --
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah.
JONATHAN TARLETON: -- or greatest mentors? And why, and what was thatrelationship like?
WHITLEY WATSON: So I had a band teacher named Mr. Chang who was -- I reallyliked him, because I liked how he, like, led us. I was in marching band and all this stuff. But he was very relaxed, very funny, and his whole thing was about leading people by example. So he’s not going to be really harsh -- or he’ll 34:00be harsh when he has to. But it’s more about, like, setting a standard, and convincing people to follow you by showing them, like, how good they could be. You know, that you don’t have to be really critical or let yourself get walked over. And he’s just, like, really nice. Like, just be a nice person and people will want to help you. And be helpful, and people will want to help you. So him. I’m trying to think. I guess when I was working at the Georgia Museum of Art, Todd Rivers and Larry Forte, they were really great. I mean, they just helped, like, teach me a lot of things about putting together an exhibit, and tools. And I think that was just very empowering to, you know, have all those skills. I’m trying to think of other people. I guess my mom 35:00really inspired me, just because she worked so hard and made so much of herself by herself, you know? And just also too being a very open person, and, like, she work -- working for a hotel, she had a lot of contacts with hotels all over the world. And so she really took advantage of it. Instead of buying other things, we went on a lot of trips. And so that was a big lesson to me. Like, one in not putting your money into things. But also, just, like, as a kid, I got to go to all these places, and I think it was great lesson in one, being accepting of other cultures and realizing that yours is not the standard for the whole world. And two, not being afraid, because I feel like I’ve met a lot of people who get into new situations, and they’re very scared. And I feel like I’ve -- being from a young age, seeing things as very different, I feel a lot more comfortable a lot of places, because it’s like, you know, these are just -- they’re just doing things differently. That’s fine. It’s -- you know, like, what interesting, good things can you get out of it instead of, like, 36:00“Oh, how am I going to, like, get my --” I don’t know. Just seeing, like, some of my other friends and stuff, and they get really nervous. So I think that’s one great thing that my mom did. I know there are some people that I’m leaving out, but I don’t know.
JONATHAN TARLETON: So you mentioned -- you were saying sort of feelingcomfortable in a lot of different situations. Are there any -- do you have any examples of that? You felt like that sort of lessened or modeled (inaudible)?
WHITLEY WATSON: I don’t know. I think it’s helped in New York, goingthrough different neighborhoods, because people get scared of coming. Like, that was a very foreign idea to me, because I went on a trip with some friends, and we came, and they were, like, nervous about it. And she’s like, “Why? It’s just a city. It’ll be fine. Like, just, you know, be aware of your 37:00surroundings, and walk very confidently, and know where you’re going, and you’ll be fine. Like, you don’t need to be frightened.” Or, like, you know, try new foods, or -- I don’t know. Like, when people get, like, names from other countries, and they’re like, “Oh, we’ll just call you whatever.” Like, oh, this is so hard. It’s like, no, you can just look at it, and sound it out, and it’s fine. Like, my -- I had a stepdad, and his name was Spyro Papadimitriov And so that was the biggest thing, is just constantly, like, telling people, like, their name over and over and over. I don’t know. I think it’s more, like, a general thing. Trying to think of any situa-- like, getting -- like, traveling pretty good at, like, even if I’m somewhere where I don’t speak the language or something, it’s like, you know, you’ll find a way to communicate with people, and it’ll be OK. It’s not -- I don’t know.
JONATHAN TARLETON: And when did your mom remarry?
WHITLEY WATSON: She remarried when I was in high school. But they had been38:00together since I was, like, a little kid. So yeah, and be there after school, and make me food, and hang out and stuff. So it was really nice. And he -- he’s Greek, and his parents are -- his mother’s from St. Louis, but she -- very Greek family, very Greek community. And then his dad was from Greece, and so it was really cool growing up with a lot of that kind of cultural stuff going on, and, like, Christmas, and food, and Easter, and New Year. So it’s, like, kind of an extra cultural background that I kind of am a part of, which is really neat.
JONATHAN TARLETON: Could you talk about some of those, like, holidays andtraditions that you had growing up?
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah, yeah. So there’s Greek Easter, which is typically notthe same day as other Easters, so we do the two Easters. Then we go over, and they do, like, the red eggs and stuff. And it’s like, “Christos anesti, Christ is risen.” They say it to you, and you go to church. And, like, beautiful, beautiful churches. They just built one in Marietta where they live, 39:00which actually has a huge Greek community. And they do, like, a Greek festival every year. And they’re starting to do all the paintings. And that was one thing that rubbed off, because like the iconography on that, as -- later on when I was doing art stuff, like, that was something that I pulled in a lot. And they do have a lot of, like, flat color spaces, and it’s more abstracted people. And so that was one thing that really was impressed on me. But, like, you know, they’re, like, lemon orzo soups, and they do the spanakopitas and tiropitas. And, you know, lamb, and the New Year’s bread. So we do that every year where you go in, and they bake the big round bread, and you put a coin in it, and then they cut it for -- it’s God, the church, the house, and then it’ll start with, like, the oldest man and his wife and family, and then the oldest son and his wife and family, and then the -- and then goes on to the end. So, there’s really funny kind of how stuff comes out of, like, 40:00people’s traditions, because his dad, when he would do it, he ended up doing -- because my stepdad was his oldest son, so he did all the stuff, and then him and his wife, and then he did my da-- my stepdad, and my mom, and then he did his brother, and then he did me at the end. Because I guess -- because it’s sort of like not part of it. Which wasn’t offensive, but it was kind of like just an interesting -- like, he wants to be inclusive, but it’s also his mindset of how things are set up. I don’t know. So --
JONATHAN TARLETON: That’s interesting.
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. So it’d just go over to the church, and Greek festival.And, like, we worked the Greek festival a few times. And I had learned, like, the alphabet so I could read, but I never, like -- I never learned the rest of it. So --
JONATHAN TARLETON: And was that -- would you consider sort of that Greekbackground as, you know -- as influential as some of your, like -- 41:00
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. Definitely, because --
JONATHAN TARLETON: -- your -- your dad’s family, and your mom’s family?
WHITLEY WATSON: Yeah. Definitely, because they’re -- they’re -- his parentsare a huge influence on me. Like, his dad especially was always great, because he was very supportive, and, like, education. Like, very education minded. And, you know, here are some books, or, like, I’ll explain to you what this, like, world event is, and, like, talking to him about it, and very open to, like, dialogue with me about more than just like, “Oh, you’re a kid. Like, whatever.” And too, just like that they’re from a different place, and they have this different mindset that’s not, like, American. And, I don’t know, very cool to, like -- like, the perspective of them talking about different issues was nice, from, like, an outsider’s thing. And just their experiences, like, of immigrating to America, and what that was like. Just, like interesting things. Like, I guess at one point, my da 42:00 43:00 44:00 45:00 46:00 47:00 48:00 49:00 50:00 51:00 52:00 53:00 54:00 55:00 56:00 57:00 58:00 59:00 60:00 61:00 62:00 63:00 64:00 65:00 66:00 67:00 68:00 69:00 70:00 71:00 72:00 73:00 74:00 75:00 76:00 77:00 78:00 79:00 80:00 81:00 82:00 83:00 84:00 85:00 86:00 87:00 88:00 89:00 90:00 91:00 92:00 93:00 94:00 95:00 96:00 97:00 98:00 99:00 100:00 101:00 102:00 103:00
Oral History Interview with Whitley Watson
Whitley is a 23-year-old woman. She identifies as mixed - her father was black and mother was white. Her mother's side of the family has Czech, German, and Scottish ancestry, and her father's side has African as well as Cherokee heritage. She was born in Allentown, PA, but moved at age 4 to Alpharetta, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta) where she spent her childhood until moving to Athens, Georgia to attend the University of Georgia at age 18. She graduated with a degree in art from UGA, and moved back to the Atlanta area where she worked in a crafts supply store before moving to New York City, in 2013, first to Flushing, Queens and then to Bushwick, Brooklyn. Whitley is an artist, and has also worked in administration for hotels and freelance graphic design/illustration.
In this interview Whitley discusses her childhood in Alpharetta, a suburb of Atlanta with a diverse immigrant population. She speaks of what she learned from each of her parents: a father who left when she was young due to alcohol abuse issues but has cleaned up and since become a successful entrepreneur and a mother who worked her way up in the hotel industry. She describes the environment of the University of Georgia and Athens, GA where she received a degree in art, and how the emphasis on a fraternity/sorority culture led to the segregating of such groups into black and white. Whitley recalled one conversation she had with a fellow black student who believed that white students were treating her poorly and not interacting with her, and Whitley disagreed and expressed her sense that the black community was segregating itself to an extent. She also recalled a panel on mixed race individuals which lacked panelists that identified as mixed and her frustration with the ideas espoused in that discussion.
Whitley spoke of her varied family history, with a father who is black with some Cherokee ancestry, a mother who comes from an immigrant Czech background and German/Scottish ancestry, and a stepfather of Greek ancestry. She talked about the openness of her extended family to her parents' relationship and their acceptance of her as a mixed individual, and their interest in the family's collective ancestry. She discussed some of her mentors in school, and the type of art she is interested in, expressing frustration that in the art community people of mixed heritage are often expected to make art solely about that heritage. She noted that she has no interest in making art about that. She describes her discomfort with being in an area of gentrification (Bushwick, Brooklyn) and not intentionally being a part of that process. She noted her interest in political questions, and her view that everything is political. She explained that her political engagement extends to just meeting people and in that way making change by creating understanding. She noted that this extends from her father's view that if people could just meet others different from them they'd be more accepting, because people aren't any different, that race is just as unimportant has hair color. She spoke about the struggles she's had with her hair, and wanting it to be straight when in fact it was big, curly, and bushy. She spoke about romantic relationships, all of which have been with white males. She described her religious thoughts and her varying engagement with the Christian church over time. And she described frustration over characterization of Southerners as racists, noting that she often finds that people in the North can often be just as racist, just not as aware of it.
CitationWatson, Whitley, Oral history interview conducted by Jonathan Tarleton, May 18, 2014, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011.019.091; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Watson, Whitley
- Racially mixed families
- Racially mixed people
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Bushwick (New York, N.Y.)
- Flushing (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidCrossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection