Local artist paints civil rights legend for MLK event

January 15, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Hagerstown Artist Kevin Watson paints "Shades of Martin" a dyptic on canvas Monday afternoon at the Contemporary School of the Arts & Gallery in downtown Hagerstown. The painting will be auctioned today as a benefit for the school.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

Kevin Watson was 4 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — too young to understand the late civil rights leader's commitment to social justice, his belief in equal opportunity and, above all, his hope that one day people would be judged by their character, not by the color of their skin.

He wasn't even born when King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech that galvanized the nation and he doesn't remember the venture called "The Poor People's Campaign."

But for the past four decades, Watson's life has been affected by King's legacy.

He is proud of who he is.

He learned at an early age that "staying cool and calm can help you think your way through anything — even in the toughest situations."

And he believed there were no limits to what he could achieve — including the goal of becoming a successful artist.

To honor King, Watson has used his talents to paint an acrylic portrait of the late civil rights leader that will be auctioned today as part of the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Contemporary School of the Arts & Gallery.

The gallery in downtown Hagerstown will host the event from 2 to 4 p.m., with proceeds from the auction benefiting its after- school program.

At the age of 47, Watson said he always has enjoyed the sanctuary of art.

Maybe it was the influence of his grandfather, who was an artist, muralist and house painter.

"As a child, I often painted with my granddaddy," he recalled.

And it was a talent encouraged by his mother and father.

"Growing up, my parents always provided my brother and I with art supplies," he said.

Watson was born in Queens, N.Y., but soon afterward, his family moved to Long Island, he said, where his neighborhood and school were full of artists.

"My neighbor was a wino muralist named Knox and he used to paint Dr. Martin Luther King on black velvet," Watson said. "Knox is one of the many colorful, artistic people of my past who also taught me what not to do as an artist."

Watson said he can remember being in the fourth or fifth grade and sitting in the classroom drawing caricatures of his teacher and other students "instead of learning schoolwork."

Over the years, he continued to hone his skills, dabbling in a variety of art forms — from painting to sculpture.

"Today's artists better know how to sculpt, paint dimensionally, airbrush, paintbrush and paint on the laptop with Photoshop," Watson said. "The art form that I offer today is a hybrid of all these things."

Watson said honoring Martin Luther King through his art has become somewhat of a tradition.

"I have painted a T-shirt image or canvas painting of Dr. King every year since I have been able to render a facial portrait or likeness," he said.

Watson said his current painting "reflects an exclusive paint style and symmetry study by combining canvases to create one seamless painting. There are three segments to the design with red, black and green for color contrast and heritage."

Watson moved to Hagerstown almost four years ago, where he is leaving his mark as an artist.

He spent two weeks working on a freehand airbrushed mural at Oasis Hooka Lounge and Cafe in Hagerstown and hopes to add artistic beauty to older buildings throughout the downtown area.

Watson also teaches art to children and adults at The Contemporary School of the Arts & Gallery and is the director of its after- school art program.

"A kid can walk into the school and be an artist anytime, free of charge," he said. "Donations, plus auctions, fundraisers, sales and exhibits all fund the free art supplies."

Watson said area businesses have been displaying some of the children's paintings in their windows and when they do so "they are creating young artists via self-confidence."

Watson said he hopes his portrait of Martin Luther King will open a dialogue among people, especially children.

"History books are really nice for delivery of information," he said. "This is a colorful visual extension of those books."

Although he calls himself a "full-time starving artist," Watson said he can't imagine doing anything else.

"I really enjoy it and have a determination to sell art rather than flip burgers," he said.

If you go ...

WHAT: Martin Luther King Jr. Day observation

WHEN: 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15

WHERE: Contemporary School of the Arts & Gallery, 4 W. Franklin St., downtown Hagerstown.

CONTACT: Call 301-791-6191, email or go to

MORE: Yvonne Jenkins will speak and Kevin Watson will unveil his new oil painting of King, which will be auctioned. Aaron Worthy will play piano and saxophone.

For more information about Watson, contact him at

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