The Other Side of The Story
Real people Real experiences Real lives being impacted
These are testimonials from students of Watkins College of Art, Design, and Film who are sharing their story regarding the Watkins-Belmont “merger.”
A school that had been open for 135 years seemed the safe bet when choosing an MFA program. It was in my city, low residency, and one of the first of its kind in Tennessee. Since joining the Watkins community it has become my second home. It is a community I have felt lucky to call my own, but now we are being acquired. Taken over. Sold to Belmont by a nontransparent board and administrators.
The thought of losing Watkins is both heartbreaking and maddening. We cannot ignore the disparity in the two schools and the things that are not being said. Faculty will be lost and the work of my classmates will be censored. We are being erased. The community that epitomizes Watkins, its diverse students, faculty and staff, ignored. Without them there is no Watkins. It is just a name, a new location, and a business deal.
When I came to Watkins I did not know what to expect. I hoped that it would be a better place than my two years at Belmont where I gained nothing but heartache both mentally and physically, in a literal sense. I transferred from an Art Department at Belmont where I left feeling that I had learned nothing - I truly mean nothing.
At Watkins, I have become part of such a significant community where I feel that I am acknowledged and challenged as an artist, a person, a student, a friend, and more. I am free to express myself in many ways; my gender, sexuality, health, and myself in general is free to be expressed without judgement or even a hint of fear of judgement. I can be vulnerable here and not afraid to do so. I feel love, care, and support from faculty, staff, and fellow students. I know that there are selected ones who did not care for me or support me at my previous school, but I sure am delighted to finally be part of a community who cares and I am happy to finally have found a place to call “home.”
Watkins has welcomed me and nurtured not only my creative spirit, but also my racial fears of institutions. I remember the first day of my MFA Visual Arts Summer residency. I was the only person of color. I was terrified at the possibility of facing isolation and judgement; and simultaneously determined to prove that I am worthy of being a candidate for the program. I soon learned that my sensitivity and racial defense was unwarranted.
Watkins faculty, staff, and fellow students were very open and welcoming to me. They recognized my fear and the pressure I felt and immediately relieved me of it. I am supported, thought of, and considered during all phases of my matriculation at Watkins. I am truly grateful for this community and am deeply scared at the possibility that it will fade in this "merger." I use quotation marks because I find this to be more of an absorption than a "merger." To merge, is to combine efforts while respecting the separate entities. To be absorbed is to be taken in and reconstituted to the larger being that consumes you. This is not a fusion, it is a take over.
As a person of color, I fear what this means for diversity in not only a racial context, but a communal one as well. As a student that does not identify as a christian and who is openly Pansexual, I can only imagine the pressure students who do not conform will experience. Watkins has always included EVERYONE, from EVERYWHERE! This close nurturing art school has been carried by the amazing faculty, staff, and alumni to the point that it has inspired me to think of ways to give back once I complete my degree.
Watkins deserves better and I stand in solidarity with the art school that seeks to educate and provide versus consume and exhort. Watkins runs in my blood no matter what! You may take away the physical, but the intangible is something that this community will not loose. I stand with Watkins now and I will after my completion of the MFA Visual Arts Program this summer.
My grandfather died in the 1918 flu epidemic. My grandmother went to Watkins in the 1920’s to learn typing and shorthand. She used these skills working as a public stenographer, at the Hermitage Hotel, to get through the depression. My father was a bombardier in World War II. In the early 1950’s, he went to Watkins to learn blueprint reading and business skills. He became a successful real estate contractor.
I graduated with an art degree, but went to law school so I could have a “profession”. After Watkins started the film program, I started taking classes. I began in the summer of 1999 with Film History. I graduated in 2010 with a BFA in Film. I kept taking classes and will graduate again in Spring 2020, with a BA in Art. (I have been here for 21 years). Ironically, this may be the last graduating class at Watkins.
This is my “happy place”. I didn’t come here to start a new profession. I came here to be at a small art school and be around wonderful, like-minded artists and art teachers. My plans were to keep taking classes as long as I could. I am only 70 now. I started when Watkins was at the old furniture store. We didn’t even have pictures on our ID’s. And for multiple years, we would just put a sticker on the back of the ID. This is what I’m losing. My “Happy Place”!
About ten years ago my mentor took me to a meeting where the vision for a Nashville MFA program was discussed but not realized. Due to family and financial needs I knew the only way for me to enter an MFA program was if there were to be one here in Nashville.
Fast forward to 2019 I learn that Jodi and Kristi - two artists that I have respected since my early days in Nashville - had collaborated in creating a low residency MFA program at Watkins. The idea of entering a program that they designed was beyond perfect. I immediately reached out to Jodi to learn more. That next week we met for tea at her home. From that moment on there has been an intimate, welcome, and vivid care for who I am as an artist and how my work engages the material, the historical, and the contemporary.
I’ve only been part of the Watkins family - and I say family intentionally - for six months. In that short period of time, my artistic practice has been nurtured, challenged and expanded in powerful ways. Watkins excels beyond the current higher education system with its customer service, product based model. At Watkins I forget that that structure even exists. Between Watkins faculty, staff and students there is a richness, a dedication, a humanity first - the very definition of a community - not just a talking point in a motto, mission, or vision.
The crazy thing is that if this is the end, if this fucked up deal with Belmont moves forward to completion, I’ve already gained so much from living life with the Watkins community. I am heartbroken imaging what my full MFA experience would have become, what my step daughter’s senior year (who also attends Watkins) would have be like, and what future Watkins graduates would go on to do if Watkins president and board had truly understood the community they served and done more to save it.
I was originally drawn to Watkins by how excited everyone was to be there, and how much complete strangers invested in my work before I even enrolled at Watkins. Everyone I talked during the admissions process to took the time to establish a real, personal relationship with me, versus other schools where people were cold and disinterested. In the three years I became a student at Watkins everyone with whom I have interacted has had the same interest and excitement in making art. We have worked hard to make sure it is a community that is safe for everyone and their art. This community is vitally important to me. It has defined who I have become. Losing it will be a major blow to all members of Watkins, as well as the arts community of Nashville and beyond.
The most significant thing about Watkins is its unapologetic authenticity. It is rare to find individual people who stand firmly in their truth, let alone a school that collectively runs on it. You do not get fake smiles in the hallways. What you get are students, faculty, and staff who are here to work and support each other in the best ways possible. Before I started working here, I worked at a huge, competitive university in a large, competitive city. It felt like everyone was no one there. Although I just arrived at Watkins in January, it is evident that this is a place where people matter to each other.
Watkins has influenced my life in a special way. I have felt embraced by and become part of the artists’ community here. In terms of the “merger”, it genuinely shocked me. I moved across the country for what seemed like my dream job. Three weeks later, the “merger” announcement shattered that dream. The financial impact is significant, especially given my move. It is also scary to think that I will not have a home anymore since my position requires on campus living. However, the deepest cut is to my faith in higher education. I am an educator in every cell in my body, but I no longer feel I can trust our institutions.
To see a place of art destroyed is a kind of deep, spiritual grief I cannot fully express as an artist. I ache for my students here and for anyone who now decides against studying art. Despite the betrayal, I hope our art keeps going.
When I moved to Nashville in 2006, Watkins was the place to go for critical art lectures. It was where, in a city full of people focused on music, I found my crowd. David Berman's poetry reading in 2008 is a favorite, but so is RH Quaytman's talk, and Senior Crits with Nick Stolle, Joseph Whitt, Kelly Bonadies, Terry Thacker, seeing senior shows, and then the filtering of seniors into the larger art community.
I have felt insanely lucky to be part of the official Watkins family as a student in the MFA Program. As Elaine Scarry's mandate suggests "When you confront something beautiful, you should begin to educate yourself and repair the world." The Watkins community is sustaining and powerful, and I am grateful.
My first connection to Watkins came when my daughter Amanda came to the college and found a world of representative art. She thrived in this environment. I was so excited to see her grow. She continued in art at Vermont to get a masters while working in the community education department at Watkins. After Amanda, my daughter Caitlan came to Watkins and developed in so many directions of her own. She graduated the same year I started at Watkins as the Facilities director.
I began working at Watkins in 2011. I immediately found a home away from home and a new extended family. The faculty and staff were so respectful and cooperative that I really enjoyed coming to work. Best of all, the students have always been the biggest draw. Everyday I have looked forward to seeing what was new in the halls or in the gallery. I especially have been honored to observe students arriving as freshmen, a little nervous and unsure, and then grow in insight and confidence during their time here before graduating. I have had the opportunity to view the growth of vision and skills while students have taken advantage of the freedom to experiment and the truly great support of the faculty and adjuncts.
For me, I was given the chance to do the work of advancing the facilities on campus, even getting to share planting over 4000 daffodils with the students, faculty and staff. This has really been a labor of love because this community is my second family. I will miss this family so much more than my job. Thanks to you all.
When Watkins first started the MFA it was for cinema studies and I seriously thought about applying, but quickly realized I was out of my league so I passed on the opportunity. Having a family made it very hard to even think about getting an MFA.
I had been teaching college for almost 10 years when The MFA in Visual Arts was created. It was a Godsend for me, who needed an MFA to teach more classes as an adjunct. I did not expect to become an artist from the experience. I have been a photographer for over thirty years but never considered myself an artist. I have always been involved in arts and surrounded myself with friends that were artists trying to learn what I could, but not until this program did I fully realized the scope of what that means.
My thoughts about receiving this degree were just about having the ability to teach upper level photography, but now my aspirations to actually become a working artist are much more part of my thoughts. This is my goal now and without the education and mentorship from the facility at Watkins, I do not think I would have ever thought of myself as an artist.
I’ve attended Watkins College of Art for three years, and when I arrived it opened a new door in my life. Watkins was not my family’s first choice, but the moment I stepped foot onto Watkins’ campus I knew it was the place I wanted to be.
Watkins ended up being the only school to which I applied. I do not regret that decision. I do not think I would have wanted to go anywhere else, to have made anything any easier. Because in the end it’s the people and experiences that I’ve had at Watkins that have been worth absolutely everything to me. I’m a different person because of them. The faculty, staff, and students here have impacted my life in the best way possible. Because of them I found a confidence and a drive that I’ve never had prior to attending this school. Watkins not only taught me the arts, and how to be a better Illustrator, they showed me how to be a better person.
Now knowing that this wonderful place could soon be gone causes my chest to tighten and my heart to hurt. I look at all of the faculty and staff, who will arrive at the end of the semester without work, and the students whom may have no choice but to attend classes on a campus where they don’t feel welcome or safe, and it feels defeating. It feels like Watkins College of Art has been killed. Although, at the end of the day I do not believe this possible. I look at what makes Watkins what it is: it’s people. The students, the staff, the faculty and the alumni are what carry Samuel L. Watkins’ Legacy. They are the reason I came back every semester excited and feeling welcome. I believe that Watkins will carry on in the hearts of every person that made this school, no matter where they go. Through them, Watkins lives.
I wasn’t looking for a job. Busy with illustration work for national clients, after 20 years in, around 2001 I was craving a challenge and the idea of graduate school had always haunted me. So I started a low residency Masters at Syracuse University. A friend in college went there and was blown away by its illustration faculty. Looking at the alums on their website I discovered a couple from Nashville who’d graduated from its Advertising Design program. I invited them to lunch at South Street; and picked their brains. They gave me the final push to apply and I am eternally grateful. I wanted to learn from my heroes who were teaching in Syracuse; I wanted to learn from artists who’d experienced the next 20 years. Teaching was the furthest thing from my mind. After each residency I’d meet up with the Haines’s and share my work…the best work of my career to date. At one point, Leslie asked if I’d like to teach an illustration course for her at Watkins; she was the department chair of graphic design. I remembered my mom taking sewing at Watkins in the 70s; friends’ parents graduated high school through Watkins in the ‘40s; I’d taken a creative writing class in the ‘80s. I spoke to a class at their Church Street location in the ‘90s. (They still owe me that $75 stipend I was promised!). Watkins? Sure. So I started teaching one night a week at their new digs in Metro Center, in the old Fountain Square multiplex movie theater.
I walked into a packed classroom with the sole intention of creating a class I’d want to take. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing but I knew I knew more than they did. I shared examples of my work and talked about who knows what, but most of the students laughed at my stories at just the right spots. Except for one kid in the back who wore a Marilyn Manson tee shirt and didn’t express any emotion. I thought he would surely burn the school down. But he never did. He proved to be a star student, highly original and very funny…just quiet. The students made strong work that first semester, and I found that I actually enjoyed spending time with other humans after 20 years happily making pictures alone in my basement. One class led to another and some time passed. Becky and I were plottin’ & plannin’ a life south of the border. We were both working for clients from all over and it didn’t matter where we lived. Bought a house and started building a life in central Mexico, then Watkins screwed it all up by offering me a full-time position. I wasn’t looking for a job, but I accepted and so Becky and I started the back and forth. And I began a new chapter of my career. Teaching proved to be dangerously creative, so I was all in.
Teaching led to Department Chair; how the heck did that happen? ...! I was suddenly in a position to lead others. Ha! When I was in Scouts, they voted me to be Senior Patrol Leader and I thought, “I don’t want to be Senior Patrol Leader; can’t I be Quartermaster or something else behind the scenes.” But there you go.
In addition to working with young creatives, what I’ve enjoyed most about my time at Watkins has been the freedom to create classes I’d want to take, and to extend that same opportunity to the amazing folks who teach for us.
What I’ll miss most about Watkins is seeing my colleagues every day. Judith. Sam, Brady, Kristi, Cary Beth, Robin, Tracy, Tom, Dwayne, Lyle, my amazing adjunct faculty and so many fine people I’ve had the privilege of working with over these dozen years or so. And of course, our students, who somehow convinced their parents to let them study art at the Island of Misfit Toys, where they pass and fail and thrive while making all the discoveries and mistakes one should make in college.
If Watkins had not existed, it is extremely hard for me to imagine the path my life would have taken. Everything about the college - especially the faculty, students, and community - not only helped me grow artistically and educationally, but it helped me develop as a person. My experience at Watkins encouraged me to find my creative identity. My instructors and peers influenced me to dig deeper into myself, whether it was going outside of my comfort zone with projects, or building upon my knowledge of art as a whole.
There are countless reasons I am thankful for Watkins, one in particular being the formal meeting of my husband and myself. Without the college offering the use of the theater to students, who knows when, or even if that meeting would have occurred at all. The theater as a resource for students create work that educates or entertain (or both), and sharing the viewing experience is only one facet of the sense of community Watkins possesses. In the wake of the “merger” with Belmont University, Watkins will lose that sense of community and the closeness I am proud to have grown to become a part. The stifling of creativity is something that absolutely should not happen in the current state of society, yet I see another example of it happening through this plan with Belmont, and it makes my heart ache with sadness and anger. Watkins and making art are, indeed, a part of who I am.
Watkins has been an influence on the artistic community in Nashville for many years and I hope it will continue to be that in the future. To everyone at Watkins who gave me a creative voice and encouraged it, I am eternally grateful for you all, and will never forget that. Thank you.
Before my time at Watkins, I never truly considered higher education and wondered what I could get out of it. Reluctantly I decided to give it a shot. Watkins seemed like the right option, it was in town, and it offered everything I would need to excel as an artist. Once school began and I got into the rhythm of my classes, I knew I had made the right decision. Within my first year at Watkins, I learned more about art than I had in all my prior years of education. My professors were great and the school was small and accommodating offering great facilities to use. I always had doubts about my future, and it was definitely difficult sometimes to keep moving forward through school. Any time I had doubts, I got the push that someone like me needed to keep going. It is this amount of compassion and care that it took to get me where I am today and it would not have been done without the Watkins community. I am heartbroken about the unwarranted acquisition of Watkins, and cannot imagine what this means for all the artists, like myself, who Watkins could have produced in the future. I know one thing for certain - that I have gained an experience that is unmatched, and I feel confident in my ability to go forward as an artist, thanks to Watkins.
In 2015 I left my hometown in New York to go to a rehab facility in Nashville. I had not made art since I was forced to so in middle school. When I was in rehab I started drawing all the time. I would fill sketchbooks and hang new drawings on my bedroom wall everyday. I never realized I had a deep desire to create. Finally, it was time for me to leave the program, but the staff strongly advised against returning to New York. I decided to stay in Nashville and that is when I discovered Watkins College of Art. Applying to Watkins was my only plan. I decided that if I got accepted I would put my all into my time there. The small community of students and faculty allowed for a closeness you cannot find in a large university.
During my sophomore year, I did a performance where I gave people bad makeovers while telling them overly personal stories. At Watkins that kind of creative experimentation is embraced and everyone in my class participated in getting a makeover while listening to my stories. I didn’t feel uncomfortable doing it because I do not feel judgment of any kind at Watkins. The last makeover I gave was to my professor and I decided to tell her my most sacred story. When all the other makeover stories were done the people got up and left, but she stayed and told me a personal story too. It was one of those wonderfully unexpected moments that occurs in this special place and became one of my favorite memories at Watkins.
I am a fine arts senior at Watkins, and it has taken me a little longer to get here than most. I have had two surgeries since my freshman year, and have consequently taken three total semesters off. I chose Watkins three times and couldn’t be happier to graduate from the program in May.
I’ve made incredible friends here, and many of the people I see weekly and communicate with regularly are alumni. They continue to be valuable creative resources. My partner of five years is someone I met at Watkins. I was full of pride as they walked across the stage to get their diploma.
As my graduation approaches, I feel confident in the education I have received here. I have been allowed to make mistakes, go on tangents, and grow uninhibited. More than anything, my creative practice has been enriched by the personal guidance my professors have given me. I do not feel that professors at a larger university would have shown nearly as much care to an individual student such as me like they have at Watkins. As a soon to be alumni, I has hoped to take pride in the fact that every student following me would received this same care.
As fa as I am concerned, the small, supportive community that I’ve found at this school is its legacy. The name has truthfully meant little, but my professors and peers have made this place a real point of pride and inspiration. The “merger” has rendered them collateral damage.
Watkins College of Art is a body that emanates boundless inspiration. Watkins fosters some of the most creative minds that exist today.
Every time I approach a new idea, I am guided by positive encouragement from my peers, my professors, and the staff at Watkins. We were told several weeks ago that our community is to be dismantled after this semester. To be torn from a place where I have been so sincerely embraced and welcomed is heartbreaking.
Because of the support at Watkins, I have just begun to tap at the surface of who I might be as an artist. Going on, not without them, but separate from them is something I never thought I would have to do.
So for the next few months I am going to put everything I have into my work, and I am going to help others at Watkins do the same. I am going to wholly consume all of the creativity, the kindness and the generosity within Watkins’ community like my art depends on it. Because it absolutely does.
I wish I had the time to write this testimony. I thought about it all day at work. But I’m so tired. I am SO tired. I have so many lovely memories of Watkins and the people who helped me grow as an adult, those who played a critical role in making me want to be a better person. But I am so tired. The things running through my head are a logistical nightmare- both at work and in my personal life. It all seems to be coming to a head. Right now at this exact moment. I want to do right by the students and faculty. I want to do right by acknowledging my needs for my own self-preservation. And while my loyalty is with Watkins, I fear I may incriminate myself in the eyes of the powers that be, the looming entity that is just quelling our cries step by step. Like snuffing out a flame. Not by smothering it, but simply depriving it of oxygen to breathe and grow.
In high school, I graduated from a class of 1500. The art program at my school was almost nonexistent, but I still ate lunch alone in the art room every day for four years. Not being in a STEM or CAP program at my school meant you were swept under the rug. When I came to Watkins, it was like eating lunch in the art room with everybody else who ate lunch in the art room. We weren’t eating alone anymore we were eating lunch together and putting the lunch in glitter glue and smearing it on the walls. I wasn’t swept under the rug, nobody was. To be at a place where everybody was celebrated for their unique perspectives was like culture shock. The faculty cares about each individual student and they don’t blink twice when you stumble into their office crying because your sculpture is leaking water or you got bad news from home or your cat walked all over the painting that is due tomorrow or you got a flat tire or you got two flat tires or you broke the whole car and want to tow it to the school and turn it into to some sort of artwork. I am so glad that I decided to walk over to the little orange table on National Portfolio Review day. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t found this community and the faculty that holds it together.