A trip down The Watercolor Road with Wyatt Waters
Mississippi watercolorist Wyatt Waters has been painting his surroundings for more than 30 years. Whether he’s a stone’s throw from his gallery in Clinton, Mississippi, or somewhere like the streets of Italy, the artist is most in his element outdoors with an easel set up and paintbrush in hand. In 2020, he and his wife, Kristi, embarked on a multiyear road trip to explore what makes home—the South, in this instance—so special. The culmination of those paintings is his ninth book, The Watercolor Road, which combines depictions of each locale with his musings on the place. The Watercolor Road was released in 2022. Here, I speak with Wyatt about everything from his early education to big breaks, barbecue, and kidney stones.
Interview by Stephanie Maxwell Newton
Stephanie Maxwell Newton: Where are you originally from, and how did you get into painting?
Wyatt Waters: I grew up in Florence, Mississippi. It was a little bitty town then. I think when we moved there we were 316 people, according to the census. My dad was a coach so they gave us a house to live in—the coach gets a house, the English teacher doesn’t get anything—but it wasn’t a great house. There were holes in the floor, so my mom patched the floor and painted it, but you could still see the patches. To cover up the patches, she had me spatter paint the floor so it looked like faux linoleum. I was about 2 and a half years old. So that was how I started painting.
I also had a reading class at the telephone building. The telephone company gave the community a room to use, and there was a little library there. This lady Rose Taylor taught me to read using painting.
SMN: How does that work?
WW: She would read the story, then we would paint the story. So they were always tied together for me. My mom was pregnant with my younger brother and my older brother was in school, so I think the classes started out a little like babysitting. My mom talked Miss Rose into teaching me art classes. They were real classes, just the basics. So I had years and years of basics. It was a good thing. I wasn’t even in school at that point, but I continued in those classes until I moved to Clinton. I was always curious, looking at things, and I painted a lot. I was taught to work from life; nowadays it’s called plein air, but it’s the same thing. You see it and you paint it, you don’t use photographs and all that.
I come from a pretty athletic family, and I knew art didn’t get you dates in high school. So it just kind of fell into the background. But in college you get to reinvent yourself—that’s one of the great things about college. You get to start again. I began majoring in art. I went to Mississippi College and had a great professor there. It’s the oldest college in Mississippi and a Baptist-affiliated college, and I still live in that community just down the street. I was painting there yesterday in fact. I got my undergraduate and graduate degree there, and I used to teach a little bit there.
SMN: What did you do after graduation?
WW: After college, I would save money on a job, quit, and paint, then run out of money and get another job. I was always getting semi-art-related jobs—like window display, or I would design T-shirts for a T-shirt company, or I was a bad pay stub artist—graphic artist you would call it today, those kinds of jobs. They weren’t art jobs. I naively thought you could get out of school and get a job as a watercolor artist. I don’t know what in the world possessed me to think that, but I did.
SMN: You made it there eventually.
WW: The last time I saved up about six months worth of money to live on if I stretched it. It was around 1980 or 1981, and I started working in downtown Jackson, the capital city, and they were tearing down all these buildings and building new ones. I started painting there because no one would take me in a gallery. They said, We like your stuff, but nobody knows who you are. Pretty much, you don’t have enough experience. So I worked about six months painting outside there, and I didn’t sell many paintings. They were about $25 apiece, something like that.
There was this one lady who would stop whose job it was to procure art exhibits for the Deposit Guaranty Bank, which I think was probably the largest bank in Mississippi at the time. Somebody had canceled a show and she’d seen me out there every day, and she said, If you can give me a show in two weeks, I’ll give you space. Which was really better than a gallery—it was the center of the financial district of Mississippi. If I had sold those paintings before, I couldn’t have gotten the show. Or if I’d quit or something. And that’s how I began painting professionally, if you want to call it that. And I was able to sell paintings for $125 that I couldn’t sell for $25.
SMN: So she was just a passerby who noticed you painting?
WW: She was one of the nice people who stopped and talked. Some people aren’t so nice. I’ve met billionaires and governors and people who live in people’s backyards and run an orange cord to their tent—you meet everybody. She was one of those people who just gave me a chance. The breaks that you have in whatever it is that you do are based on just keeping on keeping on when there’s no good reason to keep on—and then something happens. And that was my something.
SMN: When were you able to open your own gallery and start producing books of your work?
WW: I was up in the attic of my home one day and I fell, and a nail that had not been driven down all the way went into the web of my hand between my forefinger and my thumb. I spent a little over a week in the hospital and they talked to me a couple of times about amputation. I couldn’t paint for months. This is later when I’d been working with a gallery for 18 shows. That’s a lot of commitment. My college roommate’s father was the Sunday editor for the paper, and he always said, Wyatt, you need to do a book on these paintings that you’ve been doing. Since I couldn’t paint for three or four months, I got together with a friend who had editorial skills and we put together a book on Jackson and sold it to a publisher. That’s how I got into books.
Later, I worked for another gallery, and I just didn’t like the experience of working with galleries. I wanted to have more control over my life. So I opened my own gallery. I didn’t want to be a dealer, I just wanted to handle my own work. That’s how that began. That’s been about 25 years ago.
SMN: Tell me about working with watercolor. Was that one of the main mediums used in your classes as a kid? What draws you to watercolor now?
WW: Growing up, I painted in a lot of things, mostly oil. When I was in college, my sophomore year, I took a class and I just fell in love with watercolor. And it’s been pretty much watercolor consistently since then. I’ve worked in other mediums, but really the longer thing is I’m just still captivated with watercolor. It challenges you because it doesn’t do what you want it to do. It runs and drips and blobs and falls apart, or it sometimes contributes better than my brush to the painting. You ride horses or anything?
SMN: No, no horses.
WW: Well, I grew up riding horses—really they weren’t horses, they were little Shetland ponies, they were real mean—anyways, it’s like riding a horse. The horse makes a lot of decisions on its own. You don’t drive the horse, you ride it. It’s a collaboration, a kind of dance with the horse. They know something; they know where the rabbit holes are. They can try to throw you off. It’s engaging, that’s what I like about it. I’m still in love with it.
I remember in college they said, You know, if you date a girl, you meet the family and they like you, then they start asking you what you want to do … and you’re not dating very long after that. It’s a passion, it really is. It’s something you got to do, and I don’t even know why it is, I’m just drawn to it.
SMN: What was your wife, Kristi’s, reaction when you first met and you told her you were a watercolor artist?
WW: This is a second marriage for both of us. She was married to someone else, I was married to someone else—this isn’t going where you think it’s going—and I was painting in front of a house one day. This is how I met her, probably 15 years ago. I was painting in front of her house in this neighborhood in Jackson and she comes up to me and starts talking with her two kids, and it was a nice, pleasant exchange and everything. Later on, we’re both single by then, and I meet her at the St. Paddy’s Parade in Jackson, which is a huge event. I mean, like 70,000 people, it’s a big crowd. We just strike up a conversation and we’ve been together ever since.
I found out later, after we got to know each other the second time meeting, that she hates it when people park in front of her house. She’s right next to a college and lots of student commuters park. I only found that out later. We’ve been together for eight years and married for four.
SMN: She must not have held it against you then.
WW: No, and she’s very creative in her own right. She’s got a marketing company. More and more she’s running the gallery, and that’s where this is going. It’s going to be a full-time thing for her, because we get to travel and be together.
I would be wrong to not mention that my wife edited this book, and in her editing conveniently left out the fact that she was the editor. There’s the emotional support you get from someone, but I literally could not have done this—I don’t use that word literally because I kind of hate it, it’s a little bit overused—but I could not have done this without her. Really. She made sense out of my stuff.
SMN: Well, that’s a great segue to hear about The Watercolor Road and the trip you took to create it. How was this book different from your previous ones?
WW: Each book is a little different than the last. They’re not continuations of the same book. I started with the Jackson book, I did a Mississippi book, and then I did a series of cookbooks, and that took me to Italy. I worked with a chef on four books and spent about a year in Italy. This time I wanted to do something different. I’ve had 10 Volkswagen vans in my life, and I liked them because you can sleep in the back, you can work on them, and they’re economical. What appealed to me was this idea of traveling around and painting to get to know home, which is the Southeast. Are you from here?
SMN: Yes, I’m from Arkansas.
WW: Well, that’s “here” then. I wanted to do something that gave me some discovery about home. You know when you go off and you come back home, things look different? And they feel different? It’s still home, but it’s different. I had changed, and I wanted to see how home made me feel. That’s what this book was about.
Right before the pandemic we bought a 16-foot Casita trailer—this whole thing we started in February before the pandemic. It really had nothing to do with the pandemic, although it worked out really well. And I was a little nervous about how my wife would take to this. I’m a guy who lived in a Volkswagen van for a good while, I can do this, but I don’t know, she’s a lady … but she made it her own. She would put together an itinerary, here are the places we’re going to go. But, invariably, what happens is you find these things that are not on Google—the surprises that happen along the way. She’s a very organized person and I kind of shoot from the hip. Between those two things, that’s how we put the book together. She’s a very ordered person. I’m not saying I’m not, but my order is kind of the order that’s on paper—the painting.
SMN: It’s a good partnership to balance each other out that way.
WW: She makes sure we don’t get lost, and I make sure to get us lost.
SMN: How long did y’all end up being on the road?
WW: Oh golly, we started in February and did it for almost two and a half years. A little over 50,000 miles.
SMN: Did you go back to Clinton in between, as kind of a home base?
WW: Yes, we did it in spurts, two, three weeks at a time—I think the most we did was five weeks—and we’d come back and take breaks, check in on the gallery. We had obligations there. We were juggling a lot. But it was a great way to spend the pandemic, even though it wasn’t planned for that. You don’t see anybody.
SMN: I love the illustrated Casita in the endsheets of the book.
WW: That was in Clinton, Arkansas. We blew a spark plug and were sidelined for a couple of days while they fixed it. We were right next to a place that had porta toilets, I’m talking about 150 porta toilets, and the only thing I could paint there was the camper, so I painted the camper.
SMN: Since I’m from Arkansas, I’ve got to ask about your time here. Had you been to Arkansas before?
WW: I had been to Arkansas and love to visit. Arkansas was the first place we went on this trip, in fact. It was our maiden voyage. Golly, I’ll tell you, that maiden voyage was rough; we had a few things happen. In Lake Ouachita, Kristi fell and re-injured her knee and had to have a knee replacement. But she’s a trooper, and now she’s all good.
In Eureka Springs I had a kidney stone. It was quite memorable. I had a personal goal to not cuss, and I met that goal. It’s a horrible pain, an exquisitely terrible pain. I jokingly say Eureka Springs is forever going to be “Urethra Springs” to me because it was so painful. But we kept going. All these things are just punctuation marks along the way. It didn’t sour our experience in the slightest. If anything, we kind of felt a little more resolved to see this through.
There were a lot of beautiful sights in Arkansas that are so un-Mississippi—I mean, we don’t have mountains here. We don’t have that kind of landscape.
SMN: It changes very quickly once you get past the Delta.
WW: It does. That’s what I liked about it. I liked the fact that it was the South, but it was different. Like painting McClard’s [an iconic barbecue restaurant in Hot Springs, Arkansas]. I have this thing for barbecue. It’s really interesting to me. It’s not uniquely Southern, but it’s pretty Southern. I tell people there are as many ways to be Southern as there are different kinds of barbecue. And everyone says theirs is the best, but the best one is the one you’re eating at that moment. It’s a little bit of a different flavor everywhere, but there’s also a great sameness to people as far as their sensibilities. I think the fact that we have a history of agriculture makes us a little more pragmatic in a lot of ways, sensible, keeps us from going too crazy.
SMN: Did you seek out McClard’s or was it one of those places you happened upon?
WW: That was one I happened upon. It was closed unfortunately because of the pandemic. However, we would meet people while working. Like in Eureka Springs, there was an incident there, somebody was drunk or something, giving me a hard time—you know, that happens when you’re outside—but immediately when that happened, this guy, a shopowner comes out and says, Oh, I’m so sorry you had this experience, that’s not the way we are here and I want to apologize for that. And I said, Look, when you work outside, you meet every range of people.
But what I remember the most is the guy who came out and just was really nice. You meet people and you find out people are pretty much all alike, which is something I would like to spread. That people can get along and people can be good to each other.
to buy the book – https://wyattwaters.com/