Esther Pearl Watson painted one of her favorite roadside attractions as a kid, the Starship Pegasus in Italy, Texas.
Esther Pearl Watson painted one of her favorite roadside attractions as a kid, the Starship Pegasus in Italy, Texas.
courtesy Webb Gallery

Esther Pearl Watson Has Few Family Photos, So She Paints Her Memories Instead

“I make a lot of paintings based off childhood memories,” artist Esther Pearl Watson says. “We moved around a lot, so we don't have many photos. It's interesting to paint what I remember.”

Her latest work draws upon her memories of her father and his fascination with UFOs. Watson’s father believed he could build a working flying saucer and sell it to NASA. Her father’s influence is clear, for many pieces have UFOs in them.

“It was great when I was a kid,” Watson says. “As a teenager, all parents are embarrassing. Now as an adult, I see my father as an artistic inspiration. His work reminds me of folk art or visionary art.”

Watson’s new work is on display at the Webb Gallery in an exhibit titled Blackhole Backfire.

Many of Watson's paintings feature recognizable Texas scenes. Some are childhood memories. One memory is the roadside attraction Starship Pegasus, a restaurant in a monolithic dome decorated with UFOs and aliens.

“It was really sad that Starship Pegasus was torn down in Italy, Texas,” Watson says. “I had to memorialize it in several paintings. We stopped there on an alien road trip I took with family and friends.”

One of Watson’s favorite pieces from this exhibit is a painting of a Dollar General store. It now has a special place in her heart.

“It is a panel that has been painted on several times,” Watson says. “It was part of a structure called 'Fort Beavatron' after the name of one of my dad's saucer designs. Then it was this big, empty building. Now it is the closed-down 99 cent store. It's one of those paintings that took a while to show itself. And now it feels like an old friend showed up and sat down to visit.”

Watson began working on the latest pieces during the spring and summer. Her creative process begins with the backdrop and concludes with the final touches of text, which is a description of the scene and the year of the memory that the painting is based on.

“For these paintings, I painted the land and sky first,” Watson says. “Then the stories emerge. The writing is the last thing I do. Text in paintings remind me of ex votos or retablos. In Italy, where my dad lives now, there are lots of ex voto paintings called le tavolette votive, which were paintings of miracles. The religious figures hover in the sky like saucers.”

Watson says viewing her exhibitions is like hearing a story told by a friend.

“Awkward moments mixed with humor is one of my favorite narrative devices,” Watson says. “I'm a pretty positive person, so hopefully people can see we all go through difficult moments in life but can find an aspect of hope.”

In 2015-16, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth gave Watson the opportunity to design and paint a 10-by-13-foot painting, which was installed in its atrium for a year. This piece is included in the exhibit at Webb Gallery.

Watson divides her time between teaching full time at Pasadena Art Center College of Design, making art, illustrating and spending time with her family.

The Webb Gallery, 209-211 W. Franklin St. in Waxahachie, is open from 1-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Watson’s exhibit, Blackhole Backfire, will be on display until Dec. 17.

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