I had only been a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a few weeks when I was approached by a portly, grey-haired man with black-rimmed glasses and a brimmed hat. I was drinking a cup of coffee in the student union and he sat next to me, holding a stack of photographs.
I don't remember what he said exactly, but I remember the photos were snapshots of women posing nude. They were clearly amateur, both the models and the photos, and as I flipped through them I thought, "What a pervey old man."
He then handed me a business card and said he paid girls up to $20 an hour to pose for his art. I thought about it for a few seconds. I needed the money and I liked the rebellious, naughty nature of it, but ultimately decided it was just a little too bizarre, even for me.
Little did I know, at the time, that man was Bob Watt, a local icon, poet and painter – perhaps Milwaukee's original Beat – and someone I would come in contact with again and again for the next 20 years of my life.
Watt passed away this week from heart failure at the age of 87.
Born in 1925, Watt was raised in Manitowoc County. He moved to Milwaukee in 1951 where he became known as a controversial outsider artist and poet. Most of his poetry was crass and his paintings were predominantly folky portraits of Native Americans that pop up all over town, from friend's flats to antique shops. I saw him at countless art openings and Gallery Nights over the years, and sometimes he acknowledged me and sometimes he didn't.
I don't know if Watt ever married or had children. But I do know now that there was nothing special about Watt offering me a business card. Turns out, he gave out thousands of business cards, starting in the '60s, and that he also advertised regularly for models in alternative newspapers.
I spent a lot of time performing poetry in coffee shops during college, and so I was often in the same space with him. I was never quite sure what to make of his w…Read more...