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 written work. It ranged from grotesque and misogynistic to intriguing and hard to categorize.
For a few years, I lived around the corner from Watt's Dousman Street Polish flat in Riverwest, and saw him almost every day driving around in his car that was topped with lots of junk, including fake fruit and flowers and, at least for a period of time, a sign that read "Fear No Art."
Watt moved to the Dousman house – which had a yard filled with paintings and sculpture – after his previous home burned down and he lost decades of art and writing. Neighbors reported to me there was a revolving door on the house and artists / friends / squatters came and went day and night.
In 2000, Watt stood in front of the Hooters on Wisconsin Avenue (now Potbelly) and announced he was running for the Mayor of Milwaukee. He began every day at the McDonald's on North Avenue, where he met friends for breakfast. He also operated an extermination company, Rid-O-Pest, for more than 30 years.
Honestly, I was not a huge fan of his art or his writing. But I liked that Watt knew who he was and he persisted on his path without doubt.
"We need more ordinary Indians, some untalented people functioning. I feel I might be able to talk for the dull, the backward, the non-dandy, in short the bad poet," he wrote.
And what I liked even more was having Bob Watt in the backdrop of my life. It is the Watts of the world that add color and spice to a so-often white bread existence. His life defined one of my favorite quotes, said by singer / songwriter Bruce Cockburn: "The trouble with normal is it only gets worse."
Watt helped keep Milwaukee weird and for that, I will always appreciate him.
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