Ira has been a Bay Area resident since 1957. He is a self-taught artist whose work depicts and celebrates the African-American community in the Bay Area that migrated from the South during WWII to find jobs in the shipyards.
Ira has been a resident at the Davis Senior Center in the Bayview for the last three years. His living and dining area were his studio until he was selected as Artist in Residence, which entitles him to a studio at the Hunters Point Shipyard. He also volunteers to teach art at the Senior Center one morning each week.
Born in Waco, TX, in 1941, Watkins relocated to San Francisco after a single, brief visit as a teenager and supported himself by winning at billiards and staying with new, easily made friends. Following some hard times in the 1970s including a marijuana bust by an undercover cop dressed as Michael Jackson and a brief stint in prison for possession of a firearm, Watkins consciously shifted his attention from self-destruction to painting. As told to The New York Times (link opens a new tab) in 2015, in art he’d found “something I liked to do better.” He credits San Francisco nonprofits such as the Hospitality House and Wildflowers Institute as the safe houses in which he was able to pursue and hone his craft.
Now, Watkins’ work can be found in several of the Bay Area’s most notable exhibition spaces, including the Asian Art Museum, Luggage Store gallery, and the University of California. His paintings can also be seen in Waco, where January 17th is officially “Ira Watkins Day” in honor of one of his most acclaimed murals: a scene of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his iconic Lincoln Memorial “I Have a Dream” speech that overlooks Waco’s city center. His impressive exhibition history includes over 30 gallery and museum shows, both in solo and group shows.
Revered for a style of painting that bears comparison to 15th-century European art in terms of arrangement and tone, Watkins flips the script of traditionally white iconography. By portraying the upper echelon of symbolism and stock characters as African Americans and Tenderloin personalities, Watkins challenges current American social hierarchies and breathes dignity and respect into otherwise marginalized groups.