Molding Omaha’s Art CommunityJun 23, 2023 01:03PM ● By Mike Whye
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Omaha artist Peg Watkins considered a piece of pottery she had created in 1978. The jar, done in earth tones and slightly tapered at the top, is embellished with three-dimensional cross-hatchings done in a rough style.
It’s easy to connect that jar to a cold wax oil painting that Watkins completed only two years ago—its gritty surface also cut with crisscrossing, textured lines.
One might think that Watkin’s work hasn’t changed much between the two pieces, but it has. The connections between that vase and the painting show that she loves the textures that she used as a potter and now integrates them into paintings primarily composed of oil paints and waxy substances.
“When I paint, I think I’m still a potter, because I’m concerned about the colors and textures,” said Watkins, age 75.
Watkins, an early member of the Old Market Artists Gallery located in the shopping hub’s iconic Old Market Passageway, occasionally swaps pieces of her featured art there with others from her home. Among her recent works in the Passageway was a shallow square glass bowl with a blue center circled by iridescent colors that change when handled. A glass tray with a shallow curve shines brilliant with broad white and yellow panels separated by thin black stripes. Orange and yellow orbs dance across an oblong green glass tray. Two square, muted yellow-and-rust-colored abstract paintings are speckled with small dark rectangles
Born and raised in Omaha, Watkins graduated from Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart and attended college there until its closure two years later. Afterwards, she married, had a son and a daughter, divorced, and returned to college in her 30s, this time at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. There, she earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, doing her thesis in ceramics.
Afterward, she became a supervisor with Omaha’s Parks, Recreation and Public Property Department, helping to direct the recreation centers, pools, playgrounds, and other public works.
“I ran five or six community centers and the day camp at Hummel Park We also had a Sundog playground program. It was a good job, a fun job,” Watkins recalled.
During her tenure with the city, she also earned a masters degree in management.
Besides teaching art in the various recreation centers, Watkins utilized the space and supplies to create works of her own there as well. About three years before retiring in 2007, she gave up pottery because of its “dust and mess” and turned to making fused glass.
“When you put the pieces together, they flow into each other,” she said. “That’s great.”
Often, Watkins wore—and still wears—some of her glass fusion jewelry on necklaces.
“My theory is if I don’t wear them, no one else will,” Watkins said. “I sold a lot of them in the elevator at city hall. I always kept one in my briefcase so I could replace it if I sold one.”
After about 30 years, Watkins left her post with the city and joined the gallery in the Old Market, originally founded by potters Tom Harnack and Rob Johnson and painter Zach Jones.
Upon retiring, Watkins took to creating paintings when she moved into a new house and couldn’t abide the sight of its bare walls. At first, she used acrylics before shifting to oils. However, put off by how long the paints take to dry, she began using a cold wax process with oil paint after learning about it at the Hot Shops Art Center. She studied it more, for about three years, with Diane Lounsberry-Williams, an Omaha artist known for her cold wax paintings.
This technique allows an artist to mix oil paints with waxy substances to shorten their drying time, but not to the point that they can’t be sculpted with palette knives and non-traditional fine arts items, like paint rollers, scrapers, and squeegees. Watkins also uses sand, ash, and other materials (such as tissues and coffee filters) to layer her paintings with the textures she loved as a potter.
“I am an intuitive painter. I make a mark, paint a shape, add a texture, then see how that leads me into the next step,” Watkins explained. “I never start with a specific end in mind. I let the paint and the art elements draw me into the work until I feel it is complete.”
Though she no longer teaches, Watkins continues to inspire those around her. Lynda Tygart, who creates bromoil prints, showed some of her works to Watkins one day a few years back—impressing Watkins so much, that she immediately whisked her to meet the owner of Dundee Gallery to market her works there.
“Peg has an overall creativity and shares that with others,” Tygart noted. “She’s encouraging.”
Being a long-time fixture of Omaha’s art community has allowed Watkins to observe its evolution.
“The Omaha art scene has changed notably over the past several years,” she said. “Through the J. Does and art benches set up around the city, Omaha has been been wonderfully spotted with institution art. Kaneko has encouraged art around the city, and the Joslyn expansion is a wonderful gift to the city.
“More attention is is given to local artists now. Sometime ago, if art was not from California or a place like that, there was no chance to sell it here. It’s not that way now.”
About her own experiences in Omaha’s art scene, Watkins concluded, “I’ve built a nice life for myself. Every day’s a gift.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here.