Boise artist Tarmo Watia's second-story studio in his North End home is part museum and part wonderland. A narrow spiral wooden staircase opens up to hundreds of huge paintings on canvas snuggled on shelves lining a wall. Thousands of prints on paper sit in perfectly proportioned cubbies. Tubes of well-used paints are surrounded by bookcases filled with art-history tomes and racks of cassette tapes. A quirky collection of vintage children's lunchboxes is displayed near piles of wooden stretcher bars and boxes of images clipped from magazines.
While this enormous collection can be partly attributed to the fact that Watia has been working in this studio for the past 40 years, it is also because he may be the most prolific artist in the Treasure Valley.
"I try to get about 1,000 works completed a year. I've typically got at least 75 oils going at once and try to work on between 30 and 50 pieces a day because when you put color on, you've got to let it dry, especially if you like nice, clean colors like I do," Watia says.
At age 74, Watia is a tall, eloquent storyteller with a gentle voice. He dresses in the casual uniform of the Northwest fisherman: layers of flannel, jeans, a stocking cap, an insulated vest. But Watia is both outdoorsy and intellectual. He makes a yearly jaunt to field the wild waters of Alaska, and in his lifetime, he has seen the work of the world's greatest artists, from Francis Bacon to Richard Diebenkorn and Max Ernst to Pablo Picasso. He has visited Europe several times, amassing ideas and knowledge that feed his work.
"I collect imagery from what I've seen in life, magazines, other artists' works in my head," explains Watia. These mental images get added to what he refers to as a metaphorical "trinket bracelet," with iconic symbols that include repetitive imagery of cats, swords, lips, eyes and hearts.
Born in Detroit, Mich., Watia started painting at the age of 13 and later attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a master's of fine arts degree. He went on to teach art at the college level for 22 years, ending his career as an educator at Boise State in 1985.
"He was a very casual and funny instructor, yet he was very serious about the work," says Shauneen Grange, who first took a drawing class from Watia at Boise State in 1981. "His personal philosophy, and one he ingrained in the students, was make work, make work, make work. Every day."
Back then the art department was filled with now-renowned Idaho masters, including John Takehara and John Killmaster.
"Watia was so interesting, enthusiastic and eccentric," Grange says. "His artwork always seemed so effortless, which probably came from the fact that he worked on it all the time ... he made me want to be a better artist."
Watia knew the best way for his students to become better artists was to practice. Finding their niche wasn't as important as consistently creating new work.
"My students were so worried about defining their style," Watia says. "I'd say, 'Don't worry about it. You work enough, and you'll have a style. It'll take care of itself.'"
If Watia's style were to be defined, the word to use would be "color."
"Color is funny. People don't realize that you've got earthy color, metallic color and chemical color. If you don't know how to use them right, it's like putting pepper on your ice cream."
His paintings carry a hint of Fauvism, a painting movement led by artists Henri Matisse and Georges Braque in the early 1900s and characterized by wildly emotive figures and seemingly inharmonious color schemes. While he has experimented with more muted tones, including a series of monoprints in black and white, Watia keeps coming back to color.
"Tarmo is a very informed artist," says Jane Brumfield, owner of Basement Gallery. "He knows about composition and color. It can be stifling if an artist knows too much about academic technique, but Tarmo can handle it."
Much like his disinterest in nailing down a style, Watia is also not too concerned with the titles he gives his works. Having picked up an old book of record album titles at a yard sale, Watia sometimes scans the book for lyrical phrases to emote his paintings.
"It's really difficult to explain Tarmo's artwork. His pieces are fresh and bright and almost poetic," says Brumfield. "They're uplifting. There's a spontaneity in his work that always comes through. Nothing ever gets too fussy."
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