Penn State New Ken art instructor follows family tradition
Take a look at Shawn Watrous' paintings, and you will feel the California influence.
Watrous, 37, works with a variety of media, using layering to create images that bring to life memories of his childhood in the San Francisco area. His most recent series of paintings is titled “The Golden State.”
“Growing up in California in the late 1970s and '80s was a world of pastel stucco — little bungalow homes, all brightly colored, they were turquoise with coral trim. As I rode my bike through the neighborhood, they were just sort of on the periphery of my vision at all times,” Watrous says, explaining that memory plays a big part in his artistic creations.
Watrous recently showcased his work with a solo exhibit at the Penn State New Kensington campus in Upper Burrell, where he is an adjunct art instructor. He joined the Penn State faculty in August, replacing Bud Gibbons, professor emeritus of visual arts, who retired in June after 40 years of teaching.
In a twist of fate, Watrous has come full circle. His grandfather, George Watrous Jr., was a professor of food and science industry at Penn State's main campus in University Park from 1944 to '77, and he managed the famous Penn State Creamery from 1955 to '66. Watrous' father grew up in State College and joined the Navy. He met his wife while stationed at Treasure Island in San Francisco and ended up staying in California.
“There's definitely a family history. It's amazing to get this chance to teach at a Penn State campus,” Watrous says.
Watrous was born in San Francisco and raised in that area. He did his undergraduate studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, receiving his degree in 2002. He met his wife, Alexandra, in California, and they moved to Millvale in 2004. Alexandra, who also is an artist, is originally from New Kensington. They live in Springdale with their 20-month-old son, Joe.
Before coming to Penn State, Watrous got his master of fine arts degree at Kent State University in Ohio and taught there as an adjunct instructor. He and his wife moved to Springdale in July 2014, and he got the call for the interview at Penn State New Kensington two weeks before the fall semester started.
“By chance, things just sort of all fell into place,” he says.
Because the building that housed the art studio was deemed unsafe and is being torn down, Watrous is teaching an introduction-to-art course.
“It's my first lecture class; I've only taught studio before,” he says. “It's really exciting for me to have to funnel all of my knowledge into something that would make sense in a presentation for students, and with positive results.”
Watrous is hopeful that funding will become available for a new art studio. “There's certainly a desire in terms of students and the administration to have it; it's just a question of space,” he says.
From the time he could pick up a crayon, Watrous has been drawing. There wasn't much of an art program in his elementary and middle schools, but in high school, there was a week-long session that included art classes and a trip to the Modern Art Museum in San Francisco. There, he saw a retrospective exhibit of works by Richard Diebenkorn (a California painter), and “something snapped.”
By the time he went to community college, Watrous knew he wanted to major in art. People told him he would never make a living as an artist, but he persevered and ended up at the San Francisco Art Institute.
“It's more of a vocation than a career,” he says, “because it is such a difficult thing to make a life doing, but it's always been a central part of my life.”
Watrous has worked in the Pittsburgh film industry, doing scenic painting for films such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Abduction” and “I Am Number 4.” His paintings also have been used as props in “Perks,” “The Fault in Our Stars” and other films.
Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side, has a Watrous painting in his personal collection.
“I first saw Shawn's work at Box Heart Gallery in Bloomfield and immediately responded to it because of its intrinsic — and I know this seems odd — Japanese sensibility,” Shiner says. “A landscape, the painting was bright, colorful and had a heavy dose of Japanese playfulness to it. I have to admit that I was surprised that an American kid had done it, but years later, after meeting Shawn and asking him about the work, sure enough, I found out that he is a big anime fan, and that he was definitely thinking about Japanese contemporary art while making it.”
Watrous' works are on display and available for purchase at Box Heart Gallery (boxheartgallery.com).
Pamela Murphy is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.