"What About Indian Art?" An Interview With Mary Jo Watson

Apr 17, 2013

Twenty years ago, a degree in Native American Art and Art History was non-existent. Even today, only a few universities offer Native Art programs, but at the University of Oklahoma Mary Jo Watson is responsible for launching a groundbreaking art program with an emphasis on the indigenous perspective.

Director of the School of Art and Art History and curator of Native American Art at the Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art, Mary Jo Watson.
Credit Brant Morrell

You expect a director of an art program at a major university to have pieces in their office, but entering Watson’s workspace feels like stepping into a Native art museum. From traditional ledger art sketches to beautiful hand coiled baskets from a West coast tribe, her walls tell a story about an art form and its fight for recognition.

Mary Jo Watson, director of the School of Art and Art History and curator of Native American Art at the FJJMA.
Credit Brant Morrell

WATSON: If you can imagine, for almost a century people have looked on this art as primitive and not "good" art. It’s totally different. The standards are different for Native Art than European art. We’re working on a way to teach Native American art by using Native American terminology and the ideas of what it is about.

MORRELL:  You get to OU and they don’t have a Native art program. Could you describe the college years and what you learned and how it motivated you to come up with the Native Art program?

WATSON: I was thrilled to study all the arts around the world practically. It was primarily based on European Aesthetics and European standards, but that was fine because that’s an important, huge part of the history of art worldwide. I became interested and said, “What about Indian art? We don’t have any Indian art to talk about!”

So, I proposed a course and got started through the Indian studies program with one course a long time ago in the 70’s. The first official art class I taught at the school of art was in 1980. I taught in the night school, I was an adjunct. I’ve had several people help me with this, the provost at the time Dr. Morris and Dr. Ariel Morgan Gibson helped put the course together.

It was pretty hard at first, there were no books on Indian Art, there was no training on Indian art. I worked with anthropology, history and art history to put together a program. I went from one course to about 10 or 12 different topics on Native American art and I finally got hired full time in 1993. I was teaching three different classes and five different classes a semester. It was just wonderful.

MORRELL: Did anyone come outright and tell you, no, Native art won’t be a program or it will never work?

WATSON: Well, I did have one person tell me to go to anthropology. You know, "just go", but I’m tenacious once I set my mind to something I get it done. Of course, it’s just marvelous. We have undergrad masters and PhD in Native American art history and that was one of my goals.

Between 1980 and 1993, Mary Jo Watson traveled across the state to raise the profile of Native American Art and the University of Oklahoma’s new program. On campus, recent acquisitions like the James T. Bialac Collection give students and visitors from all over the world first-hand exposure to indigenous art and culture. Watson says she’s seen a change in public perception as more and more people accept the work as fine art, rather than historical or anthropological material pieces.