Reflections on the Life and Art of Asa Watkins

Asa Watkins died in June 2001 at age 84.

After reflecting for some time on the news of his passing, I doubted whether someone so enthusiastic and alive could have died. I also caught myself wondering whether I had dreamed him up. But when I saw the vast love for Asa expressed by the numerous mourners at his memorial service at Summit Meeting in Chatham, New Jersey, I got confirmation that the qualities I found in him were there for others, too. That his goodness was real; that it was a fact. Person after person shared sorrow at his passing, and great joy at having known him, not incidentally combined with a good deal of the warmest laughter. That told me, "Praise for Asa is quite appropriate."

I met Asa Watkins in about 1981, when he was in his mid-60s. Though at first I knew him only as the Quaker friend of a Quaker family I knew, I began to think that he was more than just a "nice guy." As I knew him longer, his generally enthusiastic outlook, the breadth and sincerity of his social concerns, and his passion for and curiosity about various forms of contemporary art emerged as having more than casual importance. I saw that this was someone with a great deal of social energy and with an intense love for all people.

In the mid-1980s, Asa began to extend toward me periodic invitations to visit him at his home, in Morristown, New Jersey. I was slow to accept them, which I have regretted ever since. But I did finally go in June 1988. After I’d spent the day with him, Asa pulled out an old portfolio of drawings, almost as an afterthought, and put it before me.

As a fellow artist, I was curious and excited. From this portfolio, labeled "Williamsburg—Surreal," he pulled out the striking exercises he had composed in his youth, while working as an attendant at Eastern State Mental Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia. The drawings struck me at once for their intuition, character, and compassion. In the most surrealistic of them he had attempted to create images of the mental patients’ worldview.

From another portfolio, labeled "Williamsburg—Life," Asa pulled out straightforward studies of the patients. They were more spontaneous, less cerebral pictures. Often executed with the broad side of a crayon, they evidenced a vigorous and efficient economy. He had come to prefer these to the former, which he may have considered the product of his own youthful hubris (some "big idea" of his own) though many of us persist in finding them engaging.

Asa’s impressive, though brief, account of his experiences at the hospital further intrigued me. He described to me the shocking state of degradation in which he and the other COs working there had found the patients. The COs had then "smuggled" notes to a nearby church, from which they were passed on to the office of the state Governor. That succeeded in starting an investigation that had far-reaching implications; not only were the conditions at that hospital greatly improved as a result, but many other mental hospitals around the nation were also investigated when COs working in them filed similar reports. I left him that night wondering how we could put those drawings, and the story they told, before a wider audience.

My first thought was to put together a manuscript about this chapter in Asa’s life. To this end, Asa generously shared the letters he’d written to his family and friends from the CPS workcamp, and later from the hospital. I discussed with him his employment at the hospital, his interest and background in art, and the roots of his pacifism. These edified me. I am not a Quaker, and Asa was the first dedicated pacifist with whom I had sustained philosophical discussions. But even experienced pacifists would be interested in how the war years tested Asa’s nonviolent convictions. And, it seems to me, the story should also prove interesting to a wider audience, considering people’s morbid fascination with, and legitimate fears about, those dark old mental institutions of yesteryear. This is also the story of how Asa, the young mental hospital attendant, became the Asa we knew.

The story of how the old "snake pits" became the current mental health system is a moment of history that must not be forgotten. Once, when I asked a co-director of a mental health program in New York City to read an earlier draft of this manuscript, she told me she had not known about the pacifist influence on the mental health field. I was glad that this work could illuminate a point like that for someone who knows the contemporary mental health field well.

Asa’s letters and the selected notes, or "testimony," presented to the State of Virginia by Asa and his coworkers are little works of art in themselves. They not only offer detailed accounts of his experiences at the hospital, but they contain poetic passages about simple pleasures and his enduring sense of joy.

Subsequent to his work at the hospital, and to an attempt to deliver cows to Poland by ship as part of a United Nations war relief effort, Asa moved to New York City in the fall of 1946. He taught art at Rutgers University in the early 1950s, and then, from 1956 to his retirement in 1983, he offered art therapy in the Newark School system with emotionally disturbed and physically handicapped youngsters. In order to improve the situation for these youngsters, Asa participated in a Newark teachers’ strike that led to his temporary imprisonment. His friends the Havilands held a "jail party" at which Asa celebrated his upcoming time in jail, an event that must have been mentioned five times during Asa’s memorial service in mirthful recognition of his cheeriness about it.

Asa began exhibiting his art in group shows in Newark, and eventually he settled in Morristown, New Jersey. During the Vietnam War, he counseled conscientious objectors. After his retirement, he became active in the retiree chapter of the Newark Teachers’ Union. He also participated in the Drew Art Association, exhibiting his art at the Morris County Atrium Gallery. After 1988, he also exhibited his mobiles at the Quietude Garden Gallery in East Brunswick, New Jersey. During the Gulf War he offered draft counseling. He was also an active supporter of McCutchen Friends Home.

In 1951 Asa met and thereafter married Luella Hauck. They had two sons. William, who is involved in performance art and film, provided the major impetus and encouragement for his father to "do something" with his old World War II drawings. Richard, who is a Product Development Engineer, constructed his own plane from a kit at the family property on Lake George and once gave me a thrilling ride on it. I remember the landing on the water as the most magical part of that little adventure. Luella continues to practice pediatric dentistry at her office in Morristown.

In 1988, Asa played a big part in a little play. He played God in The Council of Love, by Oskar Panizza, at The Home for Contemporary Theater and Art in New York City. The plot concerns a senile Supreme Being’s punishment of humanity for its indulgence in sexual pleasure through the introduction of syphilis, a theme that has continued to be topical given the attitudes prevalent in certain circles of our society attributing the aids epidemic to God’s punishment for sexual self indulgence.

I’ll never forget Asa’s first appearance on the stage as "God": he tottered out wearing a hospital gown, aided by a walker, and hacking and coughing copiously. I feared his throat would not survive the harshness to which he submitted it. He managed to be consistently lively and amusing, holding his own alongside professional actors.

In art, Asa concentrated on mobiles and stabiles (similar to mobiles, but stationary and free standing, with bases) from 1988 on. He fussed over them a good deal, making pass after pass at them to test the basic requirements of balance, and to solve the more elemental problem of his forms’ resistance to the wind. They range in height from three to twelve feet, and can be about four feet across. Many are spray-painted in bright red, blue, and yellow. Asa did not title or date them. He made them of stainless steel, aluminum, and rusty, found metal from scrap heaps and highways; sometimes he incorporated logs and driftwood into them.

In these works, the juxtaposition of the materials of very different character is exciting. The unadorned, weathered quality of the woods and rusted metals affirms a state of harmony with nature. The tactility they evoke sometimes brings to mind Chinese garden sculpture (the rocks eroded by water to many crags and openings, sometimes resembling the holes in Swiss cheese).

A mobile of Asa’s that I like is one I think of as magically insubstantial. In it, Asa used window screen material formed into uncomplicated, cloud-like forms. The material’s soft surface texture and the low density of its mass combine to create a softness of edge that is highly evocative of a discreet sensuality.

Pete Haviland recently commented, "It’s amazing how much Asa cared about making his pieces, yet how little he thought of his efforts. He was sure he could do things better, but he never found enough time." He probably gave himself too many projects in the little garage where he made them. He probably also had too much time and energy and love for the rest of us to make time enough to achieve some of the goals he envisioned.

Asa told me recently that he had grown more radical in his old age, that he would no longer volunteer for CPS, that because he now saw the draft as "a violent and coercive act in its own right," he would rather go to jail.

My hope is that through the sharing of Asa’s art with others, the viewer may receive a little of the great spirit we, who knew him, experienced regularly.

Manuel Macarrulla

Manuel Macarrulla, a painter, worked for 11 years with mentally ill homeless in Manhattan, doing art therapy and other activities. A native of the Dominican Republic, he lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with his wife and two young children. ©2002 Manuel Macarrulla