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StoryCorps in Oklahoma: Non-Traditional Student to Native Art Curator (ENCORE) (Nov 04, 2011)

Mary Jo Watson is the Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Oklahoma, and the Curator of Native American Art at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. But she started her long and distinguished career as a mother going back to school. She discovered her passion when she began her graduate studies.

“I decided to do my Master’s on Indian art,” Watson said. “It was an impossible situation because nobody at the University had any knowledge of Indian art. I thought, ‘That can’t be right. We’re in Oklahoma!’ We have so many Indians here, and so many Indian artists.”

Watson ended up earning her Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies, but the University wouldn’t hire her without a Ph.D, a process she said took far longer than she ever anticipated.

“At that time there were only about five Indian women in the United States who had a Ph.D,” Watson said.

Watson taught her first Native American art class in 1980. Since she wasn’t employed by the Art History department, she had to call the class “Native Art Aesthetics.”

“Aesthetics is just what you think of as beauty,” Watson said. “What are your values when it comes to beauty and the meaning of art? That’s simplistic of course, but it was called that until I was hired full time at the School of Art in 1993.”

Watson said the class was thrilling, except for one thing:

“I didn’t know what I was talking about!” Watson said. “ I learned all the Western perspective of art in the Art History department, but I’d never contemplated, or even seen, much Indian art. So I set about educating myself through what material was available, and traveling to every place I’ve taught about to try to see the people, and see how they make their art, and what they do.”

Watson said many people did not consider Native American art quality work, but seeing her students learn, and blossom has been the happiest moment of her professional career.

“They wouldn’t have looked at Indian art before they had the class,” Watson said. “They’re more aware, and that’s always so rewarding.”

Produced for KGOU by Brian Hardzinski, with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to recording and collecting stories of everyday people. The Senior Producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

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