Flint, MI– It was the ’60s and Flint native Christopher Watson was in the first grade. He was drawing a black power fist, just the way his uncle had taught him, when his teacher stopped and looked down at his work.
“Will you draw that for me on a big piece of paper?” she said, “If you draw it for me, I’ll pay you.”
He said he would, and she asked him to get a big piece of manila paper. He proceeded to draw the fist, bigger than ever before, and she gave him a dollar. He was ecstatic, and when he went home to his mother he said, “Mom, look! Mom, look! I got a dollar! She said I was really good! She gave me a dollar!”
The teacher was Beth Moxam–Mrs. Moxam, as he would know her–and her encouragement would stay with him for the rest of his life. One day, it would come full circle.
These days you can find Watson’s work all over Flint. He has a collection at Hurley Medical Center. There are many murals, including a favorite of his on South Saginaw Street and Livingston featuring a boy with a baseball cap and an American flag with a silhouette of graduates throwing their caps. Most recently, he did a mural for Saint Mary Queen of Angels church. He also owns his own studio in Flint.
Getting to where is now took time, and hard work.
Watson knew he wanted to be an artist ever since he was five years old. A late uncle inspired him when he was drawing a portrait of a family friend on a window shade.
“I recognized her,” said Watson. “Looking back, maybe it was because he couldn’t afford a big piece of paper, or maybe it was just because he liked the surface, I don’t know, but I just watched him. Every day I would go up in his room… I’d just watch him, I’d watch that picture come to life and I thought ‘man, I want to do that.’”
When Watson was in his twenties, he left the security of steady employment at GM to pursue his art career full time. He worked painting billboards at a billboard company. Even though he was making half as much money he said, “it was the best job I ever had. I got to mix paint and paint pictures all day for forty hours a week. It was a dream job.”
Now that he was a working artist, he decided to try to get in touch with his first-grade teacher and thank her for the encouragement all those years ago. He called the schoolboard, but they said they couldn’t give out her number. A couple of weeks later, Watson heard the phone ring. He answered.
“Christopher?” the voice on the line said.
It was Mrs. Moxam.
“It was like I was six years old again,” Watson says. “I remembered her voice like it was yesterday. I still get chills thinking about it.”
She asked how he was doing, and he began to tell her but stopped himself. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I need to know that you know who I am.”
She started laughing and said, “Your little curly hair and your little green eyes, and you never stopped talking—how am I going to forget you?”
Watson said his heart melted. They stayed in touch and he even went to visit her a couple times when she was volunteering at the Flint Institute of Arts. Then something extraordinary happened.
In 1995 Watson felt he was good enough to show his work. He put up some pieces at the Greater Flint Arts Council, which was then on second street next to the Capitol Theater Building. It would be the first time he ever put his work in a show. The pieces were not up for long when he gets a call from the director. They say a painting sold. He went in to pick up the check and asked who bought it. Someone with the last name Moxam, they said.
It turned out it was his teacher’s daughter in law. She bought it for her mother-in-law as a gift, not knowing who he was.
So, Mrs. Moxam bought his first picture as a child and, incidentally, was gifted his first picture as a professional artist.
Mrs. Moxam has since passed. Watson said they had a special bond.
“She was an angel,” Watson said. “There are few people in the world that have a certain presence to them and (Mrs.) Moxam was one of them.”