Monica Watkins - Conversations with Artists

Let's talk about your journey as an artist.

"In terms of art, I started out as a painter and through that medium I found other ways of creating - like filmmaking.  Now I feel that my art is actually philanthropy.  I feel as if there's a way to creatively give back through cultivating the movement that we've begun and try to innovate how we can partner with communities and other organizations and help people that need it."

Did you wake up one morning and say "I want to live a life of service?

"Actually yes.  I had a dream.  My whole existence, being the person I am now - happened because of a dream.  The dream was a voice.  The voice was God.  I'm not a religious person, I'm really not.  But when you have a voice come to you in a dream, repeating over and over saying that you have to do something -- you listen.  I woke up the next day and I was different, transformed.  And that started my real life.  The voice said 'You need to create.'  So I started painting.  I didn't know anything about painting or artwork, but I went through a six-month period where I painted every day and every moment.  It was like I was in a cocoon.  I started curating; I didn't even know that's what I was doing.  I curated my own pop-up show, a solo exhibition, and I raised funds for Housing Works.  It was a natural progression of putting one foot in front of the other.  At first the voice was really loud and then it quieted down and just became part of me."

Do you still hear the voice?

"I feel the voice.  It's not so much heard any more.  It started out as a loud voice outside me and then it got closer and closer and closer until it was inside me and now I am the voice."

Was there something in your childhood that led you to a life of service?

"My mom and dad were civil rights activists and advocates for people in need.  But they never said 'you have to do this.'  They never even made us volunteer.  They wanted us to choose our own paths and go our own ways.  I've come to realize that there are so many similarities between how I want to live my life and how I grew up seeing my parents live their lives in front of us.  Now I have even more respect for my mom and dad and what they do.  They help so many people that no one even knows about.  I have so much appreciation for who they are."

Tell us about a dream project.

"I'm going to be working on one of my dream projects next month. Together with a group of artists we have a workshop series where we've travelled all over the world teaching art.  We've already been to southeast Asia with Art In Motion which is my other non-profit entity.  Now we're going with Beauty For Freedom which is an anti-trafficking non-profit.  That started because every country that I went to I kept running into tinges of sex trafficking and slavery.  I came back home and was presented with the opportunity to start Beauty For Freedom and now we are doing our first travel project in Cambodia next month.  We'll be teaching art to 100 young survivors of sex trafficking.  We'll be teaching mural-making, painting and photography.  I'm really excited about it."

The dream that I have for any project that I start is sustainability.  Not just for the project, but for the non-profits that we partner with.  Because they struggle.  We don't partner with Unicef or Clinton Global Initiative or any large non-profits.  We love the under dogs.  We love to work with the non-profits that don't have a lot of cultivation and nurturing from other non-profits.  I feel that's the way philanthropy should go -- we should all be partnering together to solve global issues.  Instead of thinking: I, I, I, me, me, me, my, my, my we should be thinking WE.  And how can 'WE' solve this problem."

How does art help victims of sex trafficking?

"Art to me is an expression of freedom.  To be able to create is not always something that children in these horrific situations have an opportunity to do.  It's giving them a voice where they were voiceless before.  I feel that I had to become an artist so that I could see, hear, taste, and smell what freedom really is, and to me that was art.  And now I feel that my path is to be able to share art with kids who have not had those opportunities.  So we teach and we fundraise for those non-profits.  We're giving back on multiple levels.  I feel that one of the greatest gifts we can give children is the ability to dream and create.  And to never feel stifled by the lack of being able to do either one of those things.  

You don't know how much even one project might influence a child or how they will ultimately come full circle and pay it forward in their own way.  Or what it means to the human spirit and condition to feel free enough to create, and then help someone else create.  The possibilities are endless.  We just have to do it."

What have you learned?

"I didn't know how resilient the human spirit was.  It's virtually impossible to break us as human beings. We went to Cambodia to work with over 100 young girls between the ages of 3 and 24.  They had all been rescued from brothels.   We met a four year old girl that was sold into a brothel when she was two, forced to have sex with over 10 men a day at three.  Rescued at four.  She's still here.  She hasn't lost her mind.  She hasn't given up on smiling or joy.  And she's learning how to become the person she's meant to be.  That proves that as human beings we can overcome.  It takes your breath away. That's why I say the human spirit is resilient beyond anything we can imagine.  The horrors of the world and what we do to each other is unbelievable. But joy and forgiveness is more expansive than anything we can imagine.  And it's important for us to fight for each other. "


What makes you laugh?

"Kids.  They really make me laugh.  And I can't stop laughing.  It's joy, it's hope, it's that wild abandon. That thing that's so unselfconscious.  It's that raw, beautiful spirit.  It's something I don't ever want to lose it in myself."

Learn more about Monica's work with Art in Motion here and Beauty for Freedom here.