Metta Fund

Ira Watkins, 78

“I do drawings in my apartment now to stay occupied.”

Ira, 78, arrived in Richmond, California, in the late 60s.

He is a self-taught artist who splits his time between the Dr. George W. Davis Senior Center in San Francisco’s Bayview District, where he’s known as a pool shark, and his art studio, where he paints and welcomes visitors.

Known for his independence, Ira is content to wake up, paint…and repeat.

“Myself, I’m a loner, so it doesn’t bother me,” he says in response to how sheltering in place has affected his sense of solitude. “I think you just put your mask on and put your gloves on and go take a walk around,” he says, “and if you don’t want to be isolated, go to the store!” Prior to lockdown, Ira was in daily contact with friends he’s made at the George Davis Center, but he understands that not everyone who’s on lockdown enjoys their independence or has an outlet like he does.

“I have a studio and I also paint,” he shares, “I do drawings in my apartment now to stay occupied.” His studio space closed its doors in mid-March. “I need to stay occupied, but I don’t have a daily schedule,” he relays. “When I wake up in the morning, that’s my schedule for the day. If I can get up I can deal with the rest of it,” he confides, “I’m going to be ok.”

When COVID-19 hit he was out of the state, in Texas, working on a three-month artist residency. When he returned to San Francisco, everything was in lockdown, but the situation felt dire.

“Myself, I’m a loner, so it doesn’t bother me”

“You drive through the streets now and it’s just all ‘tent city,’” he laments. “It used to be just a few blocks in the Tenderloin and it’s all over now; it’s spread. There’s no jobs, no money coming in, so the people who own property, I’d bet they’d put their moms and grandmoms out on the street for rent money,” he says. “They don’t care–it’s all about their income.”

Despite his independent nature, Ira still faces challenges when it comes to receiving medical care and the medication he needs. When asked how he’s communicating with his doctors he replies “I’ve been calling him and calling him but it just goes to voicemail. I just can’t go to the hospital or the office anymore, I need to make an appointment and get someone else involved on my behalf.”

Many elders have had to learn new technology to make or cancel appointments, receive messages from doctors, and follow-up for medication and prescriptions, and it can be a challenge for those who are less comfortable with online communication.

Outside of his art and doctor’s appointments, Ira has to make sure he gets his food. He visits the George Davis Center because of their lunch program which used to be one of his most social hours of the day. Because the center has closed to non-residents and shifted in its programming, Ira now cooks for himself exclusively or stops by the center to pick up a sack lunch. He’s also taken advantage of their new farmers market offerings, sharing that the variety of vegetables they offer has helped him to cook better at home.

Like so many, with social hours drastically reduced, he’s had plenty of time to think about the pandemic and how the current administration has mismanaged the situation. Of our current president Ira says “from jump street he came out talking about he had it ‘under control’ and I don’t know if someone wrote that for him or what, but, he should have said he was working with medical professionals – you’ve got to have a brain to compete on the world stage.”

During COVID-19, says Ira, he thinks all of us have seen “the virus exposed how the government, under Trump, functions.” He shares that he is worried for teachers, students, and families alike come fall.

Despite the day-to-day anxiety that COVID-19 brings, as always, he continues painting. But because of safety precautions, he is currently unable to host visitors in his studio, which has negatively impacted his ability to sell work. “Open studios have not been possible,” says Ira, “the process has been changed to online, which also changes the whole concept of open studios, but my work needs to be visible to interested buyers.”

When asked what he’d like to accomplish during continued shelter in place, he said “I want to make a website of my own.” For those interested, yes, all of his work is for sale.

All photos courtesy of: Sahara Marina Borja