I went to see my doctor the other day and I said, hey why did you call me in? He said, ‘I just like to talk to you.’ I said, “Man, I got stuff to do!”
Ira Watkins is an artist. “It helps me relax,” he says. “It took all the pressure off of me…by that I mean art has opened the door for me to meet all different kinds of people I’d never have met otherwise…and given me opportunities, too. As long as I’m alive I’m going to keep making art.”
Ira, 78, arrived in Richmond, California, in the late 60s. He shot pool in the Dogpatch along with a whole host of other interesting gigs. He’s travelled up north and down south. He’s lived all over the Bay Area and finally settled – if you can call it that for a ramblin’ man! – in San Francisco’s Bayview District, at the George Davis Senior Center.
“I like the center,” he shares, “because it was an opportunity to get out of my van, be a permanent resident, and get a roof over my head.”
Ira’s been at the center for a few years now, after winning a housing lottery.
“I like the center, because it was an opportunity to get out of my van, be a permanent resident, and get a roof over my head.”
“It’s like a home. I get along well with the staff there. I know they have a job to do, but I also ask them about programs” that they offer weekly. He participates in daily programs or shoots pool in the lobby with other members to fill in the gaps of time when he’s not painting.
The center is also close to Ira’s studio, where he spends 20-25 hours/week. “I don’t need to do anything new in life. This is what I do.”
Perhaps living in a van would have been fine with Ira, who shared, “I never thought about the hard times! When you’re young you just think it’s always going to be good! I never had no plan about getting old…I got advice from my elders…one of my uncles, specifically…I always figured I knew best, about me…” And now, in his 70s, he’s still taking each day as it comes.
“At the same time…I never envisioned getting old,” he shares. “When I was coming up, we’d say ‘Damn man I didn’t think I was going to make it to 21’…then, ‘damn man, I got 50!’ But we never said I need to get a job or do this here so that when I get up to 60 I have some kind of benefit coming in…I always just thought that I was going to be able to take care of me regardless…”
“I’m struggling. I’m a survivor. If there has to be a last person on the planet, I want it to be me…whatever it takes.”
Ira knows what keeps him young at heart – and that’s painting and creating. Having a roof over his head and participating in programs at George Davis allow him to be independent but feel supported. For days when he does not want to paint he’s able to choose from a bevy of community activities at the center.
“I feel grateful for this life,” Ira shares. “I don’t know nothing about the other side. I know about this one and I’m happy.”
“I went to see my doctor the other day and I said, hey why did you call me in? He said, ‘I just like to talk to you.’ I said, “Man, I got stuff to do!”
‘I’m struggling. I’m a survivor. If there has to be a last person on the planet, I want it to be me…whatever it takes, I want it to be me…I’d rather be me telling the story than someone else…”
So Ira sees to it that he fills each and every day with creating and painting, his story etched on canvas – in his own ‘words’ – forever.
“I feel grateful for this life… I don’t know nothing about the other side. I know about this one and I’m happy.”
All photos courtesy of: Sahara Marina Borja