Local educator launches free classes for children to study native arts, animals, plants and cultures

Photo by Kathleen Shafer.Sam Watts in his book and artifact filled living room. Watts is starting a free class for children of all ages in June. They will study early cultures, plants, and animals of the Big Bend area.

MARFA – Local educator Sam Watts is starting a free weekly class available to all interested children. Called “The Magic Around Us Marfa,” the classes will be held outdoors, first in Watts’ backyard and, when possible, on-site at various locations around Marfa.

Watts has an intense passion for native artifacts and the history of how and when people have moved around the Big Bend area. “I want to focus on the proof that people have been passing through this place, borderless, for all time.” 

The classes will cover “early basics” as Watts describes it, and they’ll study topics like native toolmaking, pigment making, pottery, and animals such as pronghorn and hawks. His idea is to link these topics to area petroglyphs and pictographs, noting that these images are “how we witness, put down what we see.”

Watts has been an educator at Marfa Elementary for the past four years, teaching art and, in the most recent school year, music. He is also a singer/songwriter, and locals may have seen him perform in Marfa in recent years. His self-described style of teaching is to avoid a show and tell, instead opting to “let the kids touch the painting,” to let them “hold something that they haven’t been able to hold before. There’s a little bit of danger in that.”

This is his last year teaching at Marfa Elementary, which is bittersweet for Watts, known as “Mr. Sam” by his students. But Watts had been wanting to design a more creative curriculum for years. “I haven’t been able to create the class that I’ve always wanted to create; I’ve tried all these different versions of teaching all these different subjects.”

Watts grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle, and was surrounded by artists from an early age. His grandfather is the artist Sam Richardson, for whom Watts is named. They had a very close relationship, and his grandfather exposed him to the same kind of artifacts that Watts collects and will use in class. “I have a lot of stuff. I grew up with a grandfather who pinned up blue jay feathers in his studio.” Watts now has his own collection of feathers, as well as wings, and an assortment of taxidermied birds inherited from his grandfather. “The wonder was there for me in the very beginning of my life. I felt as a kid so lucky to have had that as a guide.”

The classes were designed and planned over a year ago, and Watts was ready to print flyers and get started, but COVID-19 halted his plans. The classes were going to be taught at the Marfa Public Library outdoor space, and he hopes to be able to utilize that space in the future. 

In a way, the pandemic has helped Watts to hone in on the detail and structure of the classes. “I used this year to really dive deeper into what’s going on in these recurring patterns and shapes and motifs.” He is raising two boys at home with his wife, Angela, and in the past year they’ve been able to take their own field trips in the Southwest. He jokes, “the safest thing to do during a pandemic is to go to a petroglyph site.”

Although an exact start date has not been finalized, classes will begin in June and the same class will be offered twice a week in order to reach more students. Watts imagines that hosting 10 students per class will be safe enough to conduct in his large backyard classroom, at least while the pandemic continues. Masks will be required. 

The program is currently raising funds through an online GoFundMe campaign, to help pay for supplies and to pay for area experts to come share their knowledge with the children and their parents. The fund can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/the-magic-around-us-marfa?utm_source=customer&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_campaign=p_cf+share-flow-1

Of the fund, Watts says, “I’m not trying to make any kind of income. I want to give it to other people to come talk, pay them for their time. The money is like a community chest to be able to reward people’s kindness.” The initial money raised, says Watts, should fund the program for a calendar year. Throughout the summer, classes will be held during the week and during the day, and when school starts, they’ll shift to the weekend. 

For Watts, the magic of place is literally all around us, and he wants to share this love of art and artifacts with the children. “You can’t get over a feather. You shouldn’t get over a feather. It should never not give you a charge. That’s what I am trying to teach.”