Without Phil Watkins Jr. and his family, the world would be a less colorful place. Especially Colorado.
Phil Watkins Jr. (Art’70) can do without spotlight or limelight, but his work glories in illumination.
“Light is what brings it to life,” says the eighth-generation stained-glass artist, one of few in the country who handles every aspect of the craft, from delicate restorations to original designs on almost any scale. He can sketch, measure, pattern, cut, paint, glaze and install, at eye level or nine stories up.
Over six decades, Watkins has created or restored thousands of colored windows in churches, homes and commercial and civic buildings. He’s worked in 38 states, including, of course, Colorado, where he’s restored prized glass in the governor’s mansion, the capitol, the Brown Palace Hotel and Fairmont Cemetery. Since 1985, his wife, Jane Rosholt Watkins (Art’72), has been his primary artistic partner.
“He does incredible work and is an asset to the state of Colorado,” says capitol architect Lance Shepard. “He is so quiet, but his work speaks volumes.”
The Watkins family entered the stained-glass business in England in 1761. In the 1860s, Watkins’ great-grandfather, Clarence Watkins, emigrated to America with a box of family tools. In 1868, after working in Boston, New York and St. Louis, he settled in Denver.
Through the early 1900s, Clarence designed glass for mansions, churches and businesses in the growing city. For the Brown Palace’s 1892 opening, he produced the nine-story lobby’s signature skylight; Phil Watkins Jr. restored it in 1985.
Phil Watkins’ apprenticeship began early, at age 8, when he would sweep the floors for his father. Later, he built boxes for shipping glass to Fort Carson by train.
By age 12 he was designing original work — six Gothic arch windows for the Boulder Seventh Day Baptist Church.The building houses law offices now, but the windows are still there.
The Monday after graduating from CU Watkins joined his father’s studio full-time. One of his early projects was repairing the amber windows in Macky Auditorium — windows installed by his grandfather around 1911, he believes, and damaged by dynamite in 1970 during unrest over the Vietnam War.
Trained in the stained-glass craft at home, Watkins developed breadth as an artist at CU, largely under the direction of sculpture professor Lynn Wolfe (MFA’48).
These are painted on glass and the painting is so realistic that it looks like you could stick a finger in front of their faces and they would bite you.
Entering CU in 1965, he studied sculpture and painting and competed as a javelin thrower on the track team under coach Frank Potts.
“Athletics taught discipline and achieving my goals,” he says, characteristics that have served him well in work that demands meticulous attention to detail.
From art historians Alden Megrew and Robert Day he acquired a grounding in the great works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Michaelangelo, DaVinci and Henry Moore that inspire him still.
One day he was eating lunch in the UMC with Megrew and Day as they discussed the brushstrokes on a Botticelli painting, debating whether the corners were painted by an understudy or by Botticelli.
“The brushstrokes looked the same to me, but they could see a difference, that’s how much they knew,” he says.
Watkins did not find all aspects of college life easy.
“I was an anachronism in the fine arts department ’cause it was back in the time of the hippies and alternate life-style people,” he says.
His ROTC unit stopped marching outdoors after students angry about the Vietnam War hurled beer bottles at them.
Art and javelin throwing “kept me going,” he says, “that and all the pretty girls.”
One of those girls was Jane, whom he met in a class on Colorado history.
“I missed the first several weeks of the semester from being at World Campus Afloat,” Jane says, referring to the program now called Semester at Sea.
She needed to figure out a way to catch up.
“Phil sat next to me on my second day of class and I asked to borrow his notes.”
He obliged; she ended up with the better grade. They’ve been together ever since.
Jane’s background in art history — the major she declared after studying ancient Greek, Byzantine and Renaissance art during her semester abroad — is an important asset for Watkins Stained Glass Studio.
She tells the story of a prospective client who wanted a window with Van Gogh’s irises. “Do you want Van Gogh’s irises in a field or irises in a pot?” Jane asked, referring to two different works.
The client was impressed: “‘You’ve got the job.’”
Jane handles many of the details of running the business so Phil has more time in the studio.
He spent much of last year in the state capitol, where he’s been called to work several times. The recent project involved cleaning, restoring and reinstalling windows in the Senate and House chambers and in the rotunda. He rates windows on a 1-10 scale and says the rotunda windows are a 10+.
“These are painted on glass and the painting is so realistic that it looks like you could stick a finger in front of their faces and they would bite you. They are just done so well,” he told Colorado Public Radio last year.
The commission Watkins is most proud of is a stunning portrayal of The Last Supper, a year-long project he began in 1999 and at first was hesitant to take given the prospect of matching the perfect perspective of Leonardo DaVinci’s masterpiece mural, in glass, no less.
“I can’t do The Last Supper,” he told Jane when Walt Wostenberg (MechEngr’65), then director of planning and construction for the Denver archdiocese, called about the project for Our Lady of the Snow in Granby, Colo.
Jane borrowed a slide of the masterpiece and they projected it onto large pieces of paper taped to a blank wall. After drawing it in charcoal at the size of the planned window — 20 feet by 10 feet — it started to feel more manageable.
“Many jobs feel that way at the beginning, too massive to undertake,” Phil says. “I lie awake at night trying to find new and ingenious ways to do things.”
Painstaking and often solitary, Watkins’ work takes him into sacred, cinematic spaces. He recalls a 1990 job for St. John’s Cathedral, home of The Last Judgment, which he considers one of the finest in Denver.
“There was a big hail storm that blew through here and that window was in its path,” he says.
With huge holes to fix in the 20-by-30-foot window in the north choir loft, he worked on scaffolding in the cavernous space off and on for six months, a man on an island.
“They had a really good organist at that time,” he says. “I remember listening to him play Handel’s Messiah right before Christmas. I’m sitting up there and the big pipes are rattling the window and my scaffold was rattling. I was just sitting there, not working, enjoying the music.”
Photography courtesy of Phil and Jane Watkins (windows); Casey A. Cass (the Watkinses in their studio)