Associate professor of art history. Executive director of the Florida Prison Education Project. CO-PI of the NEA Big Read: Central Florida grant. Advocate. While there are many ways to describe Keri Watson and her impact on UCF and the community, the university has deemed it as “excellent” by recognizing her many accomplishments with the University Award for Excellence in Professional Service.
Known for teaching courses in American art, African American art and The Art of Walt Disney, Watson is a force to be reckoned with in the School of Visual Arts and Design. Her research, which focuses on how art contributes to and challenges stereotypical representations of race, nationality, gender, sex and disability, has been recognized and supported by major organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Terra-Fulbright Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
“I’m very interested in the ways in which the arts cultivate resilience and help us to overcome failures, rejections and setbacks, and a significant factor in the development of resiliency is community,” says Watson. “Unlike individual studio practices in which artists are focused primarily on developing the formal or aesthetic qualities of their work, socially engaged artists and curators work collectively to create an intentional social impact. I’m interested in studying artists, past and present, who engage in this type of work, and I strive to do this in my own work by collaborating with others on exhibitions and publications. By collaborating, we learn empathy and acceptance, and by studying objects and histories removed from our own personal experiences, we witness the beauty of our world.”
Most notably, Watson has been recognized and applauded for her work with the Florida Prison Education Project (FPEP). Inspired by her time teaching for the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, she launched FPEP to bring education opportunities to incarcerated people in Florida. The project, which received a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts Art Works grant and $120,000 from the Laughing Gull Foundation, offers participants the opportunity to take online and in-person classes in a variety of subjects from art to physics.
The UCF community has benefited from this project as well. The $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts was used to support “Illuminating the Darkness: Our Carceral Landscape,” which was featured in the UCF Art Gallery in Fall 2020. The project offered a series of arts workshops led by visiting contemporary artists to people incarcerated in Central Florida, allowing them to engage in art and showcase their work to the community.
Watson has also taken the lead on UCF’s NEA Big Read, serving as director of the initiative since 2016. Watson sees it as an interdisciplinary venture, and has woven visual art, theatre, languages and other disciplines into conversations around literature. Her vision and drive on the project have enabled the UCF community to directly connect with artists such as Tayari Jones, Omari Booker, Eric Gottesman, Emily St. John Mandel and Dinaw Mengestu.
Keri Watson’s impact on UCF and the community has been remarkable. But when asked what drives her each day, Watson’s response is simple: “I can honestly say that I love my job. It is an honor and privilege to teach UCF and FPEP students, sponsor community projects, and make sure the work of young and underrepresented students, artists and scholars is read and appreciated. I have witnessed the transformative power of the arts and of education, and I am happy to have the opportunity to share both with so many.”