Remembering Bob Watts

Salon's art director, who died after a long fight against cancer, inspired us all with his creativity, fearlessness and generosity. Plus, the Temptations played at his prom.

By Salon Staff

Published January 5, 2008 12:20PM (EST)

I don't think I'll ever forget the Salon art department at the time -- Mignon Khargie, Elizabeth Kairys and Karen Templer -- gushing at an editorial meeting about this person who'd applied to be an intern. He was making a midlife career change, and they couldn't say enough about him. One of them said to the boss, David Talbot, "Can we keep him?" The answer was yes.

Bob had a lot to live up to after that introduction, and he more than lived up to it. Of course he became a fantastic artist for Salon. He was one of those guys who could be good at pretty much anything that interested him, and it seemed like everything interested him. He's the only person I've ever known who was fascinated by art, technology, music, kids, photography, food -- and horse racing. And that's just the stuff I know about and remember. And I've already said too much without using the words "kindness," "creativity" and "fearlessness."

He was always surprising you. Once in my music days I mentioned playing a gig at a county fair, and some version of the Temptations was playing the main stage. Bob was from Detroit. "The Temptations," he said, like he was about to tell me what he'd had for lunch. "They played my prom."

He surprised us one last time because most of us hadn't known how sick he was. He kept that private, for the most part. I don't think he liked people to make over him too much. But I hope he knew how much he was loved and appreciated around here.

-- King Kaufman

* * *

Bob was so brave in the face of his illness, so determined to carry on with his life, that it was easy to forget what he was dealing with for so long. He was just always there. If he wasn't in the cubicle next to me, then his self-portrait was reassuringly there on my buddy list. I admired him tremendously for his courage, but also for his story: He was an incredibly talented guy who made himself indispensable through his hard work and artistic chops. But that was just his Salon story; if you got Bob talking about his life, you found that he had a million more, many surprising, all interesting. And I'm sure I barely scratched the surface.

I'm going to miss Bob's friendship. He was an anchor in the office, someone to talk to in the morning, to share music and photos and books with, to gripe with about work. His enthusiasm for music especially was infectious. And he was generous and calm, with a great sense of humor. He was so uniquely Bob. It's hard to believe he won't be back with us.

-- Ruth Henrich

* * *

The thing that really pissed me off about Bob was that it was so hard to get sick around him. Living with a pint-size germ carrier and her germ-carrying friends means that lots of colds and other stuff get passed around in this outpost. And here I was working with Mr. Stoic: try complaining about a sinus headache when your co-worker was feeling the after-effects of a four-hour chemo drip. Which, on the rare occasion he let something slip, I'd learn about well after the worst was past. Jeez, Bob.

What I absolutely loved was our breaking-news chemistry, when a story would hit and we'd lunge for IM at the same time, fingers flying: "You take Reuters, I'll do AP!" That and the fact that he was reliable. Which, unless you understand what I mean, may sound a little lame. He was always available, for whatever, whenever. We have the sort of jobs where one or both of us always needs to be on call, and our long association taught us we could completely rely on the other. Even with all the odd hours we'd sometimes keep, and his long, long battle, he never lost his good humor, and we'd end up laughing and trading jokes about why we did what we did for as long as we'd both been doing it. (Note to self: Tell Lori to burn Bob's IM logs)

He got tired and grumpy at times, sure. We all did. But I never felt the full weight of this job on my shoulders because he carried his share, and then some. He loved Salon, and I'd like to think it helped keep him alive these past few years.

-- Mignon Khargie

* * *

I'm at a loss as to what to do or say, really, other than to go over some of my favorite memories of Bob. We shared an obsession with Apple products; every January, around this time, we'd have fun conversations about what Apple might be releasing at Macworld. Afterward he was usually more impressed than I, and we'd tangle over whether the company could really, this time, get anyone interested. (He won that argument.) Once I was lamenting that I couldn't draw, and he showed me how you didn't really need to know how to draw if you used Adobe Illustrator -- you could trace an image from a photograph. To prove it, he pulled out his camera and took a picture of me, and then spent a half-hour showing me the software. The next day he sent me an awesome illustration of my mug. What I loved most was telling him some vague idea for art -- something like, "Can you show something that says people love iPods?" or, "This is about neuroscience and music" -- and then getting knocked off my chair with his perfect interpretation. Bob was such a wonderful person that it was easy to forget that he was also a computer graphics ninja.

We sat near each other at every Salon office I've worked at; I can't imagine the place without him.

-- Farhad Manjoo

* * *

The first day I walked into Salon, there was Bob in the cube across from mine. I hadn't seen him in almost 20 years. When he found out I had been hired as managing editor he had dug into his files and found a color xerox photo of the old '69 VW bus I drove around when he and I worked together long ago at a small environmental organization in S.F. called the Planet Drum Foundation. He presented it to me when I arrived and the faded photo of my old bus from 1984 was the first thing I hung on my cube walls in 2005. The gesture was so Bob, not only considerate, but poetic. As I would see him do it over and over again in his illustrations of Salon articles. He had found an image that told a larger story, in this case, reminding me, ever so sweetly, of the long journey, over many bumpy roads, in often less than luxurious conditions, that I'd been on to get to Salon. When I saw Bob sitting there, smiling warmly, looking as svelte and understatedly fashionable as ever, I felt at home.

Bob was only a few years older than me but when I met him while still in college he was a savvy 26-year-old who turned me on to great literature and music, especially REM and the Smiths. At Planet Drum we worked in a musty basement updating mailing lists of bioregional activists around the country using white-out and a Selectric typewriter. Bob edited the organization's newsletter, Raise the Stakes, and for an article about geomancy we spent an amazing rainy day together with a dowsing expert in Golden Gate Park running a quivering divining rod over the ground attempting to detect underground water and mineral deposits. That was one of the first interviews I ever did and still one of the most fascinating -- all under Bob's wing. I was often overwhelmed and a little lost in those days. After all, we were trying to build a bioregional movement, to tear down state and national borders and refashion a society based on the natural boundaries of watersheds. Goodbye, California -- hello, Shasta and Sonora bioregions! This was heady stuff, to say nothing of seriously fringe, and I could count on Bob, with his wry intelligence and great sense of style (not to be underestimated in post-hippie times), to help me make sense of it all. Although not from Northern California originally, Bob was very at home in the Shasta bioregion. Long before we became the new Tuscany and everything local became hip, he knew what to do with an Eel River salmon, Amador zin or bag of Humboldt homegrown.

Bob, thank you for that photo. I will miss you very much.

-- Jeanne Carstensen

* * *

This is a terrible loss. Bob was a great human being. I'll never forget him, and neither will anyone else who was fortunate enough to know him. His gracious, kind, and humble spirit will always inspire us all.

-- Gary Kamiya

* * *

Since we moved to the Rincon center a couple years back my desk was right across from Bob's, and every time I'd come in and he was there he'd always look up and smile and say hello in his quiet, jovial way. And it lit me up every single time because it always fully contained his incredible spirit and sense of humor and intelligence. He would never let his illness eclipse those qualities. He was a creative force and a kind friend, and I cannot believe he's gone; it's an astonishing and awful loss. We will not be the same without him, but his spirit will stay with us for sure.

Bob's artistic talent and intuition often made good Salon stories great. One recent example was with a cover story we ran looking at how financial donations to Bill Clinton might become a liability for a Hillary Clinton presidency. A worthy subject ... but hardly a sexy one. How to draw readers in? I remember fiddling and going around in circles with the display copy just as Bob sent the art over. Not only did he nail it, his summary riff tickled me as much as the image did: "Made him the East Wing house mom baking up big donations." From there the headline was a breeze ... ("Will Bill's dough make trouble for Hillary?") As an editor, you always knew you were in good hands when Bob was going to be delivering the art to accompany a story.

Bob was also remarkably generous with his time, despite the huge demands placed on the tiny art department here. One time I wanted to send an old archived Salon story to an interested colleague, but since it had been published the original art had gone missing due to Salon's formatting changes, and the story was lesser for it. (Bob had done the art.) I asked him about it, though also urged him that it was hardly a priority. After all, we had a daily issue to produce and a million other things going on, as usual. Nor was it an easy fix to that archived story -- but Bob tracked down the original art for it and had it back in there and ready to go for me the same afternoon. That's the kind of guy he was.

-- Mark Follman

* * *

I don't share the long history with Bob that many people do at Salon. But, as my cubicle neighbor for the last two years, he radiated an enviable warmth and Zen-like calm. Each morning that he came into the office he offered up a modest smile that was genuinely kind and unusually down-to-earth. As a Salon newbie and young'un, he kindly offered me basic, unadorned encouragement and praise. He was engaged, open and real -- human in a way that few of us seem to achieve.

-- Tracy Clark-Flory

* * *

Reading these tributes to Bob -- many from people who worked with him longer or more recently than I did -- I'm struck especially by the comments about knowing him through IM. When Mignon and Elizabeth and I were looking for an intern all those years ago, and I was screening the résumés, Bob's stood out for reasons almost inexplicable. We were looking for someone with certain skills, of course, but also someone who was detail-oriented and who would make a good addition to our small and unusually close-knit staff. We got a lot of boring and typo-ridden letters and résumés, and I liked Bob's for not containing a single error. I also liked that he had an uncommon background and diverse interests and was looking for new ways to explore them. And I'm not bullshitting you when I say that he had a fantastic spirit and that it was somehow evident right there in his résumé (just as it apparently was in his IM messages). We invited him in for an interview and, as you've read, we fell immediately in love with him. Bob had a beautiful soul and a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter -- he lived a beautiful life. It never surprised me that he went from that intern position to running the department, and it doesn't surprise me to see all of these heartfelt tributes. That's the kind of guy Bob was.

-- Karen Templer

I remember the day Bob came in for his interview at Salon. Mignon, Karen and I had already interviewed alot of so-so people and then in came Bob. We just loved him instantly and knew he was special. I admired how a man at his age could turn his career around and pursue something new out of pure curiosity. I knew from the day we hired him that he was talented and capable, but what I discovered over the years of knowing him is that he was hugely inspirational in the way he lived his life as a loving husband, father, individual, artist, music-lover and friend.

I was lucky to know Bob and I will miss him very much.

-- Elizabeth Kairys (former art director)

* * *

Though I worked with Bob almost every day, since he was in San Francisco and I am in New York, my image of him is really an icon on my buddy list, an IM window. But he was a presence, a calm patch of gentle good humor in an often hectic workday. No matter how much tumult -- no matter how much barking and hoopla -- swirled around him, Bob was always sane and swift and lovely and kind and helpful. He may have been ill for some time, but his whole aura -- from my faraway, digital perspective -- was one of clarity and health and sweetness. He seemed so solidly there that his absence is truly hard to grasp. It seemed he would always be there, spreading his patch of calm like a blanket around those who stumbled his way desperately in search of the perfect piece of art (which he always produced with astonishing speed) or simply a moment to slow down and marvel at the rigors of a fast-paced day. I'll miss his art, I'll miss his sweetness, and I'll miss his generous IM "ha!"

-- Amy Reiter

* * *

Bob and I had a lot in common, both Midwest city kids (him Detroit, me Chicago), both about the same age (him a whole year younger), and both wandering into a job at Salon at about the same time.

One of my favorite memories was with Gary Kamiya and myself looking over his shoulder when he was selecting the photo for Gary's George Harrison obit. He came across an unusual one with Harrison playing a Gretsch Tenneseean guitar. I pointed out that because of Harrison and the Beatles, that guitar was also the first good instrument that I had owned. That sealed the deal and that was the photo he and Gary selected. He was generous that way.

Bob was a truly fine, kind man, a uniquely talented artist and art director. We'll all miss him.

-- Paul Lesniak

* * *

I can't speak to Bob's wonderful qualities with the eloquence or experience of those who knew him better, but I want to express my admiration for his incredible patience, perspective and wry humor, and the calm respect with which he treated everyone around him. It must have been a struggle at times to radiate such strength and peace while he was suffering. (And to keep up with the daily grind of editorial demands, which he always managed to do with great insight and style.) I'm grateful for his example and deeply sad that he's gone so soon -- his amazing goodness touched my heart; it really feels like his passing leaves a hole in the world.

-- Page Rockwell

* * *

I met Bob only a couple of times, when visiting the San Francisco office, but I had instant-message exchanges with him often regarding work stuff, and know him mostly through those. Surprisingly, perhaps, many of the special qualities that other people have noted in him were apparent even in those brief exchanges. I can't believe I'll never see his great, but sad, self-portrait in the IM window again. I miss him already.

-- Michal Keeley * * *

I was deeply saddened to hear from my former colleagues at Salon that Bob Watts, who served as Salon's art director for many years, passed away early this morning after a long fight with cancer.

I knew Bob from his start at Salon as a photo intern in 1998, but worked closest with him during the dark years after the dot-com bubble burst, when Salon's prospects were dim and budgets were slim. Some of Salon's editors fought their own guerrilla battles against our financial woes by spending money they didn't really have, and it was my job as managing editor to try to reel them back toward reality. I never had to do that with Bob: At the end of each month he'd calmly deposit the art department's report on my desk, and it was so reliably in order and under budget that, I confess, I took to reviewing it less and less closely over the years. It could simply be counted on, as could he.

Stereotypes paint the artist as undisciplined and indulgent. Bob wasn't a stereotype; he was the real thing, and so he approached his work with care and consideration, balancing his own abundant inspiration with the needs of the people around him, working fast on ridiculously tight deadlines to create consistently delightful images.

He must have produced, literally, thousands of Salon cover images over the years, each one a witty or moving or beautiful little time capsule. I will miss them, as I will miss him.

-- Scott Rosenberg

* * *

Bob was one of the kindest men I've ever had the pleasure of working with. My communications with him -- always over e-mail, always across a continent, often in some deadline-juiced situation in which I was asking him to do something impossible and neurotic and he was responding with calm and wit and such tremendous talent -- felt like communication between friends, even if we were colleagues, and colleagues who knew each other only lightly at that. From some reporter on the other side of the country, Bob created not one but two beautiful caricatures, not because he had to for work, and not because I was going to use them professionally on Salon, but because I so admired his work and his depictions of my colleagues that I greedily wanted to see myself through his eyes, and so I asked him to draw caricatures of me from pictures -- just for the hell of it. I use one as my instant message icon, and the other as my Current icon, and I treasure them both, as I always treasured the way that his art made my stories far better than they would have been without it.

--Rebecca Traister

* * *

I worked with Bob for almost eight years, and sat across from him here in the Salon office in San Francisco. When he drew a caricature of me, I felt like I'd really made it as a Salon writer. Of all the fantastic art he did over the years for many of my stories, I especially love this illustration.

But my favorite memory of Bob is as a father. At the Salon retreat in 2007, I'd only been a mother for a few months, which inspired Bob to reminisce about when his daughter, Cady, now in high school, was a newborn. Back then, he'd been a chef. Cooking at the restaurant plus caring for the baby equaled extreme sleep deprivation. Yet, he recalled being a new father with a gentle, bemused nostalgia. It struck me how much love there was in that memory.

-- Katharine Mieszkowski

* * *

Bob was the first one to interview me by phone last March. It was effortless; we discussed art, design, music -- a walk in the park compared to Mignon's techniques, which I believe are now under review by the Justice Department. Toward the end of the conversation, feeling saucy, I decided to trip Mr. BossMan up with a question of my own: "How do YOU like working at Salon?" (This is saucy for me.) Without hesitating, he said, "Oh, well it's the best job in the world. I love it." Who better to work for than someone who can say that?

-- Christopher Walsh

* * *

Bob's wit and artistic talents were obvious to all who saw him work. His seemingly unlimited sweetness may not have come through to those who enjoyed his illustrations. I always enjoyed the times we spoke, sitting with his wonderful wife and daughter in the summer on a Sierra weekend or touching base about the mysteries of art and health in our little staff kitchen alcove as he ducked out at the end of a long day of work.

Personally, I was grateful to him for always encouraging my strange interest in pushing into abstract photography. Bob was delighted as I got involved in some local group photo shows over the last few years. He sparkled with a deeply creative spirit, and brought that to the surface in others around him.

He also instantly took to and quietly appreciated the WELL community, where he rediscovered old friends. I always felt he understood why the community team at Salon is so dedicated to the work we've taken on. Maybe that was because he truly loved the work he was doing.

It was an honor to spend time on the planet with this man.

-- Gail Ann Williams

* * *

I spent two years working in close proximity with Bob on the art team. During those two years, Bob never had a negative thing to say about anyone or anything. This is not to say he was not honest and forthcoming. He just had the most unique outlook on tricky situations and difficult people. I remember Bob being the first one in in the morning, having come the farthest. He was also often the last one to leave at night, wanting to make sure his cover piece was perfect. It always was, even though he sometimes refused to admit it, trying one last time to get things just right.

I was lucky to have known someone like Bob. There are not many folks like him in the world. He was loving, kind and professional to the core; a dedicated father, husband and colleague. My condolences go out to his family, and to all of those who knew and loved Bob Watts.

-- Sara Wood

* * *

Bob could have been the drummer I watched last night at Rancho Nicasio. He never grew a handlebar moustache, and hasn't had long hair since the 80's, but the hawkishly handsome face and calm, confident movements were so similar I nearly cried.

It's not too far of a stretch to imagine him in any number of different guises. He's been an artist, a chef, an activist and a forest ranger. Bob was someone who picked up new skills the way I acquire houseplants or shoes. I'd almost believe he wasn't trying. When I wanted insight on a band, a book, or my latest harebrained scheme I could always turn to Bob.

His strong opinions, high standards and understated, steady kindness have been part of my life for nearly as long as I can remember. Bob and my older sister started dating, and then married, when I was a kid. Early on, he wooed me, too, by bringing generous stacks of comic books to my parent's home in the woods. But when I brought my pet sheep into the guest room to wake my sister, I finally recognized a mischievous kindred heart: he encouraged me to bring the horse in too.

Over the years, Bob was as much a friend as he was family. He cooked an amazing ham for dinner each Christmas, and when he, his daughter Cady and I formed a team for Pictionary we were unbeatable. I called him first whenever my computer broke, and when I went back to grad school to study journalism he was one of my most eloquent supporters.

Even as his cancer progressed he stayed strong, and stayed himself. He was still cracking jokes the last time we talked; it's hard to believe he's gone.

--Jacoba Charles

Salon Staff

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