STONINGTON — Ron Watson insists that opening an art gallery was just something he did on a lark.
“It wasn’t something I had thought about for a long time,” he said, sitting at his desk in the back of the gallery on a recent hot summer day. “I maybe joked about it with some artist friends, ‘Oh, I’m going to open a gallery.’”
Whatever whim it was that got Watson started, the gWatson Gallery has lasted. Located on Main Street, the studio is celebrating 20 years in business this summer.
An airy, first-floor space that fills with natural light during the day, the gallery primarily displays paintings. Some are classic Maine landscapes; the iconic Deer Isle Bridge makes an appearance. Others are still lifes or abstract art. Watson picks art that he likes, or that he thinks his clientele will enjoy, without caring too much about who made it.
“A lot of the artists I show come to Maine, but I also show artists that never come to Maine,” Watson said. “So it’s a real variety of work and people.”
The gallery owner has held a variety of jobs over the years. He started off working in education in Harlem, N.Y., then got into the boat-building business, which brought him to Stonington in 1979. He eventually switched to boat repair and storage before returning to teaching. He taught in a marine trades program at Deer Isle-Stonington High School.
He was still working at the high school part time when he founded gWatson Gallery in 1998. The first few years, it was only open during the summers and on weekends during the school year, though Watson has since made it his focus. The space is now open seven days a week from May through October.
Watson credits several artist friends and other gallery owners for their early support.
Then, about a decade ago, he bought out the building and moved the gallery from the second-floor space he had been renting to the ground level. He refurbished the upper two floors into condominiums to help cover his costs, and also came into possession of the adjoining food shack, Stonington Ice Cream Company.
After leasing the shop for a few years, the gallery owner opted to operate it instead. He’s expanded the menu, which now includes lobster rolls and other food items. He hires teenagers to run the counter and serve up orders, but he’s available in the gallery next door via two-way radio when they run out of something or need assistance.
The other notable piece of is the gallery’s jazz scene. The space hosts several concerts each summer, often featuring famous jazz musicians who have toured in Europe and Asia. Bringing in such talented acts is possible, Watson says, because of Stonington’s beautiful landscape and tasty lobster.
“The thing that makes it work for me is these people, once they come, they all want to come back,” Watson said. “And then they tell their friends. It’s a fortunate place in that it attracts people.”
This summer’s lineup included Chilean vocalist Camila Meza and Japanese pianist Eri Yamamoto, among others.
In 20 years, Watson has seen Stonington, and the art scene, slowly evolve. The small fishing village has busier summers now, with more tourists making the trek down to Deer Isle, but Watson feels the progression has happened slowly enough to be manageable. Other galleries have come and gone, while the gWatson Gallery has survived, with mild adaptations for the changing times.
“I’ve seen in the last few years, more people are buying art through the internet,” Watson said.
He buys some art himself, although not enough to identify as a collector. His personal favorites include Robert Barnes, a longtime professor at Indiana University who eventually relocated to Maine, and the late John Imber, a Stonington summer resident who continued to paint even after being diagnosed with ALS.
What started out as a lark has turned into a two-decade project for Watson, and it is still going strong.
“I’ve done a lot of different things,” he said. “The gallery is certainly the thing I’ve done for the longest.”