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Finding solace in art

Will Watts has overcome traumatic experiences stemming from his time in military service and a motorcycle crash that left him with broken legs and a shattered spirit. 

It was at a five-day retreat in Peru where he found solace. He returned home a new man and took on new hobbies like art and music.

Inspired by his struggles with mental health, Watts illustrates his story in the form of a mural he painted on the side of a downtown Tracy building. The display may catch the eye of drivers heading northbound on N. Central Avenue, but one would have to park and walk to Jackson Alley — between the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts and West Side Market at 715 N. Central Ave. — for a better look.

Watts, a lifelong Tracy resident, doesn't mind that his work is somewhat hidden.

“It's about mental health, and (the remedy) is hard to find and get to,” Watts said. “It's kind of fitting. There's some poetic justice to it.”

The 32-year-old is at peace with a lot of things following wars in Afghanistan, at home with a girlfriend and with himself. 

Watts graduated from Merrill F. West High School in 2007 and enlisted in the Army at age 17, intending to never come back to “Tank Town.” 

In 2011, he and his team were on a mission when their truck was blasted by an improvised explosive device (IED). The vehicle contained equipment that the group could not leave behind, and this simple operation turned into a five-day ordeal in a remote and dangerous location.

This harrowing event marked the beginning of Watts' inner struggles. It drove him to alcoholism.

“I did start to have (PTSD) at the time I was in the Army,” he said. “I used to drink like a fish. I was 25, not seeking help for myself and avoiding everything I needed to work on and focus on. I didn't know where to start.”

It only got worse from there. 

Watts was then deployed to Guantanamo Bay where he worked as a prison guard and met his now-ex-girlfriend, another service member who later moved from the East Coast to live with him. 

In 2016, not long after the completion of his second tour of duty, he was involved in a motorcycle accident in downtown Tracy — not too far from where he composed the mural. 

The wreck temporarily crippled him physically, but the real damage was dealt psychologically. It ended his military career and relationship.

“It basically took about a year or two for my legs to recover, but I was still dealing with the mental aspects of it,” Watts said. “I was so depressed and so angry — all those PTSD things. Things just got to a point where my anger got the best of me. My ex and I got into fights. Things got violent and terrible and she ended up leaving me.

“That was the last straw. She was the last thing keeping me from not killing myself. After she left, I was kind of lost.”

He made two trips that changed and saved his life.

The first was to Peru. 

Unable to find the right fit with counselors provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Watts and younger brother Isaiah sought alternative methods to treat his mental illness. They discovered Ayahuasca, an Amazonian psychedelic tea made from a plant and vine from the region. 

Watts enrolled in a five-day Ayahuasca retreat with Etnikas, a program that combines ancient Incan healing techniques with modern medicine. Clients work with Shipibo healer shamans and Q'ero priests, but the Etnikas medical team also includes a cardiologist, general practitioner, psychologist, psychiatrist and nurses.

It took only a day for the battle within to shift toward the light. 

Watts participated in the first of three Ayahuasca ceremonies, an experience he described as “incredibly difficult but also beautiful.” Watts recalls visions of his ex-girlfriend dying in a seemingly-endless loop. In other visions, he sees himself dying. Watts shared the morbid imagery with a shaman and psychiatrist who steer the mental rehabilitation. 

“I was so scared,” Watts said. “It made me go through (death) over and over until I realized I wanted to be alive. I felt brand new after that. I met God and the devil and they both taught me a lot of lessons about myself and who I want to become. I came back literally as a whole different human being.”

Watts gave up drinking. About a week after returning from the retreat, he picked up a paintbrush for the first time. He then taught himself how    to play the piano.

More on his artistic endeavors later.

Watts was aware that not all of his wounds were healed. So, in late 2018, he set out on another excursion but to a country he was a little more familiar with — Afghanistan. 

Accompanying him was cousin Lexie Alford, a world traveler and YouTube personality whose claim to fame is as Guinness World Record holder for being the youngest to visit all 196 countries at age 21. She documented the trip and posted the video on her YouTube channel, “Lexie Limitless.” 

While there, Watts delved into the culture, visited various landmarks and mingled with the people. Afghans were once the enemy, but he now sees them through a different lens.

“Revisiting as a civilian, I was able to make peace,” he said. “After I found this healing, I was able to just let even more go.”

The Tracy Arts Commission caught wind of his story as well as his artistic talents. He was a top candidate to participate in the Civic Art Program's Downtown Tracy Mural Project. 

Watts began his project in June, completing it in about a month. 

“It was a little stressful,” he said. 

Watts was initially nervous about painting in front of passersby, but the downtown crowds were thinned by coronavirus concerns. 

At the center of Watts' mural is a cross-legged soldier levitating while in deep meditation. Surrounding him are demonic-like figures while angels hover on each side of the subject. There are also two large hands looming overhead with palms down. 

“There's a big ring around him that symbolizes that he has found peace,” Watts said. “Even when he's surrounded by darkness and light, he still has this sense of peace. All the demons represent emotions I've felt in my military career — some are reaching out in anger, some in fear. 

“Above him are the hands of God protecting him, and the angels are also there adding guidance and protection.”

Now, he serves as one of those angels. He has convinced fellow military vets and friends to partake in Ayahuasca retreats, and they've come back with their own success stories. For this soldier-turned-artist, he considers the downtown mural to be one of his greatest achievements.

“I was going through a range of different emotions,” he said of his first glance at the completed project. “Obviously very proud to have it done and in awe to have had the opportunity to do this, but it was also very emotionally draining. Everything I was painting I was feeling. I put a lot of emotion into that piece of art.”

“Before the mural I wasn't calling myself an artist because I'm so new to it,” Watts added. “The arts have been such a therapeutic thing. It's a way for me to process my emotions about the things I've gone through in my life.” 

Veteran's Mural Project by Will Watts, located on the West Side Market Building in Jackson Alley adjacent to the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts in downtown Tracy.