The first thing you notice when you look at Dena Watkins is her bright pink hair.
The second is her smile. Watkins is a student who stands out at Mills College.
Her calm, laid-back demeanor mixed with a fervor for life’s small adventures makes her unique.
Watkins is striking in appearance, with a strong sense of personal style and creativity, and she carries herself in a manner that lets anyone around her know her ambitions are larger than life.
Within the first few minutes of my meeting Watkins, it was clear that she was an artist.
Several months ago, the first time I met Dena, she drew me. She included my eyes, pierced lips and belly button, and swiping bangs in an abstract box.
It was colorful and confusing, but I immediately recognized a type of agency and authority in Dena’s work.
She knew what she was doing and she was confident enough to display it.
Shadd Lopez, a long-time friend of Watkins’ and a student at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, says he recognizes her ambition and the quality of her work.
“I really like to see the ideas that come straight out of Dena’s head,” said Lopez.
“We’ve worked together on a lot of things, and I can see how she is influenced and how she comes up with her original stuff.”
Watkins was born in Goleta, California and spent her childhood in nearby Santa Ynez. During her freshman year of high school, Watkins moved to Santa Barbara where she found herself surrounded by brilliant scenery that influenced her interest in photography.
Watkins commented about the place she refers to as “home,” saying, “It’s so beautiful [in Santa Barbara], especially for photography, and the sunrises and sunsets over the beach are so easy to capture on film.”
During her high school years, Watkins experimented in various modes of art.
Her background includes experience in art forms such as sculpture, stonecarving, photography and painting.
Watkins has had her work displayed in art shows on several occasions in Santa Barbara and Los Olivos, California. Watkins also has background in art history.
She was given the Achievement in Arts award for the 2006 graduating class at her high school.
“I’ve taken so many diverse art classes,” Watkins said. “People ask me my focus and I say ‘I love to study anything and everything.'”
However, there was a time when her interest dwindled.
“For a while in high school I stopped doing art. It had always been a big part of my life because both my grandmothers are artists. I took an art class my freshman year [of high school], then decided to focus on academics instead. I didn’t take art courses my sophomore and junior years because those were supposed to be the hardest academically. After those difficult years, I began getting back into sculpture and theater arts, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do with my life. Then I began looking at art colleges.”
Before graduating, Watkins planned to attend art school in San Francisco but changed her mind when she found Mills.
“I was practically enrolled in the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. At the last minute, my high school counselor called me in to talk to him. He said he wanted me to go to a more challenging and competitive school to study the arts.”
Watkins’ high school counselor encouraged her to apply to Mills.
It was early spring and Watkins had already finished her other college applications.
“Mills worked with me,” she said, and Watkins decided that Mills was the right school for her – the perfect mix of challenging academics and arts.
Watkins is currently a freshwoman at Mills.
She has taken the required beginning art course, which focused on figure drawing and technique, and is now enrolled in a ceramics course, which she comments is “new to me.” Watkins has also started studying art history at Mills, taking a course on India and Southeast Asia.
Hannah Huffman, freshwoman who is a friend and classmate of Watkins, says she likes to see the artistic ideas Watkins comes up with inside and outside of class.
“When you watch [Watkins] work you can see that she knows a lot about different art styles and forms, which helps her define her own style,” said Huffman. “She comes up with in-depth ideas quickly.”
Huffman is enrolled in ceramics class with Watkins. She comments that “despite ceramics being a new thing to [Watkins], she is able to bring her own creativity to it … She’s definitely at an artistic level above most people.”
This summer, Watkins plans to study at the world-renowned Brooks Institute of Photography, which has trained more than 7,000 photographers working worldwide.
At the Brooks Institute, Watkins plans to study various styles of photography including photojournalism.
Watkins hopes to graduate in spring 2010 with a double major in Studio Art and Business.
“For a while I wanted to do photojournalism because I wanted to have a stable career in art,” said Watkins. “But photography is a little too technical for me. I love the fine arts. I plan to study business and work in a gallery; that affords me the opportunity to go out and create [art] without the pressure of having to produce.”
Ultimately, Watkins’ goal is to own and run an art gallery.
“I know she’ll make it,” Lopez said about Watkins. “Art is a hard field to go into, and it may not be rewarding at first – lots of work and not very much money – but she has the ambition for it . No matter what her field, Dena will always keep making art.”