Since Sept. 11, 2001, Patty Watson, of Hamburg, has seen the world in red, white and blue.
An eagle? She’ll stripe it. A liberty bell? She’ll star it. But Watson doesn’t use a brush or a pencil to paint her pictures. She uses people. Thousands of people.
Patty’s People Pictures, an organization founded, funded and orchestrated by Watson, is coating the country in cooperation, peace and patriotism, one image at a time.
“9/11 is when I started really getting interested in starting this whole formation, mass people pictures, and it was really to work with kids and show some patriotism and support,” she said.
A mother of four and a former nurse, Watson has made 41 mass people pictures to date, and she’s far from finished.
Though she’s created her pictures at many area schools and several non-educational locations, Watson, an alumna of Pioneer High School, concentrates most of her creative energy in the Frontier School District in Hamburg.
Each picture starts with a simple idea. “I can’t stop thinking about them,” Watson said. “Most of what I do is patriotic. I feel strongly about showing support to the troops and to the injured.”
After each plan is conceived, it’s straight to the drawing board, followed by 40 to 80 hours of prepicture work. Watson and her team of volunteers pour their energy into graphing the image, enlarging the graph on a tarp and then spray-painting the image on the ground outside before arranging the people for the final shot. And while the process may seem smooth to an outsider, anything from billowing snow to a yellow scarf can alter the end result.
“It’s like doing a very big puzzle and plugging in all these classrooms into the puzzle, and by height,” Watson said. “Every single face is showing. That’s my goal, is to have 100 percent faces showing.”
The post-picture ceremony is often as incredible as the image itself. Local veterans, fire companies and political officials are invited to every picture-taking event.
“The ‘America’ was the most special,” she said about the ceremony following the picture taken with Frontier elementary and high school students in September 2011. “We had skydivers with an American flag, we had an American eagle, we had an injured soldier in full uniform with a Purple Heart stand up with a piece of ground zero and speak. … The kids were beautiful. They totally got the message.”
Watson, the designated architect, works alongside her designers and planners Theresa McClusky and Kim Finley, her painter Mike Suffoletto, her primary photographer Dave Sion, and her husband, Mike, to put each idea in action.
During the actual picture-taking, Watson stays on the ground amid it all. “I shoot candids as we’re going, just these cool, precious moments of kids doing kid things,” she said. “So many really moving moments happen in addition to that final image. And I like those as much as I like my finished image.”
In addition to several dogs that have made it into the photos, a traditional “Where’s Waldo” figure can be found in many of Watson’s people pictures.
All of her pictures are self-funded, with the exception of occasional sponsors, and all of the proceeds from T-shirt and sticker sales go directly to the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which benefits injured soldiers, veterans and their families.
Watson also is grateful for volunteers of any age who help with the setup of each photograph.
“I really love working with kids. And there’s a certain amount that’s serious and I’m not kidding around, but there’s a lot more laughs than anything else,” she said.
It was Natalie Krupa, now a sixth-grade teacher at Frontier Middle School, who set the wheels in motion in the spring of 2002 by deciding to paint a map on the lawn of Cloverbank Elementary School.
“I was teaching fifth grade, and it was May … I decided to somehow teach the rest of my curriculum hands-on outside,” Krupa recalled. “I thought, well, I’m going to spray paint an outline of the United States.”
That simple outline proved to be no easy task. And that was when Watson, whose son was in Krupa’s class, first entered the scene.
“She just kind of ran wild with it,” said Krupa. “That was the end for me, but Patty just decided, you know what, I can run with this.”
Run? More like fly.
Watson’s New York image has been posted on the I Love New York Facebook page. Her USA image was tweeted by the USA Olympics during the London Olympic Games in 2012. One of her flag images was posted in Times Square on Nov. 5, 2013. Her Buffalo Bills image is an 8-foot mural in the NFL headquarters. Her Stand Up to Cancer image was broadcast during the Stand Up to Cancer National Telethon in 2010 and 2012. This year, five of her images were accepted into the Smithsonian American History Museum.
“I try to think of, when I’m creating an image, what other impact can we make across the country or the world,” Watson said.
Krupa, who has been in 13 of Watson’s pictures, believes the impact of Watson’s images resonate most strongly here at home.
The students “see firsthand that they’re a little part of something big. That what they do, that part that they do, is going to make this whole thing a success,” Krupa said. “They really take pride in that end result.”
“It’s good that everybody in the school, even if we don’t all like each other, can come together and do something as beautiful as a picture for everybody in the community,” said 12-year-old Dillon Alvarez, a student in Krupa’s class who has been in two of the mass people pictures.
His classmate, 12-year-old Adam Burke, agreed. “It’s amazing how we put our whole school together just for the community and for all of the servicemen that worked for us in the Army and make this big picture to represent how we love our community.”
Frontier Middle School, a primary location for Watson’s pictures, is crowned with typical athletic trophies and club posters. But it’s clear that the school’s proudest pieces of hallway decor are its mass people pictures, located where even the most tunnel-visioned visitors can’t miss them.
“It just makes us feel good that we’re respecting these people and what they do,” said 12-year-old Carly Wicka.
Watson doesn’t fail to notice the impact she has on schools.
“I’ve had teachers tell me, ‘This is the best day in my whole teaching career.’ Like the best day where you really feel unified,” she said.
“A lot of servicemen and servicewomen, I think they enjoy it to see that we do stuff for them, just like they do stuff for us,” said 12-year-old Kenzie Hauser.
With every click of her camera, Watson brings people together.
“What’s cool is when you get these people to believe in what you’re doing to jump on board,” she said. “This means a lot to me.”
At noon on Friday, Patty’s Picture People will hold the Canalside Buffalo Lunch Brunch. An aerial picture of a human formation of a buffalo will be taken. Tickets are $20 and include a T-shirt, Chiavetta’s chicken barbecue and participation in the “living Buffalo” photo. Preregistration is required at buffalolunchbrunch.eventbrite.com. Proceeds will benefit the Bob Woodruff Foundation and WNY Heroes. For more information, visit pattyspeoplepictures.com.
Rachel Whalen is a junior at Williamsville South High School.