In 1996, artist Watie White visited the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, where he saw a painting
called Les Nymphéas: Matin (Water Lilies: Morning) that changed his life.
"When I saw it first, I was 24. I wasn’t really a person who had the emotional depth to cry at the time, but I stood in front of this thing for an hour, welling up with tears that never quite fell," White recalled. "Looking at it, I had a huge sense of awe about it; I had no idea why I was feeling everything I was feeling that day. It was really an amazing experience."
The work by famed French Impressionist painter Claude Monet was part of a series of roughly 250 paintings of his flower garden and created during the last decades of his life. Matin
was nearly a century old when White saw it, and although the young artist could relate very little of his life to either the aging painter or the scene depicted, the painting moved him so deeply that he thought about it every day for years and virtually every time he painted. The same year he saw the Monet painting, White made art his full-time occupation.
"Three years ago, I went back to Paris and the first thing I did was go straight to l’Orangerie to see this painting for the first time in 20 years. The experience was still very powerful but very different. So many of the things I remembered from that first experience, that ‘I have no idea what I’m seeing,’ was different.’" White said. With two additional decades of artistic experience under his belt, he saw the painting with an enhanced appreciation of its maker’s technique. But he also saw it through the lens of 20 more years of life experience.
"Twenty years later, I absolutely remembered everything I was feeling from that day. I’m 24, I’m with this woman I’m in love with and don’t know where it’s going to go, I have all these questions, and I’m feeling so inspired to be an artist. My head was filled with worries and questions and ambiguity about the future," he said. "For two hours I sat there and cried my ass off because I knew all the answers to all the things I was worried about twenty-something years ago. I sat there playing through everything in my mind: How I married that woman, had kids with her and divorced. How I moved over and over, had more education, had my career. All these things that at 24 were overwhelming, scary and terrifying; I got to sit there with the most important painting that I’d ever seen and play through the last 20 years of it."
An interesting path
Now, at 47, White said he hopes his best work is still ahead of him.
"How amazing would it be to have lived this life and get to have made a profound thing?" he said. "If you (classify) artists, either you’re a young genius or you’re an old master. I’m definitely an old master. I want to think long and hard about things, I’m someone who wants to make a lot of work, who wants to believe in incremental growth and progress over time…I’m hoping that the growth and trajectory doesn’t slow down."
White is on an interesting path to becoming that old master. The painter and printmaker received his formal art education at Carleton College, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and American University, but as the son of cultural anthropologists, he grew up all over. "I don’t have that same sense of home that other people have. Like a turtle, I carry it with me," he said. "I’ve lived in Omaha longer than I’ve lived in any other place. But I don’t think I’ll ever be something other than a transplant to anywhere I am…I’m always a little bit of a visitor, a little bit of a watcher."
White came to Omaha with his family in 2006 because of a career opportunity for his now ex-wife. As a working artist, he sized up the art community as "still young. Even the older artists here are generally young in their work."
He found the Omaha art community to still be developing in other ways, too.
"There are a lot of hurdles to living and working as an artist in Omaha, particularly if you want to be a gallery artist who’s going to make a lot of your income over the year through gallery representation and dealers, selling the work you make in the studio, and then finding clients and homes for it. It’s a part of the industry that doesn’t really exist in Omaha because of its size, because Omaha doesn’t really have a culture or a long tradition for that sort of thing," he explained. "This means you do lots of other things and you’re constantly trying to figure out how to make five or six or eight streams of income come in regularly so you can support your lifestyle…all the plates are spinning at the same time."
And also at the same time, White, who said he’s always been close to "mission-driven" people, found the nonprofit and philanthropic culture of Omaha to be quite robust. So, over 13 years, White may still feel like a transplant, but he’s rooted in a unique niche in his adopted city that blends an art career with service to the community.
"It really has been growing organically out of shared values with people not in the art world in Omaha," he said. "About half the work I do is public art projects with Omaha-based nonprofits within communities addressing social justice. Lately that’s taken me into a lot of schools to work in a collaborative way."
Finding their voices
One recent school-based project took place at his son’s school, Brownell Talbot. The collaborative mural called The Greatest Pirate That Ever Lived tells a visual story of the real-life Ching Shih, "a proto-feminist historical figure" from the turn of the 19th century, White said.
Due to legal discrimination which prohibited the Guangzhou Tanka ethnic group from living on land, Ching Shih grew up in a floating city of tiny family boats. She eventually became a leader—a rare accomplishment for a woman of that time and place— of 80,000 pirates, devised a revolutionary code of ethics that supported women, and fought a unified force of Chinese, Portuguese and British fleets. Although she lost that battle, Ching Shih negotiated a pardon from the Chinese emperor that facilitated her retirement without sacrificing her following or her wealth.
Brownell Talbot students helped create the mural and even modeled for its characters.
"They saw something of what they want to be in the story," White said, adding that as a father (daughter Eloise is 12, son Simon is 16), he especially enjoys helping young people find—and preserve—their voices.
"It’s an educational tool. They become more inclusive, and they see greater value in their stories, perspectives and personalities," he said. "I love to see that in students."
Working with children isn’t without its challenges, he said. "I have to put my own adult ego aside for a minute to hear what they are saying and really listen," he said.
Make it look like them
Another project White has worked on with youth is a mural of Homer’s The Odyssey at Holling Heights Elementary School in the Millard public school district.
"It was much the same process…My job was to figure out how to get them to work through this story and make it look like them."
Holling Heights Principal Tracy Logan said the mural, installed in January, goes beyond an opportunity for students to create art under the instruction of a professional artist.
"The students and staff who participated were taken through a learning experience that tied together literature, art and inquiry. They will be forever changed from seeing their voice, ideas and creativity captured through the mural; their contributions in the creation of the mural allowed them to create a legacy, one that will be displayed for the community long past their time at Holling Heights," she explained. "The product itself adds life, beauty and a unique identity to our physical space. Students can see themselves, or their peers, as part of this marvelous creation. This personal connection adds ownership and pride to the space of Holling Heights. Holling is extremely fortunate to house the work of such a talented and influential artist as Watie White."
Children are likely to meet professionals in core curriculum areas (sometimes they are even the instructors), she added, but the chance to work with someone like White is rare.
"Not all children get the opportunity to meet and work in collaboration with a ‘real’ artist," Logan said. "For students whose strengths lie in the area of art, they too need these mentors to inspire and help them see the power of their gifts."
Element of humanity
White has made art with various nonprofits including Immigrant Legal Center, Refugee Empowerment Center, InCOMMON Community Development, Omaha Housing Authority and Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance. His work, he said, "has evolved over time to be more collaborative." One project he’s in the midst of, a citywide public art installation called 100 people, epitomizes that.
"I’m doing these eight-foot-tall woodcut murals of 100 artists and advocates around Omaha and installing them throughout the city. I’ve carved 50 of these and installed 30 of them and will hopefully install 20 or 30 more of these this year," he said. "Each one of the portraits is a collaborative artwork I make with the person who’s modeling. They come to my studio with an idea of how they’d like to be seen in their mural; my job is to help hone that or just to execute it if it’s thoughtful and strong."
Shaun Ilahi, an artist friend, was the model for the first 100 people mural, located in the Blackstone neighborhood near Butterfish at 39th and Farnam Streets. He and White first met through service on the board of Union of Contemporary Art but crossed paths socially and eventually bonded in a quest for the best local barbecue.
"Watie is open and collaborative; he’ll actually listen to his subject’s stories. A lot of his art is about invoking thought and feelings and viewing things in a different way," Ilahi said. "You never feel it’s about him, it’s more about the ideas and giving a voice to people. It’s all about connections and the element of humanity."
Through the 100 people project, White is promoting discussion and bringing light to important issues, Ilahi said.
"I think Watie as an artist is doing great things for the community. He’s reaching out and learning about people and bridging people together to make a more inclusive community," he said. "Some people don’t want to have those conversations, but it makes our community stronger."
Andy Saladino, executive director of Amplify Arts (formerly Omaha Creative Institute), similarly praised White’s service to the community.
"Watie part of the board that hired me for this position and he’s a facilitator for Artist INC, an eight-week business skills program. And his studio is nearby," Saladino said. "We see him a lot."
Saladino said White freely shares his expertise.
"Watie has been able to put together what we call a ‘portfolio career’ of piecing different things together to sustain himself. He helps these generally younger and emerging artists who come through Artist INC," Saladino said. "He’s a great mentor and is trying to build the younger generation of strong, powerful, sustainable artists. He’s trying to make Omaha a better city for artists."
White is unusual in his focus on collaborative projects, he added.
"I respond well to Watie’s work and what I like about him is that he’s great at taking everyone’s ideas and putting them into one big thing, and promoting others people’s stories beyond his own. He’s one of the most unique and interesting artists here in Omaha," Saladino said. "Artists are storytellers. Art of every medium and discipline out there is about telling a story. What better way to bring people together to highlight important issues than by hearing a story and experiencing it visually or through a performance? Watie is all about highlighting other people’s stories for positive social change. It brings us all closer together."
"Essentially what we have in common is far greater than the tiny little things that differentiate us," White said. "Artists have been dealing with the same, real issues of how you live a thoughtful, meaningful life in a world that’s strange and difficult."
More steps ahead
White has built an impressive body of work throughout his career. His pieces have been displayed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney, Joslyn Art Museum, the Telfair Museums (Savannah, Georgia), The Dixon Galleries and Gardens (Memphis), and Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, among others. In 2007, he was commissioned by Opera Omaha to create imagery for an operetta, Blizzard Voices, with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec and Nebraska native and national poet laureate Ted Kooser. In 2014, his work was selected for an exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Contemporary Art (Bentonville, Arksansas) called State of the Art.
White’s public art project with artist Peter Cales for Habitat for Humanity, All that ever was always is, featured furniture created from material from condemned North Omaha homes, paintings inspired by interviews with people of the neighborhood, and a series of dinner parties bringing together neighbors, artists and nonprofit community leaders. The project garnered White Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award honors, and some of the pieces will be on display at Kaneko this summer.
"There are several really big questions only you can answer as an artist, and nobody else’s answers matter: What are you trying to paint? How can you actually paint that thing? and Why are you doing it in the first place? There are all questions you have to wrestle with every time you’re painting," he said. "After a certain point we drive our own education. You’re pushed along at the rate you’re supposed to go through it and then in the arts you get to the point where you realize you can’t rely on anybody else to know what your next steps are to be."
And he sees many steps ahead of him still in his journey to become an old master, White said.
"For all artists, for all makers, the motivation for doing what we’re doing is the tangible, physical feeling you get from doing it at all. When I make work, I feel more present, more thoughtful—a smarter, better version of myself," he said. "I’m always thinking of new ideas I would like to see and the only way I’m able to see it is to make it."
"The joys of family, and the understanding of how "He’s a great mentor and is trying to build the younger generation of strong, powerful, sustainable artists."
~ Saladino, Executive Director, Amplify Arts
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