Survey Says

courtesy of Watie White

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When Watie White draws his subjects, he tells their story through his eyes. He renders the faces of friends and strangers as enormous black and white woodcuts. Included in the “Survey” collection on display at the Co-Prosperity Sphere are portraits of everyday people: a bespectacled meter reader, a comedian, and a curious pedestrian. Over each linocut face are words that have been taken verbatim from White’s conversation with the subject. Through the overlaid text, the subjects tell their stories.

White paints their portraits in a dramatic, pop-inspired style that looks like a riff on pulp novel covers. Waite’s portraits show an eloquent side of his subjects: a grizzled and bearded man, whose eyes squint at the viewer through complexly wrinkled folds, reminds us that we best “not be wasting any time.” No matter the style or color scheme he uses–poppy or stark black and white–White succeeds in his goal of “portraying someone’s presence more thoroughly than using likeness.”

“Most of my work is research that leaves physical evidence,” White says. White feels a strong affinity to the storytelling tradition of Chicago writers such as Terkel and Royko. He goes further to the point of incorporating confessional speech into his work. He presents two sets of pulp novel covers, one set overlaid with the uninhibited words of his models and the other with words from his private journals. In some sense, the questions behind his new exhibit find their origins in their interest in everyday narratives and private speech. Is everyone actually interesting and worth investigating? Through his art, White answers a firm yes to this question. “There’s common ground with everyone,” he says–even if that common ground is the shared experience of being an outsider.

That experience is something White knows a lot about as a Chicago artist transplanted to Omaha. He lived in this broad-shouldered city for a decade before following his wife to Omaha. A Chicago émigré, White is comfortable being an outsider, he says, and can ably navigate its neighborhoods and speak its language. His portraits, which allow the subjects to tell their stories, are his way of speaking the language of the city. Following this pattern of drift, White’s work will be traveling around Chicago over the next year, taking up residence at the Hyde Park Art Center, DePaul University, and the Southside Hub of Production.

White’s conviction in the power of art to impact the people he knows and the people of his neighborhood is evident in his new work in Omaha, but has its roots in his Chicago years. While living in Rogers Park, White enjoyed working outside, drawing inspiration from what he saw around him. He would often draw areas that he knew were gang hotspots, since it seemed to him that engaging with the rough sides of the city helped dispel some of the danger. It was in Chicago that White learned about reclaiming public space through art, a thread that carries over to his enormous linocuts. White explains that working on such a scale allows him to think “architecturally.” He uses his art to not only represent city life, but to make his mark on it, sponsoring a mural project in Omaha’s most troubled neighborhoods and working with arts programs for high-school dropouts and other underserved groups. White shows how important his public projects and work with youth are to him by devoting a section of the gallery to recreating part of his Omaha studio. While his belief in the potential of art could seem rose-tinted, White says, “I don’t think of myself as a Pollyanna-ish kind of guy.” If the work in this striking collection is any indication, we can believe him when he says, “to be the subject (and active collaborator) of ‘ART’ is often transformative.”