Local artist Watie White presented “The 100 People” project at both the UNO Criss Library and Weber Fine Arts building Jan. 24.
White is a painter and printmaker that has been featured in exhibitions all around the country including Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Several years ago, he decided to create art that would involve the entire community and serve as a labor of love on his part. White selected subjects around Omaha that he felt inspired him, he said. He then created 8 feet tall woodcut murals that are on display all around the Omaha area and UNO’s campus.
“My parents were anthropologists and ran a nonprofit, and I’ve always kind of been around nonprofit and people who would be eager to sacrifice a more economically rewarding career for one that is more meaningful,” White said. “I wanted to transfer whatever social capital I had to see what I could do.”
The subjects are a diverse set, from all ages and ethnic groups. Many are community leaders who advocate for social issues and marginalized people.
“Seeing this group of people that embraced this project, who came into my studio and made themselves vulnerable, it’s part of their legacy now,” White said.
White brought each subject to his studio and first discussed what they hoped to portray in the mural. He then took photos and spent the next several days carving the image into a wooden block. Afterward, the image was enlarged, printed and placed on a previously selected building.
UNO student Jamie Sutula was one of the 100 subjects White reached out to. Sutula and White are longtime family friends, and he said he was inspired by her advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights. Her mural stands proudly near 35th and Leavenworth.
“The best part was knowing I was going to be eight feet tall on the side of a building for the next 10 years,” Sutula said. “It kind of made me realize some self-worth I had been lacking and made me feel like maybe I do actually have an impact on the world.”
White decided to take his art one step further and turn it into an augmented reality exhibit. Augmented reality uses various digital elements sensory projections and visual overlays to change our idea of reality. To complete this complicated facet of the project, White turned to the experts at the Peter Kiewit Institute for their input.
“You can get a lot out of the kind of support that is coming from the university for this project,” White said. “And it’s also forcing multiple departments and multiple areas of the school that don’t work together and never work together to collaborate and to make a thing that’s greater because they’re all involved.”
Adam Hahn was the sole developer and applied for a Fund for Undergraduate Scholarly Experiences (FUSE) grant to get funding for the project. With the help of Deepak Khazanchi, Ph.D., he created exactly what White imagined. With a simple QR code, spectators can listen to a one-minute speech that each subject created ahead of time.
“Watie hinted at mobile games as part of the inspiration for this side project,” Hahn said. “I can see why. I remember when Pokemon GO was released, and you could see thousands of young people outside, wandering the streets, actually paying enthusiastic attention to the environment around them. I have a feeling that this is one of the clever ways in which he would like to deliver his message. AR is more likely to invoke emotion when telling the story behind each portrait. This is a way to provide Watie White’s unique portraits of subjects who are part of his murals a platform to tell their story, spread their message and widen their cultural reach.”
The Weber Fine Arts Gallery will host a panel discussion with White about his project Feb. 5 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. The exhibit will be on display until Feb. 22.