Watie White uses art to empower local communities

Photo Courtesy of Kamrin Baker

Kamrin Baker

Artist Watie White’s studio was devoid of people; just loose pencils, rough drafts and an old “bassador”—part basset hound, part Labrador—who wanted nothing to do with the stranger who just walked in.

White entered the William Street building, thrilled to show off his art and discuss his passions. White, who has called Omaha home for 10 years, works with all kinds of media. Whether using watercolors, woodcuts or traditional paintings, he balances his time and effort between “selfish” studio art and public art collaborations with nonprofits in the community.

A tree house is in the backyard of his studio for his 10-year-old daughters, Eloise, and 14-year-old son Simon, in which to reside while he works on his current project: 100 woodcut portraits of Omaha residents to be displayed as eight foot tall murals in the city.

“I want to honor people by telling their stories,” White said. “The only caveat of this project is that I’m the only straight, white male who will be involved with it.”

White’s inspiration for this project came from the climate surrounding the recent election and the cultural divide that exists in America—and Omaha. He simultaneously produces public work for Omaha Healthy Kids and serves on the board of Bemis Contemporary Art and the Omaha Creative Institute, which will assist as his fiscal partner for the installation of these portraits.

“Everything is a balance for me,” White said. “Whether I’m deciding to paint or woodcut, the idea comes before the medium. I am here to serve the idea as an artist and my job is to live as genuinely and intentionally as I can.”

White, who lived in Chicago prior to coming to the Big O, said he found Omaha has the same problems as a big city, but since they are on a smaller scale, they become more fixable.

“Art makes a greater impact when you put it in an area or neighborhood where people don’t usually get to see art,” White said. “More specifically, I want to make art for people who don’t usually see art about them.”

White said his work transformed over the course of the 2016 presidential election as he saw people saying and doing things he felt were wrong and hateful.

“I watched a xenophobic, sexist, racist man embarrass the country,” White said. “And then he won. But watching that, as an artist, it means I can’t stop. I have to pursue my work, or else I quit being an artist. And that’s not an option.”

The people who model for these portraits are individuals White knows from the community, who themselves are making an impact in their own fields. He invites them to his studio to dress and look exactly how they choose, and he does the framing and posing.

White said he initially had a fear that he would unintentionally seem like he was manipulating his artistic subjects to make a “quick buck,” so he made it a point to make this project all about the people of Omaha who may feel underrepresented and under attack in the current political landscape.

“My work has to have meaning and purpose,” White said. “At least the public art stuff. I have this firm belief that everyone I meet carries within them an amazing, transcendent story. I want to broadcast other voices and not do the talking for them. I want to find organizations I love and serve them in the best way I possibly can. The standard I set for myself is that after I make art, the people it influences have to walk away with an unexpected benefit. I want them walking away feeling like they stole more than they left behind.”

Aside from his current endeavors, White has created prints for the Heath Mello mayoral campaign, as well as the Omaha Star and multiple local galleries. His art can be found at his website, watiewhite.com, during a studio visit or in traveling show.