Omaha artist Watie White's humanist public art projects reveal the narratives of transitional urban neighborhoods. The dynamics of locations and the people living there shape his site-specific works.
Three 2014 projects, one completed and the others in-progress, all connect to community organizations whose social justice missions "align" with his own.
"The kind of organizations I am most attracted to are the ones who make a splash with a handful of incredibly passionate people that affect the lives of many families," he says.
His new All That Ever Was, Always Is exhibition at two abandoned homes slated for demolition in northeast Omaha continues his work with Habitat for Humanity. In 2013 he repurposed an empty home in the same area with original paintings symbolizing the family that lived there and the neighborhood it was part of. He installed prints in the window frames. After the exhibit came down, the condemned house was razed. A vacant lot sits in its place awaiting a new build.
Habitat executive director Amanda Brewer says White's projects add depth to the agency's blight remediation work: "They celebrate the rich history that comes with older homes and neighborhoods. The time and respectfulness he puts into getting to know the neighbors, the history of the neighborhood and involving neighbors in his project strengthens Habitat's efforts to involve the entire neighborhood in our work."
The house(s) Habitat loans him – for his new project he tackled side by side houses at 1468 and 1470 Emmet St. – become cultural excavation sites and art canvasses. He insinuates and immerses himself by doing interviews with neighbors and, where possible, with folks who lived in the dwellings, combing through contents for artifacts and narrative clues, taking photos, using subjects as models.
All of it inspired 51 original paintings he made for the two current structures. Acrylic vinyl prints were installed since July 19 and remain up through year's end. The houses will then be razed for new homes to go up in their place. His assistant Peter Cales salvaged materials to make benches and tables as communal gathering spots. White's planning public dinners and conversations at the site.
Dialogue's a hoped-for by-product of the The Wheels Keep Turning murals Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska commissioned him to create. The agency provides legal, education, advocacy services for immigrants. The murals will go in immigrant-rich areas in South Omaha, North Omaha, Benson and Little Italy. White describes the subjects as "inspirational people every day making a positive influence in their neighborhood."
Elisha Novak. JFON program director and mural project coordinator, says the murals are intended to shine a positive light on immigrant contributions and to empower more immigrants to share their stories.
"We will also host a series of public meetings, discussions and lectures around the unveiling of the murals to engage the public in a constructive dialogue about immigration-related issues. Additionally, we hope to increase awareness of immigrants and their needs, while incorporating a path to services through JFON."
Among the models are 78-year-old Mexican immigrant Ramona Silva Gonzales and South Sudan refugee Mary Aketa George, a program officer with the Southern Sudan Community Association. White's drawing on Ramona's recollections of her and her cousins picking flowers in the fields of the farm she grew up on and singing ranchera songs. He's incorporating Mary's memories of the harsh refugee camp life she endured and how the experience motivated her to help people.
White hopes his murals, including one up at JFON, 2414 E St., "shifts the perception of what the immigrant and new Nebraskan face is."
He's placing the murals near where the subjects' live. Ramona's will be at the Intercultural Senior Center she's found a second home at.
White's inCOMMON Community Development project, You Are Here, will feature Park Avenue district murals and prints along that mid-town drag, plus a 100-foot tall banner mural on the Park North public housing tower, 1601 Park Ave., all reflecting diverse residents' lives. Jay's an itinerant musician with dreams of his own nightclub. Anthony's a street activist-poet spitting do-the-right-thing rants.
inCOMMON director Christian Gray says the art's meant to reduce the "disconnection and marginalization" public housing residents often feel," adding, "This goal connects closely with InCommon’s mission of uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods in its effort of including-incorporating public tower residents within the life of the surrounding community."
White knows the banner mural will draw much attention.
"It's a resident community and people walk that neighborhood and this thing is just going to be gigantic. It's going to loom over that neighborhood. It will inevitably be what everyone takes out of that community. It's going to be so much louder than anything else. It will be the largest thing I've done. It feels like a lot of responsibility."
His challenge is finding the right aesthetic-content balance. He wants the banner to feel of the community, not imposed on it. Neither too rosy, nor too negative but a "powerful" evocation of "personal, lived experiences – I want it to have that feeling their voice is in it."
Park Avenue's similar to the North Omaha section he's worked in. Both feature compromised, underserved neighborhoods. He came to do houses in North O when he couldn't find suitable mural spaces there.
"I was wanting to work in that community but there aren't traditional walls to work on."
When Habitat offered him condemned homes, he says, "I was like, 'Yes, that gets me there, I can do something with that.'"
Paintings in the studio become something different installed behind broken glass in the distressed neighborhoods they reflect and inhabit.
"There is no way to see them in the same way when you drive through the neighborhood to get there. You park, you maybe say hi to the people sitting across the street, maybe people come over. All that changes those paintings a lot."
Once in place the images generate questions and conversations, For him, it's about connecting to the neighborhood and adding benefit to it.
"There's a distinct shift in the community that starts with the people that had something to do with it. They then kind of own that space and that neighborhood in a way they didn't before. For the models there's a certain self-esteem boost from having their head be five feet tall in some capital A art that ends up in the paper. Part of this process is getting people to tell me their stories they don't think are important and then have me treat them as important."
The resulting media coverage gives subjects, their stories and neighborhoods a new currency, he says.
"All those things I feel like make this project better."
As a white affluent artist dropping in on black poverty, he relies on partner organizations with deep stakes there to open doors for him.
"It gives me legitimacy in a community that is not mine. it allows me to have conversations with these people."
Still, it takes time to build trust and rapport.
"It took the people on that 1400 block of Emmet a little while to kind of warm up to me and tell me those more true and awkward stories. It was several interviews in before I heard about the Hell's Angels on the block and the role they played. They provided a safe space, they threw these parties and events that built community. The people really liked them. There was never a problem or racial issue with them."
A neighbor, Miss Maybel, was inspired enough to start her own motorcycle club.
White traced the 1468 house to the family that last lived there, the Tribbles, whose matriarch, Jessie Tribble, was a single mother with aspirational dreams for her children.
Not everything White uncovers is positive.
"In doing these I feel like as an artist I have an obligation to express as much of the truth as I can find. Inevitably that leads me having to figure out what to do with unpleasant things."
A daughter, Oretha Walker, confided a brother's in jail for murder. White expressed in images positive and negative things about him. InCOMMON's Gray says White's careful handling of personal narratives like this dovetails with its own community listening approach.
"We believe under-resourced neighborhoods are rich with people who have dreams, talents and stories that can be leveraged toward community change and transformation. Watie has a highly unique talent for calling out these dreams and stories from within the communities he works."
White also put in images discoveries from the 1470 house. An absentee owner rented it out as a daycare, then it was abandoned, then gutted by fire. A 1918 playbill from the long defunct corner Grand Theatre shows up as cinema bathing beauties. A piece of wall paper with John White penciled-in – the artist's father's name – gave Watie White permission to integrate his father and son in images.
Follow the artist's projects at watiewhite.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.