On its face Watie White’s new public art project at an abandoned North Omaha house could be construed as a privileged white guy coming into the black community to impose his perceptions on that place and its people.
But that’s not the case with his All That Ever Was Always Is outdoor installation at 2424 Emmet Street. Enlarged digital prints of 30 narrative paintings he’s made cover the home’s windows. The house serves as a two-story, three-dimensional, wrap-around canvas for his true fiction portraits of the home’s former occupants. He invites viewers to bring their own interpretations to bear.
“I’m really interested in what the people who live next door or live down the block will think when they happen upon this big emotional and intellectual investment in an object that probably most people in this neighborhood don’t feel has much value,” he says. “Each perspective on this house tells its own story of what this house is.”
Don’t wait too long to see it though. Habitat for Humanity will raze the house in March and a Habitat-built new home will go up in its place. Before the century-old house is demolished he’ll disassemble the installation – windows, siding and all – for a future gallery show that he says “will be far more a rarified art experience.”
White’s paintings draw on interviews he did with neighbors, public record searches he and assistant Peter Cales made and a trove of personal artifacts harvested from the home, whose last residents were a black family named Smith. He and Cales also fashioned planters and benches from found objects there. The artists discovered a vast assemblage of strewn items inside that represent a tableaux of lives interrupted. In that suspended animation space White became the anthropologist his parents were.
“It’s like walking into somebody’s life,” says White. “This clearly was not cleaned up, not presented, not edited in any way, and so you walk in and you see all this stuff that feels unvarnished and truthful. They’re things that seem profound because we are reading something genuine about this person’s lived experience here, not things we were intended to see or a character they were playing, which for me makes it all the more intriguing. It becomes something you can trust a little bit because it’s not being catered to or tying to come across in a certain way.”
“All this trash and left belongings became really an incredible generator of content for the paintings themselves.”
He says the ephemera made the house an “active participant” to inform the narrative. Birth certificates, family photos, letters, journal entries and divorce papers helped him piece together four generations of history. He discovered the grandfather, Nathaniel Ware, was a Pullman Porter who moved the family up north from Mississippi. His daughter Janet Ware married Leonard Smith, an Omaha policeman. Janet was active at Salem Baptist Church. A daughter, Candice, followed her heart to Memphis. A son, Michael, may have been the last family member to reside at the Emmet address.
“He appears to have just left and walked away from everything before selling the house to Habitat,” White says of Smith.
What the materials didn’t reveal to White he extrapolated with the help of live models acting out back stories in his studio.
“I got a feeling for who I believe these people were, what they were like, but they’re more fictional characters. It’s more like writing a novel than doing a documentary.”
White purposely didn’t contact the Smith family to avoid being overly influenced. He has many questions for them, however. He’s inviting them to the opening, when he plans presenting them a chest made from recycled materials in the home that will contain the personal artifacts he salvaged.
His work also addresses urban legends attached to the house. For example, he says some neighbors “view it as a shameful place where bad things happened.” Allegedly it was crack house, though he found no supporting evidence. He hopes his project overturns neighbors’ own “narrative that they live in a shitty place to they live next to a place that has the potential to be an amazing thing.”
Viewers have no choice but to see White’s whimsical, soulful images in the context of the structure and its environment. Cales expects viewers to have triggered “that voyeuristic instinct in themselves to wonder what’s on the inside and to wonder about this community.”
“That curiosity breeds curiosity,” says White. “You interrupt the regular flow of life in an area by addressing creatively something that seems like a flaw or a blight and you shift it to make it not that. You change the perception of what that thing is or can be.”
“I think it’s important to bring people to the neighborhood to see the work in this context,” says Cales. “This is an area of the city that’s relegated to, ‘It’s a dangerous part you should never come to’”
“When you stop treating it as a place you have to shun or fear or stay away from then it’s a little less fearful and a little more welcoming,” White says.
Engaging at-risk populations with public art is something White learned under Chicago conceptual artist and radical educator Jim Duignan, whose Stockyard Institute White has a long association with. In preserving everyday people’s stories White does in images what the late iconic Chicago writer Studs Terkel White did in words/ White. who moved to Omaha in 2006, often shows his work in Chicago.
For more about the artist visit watiewhite.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.