Watie White works to make his public artwork accessible to all
In the Benson business district, pedestrians may encounter the artwork of Watie White without even realizing it. As both a printmaker and painter, White has gained recognition for his distinctive woodcut portraits.
Passionate about public art, White appreciates the uniqueness of his work’s location—often not created in the same way anywhere else in the world.
“You’re hoping that people are going to see it every day and see all the things in their community,” White says. “The meaning of it can also change over time because of improv rules.”
For those who may not be familiar with the rules of improvisation, it’s about embracing the “yes…and” approach instead of the “either/or” mindset. Essentially, as public art ages in its community, the new associations people project onto the art creates new, additional meaning, expanding beyond the original intention from when it was made.
He also enjoys creating art that’s sold and enjoyed in a home such as a studio painting.
“I don’t know if there is anything more welcoming than going to someone’s home who has your art up,” White says.
White holds three degrees, a BA, BFA and MFA in art, and has worked as a full-time artist since 1996. He appreciates how lucky he is to create art and has no plans to retire from the work he loves.
“The mentality of creating your own studio practice becomes creating a job that only you can do, that looks exactly like you,” White says. “The kind of gigs you pursue are the things that match your personality.”
Though White has been making large-scale public art in the area since 2007, the flurry of social unrest preceding 2020 inspired him to learn more about public art and its effects on community members. He spoke with many other creators who questioned the meaning of their art and wanted to inspire change for the greater public good. White spoke on the phone to a mentor, a former dean of public health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, now running public health for the City of New York’s University system.
“That 10-minute conversation with him was probably the best therapy I’ve ever had in my life,” White says.
White realized he has a specific responsibility as an artist.
“The responsibility is to live the most genuine and liberated life of which I’m capable,” White says. “And to make my work as directly a reflection of this as I can.”
White pointed to research that shows public art influences the world around us. Statistics show public art lowers crime, enhances education and increases neighborliness and community engagement.
White says he knows this is true because of his work on the Benson Mural Project. He worked on the project in 2008 when he moved to Omaha from Chicago. Professional artists in the metro paired with novice artists to collaborate on the entire process of creating a mural. White and his collaborators then facilitated by accessing walls, obtaining materials and machinery, and even bringing lunch whenever needed, which led to the creation of eight murals.
These murals helped to bring vibrancy to the neighborhood and attract more visitors as well as demystifying the alleys and unused parking lots.
“It took about three months after the murals were painted and then all the parking lots became full,” White says. “Other businesses in Benson then began painting their own murals in alleys.”
The mural project provided a positive impact on the artists who participated in the collaboration. White says he remains in contact with his high school partner.
“Literally, every one of them owned 100% of that piece,” White says. “It would be theirs forever, and they loved that place.”
White is currently working on the 100 People Project that features flat, wood-cut portraits of activists and advocates in Omaha. These collaborating models pose and dress as they wish to be seen to the public. The goal is to place 100 of them across as many Omaha neighborhoods as possible.
“A considerable amount of skill and labor goes into making something appear impressive,” White says. “There is a ton of detail to make someone wonder how I did this.”
White creates these wood portraits by first drawing and then carving on the piece of wood, usually Plywood or MDF. He rolls ink across the surface and runs it through a printing press. He explains these portraits differ aesthetically from paintings. The black and white woodcuts show a more serious tone while his paintings are usually bright and misty.
Other ongoing projects for White include two Boys Town projects. He is currently creating a tile mural about student life at Boys Town. The other installation focuses on the role faith plays at Boys Town and involves wide-ranging installations of caterpillars, chrysalises, and over 500 larger than life butterflies, all painted by students, teachers, and members of the Boys Town Community.
“These projects usually begin with the school asking to talk through a specific idea of what they want,” White says. “My role is to then talk through those ideas until I can understand what is beautiful about them, when I can see something magical. You talk through the idea with them until it all makes perfect sense.”
White spends a lot of time preparing to start the actual projects. The current projects at Boys Town began with a four and a half-week interview process. The interviews are necessary to find ideas for the painting, but more importantly, they allow him to gain an accurate feel for a community in which he doesn’t reside.
His role is to ask questions that make someone think, or laugh, and then to listen closely to what they tell him. He looks for new ideas, but even more, he listens to what brought them joy, or what made them serious, to get a feel for the inner life of the person he’s newly meeting.
White enjoys hiding jokes the kids tell him in the murals. In the past, White has even hidden a funny QR code in one series of murals that will “rick-roll” anyone who investigates. White sees the use of jokes and ideas from students as a means to empower them.
“I ask myself what’s going to humanize the project,” White says. “What is the thing that is going to make it feel like it’s them talking and not me?”
When White is not making public art, he can be found painting and drawing in his studio, built in 1890 and located just off 13th Street in Little Bohemia. White describes his work as figurative, structured, and detail-oriented, with a taste for absurd things.
White remains optimistic about the art scene in Omaha, saying the community of artists continue to show up for each other and strengthen their bond of being art lovers.
“You have to find the things that make you feel more connected to yourself as a person,” White says. “Those are the things that you value, love, and bring you bliss.” ◆