Dilapidated houses. Watie White has learned a lot about working with them, but not in the conventional sense. Last year, the artist partnered with Habitat for Humanity to take three homes slated for demolition on Emmet Street in North Omaha and turned them into monumental installations that focused on the history of a poor neighborhood, one often overlooked or completely ignored by the general public.
The project, called All That Ever Was Always Is, involved making 81 paintings, which were turned into vinyl prints and then installed in all the windows of each home. Before making the paintings, White explored the houses’ histories by interviewing previous inhabitants and neighbors. He also used artifacts like letters and photographs left behind to create a narrative history.
“They turned out to be really strong, profound pieces,” says White. “For the people who live in that neighborhood, they’re not just houses—they’re part of a community.”
White additionally hosted community dinners and public talks. “It was important because neighbors thought about the personal value of that kind of situation. It was a chance to bring people together and a lot of beautiful, little things happened, things that were good about their neighborhoods,” he explains. “It was a cathartic experience.”
Although the homes were demolished in December, the artist is already working on his next public art projects. For New Nebraskans, which is in partnership with Justice for Our Neighbors and representatives from the Intercultural Senior Center, public schools, the v, and the Anti-Defamation League, he will create four large-scale murals (a fifth is currently installed at the Justice for our Neighbors’ headquarters). They will feature immigrants and refugees living in Benson, North Omaha, South Omaha, and Little Italy.
For You Are Here, White will partner with inCOMMON Community Development to paint a large-scale banner mural for a public housing building located at Park Avenue adjoining Hanscom Park. Like his Emmet Street work, White will feature community members and is interviewing people so he can portray the neighborhood as accurately as possible. “I want people to be touched or at least feel something about the projects,” says the artist.
Recently White also received high-profile national attention himself. He (along with Angela Drakeford) was chosen to represent Nebraska in State of the Art, an exhibition running through January 19th at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, AR. The selection process began with a list of 10,000 U.S. artists, which was then cut to 1,000. Following nationwide studio visits, he was selected as one of 102 artists to be featured. The inclusion was significant: not every state was represented and such dignitaries as Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, and Deepak Chopra have visited the prestigious museum founded by Alice Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune.
“It’s hard to know what will come of it,” White says, “but it’s hard to overstate how much it feels like it legitimizes what you do.”