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Watie White is known for his artworks, but the painter, printmaker and public artist is also a successful entrepreneur who’s found a way to make a living doing what he loves.
Watie White’s art has been exhibited at numerous institutions from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, to Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and Omaha’s own Joslyn Art Museum — not to mention countless pieces in private and public collections. He’s spoken at many prestigious art events and been a visiting artist at several art schools.
In recent years, his studio has produced public art projects like 100 People, Benson Mural Project and New Nebraskans in collaboration with local entities including Habitat for Humanity of Omaha, Immigrant Legal Center, Omaha Housing Authority and Omaha Public Schools.
There’s no question that White is creatively successful. At his open studio event held annually to coincide with Berkshire Hathaway weekend, however, visitors often express curiosity about how an artist can also be commercially successful. The affable artist said he finds some of the misconceptions amusing.
“I get the questions about, ‘How do you make a living?’ ‘Do you live on this?’ ‘Do you sleep in this room?’ They’re a little bit disbelieving that this is a way a real person can live and work in the world … I think they are actively challenging their own understanding of how someone has their own sustainable creative practice,” he said. “They think that if you’re an artist, it must be fun and must be silly; you must goof around all day … Well, I think we have a different picture in our mind about what’s going on in this situation.”
He added, “They know they’re coming to an artist’s studio. They walk in and there’s an overwhelming amount of art in here. And can see that there is a certain amount of obsessive enjoyment that is being gained by the person who gets to make this; it looks fun, it looks interesting, it looks like something a lot of people wish that they could do,” he said. “So, the question becomes, ‘Do you live like this? Is there a secret that we don’t know where this is just a hobby you do? How do you engage the world through this lens?’”
White said he always welcomes a dialogue about his work.
“I think that because of the diversity of the things I do — I have three or four different kinds of public projects that I’m working on right now, installations in some places, exterior murals, interior murals, things where I’m basically coming and drawing in a space — people who occupy that space can either work with me or sit for me or be in conversation with me while I do it,” he explained. “In addition to making these art objects in all these various mediums, there’s this feeling that I’m wasting something, a question that ‘How am I not spending my time to maximize the value of this work right now?’ A lot of that comes back to the holistic understanding of what my job is, which is that as an artist I have a specific responsibility to lead the most genuine and liberated life of which I am capable, and to make my work a direct a reflection of that as I can.”
In actuality, White has a lot in common with other successful entrepreneurs.
To begin with, he’s educated. White is a graduate of Carleton College (Minnesota) and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“When I went to college, I never questioned if I would be doing art or not. The question was, ‘How do I get to do more of it and do things that are meaningful?’” he said, adding that attending a liberal arts college as an undergraduate was a good fit.
“I learned how to ‘learn’ things, how to think about what I’m being taught, and how to put that into some sort of context and build a way of seeing what the issue is from multiple perspectives so I can more fully and wholistically understand what I’m looking at,” he said.
Like other entrepreneurs, White has found mentors to provide insight and guidance. The son of cultural anthropologists, he grew up “all over” but attended high school in rural Illinois.
“When I was young, I was a very angry kid. I was frustrated. We were very poor, I grew up way out in the woods. In our rural community, we were new there, we were outsiders, so my family didn’t fit in very well and I didn’t have very many friends,” he said.
The art teacher for the school district, Ric Johns, was also the head football coach for Calhoun High School in Hardin, Illinois, and helped cultivate White’s talent for both art and sport.
“It seemed fairly normal to me because I was a kid and hadn’t been taught that if you were an athlete and were someone who paid attention to the body and faced to the world through that, you were not supposed someone who was interested in art or intellectual stuff or to be a good student,” White said. He added that he ended up pursuing both art and football in high school and college, and as a defensive end for the Carlton (Minnesota) Knights was named to the Champion USA second team in 1992.
Today, White mentors others.
“It’s impossible to not try to pay it forward,” he said. “I wound up collecting mentors along every step of the way. When I was an undergrad, I had professors who took an interest in me. When I was in art school, I had people who saw potential in me that was different than other students … I’ve been incredibly fortunate where these people who had so much understanding of their own life and their own trajectory could share that and were eager to share that with me.”
Motivation and Passion
White has great passion for his work, something Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett himself is known for promoting in the oft-quoted statement, “In the world of business, the people who are most successful are those who are doing what they love.”
“I never found anything that was more interesting or that was going to be rewarding in a deeper way, a more holistic way,” White said. “It’s a very holistic thing. It’s very hard to separate my work from everything else I value in my world and in my life … The idea is that whatever I’m working on, I’m learning something from, I’m growing.”
And this city has been a good place for him to grow, White said, especially in what he calls “socially engaged artmaking.”
“When I moved here from Chicago (in 2006), I reinvested myself in making work that I could show around Omaha; one of the great things about Omaha is that there is a very low bar to entry for exhibiting here. You can start to build your audience a little bit,” he said. “Omaha as a city has a lot more public art now than we did in 2006. I remember driving around and seeing all these empty walls all these things that seemed like giant blank, public canvases that seemed to be begging for something, that no one had ever really touched … Another part of the way my practice sort of evolved and adapted to where I was is that I started realizing that there were people around me who were also very interested in seeing how these ideas I would talk about got executed.”
Discipline and Productivity
White said he draws, paints or makes prints virtually every day, and that the process itself provides inspiration.
“I learned that I have to investigate a lot of things, that my work is better when I work quickly, and that there is a certain amount of resolution that I need to get — but that if I do absolutely everything that I can think of to a painting I will kill the thing in that painting that is good,” he said. “I have to leave a little bit of something that is still unfinished.”
White seldom works on commission, which means he’s built up an impressive body of work. People ask him why he continues to produce art that he can’t always cash in on right away.
“It seems like there must be a flaw in the system, that it must not be working as well as it could, because I’m not selling as many of these things as I could, as someone else or other artists in a bigger market could,” he said. “They are kind of asking, ‘How do you bet on yourself, speculate on the things that you make and have confidence that the things you think are a good idea are a good idea?’ and ‘How do you continue to find the next thing to keep this show going? Why does it not make sense to stop now, try to sell the thousand paintings you have and retire?’ I will never stop. It’s hard to understand the art when you’re looking at only the economics of it.
“Art is not something you can hard-sell. You can’t convince someone that they love it; either they love it and are thinking about it or they are unmoved,” he said. “I’m engaged in a lot of things. I work with a lot of people and on a lot of projects in addition to what I’m making out of the studio. When I think about my practice in totality, I see everything that I’m doing … each one is its own thing, its own eventual stream of income, its own direction of research and personal growth and education, and all of them feed the whole.”
Experience has taught him to be confident his artworks will move at some point.
“I may like it today and may not know how to sell it. Eventually it will find its place somewhere. I’m building up this inventory of things that I have even when my sales are relatively low,” he said. “The catalog is still gaining and growing.”
He added, “I can’t help but be encouraged to make more and to make bigger things and better things and more ambitious things and things that try to reach even more people. It’s all building up to the most important things that are still yet to come.”