Willie White was a nationally recognized self-taught artist who used felt-tip markers to render whimsical organic forms in flat, bold planes of color.
Willie White was a nationally recognized self-taught artist who used felt-tip markers to render whimsical organic forms in flat, bold planes of color. Based in New Orleans, White depicted images from his rural Mississippi upbringing, television, and dreams in simplified palettes of green, blue, red, and black.
White was born to a farming couple in Natchez, Mississippi. He attended school through third grade and, in 1929, left Natchez to work on “quarter boats” on the Mississippi River, repairing and securing the river levee. White moved to New Orleans and worked as a waiter for approximately twenty years. He later was employed as a janitor and as a sign painter during the 1950s and 1960s.
He acquired an interest in painting after observing artists in the French Quarter in the early 1950s. Using house paint, he initially imitated their work but quickly developed his own ideas and techniques. White decorated his porch and fences with his first artworks. In the early 1960s, he began to work almost exclusively with felt markers and white poster board and used canvas only when it was provided.
His early subjects were neighborhood churches and crosses. White later gleaned images from television and his dreams, creating a diverse visual vocabulary. For example, he depicted modern innovations such as skyscrapers and rocket ships as well as organic forms such as fruits, vegetables, and celestial bodies. He also utilized an array of beasts such as horses, birds, and dinosaurs.
Frequently repeated images in White’s work, his dinosaurs are imaginatively rendered and often surrounded by other recurring elements in White’s vocabulary—fantastic bald-headed eagles with double wings, spheres for planets, alligators, and plants.
White’s love of the natural world probably stemmed from his childhood on a Mississippi farm. His whimsical, dynamic, simplified imagery is flat, bold, and textured. He built form with large patches of primary color applied to glossy poster board, and created texture and linear pattern with felt-tip marker strokes. His highly decorative images are beautifully arranged and balanced, filling the entire field with color.
White died on December 26, 2000, and was buried near his hometown of Natchez.
White’s felt-tip drawings are in the collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, and Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, Illinois. They have been featured in groups shows at the American Primitive Gallery in New York, Gasperi Folk Art Gallery in New Orleans, and ICONS Gallery in Houston, Texas, as well the traveling exhibition,Passionate Vision of the American South, Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present, organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1993.