Jack White Returns

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 09/26/08More articles

Former CNY painter, now based in Texas, in town for CFAC opening:

The 14 paintings comprising “An Ancestral Image,” Jack White’s new show at the Community Folk Art Gallery on East Genesee Street, seem steady enough when you look at them head on, but tilt your head even a little and they jump right off the wall. White, who just turned 77 in July, is pleased when his work has this effect on people. For this reason, he says, it’s important to see his paintings in person – paintings yes, but also sculptural: intricate, constructed affairs of in-laid and interlocking wood, canvas, incised copper, fabric, even corrugated cardboard on one and a row of nails precisely placed on another. The thinnest of red and gold lines seem surgically, sparingly inserted, and on one work a wonderful turquoise blossoms.
Jack White left Central New York two years ago for Austin, Texas – the latest move in a lifetime of travel – but he’ll be back in town this Saturday for the opening reception of “Founding Visionaries” and then stick around another week to visit friends and galleries.
Curated by Gina Stankivitz, White’s exhibition fills CFAC’s front gallery, a companion show to the sculptures, paintings and prints that make up “Celebrating Herb Williams: His Life, His Work, and His Art” in the central gallery – now named for Williams – a tribute to CFAC’s long-time director, who passed in 1999. The Williams show comes home to CFAC after first opening at SU’s Lubin House in New York City in late March.
In 1972 Williams and White - along with Shirley Harrison, David MacDonald, Basheer Alim, George Campbell and Mary Schmidt Campbell Jr. – founded the Community Folk Art Gallery in the former Elk Bakery on the corner of Salina and Elk Streets on the South Side. CFAC then moved to a store-front at Wood Avenue and Salina and, in the 1980s, to the old Jewish Community Center on Genesee east of Westcott, where it stayed until moving to its present location three years ago.
White grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, enlisted in the Air Force which sent him to Lackland AFB in Texas – full circle, he says, because he’s now half an hour from there – and then went to Baltimore’s Morgan State University. Eventually he got to Syracuse – after sampling Rome, Watertown, downstate and Norwich – and did graduate work in Museum Studies at SU. He spoke by phone one morning last week from his home in Austin, Texas.

So how did you get to Syracuse to start with?
I was living in Norwich for two or three years and I heard about a program in Syracuse called SEEK. Later it became EOC, the Sidney Johnson Center. I got in touch because they wanted to start an art program. About the same time Herb Williams came from Cincinnati and he had this idea of opening a community folk art center. There was an outdoor show and I had some paintings in it and Herb was there and we struck up a friendship. After lots of soul-searching and cooperation we opened. It’s a shame that Herb can’t see where it is now though I kind of have a feeling that he can.
Can you talk about Herb as a colleague?
He was basically a sculptor. He was a really visionary person. The sad commentary is that he didn’t fulfill his promise due to his commitment to the Community Folk Art Gallery. He had the makings of a great sculptor. Of course he also painted, did drawings, even made prints – he and Benny Andrews and I made a series of etchings together – but he was a three-dimensional guy. He saw things differently. In college I did some sculpture but I went off that once I got introduced to painting. His work has a strong African content and influence but his travels, his duties teaching and at the gallery, family life – all good stuff! But there goes the thing you really want to do. I think he was ready to do it once he left the gallery but then that was it.

Can you talk about your own influences?
The first person who really had a strong influence on me as an artist was Professor James E. Lewis at Morgan State. I probably couldn’t get into Morgan State today with the SAT’s. I could always paint, though – probably with the best of them. What I do is influenced by African shields and other elements. I’m basically a painter but I had a strong influence of sculpture in Lewis. Then I met this guy who studied with Josef Albers up at Yale – a color-field painter. My first attempts were two-dimensional. I was just gonna make paintings and drawings. But you want to see them in person, not photographically.

Yes, if you look at them head on, you don’t really see the three-dimensional elements. They jump right off the wall at you!
You got it! You can shoot them from the side or a little at an angle, close up, and then you can see that. The piece in my studio now, Gina wanted, but it’s too large and anyway I’m not going to go that way so much. They are relief-like. You might call it relief sculpture, but they aren’t really sculpture.

How did you come to this over the years?
It was a slow process. I’m sure I didn’t really start this until five or ten years ago, but I can tell you I do remember the first time I started to see the forms in pieces of sculpture – in Ghana, Kenya, Mali – that had this strong vertigo and content, realistic and yet abstract. It doesn’t represent what we see today. It goes beyond what we see. In looking at that, I wanted to respond to it. My true art nature started to evolve. I don’t divorce myself from the two-dimensional field of painting. I’m really a painter. But my soul is from Africa. So I try to make that feeling present in the way I make my art. I’ve started to get into fabric – again, I’m responding to mud cloth, a traditional form from many parts of Africa.

Are you teaching now?
No. My work is my art. That’s what I do. Sometimes I do talks though. I have taught at all levels. I was in Greece for five years recently and taught in the Empire State College division there. Greece was one of the most rewarding adventures! Can you imagine going to that place? Everywhere in the world has something from Greek culture. It’s just – it’s still with me. I see some of it coming into my art – a little bit – especially the colors, the element of the light. My wife was working for Empire State College and they wanted her to go there for one year. She went over to check it out and she thought I’d like it. At first I didn’t – it was the hardest time of the year to go, I didn’t speak the language and I wasn’t too happy. But as I got to know the place – then they asked me to teach a museum course. I went to a library and I saw my name in a book about African American artists. I met an art dealer and had a couple exhibitions in Athens and the islands. Some places you go and you’re sorry – not Greece. Actually I think my last show in Syracuse was when I was living in Greece and I came back for it, so that was maybe three years ago – at the Anne Felton Gallery at OCC.

Are you in Austin for good now?
Who knows? I have no plans to move but then I said that before I moved to Syracuse. I’m a traveling person – maybe Mexico, Costa Rico, Guatemala in January. I moved here two years ago from Syracuse in November after being back from Greece. Most of my friends are in Syracuse. I miss the place.

Didn’t you also have a studio in the Delavan Center?
Yes, that was a great time. Bill Delavan was a very good landlord and I showed with him a couple times. I made some really good paintings in that place. He brought in lots of people. I’m excited to go see what it looks like there now, because I heard he just re-opened after being closed for six months.

How long will you be in town this trip?
A week or so. I’ll probably go to the Schweinfurth in Auburn and see what they have. I’m really a museum lover and I like to see what’s up.

The Everson has a new director and they’re making some major changes too.
Well, I had my second museum show at the Everson and they were also the second museum to collect my work. The Munson Williams Proctor in Utica was the first museum show and the first museum to collect my work. That’s quite a story – I’ll tell you about it at the opening. My career really blossomed in Central New York.

See “Founding Visionaries,” a joint show of work by Community Folk Art Gallery founders Herb Williams and Jack White, at CFAC through December 13. Opening reception Saturday, September 27, 2-5 PM. Regular gallery hours: Tuesday-Friday 10-5, Saturday 11-5. 805 E. Genesee St., Syracuse 13210, 422.2230 or

Pictured is artwork by Jack White "Swahili Vibrations."

TAGS: An Ancestral Image,jack white,community folk art gallery,syracuse,paintings
EDITION: The Eagle

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