|Frances and Charles
They Share a Life Where Art is
Served At Every
Standing up before a class at the Otis Art Institute, the gray-fringed, slightly built man booms out words fiercely in an unexpectedly large voice. The man and his manner are provocative. But beneath the fire there hides a gentle, kindly person. Why the masquerade? "I like to stir people up," Charles White says. "I like to pound the table. I enjoy good arguments. I learn from reaction. I hope others learn from me."
The hope is not in vain. Charles White is a widely acclaimed artist who carries the torch of inspiration. Pounding the table and stirring up reactions, he is a superb teacher.
Deeply serious, brooding at times about man's folly and inhumanity, White at 56 is blessed with a sweet gift of laughter. He finds humor at every turn, not least in the irony that he, of all people has become a teacher. His own formal schooling, in Chicago during the Great Depression, was meager.
Suffering discrimination in a predominately white school, he daydreamed through classes, finding peace for his troubled soul in a process of inspired wandering through neighborhood art galleries. To supplement the meager earnings of his mother, a domestic worker, he found part-time jobs shining shoes and painting signs.
Art became the outlet for his tension. Taking up pencil and paper, he sketched away furiously. Displaying uncommon talent, he twice won citywide scholarships to art school, but each time the award was canceled when he showed up to take his place in all-white classes.
Discouraged but not defeated, he drew pictures desperately, and as a high school senior he won a scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute. To help defray costs he found a job as a valet and cook, but his ignorance about cooking was so vast that he telephoned his mother before each meal for instructions. To hold down expenses he walked 60 blocks from home to the Art Institute.
The struggle to live like a man, to express his troubled emotions and above all, to let his spirit soar, found its way onto canvas. His brush became a storyteller that set forth tales of man's search for truth and dignity. At 29, he held his first one-man show. "The New York Times" commented that, "Charles White's work has force and conviction. Something of the throbbing emotion of Negro spirituals comes through."
He became a celebrity in New York, living in an apartment house whose other tenants included Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall and Duke Ellington. White's fame grew but his health failed, and he looked around for a gentler climate. In 1956, with his spirited wife, Frances, a former social worker, he moved to Los Angeles.
With their two adopted children, Jessica, 10, and Ian, 9, the Whites live in a modest but comfortable house whose walls and shelves are crowded with art. White keeps two studios, one at the rear of his house where he does preliminary sketches, another in town where he works on paintings in advanced stages.
Q: How do you approach students?
A: In two quite different ways. I'm actually gentle with beginners. My aim is to teach them how to see, how to
develop craft skills.
Q: And the more advanced?
A: My method shocks them, because I'm not a traditional kind of teacher. The traditional way, whether it's spelling, arithmetic, or anything else, is to hand students problems and say, "Solve this." I make the assumption that they already have certain skills, so I encourage them to be introspective. I say, "I'm not going to lay out a problem for you. I expect you to invent your own problem."
Q: What's the purpose?
A: I look at the creative process as a very private, solitary experience. Ultimately, after all the teaching and studying, an artist is alone in a studio, dealing with personal feelings on an emotional or intellectual level. There is no one to hand him a problem. He must create his own and solve it.
Q: Are you the class critic?
A: No. When a piece of work is done, we have a class crit conducted by the students. I serve as a sort of moderator to see that the session doesn't get out of hand, because criticism, especially from one's peers, can be a devastating experience.
Q: Why do you teach?
A: Not because I have time on my hands, my hours are crowded, but because I have a basic need to communicate. I've been propelled by this need all my life. I was practically non-verbal as a kid. It was a beautiful accident that I became a professional artist and therefore had something to communicate about my own search for identity and dignity. My feelings about relationships between people. My way of trying to find elusive answers.
Q: To what questions?
A: What is truth? What is reality? What kind of reality do I have? There will never be full answers, but I think there is in all of us a process of searching for those answers.
Q: Your hours are crowded. Are you over committed?
A: Probably. In addition to teaching four days a week I make myself available for student consultation outside of regular classes. I also travel to campuses around the country, wherever they are kind enough to show my work and ask me to speak.
Mrs. White. Charlie loves the acclaim, naturally enough, but he has to cut back on travel. He's been overdoing it.
A: And I keep up a full schedule of drawing and painting. I work in one studio or the other everyday I'm not traveling. I only break off for a brief hiatus once a month taking an afternoon off.
Q: What do you do with it?
A: I don't drive, and I love to ride the bus into town. My idea of a splendid afternoon is to ride the bus, browse around the bookstores and secondhand shops. I treat myself to a nice lunch and wander around, looking at people. That way I keep conjuring up images. There is an unceasing parade of pictures in my head.
Q: Why don't you drive?
A: Some people fear planes, some fear water. I fear an auto when I'm at the wheel. It has too much power for me to deal with.
Mrs. White. We had lived in cities where there was plenty of public transportation, but I knew how to drive, so when we moved here I became the family wheels.
Q: You speak with great inner security. What's the source?
A: Actually, beneath the surface, I need security. But whatever progress I've made, upwards from zero, is due to Fran. She's helped me to deal with many worries and fears. Was I totally accepted? How did my fellow artists evaluate my work? What did the critics think? I was terribly concerned with those things, but Fran has helped me deal with reality.
Mrs. White. Surely some credit belongs to your talent.
A: Okay. The kind of response the black community gives to my work is overwhelming. They may know very little about my so-called achievements in art institutions, but they seem to cherish my work. I find it in unexpected places on bootblack stands, in barber shops, in homes where people cannot afford more than dime store reproductions. That sort of experience fortifies me.
Q: Do people tell you what they see in your art?
A: They say I have the ability to make a statement that radiates emotion, that produces an emotional reaction. I don't understand how it happens, but I do have the ability. I've also grown in my capacity to create symbols that affect people.
Q: What statement? What symbols?
A: I begin with an idea, an experience, a memory. Ideas jell and store away in one's head. I deal in black imagery, but I hope my pictures have universal characteristics. I bring a highly emotional point of view to my work. I'm not a reporter. Instead of trying to recreate an event, I put a reaction on paper.
Q: May we have an example?
A: Several years ago four young black girls were killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham. I drew a picture of a crouched male figure holding a plumb line over the rubble. The symbol and the statement were intended to suggest that perhaps destiny has chosen blacks to be the catalyst for change in our society. The crouched figure was symbolic of the architect who would help to do the planning in creating a new society.
Q: Are you in a continuing search for ideas?
A: No. I've jammed a lot of living into my 56 years. I have an enormous file of ideas stored away. The most difficult trick will be to live long enough to remove the backlog out of my head and deal with it.
Q: Have you a favorite symbol?
A: If my theme is love, I often use a mother and child or a mother alone. I may reach back into the black family structure of the Deep South. In that setting, women were much stronger than men in terms of providing family stability. Thus I might draw a female figure sitting in a chair. By her sheer presence I can express ideas about love, strength and protection for the family.
Q: Are you a self starter?
A: Yes, but sometimes my idea is cluttered. Then I go into a desperate search to clarify the idea. If I can't make it jell, I walk away from it and find other things to do, like rummaging through old books. Then, after a day or two, I come back fresh and, if I'm lucky, something clicks.
Mrs. White. Charlie has an incredibly sharp sense of comic relief. He can look at some horrible experience in the past and he can see the humor of it. When he gets together with old friends and they swap stories, there is a wonderfully absurd view of times that were actually quite desperate.
A: When we tell stories, we hang loose.
Mrs. White. And I find that delightful. I grew up thinking I had to be sure of what was coming tomorrow. But in 24 years of marriage our life has been a constant process of change and adjustment. I've been learning to hang loose, and that's been beautiful for me, exactly what I needed to get me out of my complacent box.
Q: How's your social life?
Mrs. White. We enjoy having people here but we don't go out much. We're not looking for static, or for people who gawk at mixed-up families like ours. We find no satisfaction in running around. We have plenty of good food, good friends and good talk right here at home. I'm amazed at how full our days are.
Q: What else amazes you?
Mrs. White. The role of art in our home. Art is served up here at every meal. One might not fully understand a person's constant need for art, but it's with us all the time.
A: Look at it another way. Suppose we woke up one morning and there were no paintings, no music, no books. All of the arts and crafts had disappeared but the industrial society remained. Could we consider ourselves civilized?
I don't think so.
Q: Do you make no distinction between arts and crafts?
A: I refuse to. One function of art is to celebrate life. Another function is to give man a deeper insight into himself and into his relationship with nature. It isn't so important to me whether a man forms shapes in the sand with a rake, or arranges pebbles in a garden, or turns to more sophisticated forms of sculpture, drawing and painting. I cannot separate crafts from art. I see it all as a singular expression of a man's inquiry into
his spiritual nature.
Q: Do our schools recognize this?
A: No. A child at an early age is given a certain amount of busy work with his hands. Then that's put aside while the child is prepared for a role in society. Much later the child-turned-adult shows up at an art school saying, "I have some leisure time and now I'd like to learn to draw." It's ironic that late in the cycle of life the adult prepares to become a whole, three-dimensional person.
Q: Is there irony in teaching?
A: There is mostly enrichment for me, because I deal with youth. People of my age group have an opposite effect. They impoverish me because they tend to be withdrawn, guilt-ridden about failures, protective of their ideas.
Generally they resist change.
Q: You're enchanted with youth?
A: Not completely. Young people do much that is crude, much that needs to be refined. But they have curiosity. They challenge values up and down the line. In so doing, they give me stimuli I need. They also give me courage.
Q: Are you timid?
A: Yes, and it's a quality I've always disliked in myself. Outwardly I may seem to be bluff and boisterous, but inside I'm way too timid. I was very shy as a child and I've never overcome it. That makes me angry.
Q: What else angers you?
A: I'm insulted by death. Now that I've spent so many years getting myself together, working myself into shape where I can function reasonably well, where I can be receptive to life and contribute in a positive way to the world, it enrages me that death is standing somewhere out in the wings, waiting for me. I'm angered by it but not depressed.
Q: Why not?
A: Because I can only live one day at a time, and I've been in love with life as far back as I can remember. I still am. Life is a constant struggle but I'm intrigued by any struggle that is not degrading. The creative process is a struggle. I feel it inside me, and it needs to blossom. I have no time to be depressed by thought of death, only time to keep learning, teaching, growing and turning out my work.
Berges, Marshall, "Home Q&A: Frances and Charles White," Los Angeles Times Home Magazine, October 13, 1974, pp. 72-5
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