Authors, Artists and Makers Volume 6: Bob White
Updated: Jan 19
I was a fan of Bob White before I actually knew I was; admiring his work without ever connecting it to the person. But, as is often the case, it turns out the person is just as interesting and nuanced as the work—more so actually.
I first came to this realization when I read Bob's "The Road to Epiphany." It affected me profoundly and it felt (still feels) like one of the most compelling pieces of writing I've ever been exposed to. I've included it after the interview and promise you it is worth the read.
So, I was very excited to have the opportunity to feature Bob in Volume 6 of Authors, Artists and Makers here on this website. What I hope to do in this series is give a glimpse of the person behind the work. I hope you enjoy it as much as did.
Q. You refer to your work as being the result of a “misspent youth” which I find pretty hilarious – can you elaborate? Where did your passion for the sporting life find its root?
A: "I spent a lot of my youth fishing, trapping, and hunting. If I wasn’t on the water or in the woods and fields, my nose was buried in the outdoor magazines and books of the day. I rarely focused on my schooling or chores around the house; a misspent youth – if those sorts of things are important to you." "It never occurred to me that there was such a thing as a “sporting life”. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine a life that didn’t include being outdoors, doing what I loved. I never had a plan to end up where I am… but I don’t know if I’d be capable of doing anything else. So, I’m glad it all worked out."
Q. You are quoted as saying “I believe a painter should paint what he knows, loves, and understands. I grew up deeply influenced by my outdoor experiences — hunting, trapping, fishing, and generally running amok in the marshes, fields, and woodlots that surround my rural, Midwestern childhood home.” Can you talk a little about that influence and how it has shaped your work? A: "In my youth, whenever I returned from my forays afield I felt compelled to express, or perhaps, try to capture my experience on paper or canvas. I’m not certain where that compulsion was rooted then, but I know why I do so now. My time outdoors is soul-nurturing and inspires me… and because time seems to pass ever more rapidly with each fleeting year, I’m afraid to lose any of those moments, which are the subtle nuances that sculpt my life."
"I continue to paint from my experiences, recreating and recording the life I know and love, so that someday, when memories fades, I might look back at those images and remember just how quietly the snow fell, or the whistle of wings over the decoys, or the cool shadows of a trout stream."
Q. So, you grew up in the Midwest, then spent three decades between Alaska and Argentina guiding fly anglers and wing shooters after getting burned out as a counselor– can you talk about making that first jump? And maybe give us a little insight into those years as it influenced you as both a person and an artist?
A: "I was a product of the 70’s, too young to be a real hippie, though my friends and I wore all the trappings with pride. I suppose that if I had to choose musicians or bands from those years that influenced me, they’d be John Denver, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Buffalo Springfield/Neil Young, and others of that ilk. One of the reoccurring themes in the music I grew up with was of being true to your nature; spreading your wings and flying to where your soul belongs."
"Perhaps, that’s why as a counselor, I impressed upon the adolescents and the families I worked with the importance of listening to their hearts and following their dreams." "After a particularly bad day at work, I came to the realization that I wasn’t following my own advice, and decided to leave the practice where I toiled, and follow my own dream; a life in the north country." "I applied for a job as a fishing guide in Alaska and was offered a summer position. It was time to fly… and I’ve never looked back. That decision reinforced my belief in taking risks, and following dreams." "That winter, while working as a deck hand on the Mississippi, I rediscovered painting and took that body of work with me to the lodge in Alaska, where to my amazement it sold." "Guiding for a season and then painting from those experiences became the path I would follow for nearly four decades, from Alaska to Patagonia and back again."
Q. I would imagine guiding is very akin to counseling – just in more beautiful settings?
A: "Rusty, the old guide who trained me, once said, '… the fishing is the easiest part of the job. It’s the people you guide, and managing their expectations, that’s the real work.'"
"Rusty was right, though no one has ever been adjudicated to go fishing with me!" "My experience as a counselor is invaluable to me as a guide, and I’m fortunate for that. I’ve done many 'sessions' on the river; though in waders, not on a couch, and I’m proud to say that they all ended well… some better than others." "Fly fishers are generally fine folks and a pleasure to spend the day with… though women are much easier to teach and coach than men… and much more appreciative of the process and not the numbers." "Regarding the setting - a day on the water is always preferable to one in an office!"
Q. You spent 30 years between two of the most beautiful places in the world - how did you end up back in the Midwest?
A: "I can’t tell you how many time in my life I’ve thought… I’d love to live here, I should buy a bit of property and build a place. Seriously, I’ve considered living in Alaska, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zeeland, Kamchatka, British Columbia, Labrador, Iceland, Sweden… even Wisconsin (just kidding, of course)." "When I was a senior in high school, our art teacher took several of us to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area after graduation, and I fell in love with Minnesota. I moved to Minnesota as soon as I graduated from college… and knew I was home. I simply keep coming home."
Q. Your passion (and talent) for art was realized at a young age and you mention a few different influences at various points in your development as an artist including Homer, Sargent, and Fournier. Can you talk a little about each of those influences (and others) and how you have developed and evolved as an artist?
A: T"he list of those who have influenced my artistic vision would also include more contemporary painters; Eldridge Hardie, of course, and Chet Reneson, Ogden Pleissner, and Andrew Wyeth. Howard Pyle and a lot of the wonderful illustrators from years past have also had a big influence on my work." "Each of these painters has influenced my work in different ways; Homer’s choice of subject matter, and his sometimes unusual point of view, Sargent’s brushwork, Fournier’s landscapes in low light, Hardie’s use of color and composition, Reneson’s use of color and the body language of his figures, Pleissner’s ability to paint atmosphere, Wyeth’s use of space and more importantly, negative space, Howard Pyle and many of his students from the Brandywine School’s incorporation of drama and focus upon the subject by minimalizing the background."
"While these painters have influenced my work in particularly different ways, they all seem to have one thing in common; they transport me into their world by their ability to paint weather."
"Hemingway once said, “Remember to get the weather in your damn book--weather is very important.” I believe it’s even more important, in a painting. The weather sets the mood of a painting. It produces the light and shadows. It effects the figures within the composition. It’s everything to me."
Q. Many of your works begin with a sketch - maybe work from field notes, photography and memory and you say “I know that a painting is successful when viewing it elicits sensory responses beyond just the visual - when someone viewing my work feels the coolness of a shadow and the warmth of the sun, when one hears wind in the trees, or the sound of water as it tumbles over a streambed, smells and tastes sun-warmed pines or a heavy morning fog … when someone viewing my work says, ‘I’ve been there,’ then I know I’ve gotten it right.”
What is that process like for “recreating” these moments? A: "I’m more successful at capturing a specific moment and recreating it if I’ve experienced it myself. This is why I believe it’s so important for artists to paint what they know and feel strongly about. I believe that when an artist paints from personal experience they become a conduit for the subtle nuances that elicit those sensory responses beyond the visual. Painting from experience allows me to place myself in the composition and communicate what it’s like to be there, and ultimately that matters."
Q. I’m a big fan of oils – especially slightly abstract works with a little chunk or texture to them – what is your favorite medium: oil, watercolor or pencil? Why?
A: "What’s most important to me, regardless of the medium, are the marks I make on the canvas or paper creating the image. These brush or pencil marks are important to me because they are witness to the process, and I believe a record of the process is important to the image as a whole." "I find it very interesting that when someone wants to compliment a painter they’ll often say, '… it looks just like a photograph!' And, when I want to compliment a photographer I’ll often tell them that their image is 'painterly'." "Even my most refined paintings, when examined closely become blobs of color layered one over another to create the illusion of detail. I wrote the following in an attempt to explain my process."
Brush strokes, like letters, form the words.
And, the words are placed next to and upon countless others - their tones wrought and values edited until together they become sentences.
The substance of these are arranged and layered to create passages, and paragraphs are fashioned.
Paragraphs are organized into pages, and the pages crafted into chapters.
The chapters blend and flow into a composition, into a book, which like the painting, reveals its meaning and tells a story.
I still have a lot of letters to make and words to form..."
"But, to answer your questions; which medium do I prefer… and why?" "I’ve always worked in pencil, watercolor, and oil. When I began to paint seriously, I decided to choose one medium and focus all of my energies into it until I felt that I’d mastered it. I chose watercolor because I believe it is the most difficult, and after 15 years of painting exclusively in watercolor, I went back to oils and fell in love with the flexibility of the medium. Unlike watercolor (for the most part) I’m able to push and pull values until I get them just right. These days I paint almost entirely in oils… though I’ve just finished an epic watercolor. Funny how that works!" "Pencil work? I adore a good drawing or etching , and believe it’s often the measure of artistic talent. Here’s an essay I wrote about it."
Q. While I enjoy all of your art, a few of my favorites are “The Supplicant”, “Brown Trout Head Study”, “All Business” and “Color and Light Reflected – Brown Trout.” What are some of your personal favorites and why? A: "Your question reminds me a bit of the movie, “Sophie’s Choice”. You picked some good images, and those are favorites of mine as well. All of the paintings are loved for different reasons, sometimes just because of the experience it records." "Lately, I’ve become enamored with aerial landscapes, perhaps because I’ve seen so much of Alaska from a float plane."
"Other favorites include what I refer to as “pure” landscapes. That is, there are no figures in the composition. The focus of these paintings is often color and light reflected."
"More recent favorites include sporting scenes in low light, perhaps reflecting my feelings about the times we live in, and the process of watching my friends and I growing older."
Q. You are quoted as saying “I believe that creating a painting is a parallel experience to raising a child.” Can you elaborate on that?
A: "Like a child, art is created with passion. Both are painfully birthed, and every child and each painting are distinctly individual, and present themselves differently; some are a pure joy - they seem to raise themselves. Others are problematic, - they require constant attention and endless struggle. Eventually, (successful or otherwise) they come to a stage that requires, perhaps the most difficult decision of all - release. It’s hard to let go of someone or something that you’ve poured your heart and soul into, and it’s just as tempting to overwork a painting as it is to hoover and over-parent a child. At some point, however, nothing more can be done that’s constructive, and it’s best to let go and let this thing we’ve created stand on its own two feet."
"And then, there's this failed prodigal son who shows up your door 46 years later and shines:"
"Creating art is like creating a life; it’s passionate, joyful, sometimes difficult… and knowing when to let go is difficult."
Q: How would YOU describe your work or your style?
A: "I describe my artwork as representational, and it’s undoubtedly connected to the genre of sporting art. Beyond that… it’s the amalgamation of everything I’ve seen, experienced, expressed, and dream of." "I hope that one day people will recognize my work without having to look at the signature. I think that’s, perhaps, the highest compliment an artist can hope for."
Q. Your relationship with John Gierach is long and fairly well known. Can you talk a little about that friendship? Any funny stories that have never seen print?
A: "Here’s something that you and everyone should know about John. He is, in real life, exactly how he portrays himself in his essays. He is completely honest, utterly humble, interesting, ironic, and frightfully insightful." "Funny stories about John? We have a lot of fun together, and have shared plenty of stories about ourselves, no doubt… but I won’t share those. He’s an old hippie with lots of eccentricities, and stories. I’m a slightly younger version that missed out on the summer of love and couldn’t drive to Woodstock. I hope that my stories will be kept under wraps too!"
Q. You seem to have a passion for Muskie fishing. Can you explain the obsession?
A: "We humans are a peculiar species; we always want what we can’t have… or is hard to come by. Musky are like that. Catching a musky on a fly is like roping a unicorn. I’m not particularly good at it, but I try to suck less every time I get out. And, thankfully, my friends who are good at it, are patient with me."
Q. Okay, it’s a perfect mid-September day…you chasing trout or birds? Why?
A: "On any perfect mid-September day, I’m probably in Alaska guiding, or trying desperately to catch up from my three week absence from home and the studio. I manage a lot, and wear a bunch of different hats. Mostly, I’m trying desperately to be a good father and a worthy husband, while keeping the whole thing afloat." "Essentially, I’m just like everyone else."
Q: Are there any parallels between chasing fish and birds and creating artwork – similar mindsets or skills or approaches?
A: "It occurs to me that, in all things, the process needs to be as important as the product.There are no guarantees in either chasing birds and fish, or creating artwork. And there in, lies the magic. You walk all day behind your bird dog, and nothing happens until it does. You paddle out into a marsh before dawn and wait patiently; hoping, but not expecting. Creating art is much the same for me. I do the hard work and try to open myself up to what might happen. When it does, it’s wondrous."
Q. In an interview in The Growler you say: “I’ve never really had a plan for my life. I try to embrace those things I love and feel passionate about. I find that when I’m doing this, and living in the moment, good things happen.” I love this philosophy. Can you expand on it a little?
A: "When I’m at my best, I try to live in the moment, embracing what comes along with each successive day. It’s often difficult to stay open to life’s possibilities. Sometimes, it’s easy to despair, lose heart and hope. When I do, my family and friends seem to pull me back."
Q. Favorite artists. I’m always curious to know who inspires those that inspire me. So, who are some of your favorite artists (painters, musicians, writers, etc) and why? Who inspires you?
A: "Painters – John Singer Sargent – his fearless brushwork, Andrew Wyeth – his use of negative space, Russell Chatham – his ability to paint atmosphere and find beauty in simple landscapes, Thomas Aquinas Daly – his ability to create quiet, jewel-like images."
"Musicians – Thomas Tallis – his soaring choral music, Aaron Copeland – his uniquely American perspective, Jean Sibelius – his romantic Scandinavian perspective, Samuel Barber - his harmonic language, lyricism, and emotional expression."
"Writers – John Gierach – his insightfulness and sense of irony, Jim Harrison – his ability to develop characters, Tom McGuane – his storytelling, Norman Maclean – his voice, the Minnesota poet, Larry Gavin – his insight into human nature. Whenever I read Larry’s poetry, I become saddened, knowing I’ll never write as well." "I’m inspired by everything around me… sometimes, it’s a bit overwhelming!"
Q. You recently published a collection titled “The Classic Sporting Art of Bob White” – Can you give us some insight into the book?
A: "It’s always been a dream of mine to share what I do on a broader scale. This book is the culmination of almost 40 years of work. I hope it brings people joy."
Q: Your website is www.bobwhitestudio.com, is this the best place to inquire about your work?
A: "Yes, or shoot me an email at, Bob@bobwhitestudio.com."
Q: What’s next? Anything on the horizon you can share with us?
A: "Heck… who knows? I’ll continue to paint, write, chase birds, fish late into the night, and be the best father and husband I can. That’s a full and lovely plate!"
The Road to Epiphany
I was exhausted after the long drive and all the miles I'd hunted, and my mind drifted. Memories of dreams and certain events in my life were drawn across the hazy vastness of South Dakota, toward a heavy sun, low on the horizon.
I shivered to remember those dreams; startled by the images and intrigued by what was within me that needed to be released. When they reoccurred the images seemed less important than the message; and the knowledge that I was helpless to control or stop them. My only solace was that, in these dreams I was out of my body, and hovered over the scene as an observer. In this detached state, it seemed that what I saw was happening to someone else, even though I knew that it was my flesh.
The dreams came when they wanted, often on consecutive nights, and then left me alone for months, only to return again. They were always the same, and I'd almost reached the point where I was able to dismiss them because of their redundancy. Then, they changed. In the new dreams, I wasn't a detached observer; I was naked, and laying face down in the snow. Although I needed desperately to breathe, I was afraid to lift my head and take air because of what I might see. Each subsequent dream carried me further and further away. My wandering mind remembered when the dreams had begun. I was in my twenties, and worked as a counselor with kids and their families in south Minneapolis. My best friend at the time was an Oglala Sioux, and he interpreted the dreams as his grandfather had taught him. While Andy rarely showed emotion, his concern was apparent after he listened to me recount the most recent one. "This is bigger than me," he said. "You need to see an elder." "An elder?" "Yeah, an elder. You know, a teacher. A medicine man?" "Do you really know one?" He narrowed his eyes. "He'll be in town next week. Those few that are left have to travel to see their people." Andy had made the appointment, and told the elder that he had a friend, a "Washita", that was in need of help. He explained to me that I should bring a gift of tobacco, and pay whatever I could afford. On the appointed day I drove to the address he'd given me, and was met at the door by a Native American woman. When I said hello she simply nodded toward the living room, and it was there that I met Cletus. "This is for you," I said, handing the old man a bag of tobacco. "The name's Cletus," he smiled. I told Cletus about the dreams; my back covered in boils that swelled as I watched, and then burst in a rush of blood and puss. From these holes nematode like creatures crawled, trailing amniotic sacks. I told him that the dreams had begun to include me laying at the edge of a frozen, windswept river and that I was afraid to lift my face from the snow to take my next breath. Cletus seemed to be asleep. "What do you see now?" Cletus asked as he opened his eyes. I heard myself describe the scene before me for the very first time. "There is a wolf on the other side of the river, and a raven in a tree between us. The raven looks from the wolf to me, and back again. Then the wolf howls, and the raven flies away. When the raven flies away, the wind stops.” "You have gone as far you can in this life," Cletus told me through half closed and hooded eyes. "You must give up everything to go on. You are like a hawk that looks the wrong way. You have the ability to see clearly, and for long distances, but you search in the wrong direction." "What's he mean 'give up everything'?” I asked Andy the next day. "He means that you need to have a 'give away'. You invite everyone that's important to you, and this includes the spirits of those who have gone before. Then you feast, and give away everything that you don't need for your journey." "Really? I've got to do that?" "Yeah, you do," Andy said with a grin. "Did he tell you anything else?" In my trance state, I smiled recalling what had happened in the weeks after meeting Cletus. After a frustrating day with a client, I'd sent a letter to the owner of an Alaskan fishing lodge and asked for a job. To my surprise, I was offered a job and I resigned my position at the treatment center. When I considered what to pack for the journey, and what to do with what was left, I had an epiphany. I'd have my give away. All of my friends, both present and past were in attendance, and I gave away everything that I thought might be of importance to them. We feasted and laughed, remembered good times together and celebrated my new life. They wished me luck on my journey. I blinked and found myself back in the truck. Mac, my Gordon setter, had his head in my lap, and he twitched and whimpered chasing pheasants across the prairies of his mind. The conversation in the front seat had to do with the day's shooting and where we'd hunt in the morning. It seemed distant. The hum of the tires, and the glow of the dashboard were hypnotic. I drifted back to memories of my journey, and the new life I'd found. It was everything I could have wanted. I guided in Alaska during the summer and in Argentina during the winter. In between I lived in Minnesota where I painted. My artwork was selling, I'd married, bought an old home to fix up, had a couple of kids, trained a good bird dog. Life was good, and I imagined that I'd continue down the same sunny path for the rest of my life. I was content and thought it fortunate that I'd had my "give away" while I was still young, before my life had fallen into place. I couldn't conceive what it would be like to give everything away again, and I secretly doubted that I'd have the courage to do it a second time. The divorce took care of that decision for me. I didn't really have a choice. "You've gone as far you can in your life." Cletus' voice said from somewhere in my past. "You must give up everything to go to the next." Like the first “give away” the second one forced me to look at my life and decide what was really important for the journey ahead. I found that the things I needed the most were inside of me. This epiphany made the process easier to bear. Every birth is painful, and so it was with my rebirth. Once reborn, however, I'd never felt so free and happy. My children loved me. I had a much clearer perspective on who I was and wanted to be, I'd found out who my friends really were, and I was, for the most part, unencumbered by the material things that most people think are important. Eating off of plastic plates for a while seemed like a small price to pay for such insights into my life. Mac moaned and shifted in my lap. I scratched him between his ears and trailed my finger down the bridge of his muzzle. He sighed and wagged his tail weakly. "You've had a tough day." I said softly. "You need to be hunted more." A road sign flashed past the window. It read, EPIPHANY 7 MILES. "Hey, lets go to Epiphany," Tim said to Alan. "We can have beers and dinner at the Coon Hunter." "Bob, you're going to love this place," Alan said, turning around in his seat. "It doesn't look like much on the outside, but it's the real deal inside." "They have this big silver box..." "Yeah, the magic silver box!" Tim said. "Bob, you're gonna love the silver box! I've never seen anything like it before. It's like magic. You order what you want from the menu, they put in the top, and it pops out of a chute at the bottom when it's done. It's incredible!" We came to Epiphany from the north. There were a few older homes, a gas station and a boarded-up building or two. One of the darkened storefronts had several cars in front of it, and we parked across the street. As we opened the door a shaft of warm light and laughter spilled out onto the porch to greet us. The Coon Hunter was as inviting and friendly a small town bar as I've ever been in, as light and cheery on the inside, as it was dark and nondescript from the road. I think it safe to say that everyone there was a regular, and that after a beer or two, we would be too. It was easy to imagine that we'd gone back in time fifty years, and I wondered what the local brew had been in 1954. We walked past the bar and took a table, as guests in unfamiliar taverns are likely to do, and ordered pitchers of beer. Two cold, quick glasses went down before I noticed Tim grinning at me. When he caught my eye, he nodded towards the bar. There on the back counter, blocking a considerable bit of the mirror was the object of Tim's rapture, the magic silver box. "What d'ya want to eat?" he asked, sliding me a menu. "You can get any fried thing you want." The usual bar food was well represented, as well as some things I'd never seen before; fried turkey gizzards for example. "The gizzards for me," I said, adding my selection to the growing list. "Cool!" Tim said. "More pitchers?" The magic silver box was now the center of our attention. Pre-portioned bags of battered delight were poured into a short hopper on it's top, and just minutes later, removed from a chute at it's bottom, perfectly prepared. There were no switches, indicators, nor gauges, nothing but smooth stainless steel; as efficient in form as it was in function. One after another, we started to yawn. It was time to pay our bill, say goodnight to our new friends, and head back to camp. On my way past the bar, I noticed a glint of light from the corner of the box, and leaned over the counter to have a closer look. There, in the lower left corner of the magic silver box, in the smallest of raised script, was a name. It read, "Cletus". "You 'ok' to drive?" Alan asked Tim, as we climbed into the truck. "Sure, you bet," he answered, bright-eyed and alert. Jeeze, I wish I were that age again. I thought to myself, as I willed my legs into movement and climbed into the truck with an audible moan. Mac raised his head just enough to let me sit down, then flopped it back into my lap. He hardly even raised an eyelid when I produced the last gizzard from my pocket. The weather would change. It had been unseasonably warm, but the wind had swung around, out of the north, and the temperature had dropped. "Frost in the morning," Alan said with a yawn. "We can sleep in, the birds ought'a sit tight till it warms up." On the drive back to camp, a gust of wind rocked the truck, and seemed to speak to me; it came as a friend and told of new times and a new journey. I thought of Lisa. I'd met her in the autumn after the divorce, and within a short time, discovered that when I was with her, I was the man I wanted to be. She was offered a job at the lodge in Alaska the next summer, and it was there that I asked her to join me in this new life. We were married, there at the lodge, the following summer. Again, my new life was more than I could have ever asked for. I'd found a friend, soul mate, and lover. She adored my children, and they her. We worked together all summer in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and traveled to Argentina during the winter months to fish with friends. I was painting well and the studio thrived under our partnership. Now, I imagined, I've found the course for the rest of my life. That is, until we decided to have a child. Unlike before, this decision didn't require that I give up everything to find a new life. It did necessitate some major adjustments, however. We no longer work in Alaska during the summer, I took a long hiatus from guiding, and we didn't travel together to Argentina and fish with our friends for a few years. Still, everything in life is a trade; I'm painting and writing for a living, we have a big garden, the old home still needs plenty of repairs, and I get to see more of my friends. Lisa is still my best friend and the most beautiful woman I know. The older children are now teenagers and better off for her guidance and love. We continue to work together all summer in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I'm painting better than ever, and despite difficult times, the studio continues to pay our bills. Most importantly, we have a new life, and a daughter named Tommy. Now, I've finally found the course for the rest of my life.
Photo credits in order of appearance: Aaron Otto, Ed Jaworowski, Ben Moore, Levi Pate, Mike Dvorak, and Tim Romano