The Memphis native, who currently resides in the Garden Plaza at Life Care Centers of America in Cleveland, had been making intricately made miniature items sculptured and painted on biscuit pans, sardine cans and old skillets for decades before health issues took their toll on his ability to paint and sculpt.
“A stroke left me with a useless right hand,” White explained. “I can’t paint, can’t draw, can’t do wood carvings. But I could make anything out of anything. It came natural to me.”
The way many people see images in clouds is similar to the way White sees images in almost everything — only White was able to carve his images into a three-dimensional reality and share his visions with others. In one of his earlier creations, he took an old closet shelf and sketched his own version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” on the wooden board and started carving. White said he was unable to follow his sketch and carved the image from memory. The results was breathtaking, according to his 71-year-old brother, Richard, who remains one of Willie’s biggest fans.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life!” Richard admits. “I’ve shown my brother’s work to people when we had yard sales and they’ve never seen anything like it either. It’s amazing that he could do something like this and never went to any type of art school. It’s amazing.”
Now, at age 87, the World War II veteran can look back on his colorful creations with pride, knowing he created something few eyes have ever seen or ever will see from this sculptor, watercolorist and woodworker. Many of his works were influenced by the Pacific Northwest, where he lived for 22 years. Scenes of log cabins surrounded by snow-covered mountains and trees were a theme of much of his artwork laid out inside skillets with stunning details.
The retired commercial painter said his wood-carving hobby began in the 1960s when he and his family moved from Auburn, Ala., to Tennessee. White said he recalled recovering from an illness at the age of 7 and his one desire was to sketch, which led to painting and sculpturing.
“People say it’s a gift of God,” Willie said. “I can look at something and if I want to make something out of it — I can see it. I just picked up a skillet one day — someone had thrown one away and it was all burned. I had to clean it up. But I could see what I was going to do with that skillet. I saw a picture in it. So I created it in that skillet. I finished one. Then I did another and another.”
The self-taught artist said, “It takes exactly three days to make one of these (art) skillets. I use sheet rock as the base. It takes time to get the right material but I enjoyed doing it.”
In November 2011, while living in a VA approved nursing facility located across the street from a wooded area, White said he told one of the staff members he could see an elephant’s head in a piece of wood that had a limb growing out of it. Not familiar with his artistic imagination, the staff member informed authorities who ended up admitting White in a psychiatric ward for 20 days in a Memphis hospital, only to discover there was nothing wrong with him.
Richard said, “The lady called me and said, ‘Richard, your brother Willie — I took him to the VA. I think he was seeing things. She said, ‘I think he’s hallucinating.’ I went there Christmas day to see him and I talked to the counselor. Willie was back in the a nursing home by then. I took him out of there on Dec. 28, and brought him straight here (to Cleveland).”
“Some of the guys in the psych ward told me after being there three or four days they knew I did not belong there,” White said. “But I made that elephant head with a trunk and ears. I don’t know what happened to some of my work. I even made a rocking chair out of a beer can!”
His preferred tool was an old fish fillet knife which he used to carve walking sticks, some with a penlight in the handle to light a tiny scene of birds sitting on a branch or a tiny deer lying in the forest. White, the oldest of seven siblings, said he learned to combine his woodcarving and paintings to create pictures and paintings that are priceless to him. The aging artist said he never sold his artwork, preferring to give it away rather than undersell it. Explaining his philosophy about his art, White said it is simply a matter of expressing himself, adding, “I see something and I want to put it down on paper — be it an oil painting, woodcarving or something like that.”
After living in three other nursing homes, White said Garden Plaza is the nicest assisted living facility he has been privileged to live in and the people he has met in Cleveland so far are “awful nice.” Richard, who moved to Cleveland in August 2011 with his wife, Margie, said he is delighted to have his brother living closer to him in Cleveland and hopes others will appreciate the artistry of his older brother’s original works of art.