Oakland Artist Blends Passion, Ideals
By Lisa White, September 25, 2002 01:51 PM
In Acclaimed San Pablo Avenue Murals
OAKLAND -- In a modest storefront gallery in North Oakland, Arnold White depicts the beauty and pain of African-American life in technicolored acrylic paints. One painting expresses the joyous liberation of music. Another conveys the grief of urban displacement. By making strong statements about social and political issues, White's art is meant to challenge and inspire or, as he says, "to wake people up."
One of his most powerful statements is an interpretation of Rodney King's beating. One of King's eyes is swollen shut, -- "a black eye for America," White says - the other bleeds the red stripes of the American flag. The jurors, wearing what could be dunce caps or Ku Klux Klan hats, are blindfolded. Outstretched arms appear stark against the vibrant red of the fires that swept through South Central Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1993 court verdicts, in which the police accused in the beating were found not guilty.
With his gray hair and beard White, 64, is often mistaken for his distant cousin, former Oakland Congressman Ron Dellums. One of four sons born to a longshoreman and a maid, White grew up in West Oakland, the city's oldest district. Once a thriving working class community, the neighborhood was slipping into poverty by the time. White graduated from McClymonds high school in 1956.
Though White's only formal art training consisted ofa few high school and college classes, he was determined to become an artist. Marriage, fatherhood and a job at the post office didn't derail his plan, but in 1969 he says he simply lost his motivation to paint.
An 18-year artistic drought ended in 1987. Overcome by the need to express his emotions, White completed 17 paintings that year. At that point art became his life, he says.
And sharing his art with young people became his passion. With paintings in tow, White visits public schools in the East Bay and San Francisco Juvenile Hall to discuss racism, growing up in West Oakland and the stories behind his work. The kids don't always get it, he said. Sometimes they talk through his presentation or even mishandle the artwork. But he says the appreciative letters he gets from them make it worthwhile.
"My contribution, in terms of society, is my art," said White who was dressed in a tunic silk-screened with one of his paintings. "I want the kids to know that they are somebody, that they are worth something," he said.
"Oaktown Mosaic" is White's 1996 portrait of Oakland past and present. Nightclubs evoke 7th street's heyday as West Oakland's commercial and social center. Sidewalk memorials for young murder victims are grim reminders of the violence that still plagues the city. The spiritual redemption offered at church is juxtaposed with the spiritual deadening for sale at every corner liquor store. And everyone, he says, ends up at the "sooner or later funeral home".
White's artwork, which has appeared in shows at the Oakland Museum and private East Bay galleries, is also brightening a drab strip of San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. Decorated with White's richly colored murals, two buildings stand out amidst the barbershops and churches dotting San Pablo just north of Emeryville.
Lottie Rose, 72, who owns the buildings, commissioned White last year to paint the mural on her building at 5920 San Pablo after the city agreed to contribute $10,000 as part of a program to spruce up businesses in the area. "The neighborhood is very happy and proud of the mural," she said.
In 1999 White won a $4,000 commission from the city to design banners for Oakland's Golden Gate district. His paintings now adorn banners hanging from lampposts along San Pablo between 53rd and 67th streets. Howard Foster, 61, the janitor at the Top Hat barbershop believes White's banners are a boon to the area. "The more beautification in our neighborhood the better it will be," he said.
A few years ago, White challenged himself by trying his hand at painting still lifes. Though pleased with the results, the renditions of flowers and fruits just didn't satisfy his deep need to champion social justice.
So last year he painted "Freedom Tree," a tribute to 258 people and groups -- including rap singer Tupac Shakur and Sacco and - Vanzetti, the Italian-American anarchists executed in the 1920s -- whom he believes contributed, in ways big and small, to the ongoing struggle for human rights.